Viktor Orban brings illiberalism back to Europe

Orban’s flirtation with Putin sends worrying signals to many Hungarians. It is surprising that the man who launched his political career with anti-Russian slogans has metamorphosed into a leading ally of Putin. This only proves one thing: Orban is a manipulator and survivor of Central European politics, signaling growing resistance against the EU and NATO.

Viktor Orban’s fourth consecutive victory signals the persistence of “illiberalism” both in Hungary and in Europe. He suppressed liberalism in Hungary during the last 12 years of his reign. Now, this historic victory has further corroborated theories that Orban’s Fidesz party is poised to become the centrist party of a new era.

Fidesz won a landslide victory in the April 3 legislative elections. In Hungary, its National Assembly has 199 seats (93 party list seats and 106 constituency seats). Historically, Fidesz has won a two-thirds majority in the Assembly. But this time with 135 seats, Orban will have a super-majority in the new Assembly. All this proves that he knew how to consolidate his power against all odds in the country and in Europe. In November 2020, Orban broke a 130-year record to become the longest-serving prime minister in the country’s history, which includes his first term as prime minister from 1998 to 2002.

Fidesz won 54% of the vote for the party lists, while the United Opposition, the joint list of the country’s six main opposition parties, only won 34% of the vote.

Why did the combined opposition fail to prevent Orban’s victory again? First, the opposition launched a completely inexperienced candidate against Orban, a veteran of Hungarian politics now. Today, instead of highlighting the rise of illiberalism in Europe, the Opposition should have opted for a detailed analysis of “Orbanomics” – its supposedly unorthodox policies, the combination of its pro- -market and low taxation, sometimes bold reforms, price regulation, state ownership, etc.

Second, opposition coalition candidate Peter Marki-Zay gave long speeches and posted equally tiring videos on Facebook, making a series of outrageous comments against certain sections of society. Basically, he failed to speak to Hungarian voters.

However, just a month before the election, Orban changed his political narrative in a way that he could rightly serve the long-term interests of authoritarian leaders like himself, as well as the ongoing war in Ukraine. He presented the electoral battle to his compatriots as a clear choice between the peace and stability his regime has provided so far and the war and chaos into which the opposition is pushing the nation.

After winning the legislative elections, Orban said: “Perhaps we have never looked better than tonight. We have won a victory that can be seen even from the moon and even more so from Brussels”. So many say his re-election is too dangerous for the European Union (EU), but equally useful for Putin. For the past 12 years, what he has openly proposed is nothing but what we call “illiberal democracy”. During all these years, he cleverly amended the Constitution of Hungary to serve his interests and those of his right-wing Fidesz party. In addition, he has tightened his grip on the two most important organs of the country: the judiciary and the media.

Orban presented himself as the true defender of the Hungarian nation against the left and the EU. Finally, he has also openly used his art of governing against George Soros, a Jewish philanthropist of Hungarian origin, whom he accuses of having a grand hidden strategy to bring Muslim migrants into the country.

What made Orban support Putin in his recent war campaign in Ukraine? He himself has today become a symbol of charisma. Orban very skilfully navigates the fault lines of Hungarian politics. A brand ambassador of his populism, he has long maintained a safe distance from the Brussels bureaucracy and the dictates of the West. In such a situation, it is very natural that he accompanies Putin.

We can very well gauge that after his great victory, Orban will continue his diatribe against the EU. And this will certainly add fuel to the fire in the context of the war in Ukraine. Immediately after winning the election, Orban called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky an “opponent”. In fact, he touted his election victory as a direct rebuke to “liberalism, the EU and Zelensky.” Orban’s flirtation with Putin today sends worrying signals to many Hungarians. It is surprising that the man who launched his political career with anti-Russian slogans has metamorphosed into a top ally of Putin in the EU.

When we look at recent developments in the West, we observe that the global mainstream media has failed to weed out the pervasive liberal clichés they want to blame for new continental right-wing movements, from the rise of Trump to Brexit. Many of us are rightly unaware of the fact that Orban became Prime Minister between 1998 and 2002 at just 35 years old. And he has been on the political front line for 34 years in Hungary. Therefore, to expose him as an underinformed and inexperienced populist would be a grave mistake for both the EU and the US. After Angela Merkel’s departure from Germany, Orban is considered the longest-serving head of state of EU countries.

In the past, Orban literally launched a long war against the intellect in the country. He has targeted almost all government-funded universities and other educational institutions that are said to be against Fidesz. A glaring example was the closure of the Central European University in Budapest. In 2018, Orban forced this university to leave the country.

The sad thing is that it was a university founded by George Soros, his nemesis, to promote an open society. This university was once widely regarded as the most prestigious graduate school in Hungary. In fact, it has provided excellent training in the past to presidents, prime ministers, diplomats, and even hard-core members of the Orban administration. Unfortunately, this inner circle only fought back at the university. Hungary, once the center of the best universities in Eastern Europe, but today most of them have come under harsh government control, reducing grades, research parameters and crushing an emerging democratic dialogue on campuses. Atlantic writer Franklin Foer wrote: “Like Pol Pot or Joseph Stalin, Orban dreams of liquidating the intelligentsia, emptying the public of education and shaping a more docile nation. But he is a state-of-the-art autocrat; he understands that he does not need to resort to the truncheon or the midnight knock on the door. His assault on civil society comes under the guise of legalisms subverting institutions that might challenge his authority.

Orban will be there in power for another four years. It takes him a long time to further solidify his base. These leaders are above all a threat to the very ideas and practices of the liberal ethos. The reason behind this is that they win open elections, but ignore most democratic credentials. Above all, they pound liberal institutions and legal mechanisms in order to promote their own brand of populism. Ironically, they find much of the population to support them in power against the liberal opposition which tries to promote universal values, reaffirming their faith in democratic ideals. Moreover, Orban-like election victories indicate that many people like to continue supporting so-called nationalist politics and strong leaders like him in Hungary. In any case, he is a threat to European unity and also to the declining liberal world order. At this point, bolstering Putin and Xi Jinping would be just as dangerous for the liberal narrative. Thus, Orban’s new mandate in Budapest will be closely watched both from Brussels and from Washington.

It’s time for liberal pundits to analyze how Orban has changed his political views since the start of his career. In mid-June 1989, just 26 years old, a law graduate, Orban gave a historic speech in the Heroes of the Country Square in Budapest, demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops from Hungary. At this critical time, as his homeland struggled to emerge from the shadow of Soviet domination, he became a symbol of power and freedom for many. Thus, he masterfully exploited the political transition after the withdrawal of Russian troops. And that then catapulted him to power. In the same Heroes’ Square, when Putin lambasted NATO for its continued eastward expansion in February, Orban offered his full support for the former. Thus, Orban proved to be an apt manipulator and survivor in Central European politics, signaling growing resistance against the EU and NATO.

(Dr. Makhan Saikia has taught political science and international relations for over a decade at nationally and internationally renowned institutions after specializing in globalization and governance at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. He is editor of the Journal of Global Studies, an international research journal)

Mary I. Bruner