Orbán: Europe’s New Strongman by Paul Lendvai is an analysis of how Hungary, an EU member state, has transitioned from democracy to autocracy under Viktor Orbán, rather than a detailed biography of its protagonist.
The book provides an insight into the childhood and youth of the Hungarian prime minister, but the author highlights only the most important aspects—the family’s escape from relative poverty in the Kádár-era Hungarian back country and how a circle of friends formed during conscript service developed into a radical youth organisation, Fidesz, during Orbán’s time at university.
As one of the organisation’s leaders, Orbán joined representatives of other parties in the 1989 negotiations with the leadership of the Communist Party for the transfer of power, and gave a memorable speech in Budapest at the reburial of the leaders of the 1956 uprising that summer.
According to the biographer József Debreczen, it was at this event that Viktor Orbán became a true politician due to a “meeting of extraordinary luck with an extraordinary talent”.
Lendvai’s book is, above all, a warning about how quickly democracy and a market economy can be transformed into autocracy and a corrupt clan economy. The scheme itself is simple—one must win elections with a margin sufficient to achieve an absolute majority in the legislature.
Lendvai attempts to explain why Orbán changed from an ideologically liberal student leader who expressed strong criticism of the signs of nationalism and antisemitism in society into being a populist who demolished Hungarian democracy, emphasising Hungarian patriotism and the historical trauma of the Treaty of Trianon.
Lendvai claims that the signs of the change were already there during Orbán’s first government in 1998–2002, when he handed out social benefits from the state budget just before the elections. Nevertheless, his loss in the 2002 elections came as an unpleasant surprise to Orbán. But, instead of becoming bitter, he quickly set a course for the future, stating that he must win the elections one more time, but this time it had to be done properly.
Despite scandals, the coalition of socialists and liberal Free Democrats lasted eight years. However, both parties were undermined by corruption that eventually led to Fidesz’s landslide victory in the 2010 elections. The Hungarian electoral system converted the 53% support for Orbán’s party into a two-thirds majority in parliament.
When he took office as prime minister for the second time, Orbán promised to establish an “illiberal state” in Hungary that would honour constant values such as work, family and nationality rather than liberalism. The absolute majority in the legislature body allowed Fidesz to amend the constitution in place at the time.
However, in 2012 the government ordered a new constitution, which abolished the separation of powers and limited the jurisdiction of the constitutional court.
At the same time, the government took over the publicly-funded media and, with the help of loyal businessmen, gradually subjected the private media to state control. A majority decision of the parliament led to the establishment of a new institution for managing the media, the aim of which was to remove people whose views the government did not like from their positions in existing institutions. The private media were driven into bankruptcy by leaving independent or pro-opposition publications without any advertising contracts. In other words, the free press was reined in by means of the democratic rule of law—laws and the market.
The economic policy of Orbán’s second government was particularly populist. For instance, there was a campaign against foreign-owned banks and shopping centres, which were subjected to additional taxation, i.e. “protection money”. In the shadow of this step, Hungary saw the establishment of one of the highest rates of VAT and lowest corporation tax in the European Union.
Nationalist policies fulfilled election promises and granted citizenship to ethnic Hungarians in Romania, Slovakia, Serbia and other countries. Despite the protests of neighbouring countries, this decision increased the number of Hungarian citizens by about a million. This boosted the number of Fidesz supporters and the 2014 elections were once again won by a landslide, because all the new citizens supported Orbán’s party. In addition, the new electoral law allowed the boundaries of single-member constituencies to be changed in order to ensure the victory of a suitable candidate. Again, this resulted in an absolute parliamentary majority, even though Fidesz won only 45% of the vote.
Lendvai admits that the EU has been relatively ineffective when it comes to controlling Orbán. The Hungarian prime minister was quick to amend a controversial law that was met with disapproval in Brussels while leaving the government with an opportunity to achieve its goals via regulation. Orbán has already referred to the rejection of the European Commission’s demands by seeming to yield to them as “ a peacock dance”. To date, he has been relatively skilful at this.
Lendvai admits that Orbán has the same qualities as other populist leaders. First, he is a very competent public speaker. Since his first public speech in Heroes’ Square in June 1989—as an opposition member of parliament—and later as a prime minister, Orbán has been successful in conveying his message to the public.
Second, Orbán is undoubtedly a cynic. When in opposition, he was accused of damaging Hungary with his criticism of the government. Having assumed power, he himself cannot take even the slightest hint of criticism, because he now identifies with the state.
As an autocrat, Orbán emphasises his own exceptionality by highlighting his modest origins. In order to mobilise the population, he occasionally employs historical myths about Hungary as a superpower. At other times, he opts for scaring voters with external enemies who all want to destroy Hungarian sovereignty. During the last two elections, these have been personified by Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros and the Central European University that he established in Budapest.
True to autocracy, Hungary under Orbán is characterised by clientelism, i.e. the constant increase in the number of people dependent on the ruler. The prime minister himself is not ashamed of distributing positions to loyal members of his party and public procurement and benefits to faithful businessmen. According to him, it is natural for the government to help people who are useful to it.
When discussing Orbán’s foreign policy, Lendvai highlights the development of relations with other “illiberal” countries—for instance, Hungary’s historical enemies, Russia and Turkey—and with European far-right political fronts. Orbán has justified the latter by the need to protect European values from an Islamic invasion, and the development of relations with Eastern autocracies with protecting Hungary’s interests from Western pressure, because the governments there have criticised the political changes in Hungary.
Hungary received particularly heavy criticism in 2015 when the government decided to build a barrier on its border with Serbia to stop the influx of refugees. Orbán skilfully used the topic of migration in domestic policy to improve Fidesz’s reputation and was relatively successful in finding political allies elsewhere in Europe.
Lendvai believes that Orbán’s political regime is a soft form of autocracy compared to, for instance, Putin’s Russia. No force is used against demonstrators, but the fractured opposition is prevented from uniting and criticising the government through the neutralisation of independent media.
Even though Lendvai does not believe that Hungary will return to being a liberal democracy any time soon, he does not consider the future of his native country completely hopeless. He ends his book with an understanding that Hungary still has one democratic—albeit currently theoretical—opportunity to replace the government, at the next parliamentary elections.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.