X Close

Viktor Orbán’s Machiavellian genius Will his illiberal experiment return to haunt him?

A political shapeshifter.(Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

A political shapeshifter.(Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images)


November 14, 2022   5 mins

I will always remember the thrill I felt when I read that a group of Hungarian university students and young intellectuals had established an “illegal political organisation” on 8 April 1988. The Federation of Young Democrats (Fidesz) was a courageous, energetic and politically-conscious crowd, who brought a spark of excitement to sleepy late-communist Hungary.

I had good reasons for wanting to join them. My parents and grandparents were active during the 1956 anti-Stalinist revolution and raised me and my siblings in the anti-communist tradition.

Within six months of joining Fidesz, I became an elected member of the party’s board. I stood next to Viktor Orbán in 1989 as he delivered his now-historic speech at the reburial of the former prime minister Imre Nagy. We were fighting for liberal democratic principles and wanted to build a strong European democracy; in 1990, we entered Hungary’s National Assembly in Hungary’s first free and fair elections.

Advertisements

In parliament, Fidesz was highly critical of Hungary’s Right-wing government coalition. Our principles were consistently liberal and we deliberately positioned ourselves in the centre of the political arena. Orbán said in 1992 that the “fate of the country can only be improved by a civic liberal government… which does not give in to the temptation of either Right or Left-wing statist economic policy.”

Some politicians in Fidesz, however, felt that the party would never lead from the centre. A bitter rivalry broke out with the other liberal party, the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), and the liberal-centrist strategy soon became a minority position within Fidesz. Those who continued to espouse this view were bullied and humiliated.

In this hostile political climate, Orbán was elected as Fidesz party chair in 1993. That same year, a financial scandal broke out involving Fidesz investment of hundreds of millions of Hungarian forints in businesses linked to Orbán’s friend and financial advisor, Lajos Simicska. It quickly became clear that Orbán would not allow anyone to obstruct his intermingling of party funds and political power. For politicians like myself, who still upheld Fidesz’s founding liberal ideals, this was a step too far. Together, we left the party.

From that point on, Orbán had a free hand to pull Fidesz to the Right — where he saw a political vacuum and an opportunity to build a party capable of winning power. In his speeches, he drew a sharp line between the “post-communist liberal elite supported by international capital” and Fidesz’s so-called “civic union”. Anti-communism, nationalism, and Christianity served to bond Right-wing voters to Fidesz, as part of its newly shaped conservative identity.

Orbán’s gamble soon paid off; his refashioned Fidesz party beat the ruling socialist-liberal coalition in Hungary’s 1998 election. His first premiership was undeniably successful. In just four years, the country’s economic position rebounded, following a period of austerity; Hungary joined Nato; and the government undertook negotiations to join the European Union. But this run would not last, and, in 2002, Fidesz was kicked out of office.

Shortly after losing power, Orbán called his supporters together and gave a powerful speech. “It may be that our parties and MPs are in the opposition in parliament, but we here in this square are not and can never be in the opposition, because the homeland [nation] cannot be in the opposition.”

It was an act of Machiavellian genius. In that moment, Orbán claimed for himself the right to represent all Hungarians. He was portrayed as a hero by Fidesz-built media and Right-wing columnists, and was given free rein to spread his polarised agenda. Fidesz became, exclusively, Orbán’s party — and the party’s appeal now encompassed supporters from the centre to the far-Right.

In 2010, Fidesz won a landslide victory, which Orbán saw as a personal mandate giving him free rein to rewrite the rules of government. His actions ever since have followed an autocratic playbook. For some time, I witnessed this first-hand as an MP for the “Together” party, which was established to build an alliance of democratic opposition parties to challenge the erosion of democratic norms in Hungary. Orbán’s party has rewritten and amended the constitution; elections rules have been modified 20 times, paralysing opposition parties; and Fidesz has heaped pressure on the independent judiciary. Orbán has also built a loyal new business elite with the help of billions of EU funds, all the while leading anti-EU campaigns: most recently agitating against the bloc’s sanctions on Russia.

In 2014, Orbán himself declared his regime an “illiberal state”. Two years later, at the 60th anniversary of the 1956 revolution, a year-long government-funded celebration began to rewrite our country’s history. It overlooked the role of prime minister Imre Nagy in leading the revolution, and hardly mentioned the Soviet troops who crushed Hungary’s freedom fight. The festivities were part of Orbán’s attempt to transform our traditionally-negative feelings towards Russia; in recent years, he has developed close ties with the Kremlin.

In Orbán’s view, the age of Western dominance is over, and alliances with Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are the future. As such, he has sought to open Hungary’s economy to the East, in doing so distancing himself from his 2007 position: “Hold out for a Western Hungary; don’t let them divert Hungary from this path. Love the fact that Hungary is a Western country, which means we believe in the freedom of human will… Oil might come from the East, but freedom always comes from the West.”

A political shapeshifter, Orbán appears to have no trouble burning bridges. He has openly smeared Western organisations, such as the IMF and claimed that opposition parties and critical NGOs are seeking to “destroy” Hungary. He has accused the EU of attempting to “colonise” Hungary, while taking opaque loans for giga-projects financed by the Chinese and Russian state.

What do Hungarians make of all this? Colossal amounts of government funds are devoted to party messaging and costly smear campaigns to mobilise Fidesz’s anti-communist-nationalist base. Orbán, who has avoided public debates for 15 years, gives sarcastic, five-word answers in our country’s equivalent of PMQs, such as “I don’t deal with business matters” or “Happy Christmas, Mrs Deputy!”. For those Hungarians who buy into his rhetoric about elevating Hungary’s place in the world, and may have helped propel him to a surprise victory in April’s election, Orbán’s ever-radicalising path is an acceptable means to an end.

Yet his illiberal experiment may return to haunt him. His shift to the Right places him in a political camp made up of Eastern autocrats, Donald Trump, and the European hard-Right — and, to ensure his survival, he has no choice but to continue along this path. Perhaps that’s why earlier this year, at the American Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), he called for taking back political institutions in Washington and Brussels, and coordinating the movement of US and Hungarian troops.

For a time, Orbán managed to tread a fine line in his dealings with Western allies and Eastern autocrats. Now, this is not so easy. Hungary desperately needs EU funds, with Russia’s war in Ukraine threatening its energy supplies, and inflation spiralling out of control. Although Orbán appears on the cusp of striking a deal with the bloc — EU funding in return for strict rule-of-law concessions — tensions will remain high. So far, his Machiavellian instincts have proved successful — but European partners are more alert today, and Orbán may not get away with his divisive strategies.


Zsuzsanna Szelényi is a foreign policy expert, former Hungarian MP, and the author of Tainted Democracy: Viktor Orbán and the Subversion of Hungary.

ZSzelenyi

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

42 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Brian Villanueva
BV
Brian Villanueva
1 year ago

“Together, we left the party”… in 1993!
I appreciate the author’s perspective, but what’s the value here? She’s a politician in the opposition who openly admits that she’s hated Orban and Fidesz for 30 years.

The author holds a graduate degree from Tufts University in America and is a long time EU bureaucrat. Whether you call this the “professional managerial class”, the “laptop class”, the “email caste” or the “globalist elites”… she’s absolutely a card-carrying member. Of course someone with this background hates Orban! She just regurgitates the same criticisms we hear from every other “EU / PMC / laptop class / globalist” Orban hater. She brings nothing unique to the table here.

Unherd should go find a Hungarian, blue-collar, factory worker who barely graduated from high school and ask his opinion. It might not be in such fancy language, but in terms of understanding Hungary, it would be far more valuable.

Last edited 1 year ago by Brian Villanueva
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago

Are you saying that what she has accused Orban of doing is lies? Do you believe he hasn’t rewarded loyalists with large amounts of EU money, or that his policies appear to have altered largely on opportunism rather than any deeply help beliefs?
If you disagree with what is written in the article, then address the points made. Simply personally attacking the author rather than what she has wrote is the kind of tactics one normally associates with the woke left

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Surely on different than what happen on the left all day every day.
Isn’t it the clarion call of the left vote for us an we will take money from other people, and borrow more, and give you loads public sector jobs and free money

Wim de Vriend
WD
Wim de Vriend
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Are you saying that somewhere in this world, politicians and bureaucrats never tell lies? Do you believe that political systems exist in which party loyalists, of whatever stripe, never get financial favors from their friends in high places?
Speaking for myself, I have found it quite refreshing to hear characters like Orban tell the bloated EU establishment with its Woke ideals to go pound sand.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago
Reply to  Wim de Vriend

Of course I’m not saying that, my point was that if you’re going to accuse people of lying, then explain which points you believe to be incorrect rather than lazily attacking their character. To me it’s no different than the woke yelling F@C1ST at everybody who has a different view to themselves.
I also don’t find Orban refreshing. Corruption isn’t ok just because it’s committed by a politician who is more aligned to my views than others. I dislike the EU and voted to leave, however I don’t believe that given the choice Orban would do the same despite his posturing.

Last edited 1 year ago by Billy Bob
eric james
eric james
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Well said

Ian Stewart
IS
Ian Stewart
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Hear! Hear! There seems to be more and more Unherd commenters who believe we should only get articles by writers that they agree with,

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

What she has accused Orban of doing seems to be more of opinion shaped by her own political views, is the problem.

For instance “His shift to the Right places him in a political camp made up of Eastern autocrats, Donald Trump, and the European hard-Right”
In contrast, somehow, what’s happening to truckers and farmers in Canada or Netherlands, the refusal to accept Brexit, the hatred for parties for merely expressing opposition to mass immigration, are all signs of a healthy non autocratic democracy.

If you click on the link evidencing “Fidesz has heaped pressure on the independent judiciary”, it’s a Guardian piece with their usual “investigative ” reporting.

Should we believe evidence from the Guardian from a bitter anti-Orban opponent?

Matt M
MM
Matt M
1 year ago

I was once having a drink with some colleagues from Poland and Hungary. They were software developers working in the finance sector in London. I was (pleasantly) surprised about how sound their politics were. To a man, they were in favour of Pis and Fidesz, anti-mass immigration and pro-traditional values. So I would guess Orban’s support is wider than just factory workers.

Last edited 1 year ago by Matt M
Emmanuel MARTIN
Emmanuel MARTIN
1 year ago

This.The more I see Orban critics and where they come from, the more I find him to be lovable.
Orban is the guy that preserves Hungary from Brussels rule. They hate him for that. Hungarians elected him for that. And re-elected him. As for the idiot author writing “Fidesz won a landslide victory, which Orbán saw as a personal mandate giving him free rein to rewrite the rules of government” : yes, that’s exactly what a landslide victory is.

Steve Murray
LL
Steve Murray
1 year ago

No it’s not, it’s the antithesis of what a democratic election should lead to. Winning a majority of any size most emphatically does not entitle the victor (no pun intended) to change the rules in an attempt to pull the rug from underneath future opposition. Failing to understand that is failing to understand the democratic process. Orban clearly understands what he’s doing and why, but lending him support by seeking to distort democratic norms is politically illiterate.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Murray
polidori redux
PR
polidori redux
1 year ago

“What do Hungarians make of all this?”
They elected him. Nobody elected the EU Commission.

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
1 year ago
Reply to  polidori redux

The article does make the point, though, that Orban controls the press and the political machinery, which is quite helpful in getting elected. That rings a bell with me when I think of how the EU Commission is appointed – perhaps that explains how they are able to get on with each other?

Jim Veenbaas
JV
Jim Veenbaas
1 year ago

Hmm. I wonder if there’s any other country where a political party controls the press? It’s on the tip of my tongue, but I just can’t come up with the answer.

Ray Andrews
RA
Ray Andrews
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Yes, where is that? Usury … Sassy … Amerto … Merick … it’s on the tip of my tongue too.

John Dee
JD
John Dee
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Given the performance of our own craven press over the last 3 years, we’re in no position to criticise another country.

Samir Iker
SI
Samir Iker
1 year ago

“Orban controls the press and the political machinery”
Have you heard of this country called the United States?

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
1 year ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Yes. Next.

Ray Andrews
Ray Andrews
1 year ago

But consider Iran where the government controls … everything. That might work for a while but eventually people break free. Nope, it seems to me that if the Hungarian people didn’t like Orban they’d throw him out soon enough.

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
1 year ago
Reply to  Ray Andrews

Of course, but ‘eventually’ is doing quite a bit of work there, isn’t it?

James Fleet
James Fleet
1 year ago
Reply to  polidori redux

and? the EU commission is run by the governments of the EU, which are elected. if you want all that EU cash, you play by the rules

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 year ago

I don’t get the hatred of Orban. The guy won a free and fair election – that brings the total to four now. Surprise victory says the author. Really? He won with 53% of the vote, compared to 35% for the opposition.

She condemns him for being an authoritarian, yet the unelected EU feels perfectly justified withholding billions in Covid funding because they don’t like his politics.

The west has propped up authoritarian despots across the globe for decades, countries with legit and ghastly human rights abuses, yet Orban is some kind of threat to democracy.

The hypocrisy stinks.

AC Harper
AC Harper
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Hmm.
Trump Derangement Syndrome
Farage Derangement Syndrome
Boris Derangement Syndrome
Truss Derangement Syndrome
Musk Derangement Syndrome
Orban Derangement Syndrome
I sense a pattern. It’s almost as if people who articulate ideas outside the accepted ‘liberal democracy’ consensus are ridiculed for their personalities rather than their achievements.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 year ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Coming up next – Desantis derangement syndrome. Book it.

John Dee
JD
John Dee
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Trump himself seems keen to be an early subscriber to that one.

Ian McKinney
Ian McKinney
1 year ago

I read a lot about Orban but I confess I hadn’t paid much attention.

I clicked the link the author provided to his speech in Texas, read his own words, and found virtually nothing in there to disagree with.

I’m sure I don’t have anywhere near enough information to judge, but the programme he outlined in that speech was pretty much spot on in its assessment of what is wrong with society and how it can be fixed.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
1 year ago

An article by one of Orban’s political opponents entrenched in the EU political class is scarcely an Unherd article more a matter of repetition of the anti-Orban conventional wisdom.

Martin Layfield
Martin Layfield
1 year ago

Orban’s government has been in charge almost as long as the Tories have in Britain (both since May 2010). Compare and contrast. The Tories at best have been managerialists, they’re largely screwing up trying to reap a lot of benefit out of even their most populist policy (Brexit). Orban has been a true counter-revolutionary by comparison.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

Absolutely, the so called Tories have been ABSOLUTELY pathetic, in fact a national disgrace. How such lacklustre, lickspittle cretins have got away with it for so long is simply staggering!

Sadly, off course Labour are even worse! (if that is humanly possible).

Will James
Will James
1 year ago

My girlfriend is Hungarian so I have some kind of insight that I can offer. Lots of people on Unherd sympathise with Orban but I think they are mistaken. Its one thing to agree with his rhetorical opinions about migration, EU, culture, etc. but its quite another thing to agree with the way his government works. The crux of the issue is that the government does not allow civil society to be left to its own devices, the parallels of its top down involvement suggest that it inherited the socialist statism that it purports to be against, albeit with a right wing flavour. Read about how the government strong arms the Church, or how they buy off liberal news outlets, fire all their journalists and put pro-party zealots in their stead. I also have a small anecdote from my gf who, with other Hungarian expats, was organising a graduate career fair in London for Hungarians. All was going smoothly until the government found out about it. They didn’t want to miss out on milking the gratitude of the Hungarian youth Nd so they organised their own London career fair on the exact same date (and with much more funding and PR support), thereby supplanting my gf’s fair and making all their hardwork feel wasted. Taking this sort of thing to the media isn’t really an option for them because that sort of exposure could easily harm their careers. Its a small, and some might say irrelevant example, but I would say that it’s indicative of the kind of government you have to deal with as a Hungarian.

Last edited 1 year ago by Will James
Jim Veenbaas
JV
Jim Veenbaas
1 year ago
Reply to  Will James

I’ll admit, I don’t know enough about Orban and Hungary to make anything but generalized comments. What scares me about the left in the west is they control all the institutions – culture, academia, media, finance, big tech, judiciary, the public sector. Maybe the same thing is happening on the right in Hungary. It’s never healthy for a dogmatic belief system to dominate all the institutions, left or right. But political interference like that experienced by your girlfriend happens all the time in the west – every single day. The FBI and the DOJ have become political tools for the left in the United States.

James Fleet
JF
James Fleet
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

the left control the media in the UK? have you heard of sky news, GB news, the daily mail, the telegraph and the sun?

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 year ago
Reply to  James Fleet

IMO the Brits have a much healthier media ecosystem than North America, but is it not dominated by the BBC and the Guardian?

In North America, the media is absolutely dominated by the left. Canada has one centrist newspaper and the US has Fox News. That’s it.

To compound the issue in Canada, the media landscape has been so decimated by social media that the govt funded, left-wing CBC is now the dominant player. Is that not the case with the BBC?

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  James Fleet

The BBC?

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
1 year ago
Reply to  James Fleet

Do a search for any news and see how many times those news sites get quoted at the top.

It’s invariably Guardian, NYT and BBC.

And I agree it’s a matter of opinion, but the Left biased media seems to more numerous, more shameless and more well funded (often by our tax money).

John Dee
John Dee
1 year ago
Reply to  Will James

“the government does not allow civil society to be left to its own devices”
Whereas, enforced lockdowns and mandated vaxxes in the UK are some sort of Liberal regime? Everyone happy that granny died unvisited?

Will James
WJ
Will James
1 year ago
Reply to  John Dee

Separate albeit important issue. We are looking at Hungary here, however. And FYI , Hungary locked down hard and mandated vaccines.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Will James

Not a good report, thank you, I’d missed that.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  Will James

Thanks for that insight. It’s worth far more than all the opinions in Comments which speak from a purely theoretical viewpoint.

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
1 year ago

Orban and Soros ought to get together and establish a University for Central Europe, to help Hungarians make peace and prosperity that Nagy and St. Stephen would be proud of.

eric james
eric james
1 year ago

I have long said that Hungary should be kicked out of the EU.You can’t have one foot in EU camp and the other in with evil dictators Putin andXi.No morals and corrupt.

eric james
eric james
1 year ago

Any leader that aligns himself with Putin and Xi has an evil streak