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Portrait of Viktor Orbán - Prime Minister of Hungary

Portrait of Viktor Orbán - Prime Minister of Hungary
 Jacques Rupnik
Director of Research at the Centre de recherches internationales at Sciences Po

Viktor Orbán is the European politician who has most worked to promote the notion of "illiberal democracy", which Fareed Zakaria already explored in an article in Foreign Affairs in 1997. According to this concept, rights and freedoms, countervailing powers and intermediary bodies must not stand in the way of "popular will", which is of course captured by a strong leader. In Orbán's case, who stands behind the doctrine? What are his motivations, his references, his practices? An excellent expert of Central and Eastern Europe, Jacques Rupnik, head of research at Sciences Po’s Center for International Studies and Research (CERI) and professor at Sciences Po Paris, shares his insight.

Michel Duclos, Special Advisor, editor of this series.

How to account for Viktor Orbán’s metamorphosis? First a young leader of a liberal and pro-European party, he then became an adept of "illiberal democracy". As Prime Minister of an EU Member State, he centralized significant powers into his own hands. He was triumphantly reelected last April after a campaign punctuated by signs reading "Stop Brussels". Is this a denial of the ideals he seemed to hold dear in 1989 and of what he represented at the time? Should we look to Viktor Orbán's personality, to what he prefers and loathes, for the guiding thread underlying his evolution towards benign authoritarianism? Or is it simply that he endorsed a succession of opportunist stances in order to conquer, preserve and gradually extend his personal power, to the point of raising questions about the regime’s evolution?
Three key moments will allow us to provide some answers and to retrace the itinerary, if not the portrait, of the leader who, in the eyes of Western Europeans, indisputably embodies the new Central Europe.

Viktor Orbán and his friends from Fidesz, who were young and trendy, daring and deliciously impertinent, had their own dress style, and their campaign clips in Spring 1990 contrasted with the gloom of the Kádár years and the ‘liberal' unanimity that seemed to accompany their end.

16 June 1989, on Heroes’ Square in Budapest, on the occasion of the "second funeral" of Imre Nagy, Prime Minister of Hungary during the revolution of October 1956. A young man with long hair, then unknown to the 250,000 people attending, makes a speech that contrasts with the preceding ones. This man is Viktor Orbán, and his intervention will be remembered as his contribution to the farewell ceremony to the old regime. Indeed, in his speech, the evocation of the past was less emphasized than the evidence with which he called for free elections and the departure of Soviet troops from the country. It is thus as a taboo-breaker that Viktor Orbán made his debut on a political scene in the making - a trademark he still honors, both domestically and at the European level.

Born in May 1963 in a village located an hour away from Budapest, in a Protestant and rural family, he had little interest in religion. This, however, did not prevent him from using it in his speeches and from presenting himself as a defender of Christian values to the head of the CDU, Angela Merkel. He obtained his law degree at the Eötvös Lorand University in Budapest, but was mainly concerned with politics. Noticed precisely for his engagement in politics, he obtained in 1989 a scholarship from George Soros’s Open Society Foundation for a stay in Oxford. The financier of Hungarian origin could not imagine that he and the notion of "open society" would, a quarter of a century later, be undermined by the promising student... At the time, Viktor Orbán was part of a young generation of opponents who maintained complicated relations with their elders of intellectual dissent. At the end of 1989, the latter formed a liberal party, the Alliance of Free Democrats (SDSz), under Janos Kis’s leadership. If one is not satisfied with merely being the liberal party’s youth organization, one must create one’s own party. And thus Viktor Orbán founded Fidesz, the Hungarian Civic Union, the only opposition party in Central Europe that managed to survive.

Liberalism was fashionable at the time: even former communists seemed to be converting. So how does one distinguish oneself from the elders while surfing the wave? By being even more flamboyant and resolutely liberal: by adding a hint of Thatcherism in the transition to a market economy, by embracing liberalism in politics and as a model for society. Viktor Orbán and his friends from Fidesz, who were young and trendy, daring and deliciously impertinent, had their own dress style, and their campaign clips in Spring 1990 contrasted with the gloom of the Kádár years and the ‘liberal' unanimity that seemed to accompany their end.

Yet, in retrospect, one can guess that the radicality of their stance prevailed over the liberalism they displayed: style prevailed over substance. Their image was clearly overdone and had something fake about it. Fidesz’s MTV-style campaign clip on Roxette's "Listen to your heart" contrasted with the Velvet Underground and the Stones that accompanied the early days of Václav Havel presidency...
Viktor Orbán was not satisfied with being the liberals' junior partner for long.

New circumstances allowed him to evolve and to gradually reinvent himself politically. On the one hand, he denounced the constitution in 1994 of a coalition of socialists (former communists) and of liberals (former dissidents) as a political and moral scandal. On the other, the death in December 1993 of József Antall, former conservative Prime Minister and founder of the Hungarian Democratic Forum, left the conservative right without a leader. Orbán then demonstrated a political instinct that has since then been confirmed. There was a vacant space on the right of the political spectrum, and while the Forum slowly decomposed, Orbán and Fidesz sought to fill this void, and redesigned Fidesz as a national and conservative party.

What initially seemed as a small side-step was in fact the start of a real political shift towards conservatism and nationalism

What initially seemed as a small side-step was in fact the start of a real political shift towards conservatism and nationalism. This turn was moderate at first, and then became increasingly radical, faithfully to Viktor Orbán’s character. With the success in the 1998 elections, Orbán became the youngest Prime Minister in Europe at the age of 35.
He first called upon the values of the "bourgeois" democracy (polgari), which were refined around the notions of work ("workfare" rather than "welfare" state), family and nation, the sovereignty and identity of which needed to be protected.

A second episode around the year 2000 illustrates the advent of a new version of Viktor Orbán. One could call it the "Viennese moment".
The scene took place at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, in June 1999. Václav Havel, the Czech President, Adam Michnik, the director of Gazeta, Poland’s main daily newspaper and Viktor Orbán were invited to discuss the changes that had occured in the past 10 years. The latter painted a dark picture that indirectly attacked the two symbols of dissent who were taking part in the debate. Orbán essentially asserted that, contrary to what was proclaimed everywhere, 1989 was neither a revolution nor a break through, but rather a change in continuity. "Everything had to change so that everything could stay the same" he said, paraphrasing Lampedusa. The 1989 Round Table Talks were nothing more than an arrangement between communist elites and liberal dissidents allowing them both to preserve their networks and advantages. And he went on to present two "diametrically opposed" visions: that of postcommunist "1989ers" and that of those "from 1990" who, after the elections, worked towards a real break with the past.

1989 was neither a revolution nor a break through, but rather a change in continuity

The response was not long in coming. Havel and especially Adam Michnik, with supreme verve, demolished point by point "dear Viktor"’s arguments: 1989 was neither a trick nor an arrangement between networks, but rather a "miracle", a non-violent exit - and was thus  negotiated) - from a totalitarian dictatorship. It led to the emergence of a free society, of an elected Parliament, and to the country’s integration to NATO (which had just occurred) and to the EU.

Havel and Michnik had spent years in prison and were not in the mood for late-comers’ lessons on dissent. "The later they arrive, Havel told me that evening, the more radical is their stance". And the more this position tends, over the years, to theorize difference. 10 years after 1989, in Vienna, Viktor Orbán was no longer breaking with communism, but with the legacy of liberal dissent.

A few months later, a second Viennese episode was no less enlightening. The OVP leader, Schüssel, decided to make the first-ever coalition between the Christian right and Haider's extreme right. European countries, and especially France and Germany, reacted with indignation and ostracism. Who was the first to come to the rescue Schüssel and offer him a joint press conference? Viktor Orbán, of course, who had understood long before joining the EU that he might one day find himself in a similar situation... And it is now a young Austrian Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, who resorts to the once loathed coalition, takes over the EU presidency and shows understanding towards his neighbor in Budapest. This new version of Austria-Hungary, Orban believes, has a bright future within the EU...

The term "illiberal democracy", claimed by Orbán in his speech of July 2014, has since then been widely commented on or criticized. We know about the Orbán regime’s authoritarian drift, the way it drifts from the separation of powers by reshaping the Constitutional Court, the way it politicizes the public administration and takes control over public broadcasting.

Behind this anecdote lies a system: the emergence over the last decade of a crony capitalism directly linked to political power

Less attention has been paid to Orban’s economic patriotism, which is akin to a clan system, and in which loyalty to the chief prevails. Lajos Simicska, an oligarch who had long been close to Orbán, discovered it at his own expense. He was indeed deprived of contracts from the moment he publicly expressed his political disagreement with Orbán.
On the other hand, Orbán knows how to be generous with his friends, starting with his childhood friends. Lorinc Meszaros, mayor of the village of Felcsut, is, like Viktor who grew up with him, a football fan. In this village of 2,000 inhabitants, he had a stadium built that can hold up to a crowd of three times this amount, with grass that matches Fifa standards, a sophisticated watering system and a VIP box where Viktor likes to visit. A special railway track ("from nowhere to nowhere", Hungarians say) was built with the help of European funds for this purpose. Meszaros, who was originally a mechanic, has nothing to complain about. His fortune, estimated at €383 million, has been multiplied by five in a year.
Behind this anecdote lies a system: the emergence over the last decade of a crony capitalism directly linked to political power, a phenomenon well described by Magyar Balint's Mafia State. While advocating economic patriotism in the face of international predators installed by social-liberal networks, we are witnessing the establishment of a system in which a dozen of oligarchs linked to power control the companies that receive public procurements (urban lighting, billboards, road building materials, etc.). Economy and politics are thus intertwined with Viktor Orbán at the heart of the system. Campaigns on migrants and Soros supported his recent electoral victory. "Orbán has well understood the Hungarian soul’s dark side," according to Zoltan Fleck from Budapest University. With half of the votes, Fidesz obtained 2/3 of the seats in Parliament and a constitutional majority that secures its political hegemony. But it was above all the capture of the state by entrepreneurs close to Viktor Orbán which enabled the latter to perpetuate it and to extend its grip.

Illustration : David MARTIN for Institut Montaigne

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