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The Metamorphosis: Thirty Years of Viktor Orbán

avril 2019

He sat calmly in his chair, leaning back as the speaker’s words rang in his ears and in those of everyone else in the chamber. His favorite critic, Guy Verhofstadt, was playing the role of raconteur, sharing a story of his first impression of the Hungarian Prime Minister, gleaned in 1989. “I should say you were the Emmanuel Macron of Hungary in 1989…” said Verhofstadt, a smile on his face. “But let’s be honest: a lot [has] changed since 1989.”
“You changed.”1

By Aditya Bhattacharya and Julian Riedel 

Viktor Orbán then

Those of us who know Viktor Orbán recognize him as the dominant right-wing Prime Minister of Hungary. Many of us did not know who he was until recent events pushed him into the forefront of media coverage. Over the last half-a-decade, Orbán has come to represent many things and many voices. The unifying themes have been an anti-democratic and illiberal approach to politics, an ever-growing Euro-skepticism, and an unsettling use of populist agenda. He has been grouped together with European leaders such as Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini, but he is arguably a considerably larger threat to a ‘liberal Europe’.

Orbán’s political career is objectively impressive, and to some it may even be inspiring. Born to a family with an agrarian past, Orbán pursued studies in law and political science but stayed true to his roots with a position in an institute affiliated to the Ministry of Agriculture and Food in the late 1980s. At the time, Hungary was living out the twilight of the communist regime that had been in power since the end of World War II. Initially, Orbán had been a supporter of the Communist regime, but by 1988 he had helped found Fidesz, a portmanteau of Fiatal Demokraták Szövetsége, which translates to the Alliance of Young Democrats. As the name implies, it began as a student movement against the communists, and Orbán’s interest in the Solidarność movement in Poland, subject matter of his master’s thesis, certainly influenced his change of heart.

The Third Republic

Orbán rose to national political fame with his speech on June 16, 1989 in which he demanded the departure of the Soviet Army and called for free and fair elections. The Soviet troops eventually withdrew in 1991, but in the interim the Hungarian Third Republic had been formed with Fidesz in the opposition and Orbán representing the County of Pest following the 1990 elections. In 1993, he was elected the first President of Fidesz, a post he has held for all but 3 years of its existence. At this time, Fidesz was still considered a liberal party, to the extent that it was a member of Liberal International, but the party’s poor showing in the 1994 elections pushed its leaders to adopt a more conservative stance. The fallout from this decision led to the party losing many of its founding members, who joined the Alliance of Free Democrats and went from being Orbán’s allies to his opponents.

The following years saw Fidesz add the suffix Magyar Polgári Párt (Hungarian Civic Party) to its name, seemingly distancing itself from its original, more liberal title. Orbán served various roles on national and international committees ranging from European Affairs to the New Atlantic Initiative, and most interestingly was elected as the Vice Chairman of Liberal International in 1992. Yet simultaneously Fidesz slowly became the leading rightwing party in Hungary, and their ideological shift would be rewarded with a successful performance in the 1998 elections. Orbán became Prime Minister for the first time, heading a parliamentary coalition comprised of Fidesz, the MDF and the FKGP. There was no time to waste as the new government swiftly went about instituting vast administrative changes, including reducing the number of sessions the National Assembly could hold and consolidating the office of the Prime Minister. Allegations of press suppression rankled the administration, while politics was not even close to being bipartisan. The FKGP essentially disintegrated during this time, and the Socialist Party emerged as the frontrunner in the opposition. Hungary joined NATO under Orbán’s leadership in this time, despite Russian opposition to the Visegrád expansion. Fidesz left Liberal International to join the European People’s Party in 2000, beginning a near 20-year association. 

The 2002 elections proved that the Fidesz-led coalition’s popularity had waned as a result of some of its policies. The Hungarian Socialist Party formed a coalition with the Alliance of Free Democrats and Orbán would be in the opposition for the next 8 years. The international spotlight still shone on him and he received numerous awards between 2001 and 2004. The 2004 European Parliament elections, Hungary’s first, were an encouraging sign for the party as the Socialists were heavily defeated and Fidesz won half the seats. However, this did not translate to a positive performance at the 2006 national elections, with the Socialist Party-led coalition retaining power. What is interesting to note that Fidesz’s seat count in Parliament was consistently high between the 1998 and 2006 ballots. The party did not drop to below 141 seats (2006) and had its best numbers in 2002 despite not forming the government. It appeared that its coalition partners were suffering the heaviest losses, and this was proven at the 2010 elections.

Ascension to power and the bigger picture

Orbán’s second mandate as Prime Minister has been nothing short of busy. The Fidesz-KDNP (Christian Democrats) coalition won a supermajority in Parliament and has been in power since 2010. This was a major turning point in the political history of Hungary since it allowed Orbán to modify the Constitution whichever way he liked. The most controversial modification was the reduction of seats in Parliament to a little over half of its original number, effectively allowing Fidesz to keep its supermajority in the elections that followed, while an article in favor of the conservative Christian notion of marriage came in second. The conservative stance has certainly hardened and has even led to allegations of MPs holding anti-Semitic beliefs. George Soros has been a frequent target, and the de facto expulsion of the Central European University probably had more to do with the fact that he is its founder, than any ‘regulatory infractions’. In particular, the administration has been demonstrating a disconcerting willingness to cater to as wide an electoral base as possible at the cost of liberal political and social values while not leaving anything up to chance with its amendments to the electoral system. Fidesz seems to have adopted for good the Christian values that its coalition partner KDNP stands for and has become notorious amongst European liberals for what is essentially a suppression of political competition. 

What is most intriguing is Orbán’s increasing Euro-skeptic rhetoric and his relationship with Vladimir Putin. Orbán and Putin would have made natural enemies given that Hungary was brutalized by the Soviet regime, yet today they claim to have a ‘special relationship.’ Much of this is due in part to Orbán recognizing that despite their violent shared history, he has more in common with Putin than he does with an Emmanuel Macron or an Angela Merkel. Orbán is incredibly pragmatic (and possibly corrupt), and so his reversal of policy on Russia or Russian corporations since coming into power in 2010 is not so surprising. However, this has been accompanied by attacks on the EU institutions which have jeopardized Hungary’s influence within the Union. It is one thing to disagree with western liberal values, but it seems foolhardy to toy with expulsion from the EPP, and not something one would expect from a pragmatist such as he. Hungary’s complicated relationship with Ukraine has also exacerbated the issue of Orbán being a crony to Putin.

All in all, Orbán’s beginnings were admirable yet a combination of populist politics and poor electoral performance had him sacrifice democratic values for power consolidation and has become a symptom of that same authoritarianism that plagued Hungary for decades. While his rise to power came due to the democratic process, it no longer represents the same level playing field that it did when the Third Republic had been established. 

Viktor Orbán now / Fidesz: A special kind of populism

In September 2018, the European Parliament voted to trigger Article 7, which represents the possibility to sanction a member state violating the EU’s principles of human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect of human rights. With Viktor Orban enforcing anti-immigration policies at home, MEP’s decided in a close vote that it was the case for sanctions against Hungary, adding fuel to Fidesz’ anti-European Fire.

After Viktor Orbán’s anti-European ‘fake news’ campaign boasting posters featuring the Commission’s president Jean-Claude Juncker and Hungarian businessman George Soros accompanied by the slogan “You too have the right to know what’s going on in Brussels”, a clear message was given to the European People’s Party and European politicians. Quickly, parties took sides; Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor and former head of the Christian Democratic Union (an EPP founder party) took president Juncker’s side, condemning Orbán’s accusations, causing discontent and uproar in the EPP ranks. Understandably, a historically united pan-European Party cannot have such attacks within its own members be let without reaction.

These events widen the already broad spectrum of values found in the EPP, especially when it comes to the European question and the future path of the European Union. With rather pro-European assemblies such as Austria’s People’s Party, we find disparities even between geographically near movements.

Surely, a sense to the attacks can be found having a closer look at Hungary’s local politics. Viktor Orbán’s attacks stem from the fact that he transformed the European political arena into his own stage, for Fidesz’s local interests. Using Europe to fight political ideas instead of contributing to ideology is what gets Orbán winning at home. Clearly, he found a strategy that works. With it, he differentiates himself from the more classical form of anti-European populism found elsewhere in leading positions of European states, such as Italy’s Matteo Salvini. In fact, Viktor Orban fuels his popularity with the reactions he receives from Fidesz’s European counterparts, turning every stone thrown back at him in potential new votes. This approach put him into power again exactly a year ago, as he won Hungary’s parliamentary elections on April 8th, 2018, applying the same strategy.

Hungary’s attacks on EU leadership and its questioning of the institutions for political campaign purposes led to the suspension of Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party’s membership from the European People’s Party group, justified by a deviation in Fidesz’s values from its sister parties’ ones. In the aftermath, it is not surprising to see that Viktor Orban did not express disarray following the EPP’s decision, backed by a landslide of votes (199 delegates voting for Fidesz’s suspension of rights, against only 3 voting against); on the contrary: Orban felt comfortable enough with the decision and approved of it, saying that The European People’s Party has made the right decision, because it showed unity within the EPP. On the other side of the table the decision has been met with approval; Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Germany’s CDU’s lead, underlines that the decision was taken due to a contrast in values: this suspension gives Fidesz the chance to remove the doubts it had about its approval and support of shared EPP values, as well as future collaboration on the grounds of these values.

Not an easy choice for the EPP

The reaction to Fidesz’s attacks was a delicate and very political one. After first reactionary comments from the European People’s Party, reconciling words resounded from Hungary, Viktor Orban kindly asking his European counterparts to reconsider a suspension, marking a radical shift in the Fidesz’s leader’s rhetoric. These warm words received mixed answers from the EPP’s ranks, who knew they had to formulate a united response, and not let themselves get carried away by Orban’s advances. The task was indeed not an easy one. Knowing that a simple punishment would directly fuel Orban’s political agenda at home, the group, looking for a smart response, failed to do so. Not wanting to feed Orban’s base, the issue was dragged on and a prompt, direct answer was avoided, with many EPP leaders bypassing the controversy or simply neglecting its importance, such as Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s current Chancellor, not attending the EPP’s meetings.

Wanting to appear united and strong, the suspension decision made Viktor Orban a favor. At home, as expected, he is seen as the big winner against European politics. Knowing that in a larger sense the European Union can hardly afford to lose Hungary (or any other similarly-positioned governments such as Poland) to the East (in particular being interested in Russia’s Putin advances), it has to be careful not to mix this turmoil with geopolitical tensions.

Saying after his suspension that this would not impact his way of doing politics, Viktor Orban appears strong. The triumph in Budapest was instant; the government-backed analyst Daniel Deak summarized the general feeling: “A compromise was born which preserves Fidesz’s EPP membership. In this regard, the party will be able to continue express its will in European debates!” This puts a question into the room: Will the EPP look for majorities left or right of the middle as European elections approach? Here it is to the Franco-German couple to act upon Hungary’s derailments. With Angela Merkel’s party involved in EPP’s businesses and Emmanuel Macron’s ALDE-Affiliated and possible coalition partner La République En Marche, an non-partisan approach should be adopted. However it should be done with prudence and vigilance, not to impact the greater European geopolitical agenda.
The turmoil between Viktor Orban and the European People’s party will not remain without consequences, even on the longer term. In fact, future possible accessions will be directly impacted, with values taking a much bigger place in the process. With the possibility of a new threat an possible new party could bring to the EPP group, its responsibility as well as the European one will be at risk. However, in a period where Europe shows muscle to the world with Brexit, China’s XI visit in Italy, and Fidesz’s suspension, a clear leverage is present for the EU’s ruling forces.

Références bibliographiques

« Ungarns Ministerpräsident: EVP-Fraktion setzt Mitgliedschaft von Orbán-Partei aus ». Frankfurter Allgemeine, 20-03-2019,
Disponible sur : <https://www.faz.net/1.6099223> (Consulté le 24-04-2019).
« Ungarischer Ministerpräsident: Orbán bittet EVP-Parteichefs um Verzicht auf Fidesz-Ausschluss ». Frankfurter Allgemeine, 14-03-2019,
Disponible sur : <https://www.faz.net/1.6088734> (Consulté le 24-04-2019).
Voir aussi
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© Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock

Bibliographie réalisée par Léo Montaz, responsable de la bibliothèque du Campus de Sciences Po à Reims.