Orbán’s ‘Personal Leadership’

Jan-Werner Müller

Everything appears to be going according to plan for Viktor Orbán. The Hungarian prime minister was re-elected on 6 April; after another week of counting absentee ballots and the votes of newly enfranchised ethnic Hungarians in neighbouring states, it is now clear that Orbán’s Fidesz party will retain its two-thirds majority in parliament – enough to change the constitution at any time it sees fit. Such concentration of power is unusual in Europe. But it conforms to the political vision Orbán outlined in a speech in 2009: Hungary, he claimed then, needed a dominant ‘central force’ to overcome not only the legacies of state socialism, but also what Orbán portrays as a failed transition after 1989.

Over the past four years he has weakened checks and balances, staffed the state with Fidesz loyalists, limited media freedom and, not least, crafted electoral rules which, according to OSCE observers, gave the governing party an ‘undue advantage’. Orbán has insisted that in normal times countries can afford ‘nice guys’ offering ‘institutional leadership’; but in times of crisis, it takes ‘personal leadership’. Critics compare his administration to the authoritarian interwar rule of Miklós Horthy or Putin’s ‘guided democracy’. All this has been out in the open; there is no mystery here. The mystery is why there has been so little political pushback by the domestic opposition and by Europe as a whole.

The Socialists, the main opposition party, are still tainted by a toxic mix of policies and personalities prominent over the last twenty years or so. It was the Socialists who got serious about capitalism in Hungary in the mid-1990s; it was the Socialists who ran up huge debts to soften its effects; and it was again the Socialists who put on the brakes and enforced austerity both in the 1990s and after 2008. On top of that, the party acquired an image of corruption at the highest levels. And on top of all that, an image of mendacity: the socialists’ most talented politician (and the only one who can compete with Orbán for charisma and political intelligence), Ferenc Gyurcsány, infamously admitted in a speech to party members in 2006 that he had lied about the country’s finances. In 2009 he had to hand power over to a technocrat, Gordon Bajnai, who kept a nominally socialist government together before Orbán swept into office in 2010.

Gyurcsány eventually left the Socialists and set up his own party; Bajnai also created his own platform, called ‘Together’. The new green-libertarian party ‘Politics Can Be Different’ refused to have anything to do with what they saw as stalwarts of the old regime, though a breakaway group eventually decided to join Bajnai, founding yet another party in the process. The end result was a Pythonesque parade of opposition parties with similar-sounding names. They kept squabbling until January this year, when five of them finally formed a ‘Unity Alliance’. But there was already a party called ‘Unity’, so what had never really amounted to much unity anyway became simply ‘Change of Government’. They only got 26 per cent of the vote, and are now in the process of splitting up again.

So far, so farcical. But the real lesson isn’t about the vanity of politicians or incompetent PR. Orbán’s government was unpopular for long stretches of his last term; what changed its fortunes was the decision to nationalise parts of the energy supply (by buying out big West European companies), lowering utility prices and making it mandatory to show on every bill how much the government had saved individual consumers. Never mind that a flat income tax and the highest VAT in the EU tell a different tale about Fidesz’s concerns: the impression took hold that Orbán fights for the people against the multinationals. And the left had no answer. Its representatives talked about foreign investors being scared off. They could have formulated a new politics of public goods (something clearly of wider concern in Europe: think of the Right2Water European Citizens’ Initiative). Instead, some in the opposition tried to outdo Orbán’s nationalism – a contest they cannot possibly win.

And Europe? Both the European Commission and the European Parliament have clashed with Budapest in recent years. But legal action against Hungary is constrained by the European treaties, which do not say much about the specifics of democracy or, for that matter, how much by way of checks and balances an EU member state has to have. When Fidesz lowered the retirement age of judges in order to staff the most senior positions with partisan appointees, Brussels took Budapest to the European Court of Justice for age discrimination. The Eurocrats won their case, but the old judges weren’t all reinstated; politically, Fidesz emerged victorious from what Orbán has occasionally called a ‘war of independence’ (from Europe).

Fidesz remains in the European People’s Party, the supranational ‘party family’ of Christian Democrat and Conservative parties and the largest group in the European Parliament. Angela Merkel is said to have had serious word with Orbán behind closed doors. But the more important the European Parliament becomes, the more significant party discipline (and party numbers) within it. Vectors for democracy point in two different directions here: the Lisbon Treaty effectively gave the Parliament the power to appoint the next Commission president; one consequence is that the party groups need every vote they can get. The EPP will probably push Fidesz only so far, especially as it is said to have flirted with joining the Tories’ caucus in the European Parliament. European politics reached a new low last week when Joseph Daul, the president of the EPP, congratulated Orbán on his election victory, and praised him for always speaking the truth to the Hungarian people.


  • 17 April 2014 at 5:52pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    JWM’s piece manages to express the natural concern that anyone interested in Hungarian affairs might have when confronted with the nature and program of Orban and his party. And it does so without mentioning Jobbik, the truly scary political presence in Hungary that venerates its ancestors, the mildly detestable Horthy regime (which as an excuse for its maneuvers during the late 1930s could point to the difficulties of every small country in the region – they all had to reckon with big and ambitious Hitlerian Germany and/or Stalin’s USSR, both a “no-win” and “no-exit” situation) and the vicious, super-fascist Szalasi regime at war’s end (whose only “accomplishment” of note was murdering Jews). It would be interesting to know how Orban and his cronies appraise Jobbik – are they a “natural ally” whose supporters and members have to be kept under control in order to avoid further embarrassments with the EU, or are they just “one more bunch of nuts who have to be humored” for electoral purposes? (Both conservative and progressive coalitions practice such humoring tactics in many parts of the world). The back-burner issue that inflames the minds of many Hungarian traditionalists and nationalists is rectifying the Trianon Treaty of 1920 and reconstituting as much of “millennial Hungary” as is possible (get out your Arpad flags!). It is “back-burner” because it seems like a political pipe-dream in the 21st century. A final and public renunciation of such claims by any Hungarian party would be welcome, but seems unlikely, because it is an emotional sore that is allowed to linger for various rhetorical purposes in Hungarian political life. Hungary seems to have the leader a majority of its citizens want right now, which is a sad commentary on the public’s lack of rational historical and political education. However, given the low participation rates in elections, it’s difficult to know just what constitutes “a majority of citizens”.