Why Orbán Keeps Winning
Viktor Orbán is the longest serving elected leader in Europe. Thanks to his victory in April’s parliamentary election, the Hungarian prime minister will soon surpass Angela Merkel’s record as the longest ruling European leader of the 21st century. Achieving this on a nationalist platform explicitly opposed to international liberal values has made him a hero to the worldwide nativist right: Nigel Farage once called him ‘the future of Europe’; Donald Trump twice endorsed his latest election campaign; and last month CPAC, a US-based political conference central to the Trump movement, held a European version of their event in Budapest with the former president appearing via video link.
Hungary is often held up as a warning to liberals elsewhere about the dangers posed by a right-wing populist leader in power: this is where the ‘war on woke’ will lead; this is how the state and the media will gradually be reconfigured to confound democracy. It’s true that Orbánism offers a fairly stark worst-case scenario, though the Republican Party – and the Tories – don’t need many pointers on fomenting culture wars or anti-democratic engineering. Less attention is given to the way Orbán and his Fidesz party took and held power in the first place.
Orbán’s success since 2010 is closely linked to the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. As Adam Tooze documented in Crashed, Eastern European states experienced downward GDP shocks nearly twice the size of the downturn in the US. In Hungary the crisis was made worse by the liberalisation policies pursued by the ruling MSZP (Hungarian Socialist Party) over the previous decade, which among other things had allowed extensive foreign control of the financial system, leading to mortgages and other loans denominated in foreign currencies. The entire 130 per cent increase in household debt between 2003 and 2008 was made up of foreign currency loans. A Hungarian worker would have seen his debts suddenly multiply in the chasm between the crashing forint and surging yen because the loan on his Dacia Sandero – for reasons he would struggle to explain – was held by a bank in Japan.
Fidesz won in 2010 promising to set all this right. In power they clearly assigned blame to foreign financial firms and the central bank, attacking the former with windfall penalties, taxes and sanctions, and cutting pay for bosses at the latter. The Fidesz MP László Kövér called it ‘a raw political power play going on between the government and the international banking world’. Orbán managed to keep the debt down by seizing private pensions, opening church assets to taxation, and cutting university funding. International manufacturers were courted with low corporation tax and ever thinning labour protections, which kept unemployment low and wages relatively high. Benefits were cut, but make-work programmes in rural areas and price controls on staple goods were used judiciously.
The entire project is a balancing act, taking with one hand and giving with the other, widely and rapidly, using the toolkits of left, right and centre to reward some sectors and citizens and punish others in a whirlwind of intervention. The sociologist Dorit Geva has called the approach ordonationalism: under previous – you might say neoliberal – regimes, citizens saw deregulation and disruption; with an ordonationalist they see a powerful government bringing a semblance of order and predictability – for the ‘right’ people. Even as wider conditions remain the same, with labour still in retreat and the state still ultimately shrinking, there is the feeling of a steady hand on the tiller.
This has proved incredibly popular. Orbán won a two-thirds majority in 2010, 2014, 2018 and 2022. The coalition that keeps him in power is remarkably similar to the Trump or Tory base: middle-class Christian conservatives and enough working-class voters to maintain a majority. For the former, the state has rewarded small business and homegrown plutocrats at the expense of international finance; for the latter, jobs are plentiful and staple goods are cheap; both groups appear to enjoy the persecution of their Roma, Jewish, LGBTQ+ and homeless compatriots, as well as the spectacle of anti-migrant violence and the absurdly militarised southern border.
The core appeal of Orbánism is the cultural and material offer together; this, along with no small measure of anti-democratic tinkering, has cemented his success. (A recent analysis of the Slovenian SDS party’s failures on a platform that could be called culture-only Orbánism makes this clear.) The conditions that make this combination so appealing aren’t unique to Hungary. In America and elsewhere, the effects of the financial crisis and the longer drain of deindustrialisation are still widely felt. US politicians are unlikely to go to war with big finance, but so-called ‘national conservatives’ – such as Tucker Carlson, Oren Cass or Marco Rubio – now speak about state power, onshoring and even unions with considerable ease. It’s no surprise they admire Orbán and invite Fidesz figures for speaking gigs.
The more traditional politicians of the centre and centre-left who oppose them often appear oblivious to this strategy. The six-party alliance that stood against Orbán in 2022 focused on his erosion of democratic norms and his odious beliefs, at times accusing him of not being a ‘true’ Christian conservative and calling for a new ‘age of honesty’. There was some rumbling about new labour protections, but little in the way of a material programme for voters. When they lost – badly – their prime ministerial candidate, Péter Márki-Zay, claimed that even Jesus would have been defeated by Orbán’s propaganda machine. But Jesus threw the money changers out of the temple and was generous with the loaves and fishes. Orbán’s opponents did little to distinguish themselves as anything but a return to ‘normality’, a normality that Orbán’s programme had already soundly defeated and replaced. It is dismayingly easy to see the mistake being repeated elsewhere.