Tainted Democracy: Viktor Orbán and the Subversion of Hungary 
by Zsuzsanna Szelényi.
Hurst, 438 pp., £25, November 2022, 978 1 78738 802 4
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In​ 2014, the year of his second landslide election victory, Viktor Orbán announced his ambition to turn Hungary into an ‘illiberal state’. Citing Singapore, China, India, Turkey and Russia as examples of successful systems ‘that are not Western, not liberal, not liberal democracies’, Orbán was taking a swipe at foreign-owned banks, NGOs (‘political activists attempting to promote foreign interests’) and the European Union – despite Hungary’s reliance on EU subsidies. In 2018, he redefined ‘illiberal’ as ‘Christian’: ‘Liberal democracy is pro-immigration, Christian democracy is anti-immigration … liberal democracy rests on the basis of variable family models, while Christian democracy is based on the Christian family model.’ This was a long way from his rhetoric thirty years earlier, when, as leader of the student group Fidesz, he had called for the withdrawal of Soviet forces and ‘the establishment of liberal democracy’ in Hungary.

Zsuzsanna Szelényi’s detailed and authoritative study, Tainted Democracy, examines this transformation, drawing on her own involvement in Hungarian politics. She was an early member of Fidesz and stood next to Orbán when he spoke at the reburial of the reformist prime minister Imre Nagy in June 1989 – a speech that hastened the end of communism in Hungary. Orbán’s background was different from Szelényi’s: her parents were liberal anti-communists; his were rural party loyalists. As a teenager, Orbán had been secretary of the local communist youth organisation. He has described himself as a ‘naive and devoted’ communist who changed his views during his military service. In 1989, feeding from a hand he would go on to bite, he won a scholarship from the Soros Foundation to study political philosophy at Oxford and the following year was elected to parliament, alongside Szelényi and 22 other Fidesz MPs, as part of the opposition to a right-wing, anti-communist government. Orbán, who was chosen to be the leader of the parliamentary group, was an effective manager and strategist, though Szelényi felt his ‘restlessness and impatience were a bit much’ (as were his ‘constant football metaphors’). He was also touchy: when she and two other Fidesz members wrote a paper criticising party groupthink, Orbán took it as a personal attack.

In 1993, it was revealed that Fidesz had been given a valuable property by the state to use as its headquarters, which the party leadership had then sold, investing the proceeds in companies that were owned by Orbán’s childhood friends. Around this time, he changed the party’s ideological direction from liberal centrism to right-wing conservatism. He also recast his own image, in conscious emulation of Silvio Berlusconi. Szelényi resigned along with a number of other Fidesz MPs. She took a job at the Council of Europe, promoting democratic development in the former communist bloc. She watched the rise of nationalist forces, particularly in the Balkans, and although Hungarian democracy seemed on ‘stable ground’ by comparison, was dispirited ‘to see the weakening democratic commitment of my own country’.

In 1998, Fidesz won its first parliamentary majority (in coalition with smaller conservative parties) on a national-populist programme of the sort that would become familiar across Europe, combining, as Szelényi puts it, ‘culturally traditional right-wing politics’ with more progressive economic policies, such as raising the minimum wage and building more homes. The government also abolished university tuition fees. Despite some economic success, Fidesz narrowly lost the next election – in 2002 – to a socialist-liberal alliance, a defeat Orbán blamed on a hostile media and international finance. He responded by setting up a network of campaign groups (called ‘civic circles’) to promote Fidesz policies, particularly on issues of national and religious identity. ‘Orbán changed noticeably after 2002,’ Szelényi writes, quoting a close colleague of his. ‘Until then he was a democrat,’ but afterwards it became ‘important to him to have as many resources as possible’.

Commandeering such resources became the project of Orbán’s second government, elected in 2010 in the wake of the financial crisis. Six months before the election, Orbán had announced that the Hungarian right should prepare to govern for fifteen or twenty years. The electorate didn’t take fright at this: Fidesz won an absolute majority (52.7 per cent of the popular vote, but two-thirds of the seats). One of his first acts was to set up a new council, consisting only of Fidesz appointees, to regulate the press. The next year, the government introduced legislation to eliminate two-round elections in single-member constituencies (disliked because they encouraged tactical voting), reduced the number of parliamentary seats from 386 to 199 and redrew their boundaries. A new constitution, the Fundamental Law, was adopted in April 2011. Its preamble puts a collective, nationalist worldview above the rights of the individual: ‘We proclaim that family and nation are the cornerstones of coexistence.’ Tens of thousands of copies were printed and distributed to teenagers across the country (at almost the same time, Michael Gove was sending copies of the King James Bible, with a foreword by himself, to every school in England). The government also passed a law allowing it to appoint judges even if the opposition disagreed, and seven judges loyal to Fidesz duly joined the Constitutional Court. Orbán called this the ‘cooked frog’ method – turn up the heat slowly and the frog doesn’t realise it’s boiling to death – but his tactics were far from subtle. After the 2014 election, three more Fidesz appointees joined the Constitutional Court and questioning the chief prosecutor in parliament was no longer permitted.

During the 2014 election campaign, Orbán had dismissed the separation of powers as ‘an American invention, which Europe, perhaps due to intellectual mediocrity, borrowed and applied to European politics’. Ahead of the election that year, the government spent millions of forints on TV advertising that repeated Fidesz slogans. With no access to TV or billboards – most of which were controlled by Fidesz-related companies – the opposition parties were reduced to sticking posters on electricity poles, a practice quickly outlawed on the grounds of road safety. In 2018, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe concluded that Hungary’s parliamentary elections ‘were characterised by a pervasive overlap between state and ruling party resources, undermining contestants’ ability to compete on an equal basis’. After the election, displaying posters in Hungary was made illegal, on the pretext of protecting the appearance of towns.

In 2017, Fidesz passed a law forcing groups that monitored Hungarian politics with the support of overseas donors to register as ‘organisations with foreign support’. Shortly afterwards, George Soros’s Central European University was expelled from Hungary: Fidesz ran a campaign accusing Soros of conspiring to erase national identities and increase migration to Europe. (Orbán was happy to make an agreement with the Shanghai-based Fudan University to open its first campus in Europe, although this stalled in 2022. Opponents of that plan included the mayor of Budapest, Gergely Karácsony, who renamed roads near the proposed site Free Hong Kong Street, Dalai Lama Street and Uyghur Martyrs Street.)

Fidesz has retained electoral dominance by employing a number of strategies, among them the punitive taxation of opponents, and the donation of procurement contracts to companies that, as Szelényi puts it, ‘express their gratitude’. Lorinc Mészáros, a plumber from Felcsút, Orbán’s village, became the richest man in Hungary (by 2019 he was on Forbes’s list of billionaires) through government contracts. As Szelényi notes, the system of state subsidies ‘sent companies the message that rather than increasing their own competitiveness, they had to get as close as possible to the power that dished them out’. Meanwhile, state scrutiny of government contracts effectively ceased: ‘The risk of being found out in corruption … was almost zero.’

Orbán has described his political project as a battle on three fronts: ‘demography, migration and gender’. Like others on the fringes of the right, he thinks the greatest threat to Western society is not climate change or China but a lack of babies. In 2015, he ordered the building of a 175-kilometre fence topped with barbed wire along the border with Serbia, aimed at preventing Syrian refugees from entering the country. A referendum held the following year asked Hungarians whether they wanted ‘the European Union to be able to mandate the obligatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary even without the approval of the National Assembly’. A huge majority voted ‘No’. The promotion of homosexuality and of gender reassignment for minors were criminalised in 2021, along with depictions of LGBT topics on daytime TV. The echoes of American populism aren’t a coincidence. Fidesz has been advised by American political consultants including Arthur J. Finkelstein, who began his career advising Nixon. According to Szelényi, the party has used the issue of gender ‘to bind together markedly different groups, such as committed Catholics, the less educated elderly and even radical football hooligans’.

Fidesz has paid great attention to constructing a historical narrative that supports its policies and ideology. Orbán and his followers have sought to downplay the role of reformist communists such as Nagy in the 1956 uprising. In a parliamentary speech marking the sixtieth anniversary of the uprising, Lászlo Kövér, the Speaker of the Hungarian parliament, claimed that the revolution ‘was not one of elites, of reformist communist party staff members, or various groups of intellectuals, but a revolution of the people, of simple folk’. In another speech Kövér tried to draw a moral distinction between the Fidesz-supporting provinces and the liberal intellectual opposition in Budapest. There is disagreement about the nature of Miklós Horthy’s regime of 1920-44, which enthusiastically participated in the German invasion of the Soviet Union and under which more than sixty thousand Hungarian Jews were killed. There is disagreement, too, about the extent of Hungarian complicity in the much more widespread killings that occurred after the German occupation in 1944. For Orbán, Horthy was one of ‘a few exceptional statesmen’ who saved Hungary after the disaster of the First World War, and his authoritarian rule has become an important prototype for Orbán. His version of the period after the German invasion is most fully expressed by the Budapest Museum of Terror, founded in 2002, which blames the atrocities of the Nazi and communist regimes entirely on foreign invaders (anticipating Orbán’s claims about the role of multinational companies, banks, the IMF and the EU). In 2014, to mark the seventieth anniversary of the Nazi invasion, his government erected a memorial to ‘all the victims’ of the occupation depicting a struggle between a sepulchral Archangel Gabriel and a rapacious German imperial eagle. In this version of events, Hungarians played no role in the deportation and murder of half a million Hungarian Jews.

So how, in the words of the historian Nicholas Mulder, did ‘the revolutionaries of 1989 become the nativists of the 2010s and 2020s’? For Szelényi, Orbánism is a utilitarian political project. Its ‘primary aim’ is to support ‘the changing political goals of the Fidesz leader’, whose ‘ideology is merely a political product.’ But there is more to Orbán than Machiavellian ambition. In an article in Foreign Affairs in 1997, Fareed Zakaria calculated that, in 1990, 22 per cent of democratising countries could be described as illiberal or unconstitutional (i.e. lacking a free press and an independent judiciary); by 1992, it was 35 per cent. He began his piece by quoting Richard Holbrooke on the previous year’s Bosnian elections: what if free and fair elections put in power ‘racists, fascists and separatists’? In The Light That Failed (2019), Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes argue that the rise of illiberalism in Eastern Europe was a consequence of the West’s imposition of its liberal-democratic system on countries to which it was ill-suited. They describe the response of Eastern Europeans to Western political and economic advice as the revolt of the imitator against the imitated. Orbán and other theoreticians of illiberalism, in their view, resented what they saw as ‘soft colonisation’, which treated former Soviet states with a condescension more often applied to Africans and Asians. Orbán’s own sense of being looked down on by the progressive posh goes back a long way: after his speech at Nagy’s reburial, a liberal intellectual came up to him and straightened his tie.

Mulder is sceptical. Yes, ‘Orbán has ‘dismantled liberal institutions’ while taking ‘vast amounts of EU funds to feather the nests of a loyal oligarchy of tycoons and agro-entrepreneurs tied to Fidesz’. But illiberal nationalism is a ‘purposive project … with clear ideological goals of its own’. For recent leaders of both Hungary and Poland, Mulder argues, the end of communism was ‘the beginning of the road to national liberation’.

Either way, it’s clear that national populists have been able to manipulate a sense of disorientation and loss – and not only in Eastern Europe. ‘Make Hungary Great Again’ is an effective summation of Orbánism; many Hungarians would like back the tracts of territory lost with the collapse of the Habsburg Empire at the end of the First World War. There are obvious overlaps between the Orbán and Trump playbooks – from winning elections by means of right-wing populism, via gerrymandering, packing the courts and attacking civil society institutions, to claiming to be the sole defender of national sovereignty. Like Trumpism, Orbánism pits city against country – in Hungary, ‘the people of the plains’ – and young against old. It challenges the established Western faultline that has, on the right, economic liberalism and social conservatism, and, on the left, social liberalism and economic intervention.

Orbánism was the first politically achieved expression of the conspiracy theory that – in various forms – lies behind the national populism which has had such an impact on politics around the world this century. The core narrative deployed by Orbán is that of an indigenous popular majority facing a global cosmopolitan elite which seeks to destroy independent nation states. The aims of this elite include the degeneration of national culture, the debilitation of national institutions and the end of the traditional family. This fits neatly with the so-called Great Replacement Theory, which holds that elites are deliberately encouraging mass immigration. Orbán complained in 2018 about ‘foreigners coming from other continents, who do not speak our language and who do not respect our culture, our laws, or our way of life: people who want to replace what is ours with what is theirs’. At an international summit on demographics, held in Budapest in 2019, he argued that allowing non-European immigration would ‘effectively be consenting to population replacement’ and that ‘there are political forces in Europe who want a replacement of the population for ideological or other reasons.’

Orbán has no doubt who is behind these machinations. George Soros is blamed for everything from rising immigration to changing ideas about gender. Orbán has sketched out a conspiracy in which, as Szelényi puts it, ‘migrants (suspicious terrorists) and critical civil society organisations (those helping migrants) were linked with Soros (who financed watchdog NGOs) by means of a carefully structured propaganda campaign … The propaganda insinuated that Europe was being besieged by Muslim immigrants, whose clear intention was to populate and occupy our world.’ Hence the posters that flooded Hungary in 2017 of a satanically smiling Soros topped by the slogan ‘Don’t let Soros have the last laugh!’ Hence, too, the propagandist National Consultation in which the first question read: ‘George Soros wants to persuade Brussels to settle at least a million people from Africa and the Middle East in European Union territory, including Hungary. Do you support this part of the Soros plan?’ Orbán’s campaign against a Jewish billionaire has elements of the durable myth of a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world; there were also echoes of the theory in Trump’s statement, in a speech in Florida in 2016, that ‘Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of US sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers.’

Unlike the socially conservative Law and Justice party which has been in power in Poland for much of the last decade, Orbán wants his regime to be seen as a model for national-populist movements abroad. It’s no surprise that Budapest has become a favourite destination for conspiratorialist far-right figures such as Tucker Carlson, who broadcast his Fox News show from Hungary for a week in 2021, and for right-wing bodies like the American Conservative Political Action Conference, which held gatherings in Budapest in 2022 and 2023 (at the meeting last year, Orbán said Hungary was ‘an incubator where the conservative policies of the future are being tested’ and called for Trump’s re-election). For Steve Bannon – another frequent visitor to Budapest – Orbán was ‘Trump before Trump’.

Like other populists, Orbán promised his working-class supporters state economic intervention and social conservatism, but has delivered mostly the latter. His regular increases in the minimum wage – the most recent in November 2023 – are offset by economic measures that favour employers. After his 2010 victory, Orbán imposed a flat-rate income tax of 16 per cent, amended the Labour Code to weaken employee and trade union rights (in some cases, striking workers can lose their jobs) and reduced the job-seekers benefit from nine months to three, after which recipients have to participate in workfare programmes; in 2018 he increased the amount of overtime hours allowed (called the ‘slavery law’ by the opposition).

In his 2014 victory speech, Orbán claimed that ‘societies founded on the principle of the liberal way to organise a state will not be able to sustain their world-competitiveness,’ unlike the ‘illiberal’ countries he cited, Singapore and China. Following ‘the nation-state, the liberal state and the welfare state’, he said, will be the ‘era of a workfare state’. He didn’t describe what a workfare state would look like, but it’s unlikely to operate in the interests of the many low-paid and provincial voters who contributed to his coming to power.

Szelényi blames her ‘historically privileged generation’ for squandering their political opportunities. By the end of the 1990s, many of the founding members of Fidesz had left politics: some for journalism or academia, others finding ‘attractive challenges in the liberalising financial world’. When Szelényi herself returned to Hungarian politics, she helped set up a new political party, Együtt (meaning ‘Together’), and then tried to build an electoral coalition large and united enough to defeat Orbán. In the 2014 election, divisions between the opposition parties resulted in the Unity coalition, led by the socialist party chair, Attika Mezterházy, winning only 25 per cent of the vote. (Együtt won four seats, not enough to form a parliamentary group, and was dissolved after the 2018 election.) In 2022, a wide range of left, liberal and non-Orbánite conservative parties formed a common list which, controversially, included the far-right Jobbik, whose paramilitary wing, Magyar Gárda, had been dissolved by court order in 2009 because its activities served to attack the rights of minority groups (the Roma especially), which were then protected by the constitution. Led by a Christian conservative mayor called Péter Márki-Zay, United for Hungary increased the opposition vote to 34 per cent but failed to prevent the Fidesz-Christian Democrat coalition from winning a fourth term. Orbán boasted that his victory was ‘so big you can see it from the moon’. The opposition’s risky embrace of Jobbik failed to pay off, with polls indicating that many of its former supporters voted instead for a new far-right party, Mi Hazánk (Our Homeland), which won six seats.

Orbán is confident that there is little prospect of his losing power soon, despite threats to the economy. The EU is withholding billions of euros in funds owed to Hungary, which has to fulfil 27 conditions, including ending the violation of refugee and LGBTQ rights, and returning judicial independence (the EU Commission wants to release €10 billion of this money, on the grounds that there has been progress on this last measure; others see no progress and think the EU wanted to encourage Orbán not to block an aid package for Ukraine). In April 2022, the Washington-based human rights organisation Freedom House issued a highly critical assessment of the state of civil society in Hungary. Anti-strike laws are being imposed on teaching unions following action by staff and students over pay and working conditions, and sixteen NGOs have been fined for criticising the ‘child protection referendum’ held by Orbán in 2022 to confirm his anti-gay 2021 legislation. Freedom House also pointed out that the media largely comprises pro-government outlets operating under the umbrella of the Central European Press and Media Foundation, and that the 2022 election was ‘not free, let alone fair’. In May 2023, a delegation of members of the European Parliament concluded that Hungary’s audit system was inadequate and that the government was using public funds to ‘enrich the family and friends of Viktor Orbán’.

The resignation of the conservative president, Katalin Novák, over the cover-up of a sex abuse case, has challenged Orbán’s supremacy in the run-up to June’s local and European elections. But even if Fidesz’s popularity has declined, its poll ratings are still more than double those of its nearest rival and few commentators believe the disunited opposition can overthrow Orbán any time soon. National populism has won in Italy, is gaining ground in Scandinavia and has all but wiped out the social-democratic left in France. Last year, the Alternative für Deutschland overtook the ruling Social Democrats in the polls. It’s easy to see why Orbán said in 2017 that ‘27 years ago here in Central Europe we believed that Europe was our future; today we feel that we are the future of Europe.’

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