by Zsuzsanna Szelenyi (Hurst, 352 pp., $29.60)
In the early years after the collapse of Communism, Hungary played host to a wide-open political environment. It had political parties on the Left and on the Right, with platforms ranging from social democratic to conservative nationalism. One party in particular was notable for its youth, enthusiasm, and commitment to the ideals of classical liberalism. Its allegiance to liberalism and individual freedom was reflected in an early, strikingly honest, party document: “At the center of our thinking is the individual, the human with free will, not some community of people, some social group, class, or the entire so-called nation.”
That party was Fidesz, which has ruled Hungary for the past thirteen years. Its leader, Viktor Orbán, ranks as an icon to some among the Western Right today. He no longer praises free will and the individual. Rather, he delivers populist speeches in which “the nation becomes a kind of mystical community to which he ascribes not only historical greatness, exceptionality, and superiority, but also strength, a lack of pity, and victory.”
So writes Zsuzsanna Szelenyi in Tainted Democracy: Viktor Orbán and the Subversion of Hungary, probably the best account both of Orbán’s career and of Orbánism as a political system. Szelenyi has been a participant in Hungarian politics since the final years of the Cold War. She was elected to parliament on the Fidesz ticket and, later, on an opposition ticket. Szelenyi’s analysis is inspired by her insight into the tactics that have enabled Orbán to transform Hungary from a highly competitive democracy into something much different—what some might argue is a system approaching a one-party state.
Fidesz won a crucial electoral triumph in 2010. Ever since, it’s arguably waged a kind of permanent campaign to tighten Fidesz’s control of political life, culture, and the economy. Szelenyi regards Orbán as a thoroughgoing demagogue, a politician who has retained power through lies, the invention of enemies, and by battering the guard rails that make democratic politics possible. Here’s how she describes Orbán’s strategic approach:
The innovation of Orbánism lies in the way it combined American-style self-confidence with a politics of indignation transforming ethnic nationalism into an angst about Civilization; exploiting the narratives of political Christianity in opposition to Christian principles; and renewing the language of populism so that it can be deployed from a position of government.
Sheer luck has aided Orbán’s political ascension. Prior to 2010, Orbán served one term as prime minister. Twice he was defeated in elections he expected to win. The 2010 election, however, took place in the midst of an economic crisis aggravated by the cynicism of the previous government. The unpopularity of its opponents enabled Fidesz to gain a victory with slightly over 50 percent of the votes, a margin that gave Orbán a two-thirds supermajority in parliament under Hungary’s rules. Orbán had commented: “To win just once, decisively, that’s the way.” With his supermajority, he moved immediately to overhaul Hungary’s constitution and to pass a series of laws entrenching Fidesz as a semi-permanent majority.
The thoroughness of the Orbán enterprise becomes evident in the hundreds of these “cardinal” laws that have been passed. There’s also the matter of officials: numerous key officials have had their terms extended well beyond the normal parliamentary term of four years, sometimes for as long as nine and even twelve years. The offices have included the public prosecutor; also, officials with auditing, government finances, and corruption portfolios. Orbán, in other words, has erected an iron wall of loyal officials that make it impossible for an opposition coalition to govern effectively.
As he was solidifying Fidesz’s rule for the long run, Orbán launched campaigns against a cascading roster of evil forces supposedly arrayed to undermine Hungarian sovereignty. First he targeted multinational corporations, then the International Monetary Fund and the European Union, blaming them for being elites who stymied Hungary’s escape from financial crisis. Other targets followed: migrants, George Soros, LGBT activists, liberalism generally.
Orbán understood that post-communist politics was notable for a weak attachment to parties. He built Fidesz into a party based on loyalty to himself as the strongman; an agnostic attitude towards democratic institutions; tactical ruthlessness; and with a contempt for the norms of political debate. He has bolstered his leader image by seldom speaking to the press; presenting himself as above politics; and by insisting that he is not involved in the grubby details of government. This last claim is untrue: As Szelenyi reveals, Orbán pays close attention to the details of political strategy, personnel, and the business of securing an ever-expanding reservoir of party funding sources.
It was Orbán who decided that Fidesz would become a Christian party of a special kind. In its early iteration, Fidesz was indifferent—some would say hostile—to the role that religion plays in political life. That changed after the 2010 election. While the outside world took note of Orbán’s declaration that Hungary would pursue the course of illiberalism, Orbán decided that Fidesz needed an identity to which ordinary people could relate. Henceforth, he said, the overarching idea behind Fidesz would be “Christian democracy.” Christian democracy has an honorable tradition in the Christian Democratic parties of Germany, Italy, and other countries. The original Christian Democrats helped to build the stable postwar European system based on liberal democracy, market economies, and an alliance with America. Orbán’s “Christian democracy” took on the mission of tearing that system apart. While Orbán often referred to Christian morality, he specifically excluded any reference to Christian ideas or dogma. As he put it, Christian democracy “is not about protecting … articles of Christian faith.” Rather, it means “protecting the way of life that arose from Christian culture … such things as human dignity, the family, the nation.”
“Dignity,” “family,” and “nation” are subject to widely varying interpretations. Even as he extolled Fidesz for its commitment to Christian civilization, Orbán was inflicting inhuman policies on men, women, and children who had fled Syria and other war zones, and was also making it impossible for aid agencies to function. His propaganda machine has assailed Pope Francis as, in Szelenyi’s words, a “demented old fool and Communist.” And Fidesz has made clear its disdain for the Western view on women’s equality. One party notable has declared that “men should be men, and women mothers.”
In matters momentous and petty, Fidesz has manipulated the field to shut off any chances for the opposition. Fidesz is the only party that has access to the money needed for election campaigns, for instance. The government has adopted policies that effectively banned the opposition from advertising on billboards or other public places, while also preventing political advertising on television. Meanwhile, the government has spent lavishly on “public service” spots—advertisement for the government’s accomplishments.
While the Western media has focused on Orbán’s war on Soros and constitutional provisions declaring that the Hungarian family unit consists exclusively of men, women, and offspring, some of the most important changes are related to the laws and policies that have enabled Fidesz to gain control of the national economy and to bend it to Orbán’s will. An important lesson of Tainted Democracy is the relative ease with which a politician with autocratic instincts can gain control of a country’s destiny if he controls the political purse strings. Once in power, Fidesz shepherded through a dizzying series of measures designed to advantage Fidesz-friendly capitalists and handcuff businesses whose loyalty could not be ensured. Laws were adopted declaring that the success of this or that enterprise was a matter of national interest, allowing the related company to evade normal bidding rules or scrutiny from auditors.
Orbán still boasts of his anti-Communism. He frequently reminds audiences that it was he who delivered the fiery words at the reburial of Imre Nagy, the martyr of the 1956 revolution against Soviet occupation, who demanded that the Soviet army leave Hungary. Among other things, those remarks were meant to align the post-Communist Hungary with freedom and the West. But in the ensuing years, Orbán has not only jettisoned Hungary’s Western identification but has devalued Imre Nagy as a Hungarian hero. Fortified by a group of pseudo-historians who have risen to power with Fidesz, Orbán has rewritten the country’s story to minimize the role of Nagy and other heroic figures of the 1956 Revolution.
The rewriting of the Revolution’s history is but one of a growing number of similarities between the flamboyantly anti-Communist Fidesz government and the Communist regime which ruled over Hungary decades ago. Not the early Communists who terrorized Hungarians during the 1950s, with their show trials, class justice, and repression of capitalists and religious believers; rather, those who ruled during the “goulash Communism” period of Janos Kadar, the puppet that the Kremlin picked to serve in the Revolution’s aftermath. Kadar presided over a period defined by an unwritten social contract, under which the state let people live their private lives, make some money, and enjoy expanded freedoms in the books they read or the films they watched, in return for political quiescence.
It was still Communism and still terrible. But it was different from Stalinism and less brutal than in other East European satellites. There are a number of parallels between Kadar’s “goulash” regime and Orbán’s illiberal system.
Let’s start with the role of parliament. In both systems, the legislature has played an ornamental function. Decisions are made by an inner circle; parliament then rubber stamps them. Similarly with the judiciary, especially at its higher levels, where constitutional and important economic decisions are made. (At some levels of the judiciary, judges are putting up resistance.) Then there is media and communications. Under Kadar, the party controlled the press and censorship was widely practiced. Under Orbán, the press is free to print criticism of the government, but the independent media’s impact has shriveled due to economic pressures faced by both media owners and advertisers. But in some ways conditions are moving in the direction of an unhappy past: Fidesz journalists and their social media phalanx broadcast a steady stream of propaganda, much more adroitly presented, monolithic, and coarse than during Communist times, and thus more convincing. Under Communism there were denunciations of class enemies, imperialists, capitalists, and Zionists. Today, those targets have been replaced by globalists, briefcase-toting EU officials, migrants, and cosmopolitan Hungarians.
The rise of modern authoritarianism began at the outset of this century. Orbán’s actions do not endanger freedom in the way that Putin or Xi Jinping’s do. But Orbánism is important for its own special reasons. Countries are not likely to embrace the “Chinese model” or the thuggish police state regime that prevails in Moscow. Hungary is dangerous in that it presents a template that has a unique appeal to politicians who are looking for an alternative to democracy, one that succeeds without bloodshed and political prisoners.
Until now, the West’s resolve to Orbán’s challenge has been unimpressive. After years of prevarication, the EU has taken some modest measures to pressure Orbán to live up to his EU commitments. As for the United States, Szelenyi recounts meetings with officials from the Obama administration during the period when the illiberal state was being institutionalized. American officials understood what Orbán was up to. But Hungary was cooperating on issues that the administration considered important, and so Orbán’s open repudiation of democratic values was ignored.
Szelenyi’s fine book on Orbán and democracy in Hungary should be considered essential reading for anyone concerned about the threat to democracy posed by those enemies who are at once malicious and astute. Szelenyi reminds us that democracy can be overthrown peacefully, by stealth, and by people who loudly assert their democratic bona fides.
Arch Puddington is emeritus scholar at Freedom House.
Image: Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orbán leaves the Pillard Room, 10 Downing Street, while attending a bilateral meeting with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. (Flickr: 10 Downing Street)
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