Skip to main content

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban addresses journalists during a news briefing at the European Parliament in Strasbourg Jan. 19, 2011.

Vincent Kessler/Reuters/Vincent Kessler/Reuters

The first sign things had changed were the rectangular plaques that suddenly appeared on the walls of government offices, army barracks and theatres.

Headed "Statement of National Co-operation," they informed anyone who cared to look that "a constitutional revolution in the voting booths" had occurred in Hungary, ushering in a "new social contract, that of national consolidation" bringing a new future based on "work, home, family, health, and order."

Viktor Orban had arrived.

Story continues below advertisement

In Hungary, it is impossible to avoid the forceful political footprint of the conservative Prime Minister. He assumed office last year, with one of the largest majorities in European electoral history going to his Fidesz party (a contraction of "Alliance of Young Democrats") in what he calls the "two-thirds revolution."

Across Europe, leaders have been reacting with alarm to a man who has used this huge surge of popularity to impose an assertive, intensely nationalistic style of politics.

It marks the latest stage in his startling journey – long-haired, anti-communist libertine in the 1980s; democracy-movement hero in 1989; increasingly conservative leader in the 1990s; and today, a figure likened to Russia's Vladimir Putin and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez as the most authoritarian-styled elected leader in the 27-nation European Union.

The language on the plaques set the tone for what has unfolded in recent weeks, as Mr. Orban assumed the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union and shocked Europe with his outspoken defence of rigid policies.

Most visible was his media law, which places all Hungarian broadcasters and newspapers under the thumb of a watchdog panel of Fidesz supporters with the power to police newspapers' pages for "balance" and fine them or withdraw licences. That law led to furious denunciations in the European Parliament last week, and worries that Hungary was leading a Central European turn to authoritarianism.

"The last time he was in power [1998 to 2002] there were things we strongly disagreed with, but it was all within the framework of democracy. Now, it is not," said Kinga Goncz, a former Socialist cabinet minister and current member of European Parliament who is possibly Hungary's highest-profile opposition figure.

"The goal this time, in all of this legislation, is stabilizing power – I think that's the only goal he has. All the steps he's taken are only useful in terms of extending his influence and power for years."

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Orban's Communication Minister, Zoltan Kovacs, said in an interview at the Budapest Parliament that the media law was meant to be a technical matter and that all of its elements could be found in laws of other European nations, such as Germany, which outlaws anti-Semitic language in newspapers.

But when questioned on the motives for imposing the law at such a visible and risky moment, he noted that his party has been angered by the two newspapers loyal to the opposition Socialist Party. Mr. Orban blamed the biases of these papers for his earlier loss of the prime ministership in 2002, after four years in office.

New powers and old grudges

Aside from the media law, Mr. Orban has used his majority – which is large enough to amend the constitution with a single parliamentary vote – to stack even low-level public offices exclusively with Fidesz loyalists.

He also abolished the independent Fiscal Council, which is meant to scrutinize budgets; he confiscated the funds of a private-sector pension system for public employees in order to finance deficit cuts; and, when the Constitutional Court rejected a bill that would have retroactively applied a steep tax to severance pay, he summarily stripped the top court of its power to rule on budget-related legislation.

Most alarming to outsiders, though, has been Mr. Orban's repeated moves to dredge up the darkest ghosts of Hungary's past.

Story continues below advertisement

In July, days into office, he passed a law to establish an annual National Unity Day every June 4 to mourn the 1920 Treaty of Trianon – the war-reparations act that reduced the size of Hungary's borders as punishment for the crimes committed by Austria-Hungary and their allies in the First World War.

The bill referred to a "united Hungarian nation" and was recently followed by another bill championed by Mr. Orban, who frequently mentions the "national tragedy" of Trianon, to grant citizenship to any ethnic Hungarians living within adjoining states. While Germany has similar passport laws for Germans in Poland, one would never hear Chancellor Angela Merkel criticizing the Yalta Conference, which similarly reduced Germany's borders.

Viktor Orban is not a fascist, or an ultraright-wing racist. In fact, his defenders say his huge majority has had the beneficial effect of driving Hungary's far-right racist Jobbik Party into political irrelevance. But his ham-fisted, nationalistic approach is a type of government that Hungarians say they haven't witnessed since the post-1956 years of Soviet control. Many find it bending too close to authoritarianism.

"He's not an extreme-right-wing guy," says Istvan Hegedis, a Fidesz founder who is now a member of the opposition Socialists. "But, as a populist, he's playing with views that are not so far from extremism."

Mr. Hegedis is part of a group of Fidesz founders who preferred the years around 1989 when the party's leaders all had long hair and tried to forbid anyone over 35 from joining – before Mr. Orban seized the party in 1994 and moved it rightward.

There is a keen debate among them as to whether Mr. Orban has shifted his views sharply over the years, or has simply given a new language and packaging to his beliefs. Certainly, many of his old associates say, Mr. Orban has always been an ardent nationalist, even when he used the liberal rhetoric of freedom from communism to express it.

"I've known him for a long time, since university years," says Andras Racz, a former Fidesz official and unauthorized Orban biographer, "and I always think he's had the message that it's not acceptable that our country is just a collection of people – some coherence is needed to make it a people, a coherent nation."

Rebels turned reactionaries

This type of transition is not unusual among former rebels in countries that escaped communism in 1989, such as Czech President Vaclav Klaus and the late Polish president Lech Kaczynski (along with his identical twin brother, Jaroslaw, Poland's opposition leader).

Fidesz founders who remain close to Mr. Orban say his authoritarian leanings were always encoded in his street fighter's instincts.

"He's the only one who was in the middle of the changes in '89, and it's given him a can-do attitude," says Istvan Gyarmiti, who now runs the International Centre for Democratic Transition, a Central European think tank.

"He feels that if he could get us out of the Warsaw Pact and kick the Soviet troops out, then he can do absolutely anything. He really does feel that he can change the world – and to do that, he needs to have a stronger state."

How worried, then, should Europeans be about Viktor Orban?

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, leader of the European Green Party, rose in European Parliament last week to denounce him as "on the path to becoming a European [Hugo]Chavez, a national populist."

That was a telling jibe, for Mr. Chavez is an authoritarian-leaning elected leader on the extreme left, while Mr. Orban is ostensibly on the right.

But Fidesz has moved further left than his free-market Socialist Party predecessors on several fronts: He has renationalized (or deprivatized) several companies, imposed punitive corporate taxes on foreign multinationals and developed an unorthodox, high-risk fiscal-recovery strategy designed to force the International Monetary Fund out of Hungary's business – all traditional left-wing planks.

Some American and European publications have gone further, describing Mr. Orban's politics as a "Putinization of Europe" – a terrible insult to any leader of Hungary, a country that was colonized by Russia for almost half a century.

It is tempting to draw parallels to Vladimir Putin's style, but not quite fair: The Fidesz media law has not yet been used to censor anyone, and there haven't been violent threats to dissenters.

It may be better to liken him, as several of his friends do, to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has the same drive to control the media and the tools of re-election, and has manipulated high courts to achieve political goals (though Mr. Orban does not appear to share his Italian counterpart's more private vices). The two leaders speak regularly, Mr. Orban's friends say.

"I don't think he's economically prepared or explicitly political at all," says Mr. Racz, his biographer. "He is a man driven by his values, and these include using a strong nation to maintain his hold on power. That's really all there is to him."

Doug Saunders is a feature writer and columnist for The Globe and Mail.

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column, and also serves as the paper's online opinion and debate editor. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.