Viktor Orbán, Fidesz, and Me

February 2020

A former Fidesz activist recalls marching for democracy alongside Viktor Orbán — and then breaking ranks as he steered Hungary down an authoritarian path.

By Zsuzsanna Szelényi

Victor Orban Ungarn

Thirty years ago, on June 16, I stood on the steps of the Museum of Fine Arts on Heroes’ Square in Budapest, guarding the coffin of Imre Nagy, the martyred Prime Minister of Hungary. I felt intensely moved as I listened to my fellow youth activist, Viktor Orbán, give a speech listing our political demands to the Communist leadership and to the huge crowd that we knew was on our side. I was deeply and genuinely convinced that we represented Hungary’s future. A few days earlier, when we discussed that speech, we knew that June 16, 1989, would be an historic day, because Nagy and his fellow martyrs of the 1956 revolution would finally receive in death the honors they had earned in life. This was why we rejected the organizing team’s request to give a mere commemorative speech on behalf of the young people. We opted for a courageous and radical political speech, and we entrusted Orbán to deliver it and represent all of us in the Federation of Young Democrats, Fidesz.

I was a third-year university student from an anti-communist family with a legacy stretching back to the 1956 uprising, so I had not hesitated in joining Fidesz when it had been established a year earlier, in March 1988, by three dozen college students. Within weeks, Fidesz had several hundred members and became the voice of a new generation that was no longer afraid to speak up for a more democratic country.

My generation became politically aware in the 1980s. We were the first cohort in the Communist bloc to be able to tour Western Europe with student Interrail tickets and to witness at an early age how the free world operated. The big difference between us and other political circles of the time was our fearless radicalism. In 1988, we were the first political group to demand multiparty elections and the departure of Soviet troops. Fidesz was energetic, ambitious, and inspiring. The winds of change were in the air, even if we still had no idea that the entire Communist system would collapse within a single year.

Under mounting public pressure, the ruling Communist party in 1989 recognized rights of free speech, assembly, and strike. On March 15, the various opposition groups organized a joint demonstration to celebrate the 1848 civic revolution and declare their political demands, creating an opportunity for thousands of people to march with the famous Hungarian tricolor, which had been banned for decades. The ruling party’s agreement to reinter the martyred leaders of the 1956 anti-Communist revolution was a demonstration of opening and reform from them at a time when Eastern Europe was still held tightly in the grip of the Communist parties. The ceremony on June 16, 1989, was a compromise between the emerging opposition and the still-ruling Communist elite and was to be designed as a purely commemorative event. However, Fidesz did not want to compromise with the Communists at an event that would attract 300,000 people to Heroes’ Square and eventually become the cathartic moment of the Hungarian transition.

Orbán’s radical speech contrasted with the tone of political compromise that reigned; it was a source of political inspiration but also of irritation for the many who had bought into a step-by-step process of democratization. Political negotiations between the ruling party and the opposition groups about a democratic constitution had only just begun in those days, and peaceful accord was the main guiding light for the participants. These negotiations concluded in September 1989, paving the way for free, democratic elections. Fidesz and the Alliance of Free Democrats, however, rejected this historic compromise, sensing that more could be achieved.

Fidesz’s choice for a radical début on June 16 was vindicated soon after. The value of Hungary’s negotiated agreement was quickly annulled by the fall of the Berlin Wall. November 1989 demonstrated that there was no need to carefully negotiate with the Communists, and peaceful, democratic transition was possible without any compromise. History was unstoppable.

Did Fidesz see the future more clearly than any of their political peers? Definitely not. We were simply ready to take more political risks at turbulent time. Risk-taking political action put the young Fidesz party on the political map, and when elections were finally held in April 1990, we successfully entered Parliament with a 22-member political group, all aged under 35. I was 24 years old. This was how we grew up in a miraculous, historic period.

In Parliament from 1990, we continued our radical and witty criticism of everything that seemed anti-democratic and autocratic to us. We personified Hungarians’ desire for a liberal state with a strong commitment to the rule of law and human rights, and we demanded reasonable historic justice without witch hunts. We nurtured the various ways of expressing personal and collective autonomy, all of which were so glaringly absent under Communist rule.

The generational approach we presented in the political arena offered a fascinating frame for representing our future in a free Hungary. Fidesz had a resolutely centrist identity and focused only on the future, while other democratic parties sought their political role models in historic Hungarian parties from the pre-war period. We were proud of sharing the best of the legacies of both the rural nationalists and the urban liberal political elite, overcoming a poisonous schism that had contributed to Hungary’s historical calamities in that century. We called ourselves the “children of divorced parents” and built our politics on a healthy national identity with an open, cosmopolitan worldview. We felt motivated to build a free, liberal, and capitalist Hungary, and to develop a new culture of democracy, one that Hungarians had never enjoyed. We believed that everyone benefited from the fresh air of freedom as we did. The sky was the limit.

Burdensome Transition

If 1989 restored democratic sovereignty, political rights, and constitutionalism to Hungary, the years that followed brought bewilderment. Many problems facing Hungary today are rooted in the challenges and mistakes of those early years.

While rapid, large-scale privatization ensured macroeconomic stability, rising inequality fed political resentment. Large segments of Hungary became impoverished and unable to keep up with the pace the transition required.

Meanwhile Hungary’s constitution—the result of negotiations with the Communist Party in early 1989—contained serious flaws. The election law, for example, made it too easy for a single party to achieve an absolute majority, resulting in the withering of the smaller parties in the absence of an opportunity to compete proportionally in the political arena. This system is the main concern underlying the struggles of today’s fragmented opposition. The party finance law enabled parties to run murky businesses. These flaws have never been corrected.

A major deficit of the Hungarian transition was that, uniquely in the region, political elites were not ready to make a law on lustration to keep former secret service informants out of the corridors of power. To this day there is no definitive answer as to why this did not happen. A miasma of mistrust contributed to the rapid loss of legitimacy for democratic governments.

The political elite became highly ideological at a very early stage, and the main forces for regime change, the conservatives and the liberals, did not form a grand coalition in order to jointly lead the complex political, economic, and social institution-building. This early divide between the formerly anti-Communist parties has become one of the most virulent diseases of Hungarian politics ever since. No surprise, then, that the early Fidesz party expressed its centrist position at the outset.

The First Ruptures in Fidesz

Fidesz in this period represented a strong liberal voice for the rule of law and transparency amongst the often disorderly processes. Orbán’s strong appetite for risk-taking was balanced with more moderate considerations in our political group. However, we quickly learned that behind normative values there were power struggles, deals, and compromises. We were all interested in the success of the party, but fighting for positions cost friendships and trust.

Orbán, whom we elected first as faction leader and party chairman in 1993, efficiently took control of the party’s resources and became the unquestioned leader of Fidesz. He built a circle of loyal cronies. By 1993, the party had deep internal divisions on the use of resources, on liberal values, and on political attitudes, as Orbán always pushed the group into radical political fights, with every issue being framed as a matter of life or death. The final rupture occurred when we learned that the party’s chairman and treasurer had used party money in an illegal way, including by running a luxury car rental company to multiply funds, and that the money was being channeled through their cronies’ businesses.

In 1994, the liberal wing of Fidesz, including myself, left the party. At my last Fidesz faction meeting, I said that I couldn’t agree with the party’s “ends justify means” approach. I left because my personal autonomy, integrity, and political beliefs would be continually challenged if I stayed in the party of Viktor Orbán. In 1995, Fidesz formalized the party leader’s authority, and since then Orbán’s leadership and political will has been growing systematically and unquestionably.

In the late 1990s, Fidesz rebranded itself as a right-wing, conservative party, convinced that such an orientation provided better prospects for achieving power. Fidesz gave up its historic mission to overcome the deep urban/rural cultural-political chasm that had plagued Hungary for a century. Fidesz lowered the ceiling for itself and gave up on an ambition that had proved to be more difficult to achieve than anticipated.

The Golden Decade of Transition

In 1994, the post-communist Socialist Party won an absolute majority in the elections. Hungarian society, I bitterly acknowledge, was facing more troubles than anticipated and was not so keen on coping with the burdens of regime change, and so a nostalgia for the certainties of the Communist period emerged. Apparently, it was distressing to see such a rapid return of the Socialist party to power, blurring the moral boundaries between the old and new systems and enabling the post-socialist elite to participate in the privatization process in those early years of capitalism.

The returning Socialists and their Liberal coalition partner, however, followed a disciplined democratic politics, deepening Hungary’s integration into the Transatlantic system and speeding up economic and social reforms. The painful austerity measures they pursued resulted in the restoration of economic balance and institutional stability by the end of the 1990s, paving the way for accession negotiations with the European Union. The prospect of EU membership represented an overarching ambition for the entire political elite, covering over the ideological differences, political divisions, and difficulties that Hungarian society was enduring.

The deeply divided Fidesz party initially suffered a major defeat but then won the elections in 1998, elevating Viktor Orbán to the position of Prime Minister at the age of 35. Orbán understood that the centralized constitution and the majoritarian election system together provided him with the opportunity to be a powerful Prime Minister. He no longer had any interest in balancing the political system.

Fidesz was successful in government. After years of extreme volatility, Hungary’s macroeconomic position stabilized and democratic institutions became fully operational, albeit imperfectly. Negotiations for European Union accession were accelerating, and the future of Hungary was bright.

Still, there were worrying signs of Orbán’s ambition to strengthen the government at the expense of other branches of power. Fidesz reduced the length of parliamentary sessions, curtailing the significance of public debate and parliamentarianism. The party also concentrated its influence over public media.

I remember talking to a Fidesz parliamentarian, a former colleague of mine, who explained in 1999 that, after the Communists, they were finally “entitled to take their own share away.” During the transition, ruling party elites felt that they had special rights to dip into public resources. It was disappointing to see how Fidesz craftily perfected existing corrupt practices, laying the groundwork for even larger-scale wrongdoing after EU transfers began to flow to Hungary in 2004.

Despite all predictions to the contrary, Fidesz lost the election by a small margin in 2002. But under Orbán’s radical leadership, it never moved off of offense. In a memorable speech that year, Viktor Orbán rallied his followers and telegraphed his nationalistic, hegemonic aspirations by stating: “We can’t be in opposition, as the nation cannot be in opposition.” Orbán built on the deep frustration of his followers and used this fury to mobilize them to organize a new, more radical movement. The so-called “civic circles” acted in collaboration with hundreds of patriotic, church-bound, cultural, and local-level political organizations and many small-scale private businesses, which, whether on the grounds of material interest or ideological sympathy or both, aligned with the right.

After successive electoral defeats, Viktor Orbán’s party took to the streets as an anti-establishment movement, questioning the election results. But by moving the political stage literally and symbolically to the streets, Fidesz had given up on another one of its founding commitments—namely, the commitment to parliamentarianism.

Win Once, Win Big

Since 1989, Hungary has diligently followed Europe’s lead in order to catch up with the West, but it has still not arrived at the promised land of parity. As it did in the early 2000s, public pressure for higher wages has pushed the government into indebtedness. The appearance of a radical right, anti-establishment party, Jobbik, showed that Hungarian society’s aspirations to be a part of liberal Europe had begun to wane. Finally, capitalizing on a major government scandal and the 2008 financial crisis, which pushed Hungary to the brink, Orbán secured a landslide electoral victory, something that had not happened in Europe since World War II. The Fidesz Party received a two-thirds constitutional majority on its own.

In 2010, Viktor Orbán gained the legitimacy and power necessary to reconstruct the country. Many people hoped that he would exercise this exceptional power as an “enlightened autocrat” to implement all the necessary reforms and further integrate Hungary into the European Union. Instead, Orbán went another way. He claimed that the 20 years of transition had been no more than a troubled quest, and that the real regime change had only just begun in 2010 by regaining sovereignty and self-rule. The remark he made in a private discussion in the election campaign in 2010, “We need to win only once, but we need to win big,” revealed his true intentions.

The Fidesz party moved quickly to change the Hungarian Constitution, strengthening executive power and weakening institutional checks and balances. Orbán nominated his loyal cronies to the position of the Constitutional Court and each and every state institution. There is no discernible difference between the institutional identity of the leading party, the Government, the Parliament, and the President; the lines separating powers in government have become blurred. We can see the state’s influence on the judiciary in how corruption cases are handled. For example, the Chief Prosecutor has failed to follow through on government-related corruption cases, even ones unveiled by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF). Fidesz officials also openly question the rule of law. In a recent speech, Orbán’s closest ally, Speaker of Parliament László Kövér, stated: “150 years ago the question was whether the Hungarian state wanted to guarantee the independence of the judges. In the future, the question is whether the Hungarian judges want to guarantee the independence of the state.”

Nor are churches free from state influence. After dramatically increasing state funding to major Hungarian churches in recent years, the government now expects them to participate in its campaigns—for example, in anti-migrant propaganda drives. Churches have also been pressured to openly campaign for the “Christian” Fidesz party at election time.

By creating a system of personalized legislation, Fidesz has also nurtured a loyal oligarchic business coalition and suppressed entrepreneurs who do not align themselves with the party’s interests. Orbán’s cronies achieved spectacular concentrations of wealth. Lőrinc Meszaros, Orbán’s neighbor, gained 93 percent of his business income from EU transfers, and István Tiborcz, Orbán’s 32-year-old son-in-law, joined the ranks of the richest people in Hungary within three years.

Fidesz has also changed the Media Law, guaranteeing the governing party’s dominant presence in public media. Moreover, by November 2018 an unprecedented 476 private media outlets were owned by the aforementioned Meszaros, bringing them under centralized editorial control and allowing them to run highly efficient propaganda campaigns. In the first three months of 2019, the government spent €48 million to flood the country with negative ads in the run-up to the European Union elections.

Election law was also changed in 2013 in ways designed to ensure a two-thirds majority for Fidesz in subsequent elections. The OSCE election monitor report concluded in 2018 that, even though the technical administration of the elections was professional, the non-transparent legal conditions and the adverse climate of the campaign had hindered voters’ ability to make fully informed choices.

The Fidesz government has radically redistributed state funding in the education and cultural sectors, subjugating the universities, the Hungarian Scientific Academy, and cultural institutions. It has also rewritten the entire national curriculum for public schools. The government’s open aim is to indoctrinate society, even if its ideology is at times inconsistent.

Fidesz’s majoritarian agenda offers only the fleeting illusion of democracy. Hungarian government officials often argue that the legal mechanisms they have used can also be found in one Western democracy or another, in one form or another. In some cases this might even be true. But taken together, these smartly crafted individual policies have created a systemic impact on every segment of life in Hungary. The scope of freedom of information is narrowing; individual choices are diminishing; a broad range of state and non-state institutions are coming under direct government control; companies have been compelled to finance sports clubs owned by Orbán cronies in exchange for receiving EU development funds; and critics and political rivals must withstand a constant barrage of moral humiliations and acts of intimidation.

Why Don’t More Hungarians Turn Against Fidesz?

I returned to Hungarian politics in opposition to Fidesz in 2012. During the political struggles, I identified three factors that explain why Fidesz’s concentrations of power and rampant patronage politics hadn’t hurt them at the polls.

First, much has been said about the fragmentation of the opposition and its difficulty in developing a strong alternative to Orbán’s narrative. There is some truth to this, but it is also true that the huge gap between Fidesz’s financial resources and those of other parties has compounded this problem. Furthermore, public employees and business people have expressed fears of retribution when approached by members of my party. As a result of all this control and the highly distorted election system, the incapacitated institutions of checks and balances, and extraordinary media dominance, Fidesz had an easier path to sustain its parliamentary supermajority in 2014 (when I ran for office) with 44 percent of the vote, and then again in 2018, with 49 percent of the vote.

Second, Orbán’s nationalism is deeply rooted in widespread resentment about the post-World War I Trianon Peace Treaty, after which Hungary lost most of its territory and population. Trianon deeply wounded Hungarians’ identity and dignity, but it remained a taboo topic for 70 years. After 1989, European accession was the main concept around which the largely Socialist-led governments tried to organize national identity, but this effort failed. When Orbán promotes Hungarian sovereignty, he is presenting himself as an heir of the proud, pre-Trianon Hungary, working to protect Hungarians from future existential threats. This is how Orbán’s ethnic nationalism is closely linked to his anti-migrant stance and anti-European campaign in the time of globalization.

Third, notwithstanding Orbán’s nationalist rhetoric, the stability of EU funding (which accounts for more than 4 percent of Hungary’s GDP) props up the country’s economy, enabling Fidesz to increase wages, cut public-utility fees, and provide large family-allocation packages. Orbán takes credit for this financial stability, on the one hand, while stirring Hungarians up with fear-mongering and paternalistic social politics, all aimed at convincing people that Hungary needs a stronger chief more than it needs stronger support for democratic institutions, or even the rule of law.

My generation of Fidesz politicians—the generation whose original political identity was built on the basis of fighting against authoritarianism and the one-party Communist state—finds itself 30 years later having created a new party-state that dominates state positions, controls 70 percent of all media, and maintains a tightening grip on the judiciary. The ideals of 1989 are long gone.

Alliance of the National Populists

In Orbán’s telling, the 2008 financial crisis proved that the Western-led liberal world couldn’t address the economic needs of the broad mass of Hungarians, and the 2015 migration crisis demonstrated that Europe couldn’t protect the cultural identity of the Hungarian people. He has maintained that the only way to do these things in Hungary was to build a strongman-led order focused on a national community representing higher moral values than those of a liberal society dedicated to human dignity. In 2014 he applied the label “illiberal democracy” to this political project.

Orbán understood early on that a citizenry that is losing its social status and self-confidence is an easy target for a culture war targeting the fundamental structures of European democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. Hungarian democracy was the first target of this campaign, but it took the 2015 migration crisis, Brexit, and Trump’s election to bestir complacent European elites to recognize that the nationalist-populist trend could challenge the integrity of the West’s institutional arrangements and paralyze the European Union.

Finding common ground on anti-immigrant sentiment, Orbán successfully rallied the Central European countries in 2015 and revitalized the lackluster Visegrad group. The new Visegrad group was meant to demonstrate to the “old West” that the East European countries would no longer merely seek to emulate the West, that they would now “demand mutual respect.” The other three countries followed Orbán’s grievance-based agenda but were not able to demonstrate their value to the West, other than in terms of their markets. The new Visegrad also adopted a troublemaking style, mirroring Orbán’s temperament.

The Waning Idealism of 1989

Orbán is a talented political opportunist, to be sure, but his strength is as much a consequence of Europe’s exhausted politics as it is of anything he has done. Over his long political career, he has correctly noted how European politics has become cartelized, and has learned how to use radical and anti-liberal ideas to maneuver in this environment. Neither European institutions nor the European political elite have found an effective response to Orbán’s full-bore push. Indeed, the European status quo has nurtured Orbán’s takeover in Hungary and influence in the region. In the past three years, he has demonstrated an ability to ally with national populist forces across Europe and the United States.

There is no longer a shared, Europe-wide consensus on the ultimate political question—namely, of how we want to live together in the future. The question moving forward is whether the European Union will accept the idea that some of its member countries want to be governed by a different set of rules. It is an open question whether the European Union can continue to function, or even exist, if its members do not share the same principles limiting the exercise of power.

The nationalist-populist forces did not breakthrough in the latest European Parliamentary elections, as Orbán had hoped, so perhaps they have reached their limit in Europe. Still, Orbán’s obsession with demonstrating that only a strongman can govern successfully has not disappeared.

It is striking how silent Hungary has been this year, while much of Europe is celebrating the democratic revolutions of 1989. Beyond a short propaganda film and a few well-framed comments in Orbán’s notorious annual summer speech about how his generation had to fight to strengthen Hungarian identity, there were few commemorative activities organized by the government. In his yearly grand speech in Tusványfürdő, Orbán spoke instead about the struggles to which Hungarians must look forward in the future: protecting Hungary’s Christian identity against threats from liberal internationalists.

The world has fundamentally changed since 1989, and Europe is facing staggering problems. But the biggest threat Europeans face is the prospect of losing the freedoms they gained in 1989. If there is one way in which my generation failed, it is in our confidence that liberal democracy was a self-sustaining arrangement. Hungary is proof that in turbulent times, the hunger for a strongman, for nationalism, and for moralistic ideology over and above the rule of law can overwhelm liberal values. If these values are left unchallenged by both liberal and conservative European political elites, not only will Orbán extend his power in Hungary, but Europe will also become more fragmented and irreversibly weaker. Europe must not fall into this trap.

This article was first published in The American Interest.

Zsuzsanna Szelényi is a Hungarian politician and currently Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow.

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