How did bright-eyed young liberals become populist reactionaries? A former lawmaker explains the transformation of Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party.
I still remember the date – March 31, 1988. That was the day I read in the paper that police had cautioned five young people for organising an anti-government movement. Hungary was a listless and overripe communist state at the time and such news was rare. As a third-year psychology undergraduate whose parents had taken part in Hungary’s 1956 anti-communist uprising, I was intrigued. Days later, I joined the Federation of Young Democrats, Fidesz, newly founded by three dozen college students including Viktor Orban, a courageous young man among those cautioned by the police. This smart, ambitious and energetic group become the face of a generation of activists *who were more fearless – and more radical – than any other political circle at the time. We called ourselves “the children of divorced parents” – a metaphor for the political divisions between rural and urban intellectual circles that we idealistically hoped to heal.
Within a year, the communist system had collapsed.
By the time of Hungary’s first free elections in April 1990, Fidesz had evolved from a protest movement into a political party, winning 22 seats in parliament. I was among the crop of fresh-faced new lawmakers, aged just 23. That is how we entered adulthood in those tumultuous times. As lawmakers, we railed with wit and irreverence at anything we deemed anti-democratic or illiberal. We yearned to develop a culture of democracy the likes of which Hungarians had never seen. Thirty years later, those dreams lie in tatters.Our political identity may have been forged fighting the one-party communist state, but it was my generation of Fidesz politicians who went on to create a hegemonic party-state that today controls 70 per cent of the media and rides roughshod over judicial independence. How did my former peers, champions of liberal democracy in 1989, morph into founders of a radical nationalist-populist regime in the bosom of the European Union?
If 1989 restored democratic sovereignty, political rights and constitutionalism to Hungary, the years that followed brought bewilderment. While rapid, large-scale privatisation ensured macroeconomic stability, rising inequality fed political resentment. 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. The party finance law enabled parties to run murky businesses. There was no law on lustration to keep former secret service informants out of the corridors of power. A miasma of mistrust in politics contributed to the quick loss of legitimacy of democratic governments. Many problems facing Hungary today are rooted in the challenges and mistakes of those early years.
Fidesz at this time had a strong liberal voice, calling for the rule of law and transparency. But as we quickly learned, the party was not immune to power struggles, backroom deals and compromises. Elected party chairman in 1993, Orban wasted no time in taking control of Fidesz’s resources and establishing himself as unchallenged leader. He was adept at pressuring members to fall into line, building a circle of loyal cronies and followers who responded to his missionary zeal. By 1993, the party suffered deep internal divisions. The final rupture occurred when we learned that Orban and the party’s treasurer had used party funds to reap profits from a luxury car rental company, with money channelled through a crony’s enterprises.
In 1994, the liberal wing of Fidesz left the party. I was among the five MPs and several hundred members who defected. I felt that my personal integrity and political beliefs would be continually challenged if I stayed in the party of Viktor Orban. The following year, Fidesz formalised Orban’s complete authority and the party made a sharp political turn to the right. Policy was now driven by pure opportunism – like the way Fidesz leaders suddenly started participating in Catholic masses, to court religious voters.
After the split, Fidesz suffered a major defeat in 1994. But it won elections in 1998, making Orban prime minister at the age of 35. Rebranded as a right-wing conservative party, Fidesz was no longer interested in constitutional checks and balances. This new Fidesz was no longer a “child of divorced parents” keen to heal Hungary’s historic divisions. Rather, it was hell-bent on strengthening bipolar politics. Nevertheless, it was successful in government. EU membership was an overarching ambition for the entire political elite, and the prospect of joining the bloc helped to plaster over ideological differences and distract from Hungary’s social problems. The future seemed bright.
Still, there were worrying signs of Orban’s intentions to strengthen executive power at the expense of other branches of government. Fidesz cut the length of parliamentary sessions, degrading parliamentary oversight and debate even as the party tightened its grip on state media.
Another problem was corruption. I remember talking to a Fidesz lawmaker, a former colleague, who blithely explained that party members were entitled to take their share from the public pot. It was disheartening to see how crafty Fidesz was in perfecting well-worn corrupt practices, like favouring cronies with public procurements. Such crookedness laid the groundwork for greater wrongdoing after EU funds started to flow following Hungary’s accession to the bloc in 2004.
Polarisation and nationalism
The party was not yet unstoppable. Despite all predictions, Fidesz narrowly lost elections in 2002 and 2006. But Orban remained on the offensive. “We can’t be in opposition as the nation cannot be in opposition,” Orban declared in a speech in 2002 that laid bare the nationalistic, hegemonic aspirations that became the hallmarks of his politics. Smarting from election defeat in 2006, Orban led his party to the streets as an anti-establishment movement. When the Socialist-led government leaked a recording in which Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány is heard admitting his party had lied to voters, Fidesz tirelessly mobilised demonstrations.
Frequently boycotting parliamentary sessions and acting more like a protest movement than a political party, Fidesz lowered the bar yet further in reneging on its commitment to parliamentary democracy.
‘Win once but win big!’
Since 1989, Hungary had been a faithful disciple of the European project in its bid to catch up with the West. But the land of plenty failed to arrive quickly, and aspirations to join the liberal European club started to wane in the first decade of the new century. The 2008 financial crisis hit Hungary hard, causing distress and resentment. Scandals in the Socialist government added to the anger. All of which helped propel Orban to a landslide victory at the ballot box in 2010. With 44 per cent of the popular vote, Fidesz now had a parliamentary supermajority of more than two-thirds of seats. Such a supermajority had not been seen anywhere in Europe since World War II, and it made Orban the European Union’s first nationalist-populist prime minister with solid political experience. The victory gave Orban the legitimacy and power to reconstruct the country. Many hoped he would exercise his extraordinary clout as a kind of enlightened absolute ruler, to implement necessary reforms and further integrate Hungary into the European Union.
They hoped in vain.
Fidesz claimed that the past 20 years of political transition since the fall of communism were merely a troubled prelude to the real regime change now beginning in 2010. “We need to win only once, but need to win big,” Orban said in private conversation during the 2010 election campaign. What he meant was that if he ever gained power, he would use it to fortify his position indefinitely. Fidesz quickly set about changing the constitution, strengthening executive power and weakening institutions designed to provide checks and balances. Orban nominated loyal cronies to the Constitutional Court as well as to the office of the president, the head of the judiciary, the central bank, the prosecution general and the Media Supervisory Authority – all sharing Orban’s zealotry to change the state.
Fidesz overhauled the media law, ensuring the omnipresence of the ruling party in public media. And it changed the election law to guarantee a supermajority for Fidesz in subsequent elections. The Fundamental Law, the country’s new constitution, has been amended seven times since it was first adopted in 2011, with each change warping the legal system to the needs of the governing party. Through legislation designed to favour some and penalise others, Fidesz nurtured a loyal oligarchic business circle and successfully marginalised entrepreneurs who were out of sync with party interests. Orban’s cronies since have amassed spectacular wealth. One of the world’s richest people is Lorinc Meszaros, Orban’s neighbour in his hometown of Felcsut, who derived 93 per cent of his business income in 2018 from EU funds. Istvan Tiborcz, Orban’s 32-year-old son-in-law, is one of the richest people in Hungary.
Why don’t Hungarians revolt?
People often ask me why Hungarians do not revolt against such rampant patronage politics and concentration of power. First there is the sheer scale of the distortion to Hungary’s constitutional and electoral systems, which explains why the party could win a supermajority with only 44 per cent of the vote. Then there is the distracted and fragmented opposition, composed of half a dozen parties that have shown little ability to cooperate.
But other factors run deeper. Orban’s nationalism resonates with Hungarians who are still mindful of the national tragedy of the Treaty of Trianon, which stripped Hungary of 67 percent of its territory and 58 percent of its population at the end of World War I. Trianon not only smashed the physical entity of Hungary but wounded the identity and dignity of Hungarians. Between the two world wars, the shock of Trianon led to extreme political centralisation. During World War II, it helped fuel antisemitism and led to a series of catastrophic political decisions. During the communist era, Trianon was a taboo topic. After 1989, hopes of finally processing what had happened to the country never amounted to much, partly because Socialist-led governments failed to nurture a healthy sense of national identity.
So when Orban says he is reclaiming Hungary’s sovereignty today, he is playing on Hungarians’ historic grievances. He presents himself as heir of a proud, expansive, historic Hungary and promises that by seizing back sovereignty he can protect Hungarians from future physical, existential or cultural threats. That is how Orban’s ethnic nationalism is closely linked to his uncompromising anti-migrant and anti-EU rhetoric. Another issue is that Hungary’s economy is deeply intertwined with Europe. The stability of the eurozone and transfers from the European Union, which account for more than six per cent of Hungary’s gross domestic product, have helped the country achieve three to four percent growth over recent years. Such growth has allowed Fidesz to not only increase wages but cut public utility fees and introduce social packages to benefit families, including tax breaks and housing allowances.
In this way, fearmongering, radical nationalism and paternalistic social policies have all helped the government maintain public support. In fact, the idea of an omnipotent, protective state is so important to Orbanism that it openly confronts even the principle of rule of law. “A hundred-and-fifty years ago, the question was whether the Hungarian state wanted to guarantee the independence of judges,” Laszla Kover, Speaker of Parliament and Orban’s closest ally, said in a recent speech. “In the future, the question is whether Hungarian judges want to guarantee the independence of the state.”
Last year, the Bertelsmann Transformation Index identified serious problems in Hungary in terms of separation of powers, independent judiciary, prosecution of abuse of office, free and fair elections, association and assembly rights, media freedom, market-based competition, the banking system and property rights — to mention just some of the issues.
Orbanism as counter-revolution
According to Orban, the 2008 financial crisis proved that the Western-led liberal world was no longer able to protect people from economic harm while the 2015 migration crisis demonstrated that Europe cannot protect Christian cultural identity. Instead of liberal democracy, he started to build a society that openly eschews Western democratic principles and operates as a proud community of the nation led by a strong leader.
Orban’s blame games and nationalism have been highly effective political tools to build a strong camp of believers. Populists elsewhere have taken note. Despite the emergence of anti-establishment parties in Europe since the late 1990s, it was only the 2015 migration crisis, Brexit and Donald Trump’s election as US president that have made the European political elite clock the sweeping trends that threaten the EU with paralysis or even disintegration. The inequality resulting from globalisation played a significant role in weakening liberal democracy because it eroded the social status of the middle class. A citizenry that has lost self-confidence is not a strong base for democracy but an easy target for a culture war.The nationalist-populist culture war sets its sights on the basic structures of European democracy, the rule of law and human rights. Hungarian democracy is the first in Europe to be deeply harmed.
Orban, a talented political entrepreneur, has always cooked with whatever ingredients he finds lying around. In this sense, he is as much a symptom of exhausted European politics as he is a trendsetter. Over recent decades, Europe’s complacent political class and institutions, including the EU’s political party groups, have lost their capacity to perceive the real threats to Europe’s unity.
Only by recognising the dangers can the champions of democracy innovate policy, reconsider alliances and equip the European Union with the tools necessary to navigate safely through the waters of our post-globalist era.
Zsuzsanna Szelenyi has been a liberal Member of Parliament in Hungary until May 2018. She covered foreign and security policy, European politics, migration, constitutional affairs and gender issues. She is a member of the Mercator European Dialogue and the OSEPI- Carnegie European Reformists program, both projects work on the future of the European Union. Before rejoining politics in Hungary in 2012, Zsuzsanna spent most of her career at the international arena. For fourteen years she served at the Council of Europe advising governments and NGOs on conflict management, human rights and human development issues. Between 2010-2013 she worked as human development consultant for international organizations in various Central European and North African countries. She holds various decision-making functions in several Hungarian and European non-governmental organizations. Zsuzsanna started her career as a founding member of Fidesz, a youth party leading the régime change in Hungary in 1988. She became a Member of Parliament of the first freely elected Parliament, where she was dealing with international and migration affairs. She left politics in 1994 and had a professional career at the Council of Europe. In 2012 she returned to the Hungarian politics for the call of former Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai, who formed a new party, Together. Zsuzsanna completed studies at the Global Masters of Arts Program (GMAP) within the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Boston (USA) in International Politics and Economics. She holds an MA in Psychology of the Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, (Hungary), and an MA in International Relations of the Corvinus University, Budapest (Hungary).