The illiberal right
The rise of the illiberal right was one of the major political developments of the mid-2010s. Political events like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump were seen as key political developments, some even saw them as the beginning of a new era. As we all know now the upsurge of the illiberal right was checked in recent years, the 2019 EU Parliamentary elections and the recent US Presidential election showed that there is more than enough support for the left. Nonetheless, despite the recent successes of the left, there are still figures representing the illiberal right who have support and influence, and it would be foolish to write these figures off.
One such politician is Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary, in office since 2010, each time elected with a supermajority (2/3). The next Parliamentary elections of Hungary will be held in early 2022, learning from the disastrous elections of the 2010s Orban’s opposition decided to cooperate during the next election and they will run as a single political force next spring. The opposition-held primary elections in September-October 2021 and surprisingly for most analysts and voters alike, independent candidate Marki Zay Peter came out as the victor, he will be the challenger of Orban in 2022.
Orban is a highly polarising man among Hungarians and Europeans alike, my general impression of him judging by my circle of friends, and the general reaction of people whenever a piece of news involving Orban comes up in my feed is that he is either loved or hated by the majority, and neutral for a smaller group of people, these latter are generally apathetic towards politics and distrust Orban’s opposition as much as him.
His supporters see him as a defender of Christian values, the traditions of Europe and an opponent of unwanted immigration. Orban is also seen by many as a man of the people, he never made a secret his humble origins and still sometimes visits average folks from rural areas to show his supporters he had not forgotten them or his origins. His opponents see him as a corrupt, undemocratic anti-European proto dictator. His football obsession, his frequent criticism of the EU and his friendly relationship with the likes of Putin and Erdogan are just a few of the criticisms he received and continues to receive from his opposition.
Next year’s elections are already highly anticipated by both Orban and the opposition, both parties try to portray the other as incompetent, vilify their opponents and paint a gloomy picture for their supporters if the other one emerges as the victors in April. To be perfectly honest as a betting man, were it not for the outbreak of the current pandemic I would have put my money on Orban destroying the opposition for the 4th time in a row.
Thanks to the pandemic, the deaths it caused and most importantly the unwanted economic consequences the restrictions caused I believe the opposition is gifted a chance to take down Orban, however, as the title of my article suggests I have question marks whether it would be good outcome all things considered.
Orban’s popularity is a complex phenomenon, and while some like to paint his voters as uneducated, stupid and predominantly from rural areas, the picture is more complicated than that, whether the opposition’s politicians and supporters like to admit it or not. It would be foolish to deem the average voter from Budapest by the previous labels, yet the candidate of Orban’s party became the Mayor of Budapest 2 times in the last 3 municipal elections.
Historically Hungary and Hungarians have a tradition of following and supporting politicians who can be described as fatherly figures. In the last century and a half, Hungary had Emperor Franz Joseph, Governor Miklos Horthy and Communist leader Janos Kadar, these 3 figures were the leaders of Hungary for over 100 years, and their regimes were not universally unpopular either. Orban was Prime Minister of Hungary for 16 years already, if he wins in April it will be 20, and in my opinion, in 50-100 years his name will be added to the previously mentioned ones.
Another reason why Orban is so popular has little to do with Orban himself but is the legacy of the previous government and their incompetence. Orban lost both the 2002 and 2006 elections and some even questioned his future in politics after his 2006 loss. However, those who saw his fall were to be disappointed, due to the budgetary deficits of Hungary austerity measures that were implemented shortly after the 2006 elections. To make matters even worse leaked audio of Prime Minister Gurcsany came out, in the audio Gyurcany admitted to his party the fact that they made a mess of governing the country between 2002-06, and lied to the people to keep up the pretence that everything was alright.
The leaked audio, which was full of profanities, and the austerity measures led to popular discontent and protests, which in turn led to violent clashes between the police and the protesters, despite calls for his resignation Gyurcsany remained in office.
Although it is difficult to know whether Gyurcsany’s resignation could have solved much, by October Orban was on the ascendency and his party did very well in the 2006 local elections. Orban and his party remained in the ascendency in the next years and defeated the governing parties in a referendum in 2008, and the European Parliament elections in 2009. Finally, Fidesz achieved a supermajority in the Parliament thanks to their 2010 victory, a feat they repeated in 2014 and 2018.
Positives and negatives of Orban's downfall
Now that I touched on the main reasons why I believe Orban is in power I would like to look at the positive and negative effects his fall from power could cause.
If his downfall would bring an end to the increased polarisation of Hungarian society it would also be a welcomed outcome.
There are already some who fear that if the current trends grew we might get to the point when society will become so polarised that a civil war can erupt. I don’t believe this is a real possibility, not at the moment anyway, but it is a sad truth of our days that some politicians, Orban is one among them, inspire almost dogmatic loyalty in their voters, and their devotion to their leader might override common sense, and would easily override their devotion to the democratic institutions of the modern state.
Another positive thing would be the simple democratic experience this current generation could have by voting out Orban of office. If Orban wins another time he would have been in office for 16 years, more or less a whole generation would have grown up with him being in charge. Although there are examples of politicians in democratic countries holding office for over a decade, Angela Merkel for example, I believe Hungary needs this democratic experience more than Germany, a country whose citizens had a long history with democracy.
I never believed that democracy can be imported copy paste from other countries, and by simply copying laws a country will become democratic. Democracy for me is as much, if not more, dependent on the mentality of the people as on the laws. One key element of a democratic country is the fact the citizens of a state have the right and the opportunity to vote out of office politicians whom they believe is not good enough for another mandate, a similar concept is not present in an authoritarian state. I also believe that society needs time and experience to understand the real-life implications of political concepts, democracy is no different and despite 30 years of democracy in Eastern Europe, our countries are still trying to figure it out and adapt it to our realities.
However, despite the obvious positives that the downfall of Orban would, or could bring to both Hungary and the EU, some negatives need to be taken into consideration. As I previously mentioned Orban’s opposition decided to unite against their common enemy, however, one can only wonder how viable, or realistic is it that such a mixed coalition of political parties could govern Hungary in harmony if they succeed in defeating Orban in 2022.
The now united opposition is made up of all sorts of different political parties, with very different philosophies, the list is the following: ex far-right party Jobbik, the previous governing party MSZP( who with their incompetent governing between 2002-2010 caused Orban’s first 2/3 victory in 2010), Democratic Coalition(the party of ex MSZP Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany ), Momentum and LMP. It is pretty safe to say that the only thing that united these parties is their mutual opposition to Orban.
Seeing what a mixed force the opposition is one can only wonder whether they can work effectively together once they defeated Orban, or they would lead the country from one governmental crisis into another if the alliance breaks up under the strain of government.
Another important question mark about Orban’s opponents is their capability. Orban’s critics like to question his results and his methods, however, if there is one unquestionable thing is that Orban won elections with ease since 2010, most of these against his current opponents.
Another thing is that unlike the MSZP government of the 2000s he managed to retain his support among the population. One of his strongest critics and leading figures in today’s opposition Ferenc Gyurcsany defeated Orban in 2006, his predecessor Peter Medgyesi also defeated Orban in 2002.
At the time their party MSZP was more than a match to Orban’s FIDESZ, however, their incompetent economic policies led to huge budgetary deficits, which in turn led to some austerity measures after their victory in the 2006 elections, combined with their mismanagement of the protests in the autumn of 2006 and the economic crisis of 2008 put Orban in the driving seat to smash his opponents in the 2010 elections.
Though Orban and his government did some shady things, such as rewriting electoral law, it is still unquestionable that they retained a strong base. Even though they inherited a difficult economic situation, they were capable of handling it without destroying themselves like their predecessors. As much as I hate to hear Orban's propaganda deifying him this was still an impressive feat, one that his predecessors failed to do, and seeing that some of the old guards want their old positions back, knowing their track record, them deeming Orban an incompetent I simply cannot look past the absurdity of the situation.
Orban's opponents like to call him a demagogue, it is a frequent criticism he receives, however looking at the general communication of his opposition I honestly don’t see that much of a difference. Some of his opponents call him a dictator, call his regime illegal and call his methods of governing undemocratic.
Although there are elements which I found dislikable, to say the least, like the harassment of George Soros’s university and the welcoming of the Chinese Fudan university just to give one example, I personally still find it ridiculous to call Orban a dictator, or an autocrat. His critics call him out face to face in the Hungarian Parliament, on social media there are several high profile political analysts and journalists who frequently criticise or even mock Orban, and there were and still are political television shows that frequently criticise the FIDESZ government. And they do this freely, unlike in the previous eras of Hungarian history during real dictatorships when critics of the government often just disappeared without a trace.
Opposition politicians and voters like to ridicule Orban’s anti-Soros rhetoric as dumbed-down conspiracy theories, yet they frequently call out Orban as a dictator or an autocrat, one whose horrible rule will come to an end with the next election. Although I am not an expert in the history of autocratic regimes, I still don’t remember many autocrats who were overthrown by democratic elections.
All in all, I most certainly don’t consider myself a supporter of Viktor Orban, however, there is a certain element of naivety in the people who believe that Orban and his regime is the worst thing that can happen to Hungary. My advice to them is to look carefully at who you want to change Orban for, and ask yourself, will they be any better?
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2022 Andrew Szekler