Viktor Orbán is a perfect populist who exploits the chameleon nature of populism like no other, from radical liberalism to his new ‘illiberal state’.
Worryingly his bravado is becoming a source of inspiration for many other European politicians. But what is he after?
There are not so many European politicians who have gone through such an ideological serpentine as Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party did in the last 25 years.
Orbán started his career as a radical liberal at the time of the transition, to become a socially conservative centre-right PM between 1998 and 2002.
After losing power in 2002, he started to advocate for statist-populist positions, and is now shifting toward autoritarianism after his return to the premiership in 2010.
In sum, Orbán is a perfect populist politician who exploits the chameleonic nature of populism as described by Paul Taggart, with an ability to adapt to changing social and political circumstances and to new popular demands very quickly.
In his latest speech at Baile Tusnád, Orbán invoked a concept often used by eastern European populists to challenge democratic instutions: the myth of the stolen transition, according to which only a handful of people benefited from the transition while the majority is worse off.
Orbán has been successfully exploiting the discontent with the shift to democracy and capitalism for a long time. According to a 2009 poll by the Pew Research Center, while discontent about the transition has been growing in the last 20 years almost everywhere in the region,
Hungary clearly leads the list, with 72 percent of Hungarians believing that life was better under communism. This disillusionment can partially explain why Orbán, the unquestionably important liberal player of the transition, famous for his harsh anti-Soviet rhetoric, became an advocate of illiberalism and Russian interests.
Fuelling discontent with the transition process is a game everybody liked to play in the post-1989 Hungarian elite.
The exploitation of negative feelings toward democracy and capitalism was used by Orbán to achieve his political aims. He now wants to change dominant views in the Hungarian public opinion to achieve his long-term goals.
Orbán is turning Hungary against the EU – an institution that is still quite popular in Hungarian public opinion – and wants to orient a country that has wanted to belong to the west eastwards.
There is a widespread assumption that Orbán’s national, illiberal, radical shift in recent years is only the consequence of an electoral strategy to win the hearts of radical right voters for Jobbik. But this temptingly simple explanation is false for at least three reasons.
First, Orbán himself did a lot to radicalize a part of the electorate. Second, Orbán knows he benefits from the political presence of Jobbik, and he does not seem to be willing to rid himself of that party.
Orbán knows he needs Jobbik as a scout to explore new solutions and push the terms of the political debate to increase his own room for manoeuvre – in foreign policy, for example, Jobbik was the first proponent of the ‘Eastern Opening’.
Third, Orbán’s ideology and politics are intertwined in serving his long-term strategic goal of establishing a consolidated system – they are not just reactive steps to counter Jobbik’s rise. Orban does not need a radical nationalist ideology to challenge Jobbik, but rather to justify the illiberal system he is slowly creating.
Orbán exerts fascination on international commentators because he is an Anakin Skywalker-like figure who walked from the light side (democratic, liberal, anti-communist) to the dark side (illiberal and pro-Russian). But this response suggests that Orbán’s story is unique, which is unfortunately not true.
Orbán is not the only opportunist populist politician who lost his enthusiasm for western-type democracies. The newly elected Turkish president, Erdogan for example – who began his career as a religious hardliner – surprised many at the beginning of his political career with his moderate, reformist line of governance.
Erdogan established good relations with the US, the EU, and even Israel, and made steps to calm relations with Greece. But he gradually shifted away from this political line and became a populist, nationalist conservative leader, turning against western values and allies, who now wants Turkey to walk its own way instead of belonging to a western alliance.
It is symbolic that Erdogan, formerly a good ally of Israel, has just returned the award he received from the Jewish World Congress a decade ago.
This should be a wake-up call for the west: the political attractiveness of the western model is eroding, and populist politicians who have made many efforts to gain the support of the west one or two decades ago are now abandoning the western path. Orbán has openly talked about the “sunset of the west” several times, including in his last infamous Tusnádfürdő speech:
“Societies founded upon the principle of the liberal way to organize a state will not be able to sustain their world-competitiveness in the next years, and more likely they will suffer a setback, unless they are able to substantially reform themselves”.
Orbán’s story is not only a Hungarian story. For Orbán, ideology was always just an instrument, a justification for crude political and material interests, to cement himself into power and build up a ‘national bourgeoise’.
The myth of the stolen transition is alive and well everywhere in the region. Beforehand, it was the asset of the radical right, but it is becoming more and more mainstream. Populist politicians in Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Poland already use it to challenge some democratic fundamentals.
And they’ll be relying on it even more in the future if they see that Orbán’s experiment is politically successful. Robert Fico, the incumbent PM in Slovakia and Jaroslaw Kaczinsky, the ex-, and possible next PM in Poland, regard Orbán as a role model, and can easily adapt some of his policies (for example, his regular attacks against the private economy).
In Romania, Victor Ponta, at the beginning of his premiership, also seemed to rely on these Hungarian experiments. Hungary’s story could thus easily become eastern Europe’s story.
The post-communist democracies are still young and fragile, and they will be further tested in the years to come by politicians who see no negative consequences in weakening democratic institutions and going against key European values.
To challenge this trend, the EU should take its political role as a supranational entity seriously and impact not only on the behaviour of wannabe member states, but on those of member states as well.
While the EU has strict political criteria for accession (stable institutions responsible for democracy, rule of law, human rights and the protection of minorities), it does not systemically examine the implementation of the Copenhagen
Criteria among its own fully fledged member states. A regular monitoring and enforcing mechanism is needed here as well.
But more fundamentally, the EU needs leaders who have the courage to confront national politicians that seem to have abandoned its key values. The Tusnádfürdő speech, a programmatic attack against the key values of the EU, didn’t generate any appreciable response from a single leading European politician.
The ongoing leadership change in the EU is of course an explanation, but it is definitely no excuse.