Viktor Orbán, Hungary, Helsinki
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Photo credit: European People's Party / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

When former President Donald Trump called Vladimir Putin a “genius” for invading Ukraine, it was embarrassing to many conservatives. But no more so than Viktor Orbán’s 12-year bromance with Putin, which culminated in a visit to Moscow two weeks before the invasion.  Orbán’s Putinism, like Trump’s, is now a potential liability. 

American conservatives have been paying close attention to Hungary’s prime minister — some of them endorsing him for reelection — as his government faces parliamentary elections on April 3. Their cheerleading for an Orbán victory says a lot about the future of the Republican Party as it looks ahead to Biden vs. Trump in 2024.

Orbán, who faces a unified opposition for the first time since coming to power 12 years ago, leads in the polls — but hardly anything else is going as planned.  

America’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) was scheduled to meet in Budapest the week before the election, with US senators supposed to attend (it is now postponed). Trump was invited as the guest of honor.  And — why not? — maybe Putin would join them.

Just as the war in Ukraine is splitting the GOP, it also threatens to divide Orbán’s party, nationalist and euroskeptic Fidesz.

When Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, Orbán was in the middle of an electoral campaign bashing “gay ideology” and pushing a national referendum outlawing “gender reassignment.” Trump had endorsed him for reelection in January. 

Putin’s war on Ukraine interrupted, temporarily, Orbán’s assault on LGBTQ people. His government has scheduled an election-day referendum that asks voters four leading questions, beginning with, “Do you support the unrestricted exposure of underage children to sexually explicit media content that may affect their development?” Orbán claims, of course, that this is what his political opposition wants.

“The question is so manipulative and biased,” said Luca Dudits of the Háttér Society, which supports LGBTQ rights, “that some people will buy into the narrative that it’s about protecting children.” 

Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orbán, 2015

Vladimir Putin with Orbán on a visit to Hungary in February 2015. Photo credit: President of Russia / Wikimedia (CC BY 4.0)

Hungary’s constitution already outlaws gay marriage as well as gay adoption. “In the beginning, they made Roma people a public enemy, then it was refugees and migrants, then the homeless, civil society organizations, and now the LGBTQ community,” Dudits told WhoWhatWhy.

The referendum is a political tactic like Russia’s 2013 law banning “gay propaganda.” In 2020, Putin ran antigay political ads while engineering a constitutional amendment that will keep him in power until 2036. Orbán’s speeches, Dudits said, “repeat almost verbatim what Vladimir Putin says in Russia” about LGBTQ people. 

Now, the real war nextdoor has overshadowed Orbán’s decade-long culture wars. A half million Ukrainians, overwhelmingly women and children, have crossed the border seeking refuge from Putin’s war in a country with painful memories of the 1956 anti-Soviet Revolution. Just as the war in Ukraine is splitting the GOP, it also threatens to divide Orbán’s party, nationalist and euroskeptic Fidesz.

The leader of the opposition, Péter Márki-Zay, describes himself as “a conservative Christian father of seven.” A mayor from a midsize town who has never held national office, he represents United Hungary — a coalition of six political parties including Greens, Socialists, and Jobbik, a far-right party trying to shift to the mainstream. Uniting all opposition parties behind a single candidate for prime minister is a strategy that worked in Israel to bring down Orbán’s former ally, Benjamin Netanyahu. 

Orbán’s close relationship to Putin has become the central campaign issue for Márki-Zay along with fighting corruption and restoring constitutional democracy. At every opportunity, he drives home the point that the real threat to Hungary’s sovereignty is in Moscow, not Brussels.  

“We have to keep Hungary belonging to the West,” he said. “And a traitor is not acceptable as prime minister of Hungary.”

Almost overnight, Orbán shifted focus to head off the potential backlash. He will not turn on Putin. But the culture warrior has reinvented himself as a peacekeeper. He describes Hungary as ”neutral,” even though it is a member of the EU and NATO. “Hungary,” he said, “is on Hungary’s side.” 

Before the invasion he was ‘protecting’ children from LGBTQ propaganda. Now, he is also protecting Hungarians from a “cruel … and bloody war” while claiming, falsely, that the opposition “wants to send Hungarian troops to the frontline.”

Furthermore, he will keep energy cheap, he promises, by vetoing EU energy sanctions against Russia. 

“Orbán’s campaign is based on a big lie,” Zsuzsanna Szelényi, a former member of Hungarian Parliament, said. “And that lie is that we can remain neutral while being a member of the EU and NATO.”

Hungary so far has refused to allow weapons to be sent into Ukraine through its territory.  

“Decide who you are with,” said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to Orbán during an address to EU leaders.

Stacking the Deck

Hungary’s national electoral map has been gerrymandered in favor of Orbán’s political party, Fidesz (somewhat in the manner of US House districts in North Carolina). As a result, in the national elections of 2014 and 2018, Fidesz gained a two-thirds majority of seats in parliament with only 45 and 49 percent of the vote. The courts — including the Constitutional Court — are packed with Orbán judges.

Fidesz is in complete control of Hungary’s public media. In 2018, nearly 500 private media outlets were consolidated under the ownership of a single foundation, KESMA (also known as the Central European Press and Media Foundation (CEPMF). The move, according to the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom “represents a huge and unprecedented concentration of media in the hands of oligarchs who are friendly to the ruling party.” 

Márki-Zay acknowledges the odds against him, but still has hope: “It is a sign of Hungarians’ wonderful resilience that even after 12 years of Orbán’s brainwashing attempts and the propaganda machines’ extremely powerful operation, there’s still a standing chance that we can defeat Orbán.”

There is no question of Orbán debating Márki-Zay, least of all on public TV. However, on the morning of March 16, for the first time during his campaign, Márki-Zay was allowed to appear on state news channel M1 — for exactly five minutes. 

On April 3, “in order to overcome the distortions of the electoral system (e.g. gerrymandered constituencies), the opposition has to win big time, by 4-5 percentage points at least to be sure of defeating Fidesz,” wrote Péter Krekó, director of the think tank Political Capital in Budapest.  

The steep decline of democracy in Hungary began when Orbán gained power democratically in 2010, with his party winning a majority of votes (53 percent) for the first and last time. Because of a fateful twist in Hungary’s electoral rules, that translated into a two-thirds supermajority in parliament. Under Hungary’s constitution, a parliamentary supermajority can amend it. Orbán converted Hungary’s parliament into a kind of high-speed law factory to entrench his party and his illiberal Christian identity politics.

“The new system was designed precisely to give Orbán a vastly disproportionate two-thirds parliamentary majority with less than a majority vote. And it worked,” wrote Princeton legal scholar Kim Lane Scheppele. 

Their year-long investigation, based on interviews with a thousand poll workers, concluded that “Orbán secured his one-seat supermajority thanks to a combination of outright fraud, gerrymandering, and by engineering the electoral system.”

By 2018, the NGO Freedom House concluded that Hungary had declined from a democracy to a “hybrid” regime. “The Fidesz government of Viktor Orbán led the way for illiberal forces in Central Europe, showing that it was possible to capture a state within the EU.” 

Some of Orbán’s EU partners are losing patience with the EU’s “first autocrat.” Alarmed at the prospect of the EU’s first “rigged” elections, they have supported sending a full-scale election observation mission to Hungary.  

However, it could be argued that 2022 will be the EU’s second rigged election — the first being Hungary’s 2018 election. A group of Hungarians founded Unhack Democracy in its wake, gathering evidence that “points to wide-scale fraud in the April 2018 election.” 

Their year-long investigation, based on interviews with a thousand poll workers, concluded that “Orbán secured his one-seat supermajority thanks to a combination of outright fraud, gerrymandering, and by engineering the electoral system.”

Authoritarian Kleptocracy

To a considerable extent, Hungary’s descent into semi-autocracy has been funded by EU taxpayers. Hungary receives subsidies from the EU that can add up to as much as 6 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in a given year. Fidesz controls billions of euros in EU aid and uses it to reward political allies. 

The oligarchy on the receiving end of EU funds includes Orbán’s family and friends. The poster boy of Hungarian corruption is Lőrinc Mészáros, a frontman for Orbán. A pipe fitter from Orbán’s home village Felcsút (pop. 1800), Mészáros is now Hungary’s wealthiest man. His assets grew faster in 10 years than Facebook’s. “It is possible that I was smarter than Zuckerberg, don’t you think?” was his explanation

Mészáros is also a media mogul. All 14 of the regional newspapers owned by Mészáros ran the same front-page interview with Orbán on the day before Hungary’s last general election in 2018.

Fidesz is heavily engaged in transferring public assets to Fidesz-controlled “public service trusts.” An investigation by the transparency website Átlátszó reveals that billions of euros worth of public assets have been transferred from the state to public trust foundations led by people loyal to Orbán. 

Last year, Orbán transferred $1.7 billion of Hungarian taxpayers’ money to a privately-run foundation that manages Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC), a residential college created to educate a conservative elite. MCC now controls more money than the annual budget of Hungary’s system of higher education.

Lőrinc Mészáros, Hungary, wealthiest man

Lőrinc Mészáros, Hungary’s wealthiest man. Photo credit: 444.hu

America’s Orbánistas

Trump’s endorsement of Orbán came as no surprise. Already in 2019, when Trump met Orbán on his first visit to the White House, there was instant affinity. “It felt like we were twins,” Trump said. As Steve Bannon put it, Orbán was “Trump before there was a Trump.”

“During his first term, Trump treated the presidency as his own personal property — something that was his to use to punish enemies, reward loyalists and enhance his family’s wealth,” wrote political scientists Alexander Cooley and Daniel H. Nexon in Foreign Affairs, shortly after Trump endorsed Orbán. “If he wins in 2024, we’re likely to see this on steroids.”

Tucker Carlson and other right-wing Americans are not overlooking Orbán’s authoritarian methods of political control. They are flocking to Budapest to study them. 

Tucker Carlson, the most powerful figure in right-wing media, dedicated a January episode of his show on Fox Nation to Orbán — “Hungary vs. Soros: The Fight for Civilization.” Last August, he broadcast his show from Budapest, telling listeners to pay attention to Hungary “if you care about Western civilization, and democracy, and family — and the ferocious assault on all three of those things by leaders of our global institutions.”  

In its first-ever international endorsement, the New York Young Republican Club claimed Orbán’s reelection would “help preserve Western Civilization.” 

Carlson and other right-wing Americans are not overlooking Orbán’s authoritarian methods of political control. They are flocking to Budapest to study them. 

“Family, history, tradition, language — these values are extremely important to millions of Hungarians, but … Orbán uses these values to cloak the true nature of his regime: the theft of public wealth, which has taken on astonishing proportions in recent years, and the preservation of power needed to keep on stealing.” 

Writing for The American Conservative, Rod Dreher called Tucker’s visit to Budapest a “teaching moment.” What American Conservatives can learn from Hungary’s strongman, he argues, is how to weaponize state power against liberals. “Which is the only power capable of standing up to Woke Capitalists, as well as these illiberal leftists in academia, media, sports, cultural institutions, and other places? The state. That’s it.”

Dreher, author of a bestseller that “calls on American Christians to prepare for the coming Dark Age by embracing an ancient Christian way of life,” is currently on an Orbán-funded fellowship in Budapest. 

Many Hungarians, from across the political spectrum, say America’s Orbánistas are being played. While Carlson praises Orbán for defending his people from Muslim migrants, George Soros, and Brussels’ technocrats, he has nothing to say about the strongman’s kleptocracy.

“When it comes to Orbán, you desperately want to believe that somewhere on this planet there exists a Christian conservative Disneyland,” wrote Balázs Gulyás in an open letter to Carlson. Gulyás is a self-described Hungarian conservative and a reporter for Magyar Hang, an independent newspaper printed across the border in Slovakia. 

“Family, history, tradition, language — these values are extremely important to millions of Hungarians, but … Orbán uses these values to cloak the true nature of his regime: the theft of public wealth, which has taken on astonishing proportions in recent years, and the preservation of power needed to keep on stealing.” 

Ross Douthat, in trying to explain what “swiftly led conservatives to tolerate corruption, whether in their long-distance Hungarian romance or their marriage to Donald Trump,” wrote, “[Orbán’s] interventions in Hungarian cultural life, the attacks on liberal academic centers and the spending on conservative ideological projects, are seen as examples of how political power might curb progressivism’s influence.” 

“Hungary is very fragmented and polarized,” said Zsuzsanna Szelényi. “This huge polarization is a kind of poison of democracy because there is a point where one side just doesn’t accept the victory of the other. And we are definitely at this point.”

Western liberal intellectuals see potential global repercussions in America’s far-right obsession with Orbán’s illiberal power grabbing. As Cooley and Nexon note with foreboding, “The U.S. is a large federation with a lot of capacity for private violence, a major international footprint and a multi trillion-dollar economy. Hungary is a minor player in a confederation dominated by democratic regimes.”

Political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously believed that an “end of history” would see liberal capitalist democracy triumph over other forms of government. He now thinks it is one of two alternatives. The end of history could also look like Orbán’s Hungary — a “highly corrupt, illiberal democracy” based on cronyism instead of free competition.

So alarmed is Fukuyama at that prospect, he joined a pro-democracy group last month — Action for Democracy — that sees Hungary as the “next battleground state in the global fight to defend democracy.”

“Hungary is very fragmented and polarized,” said Szelényi. “This huge polarization is a kind of poison of democracy because there is a point where one side just doesn’t accept the victory of the other. And we are definitely at this point. With an opposition victory, Fidesz as the ruling party would be held accountable for a lot of the things they have done in the last 12 years and they just don’t want to face this. I would be very surprised if the opposition wins and Fidesz accepts the result peacefully. It is scary.”

Paul Lendvai, Orbán’s biographer, says Hungary’s strongman has created a “Führer democracy” by centralizing power “at lightning speed.” It has reached the point where “he cannot be overthrown by peaceful means like elections.”  

Lendvai thinks Orbán, who is 58, could lead Hungary for 20 more years.


Author

  • Brent Gregston has worked in Paris for Radio France International as well as for UNESCO (World Radio Day) and on news programs for kids in developing countries (Kids News Network). He has written for the Sunday Telegraph, Salon, and WIRED.