1. Homo Orbánicus
BSSB.BE nybooks.com 27.03.018
Balkans Danube Ex-USSR
*Visitors to Budapest may have read somewhere that Hungary has the first autocratic regime in the European Union.
The capital on the Danube does not feel like that:
- the atmosphere is relaxed, not repressive; no paramilitaries are marching;
- if anything, one might come across a small demonstration against the government, politely escorted by police.
The ruling “ism” would appear to be not authoritarianism but hedonism:
- from the beautifully restored thermal baths to the beer gardens in the old Jewish quarter, affluent natives and an ever-growing number of tourists just seem to be enjoying themselves.
There is no personality cult around Hungary’s leader, Viktor Orbán, who has been prime minister since 2010. Orbán has understood that authoritarian populism must never evoke images familiar from twentieth-century dictatorships: no violence in the streets, no knocks on doors by the secret police late at night, no forcing citizens to profess political loyalty in public.
Instead, power is secured through wide-ranging control of the judiciary and the media; behind much talk of protecting hard-pressed families from multinational corporations, there is crony capitalism, in which one has to be on the right side politically to get ahead economically.
Like all populists, Orbán has no difficulty in presenting himself as an underdog fighting “the elites”—preferably “shadowy” ones that threaten the nation with their “globalist” networks. This past fall, the government waged a vicious campaign against the Hungarian-American hedge fund manager and philanthropist George Soros, alleging that his “empire” is bent on striking a “final blow to Christian culture.”
It is worth remembering that Orbán was the first major European politician to endorse Trump (whose victory he celebrated as a “return to reality” in the face of political correctness and liberal hypocrisies). Hungary is of course not the US, but the country shows clearly how populists with enough power operate when in government.
Paul Lendvai, a Hungarian-Austrian journalist who spent several decades reporting on Central Europe for the Financial Times, has written a highly illuminating biography of Orbán, whom he calls “the ablest and most controversial politician in modern Hungarian history.”
Orbán: Hungary’s Strongman also serves as a useful overview of Hungarian history since the fall of communism—after all, Orbán has been central to the country’s development since at least the late-1990s, when he was first elected prime minister. Lendvai portrays him as ruthless, absolutely relentless in the pursuit of power, and, on many occasions, outright vengeful.
Orbán has long cultivated the image of a man born to fight: his passions are for soccer and spaghetti Westerns. The avenger played by Charles Bronson in Once Upon a Time in the West is a particular favorite; he claims to have seen the movie at least fifteen times.
- He likes to brandish his “plebeian” origins and values: his family lived without running water; the children had to labor in the fields during school holidays.
- This picture leaves out the fact that Orbán’s father was the typical Homo Kádáricus, the product of “goulash communism” under János Kádár, who led the country from 1956 to 1988. Kádár had struck a tacit deal with Hungarian society: politics should be left to him, and in return people would not have to pretend to believe in communism; instead, they could find happiness in family life and even run small businesses.
- Back then, Western accounts of the country invariably contained the cliché of the “happiest barracks in the Eastern Bloc.” Part of an upwardly mobile rural middle class that both despised and served socialism, Orbán’s father became the head of the machinery department in a local farm collective.
- Orbán was a good student, and in the mid-1980s he joined the István Bibó College in the Buda hills, a kind of intellectual fraternity house for law students from the countryside. The college had been set up by the socialist regime, but some of the tutors teaching there were dissident intellectuals. Soros supported it financially.
In 1988, Orbán and other students set up the Alliance of Young Democrats (Fidesz). They took the word “young” literally: no one above the age of thirty-five was allowed to join. Their program was liberal, anticlerical, and suspicious of nationalism. Eventually, the Fidesz founders were to abandon these ideals for their exact opposites. But they never abandoned one another. Today the country’s president, the speaker of parliament, and the author of Hungary’s 2012 constitution all happen to be Orbán’s friends from university days.
Lendvai emphasizes the particular characteristics of this political brotherhood. They shared relatively humble origins in the countryside and grew resentful of the urbane intellectuals who tutored them. Some of these older liberals had formed a successful party, the Free Democrats, after the Kádár regime and, in the eyes of Orbán and friends, patronized the young firebrands as a not yet fully educated youth branch of their party.
Whether the country boys split from the older liberals because they had a chip on their shoulder is debatable—after all, this story is just another version of the populist notion that the country is forever divided between “the real, rural Hungary” and the cosmopolitan (sometimes called “foreign-hearted”—i.e., Jewish) Budapest liberals.
What is beyond dispute is that Orbán discovered that resentment could be turned to political advantage. As he put it in an interview, “By origin I am not a sensitive intellectual…there is in me perhaps a roughness brought up from below. That is no disadvantage as we know that the majority of people come from below.”
- Orbán took up a Soros-sponsored scholarship to go to Oxford, where he set out to research the idea of civil society in the history of European political thought. But he cut his stay short to enter the fight for the leadership of Fidesz.
- He managed to purge all his opponents and radically altered the party’s program after Hungary’s major center-right party, which had formed the first government after the fall of communism, dramatically lost support.
- Orbán, nominally a Protestant, suddenly discovered religion and sought an alliance with the churches. He explained that he could not “talk to the people” if he did not understand the churches’ “important part in Hungarian life.” His party’s image utterly changed: the former long-haired student leaders began to advocate the ideal of the polgári, a civic-minded, patriotic bourgeois akin to the German Bürger, with a strong work ethic and a commitment to traditional family values. Evidently, that vision appealed to voters: in 1998, Orbán, at the age of thirty-five, became Europe’s youngest prime minister.
Hungary was then still seen as a leader in the process of “transition” from state socialism to a market economy and also as a model pupil of the European Union, which the country joined in 2004. It was the shock of Orbán’s political life when he unexpectedly lost the 2002 elections to a technocrat who had been nominated by the Hungarian Socialist Party, the successor party to the Communists.
Initially Fidesz alleged election fraud. Orbán exclaimed that the nation simply could not be in opposition (thereby, like all populists, claiming that he and only he represented the people). The surprise was even greater as his government had showered welfare benefits on the electorate before election day—a practice that the new left-wing government would continue. It put Hungary on an unsustainable financial trajectory that nearly led to bankruptcy in 2008.
- The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at: com
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