His popularity has been reconfirmed by a third electoral victory. Viktor Orban won in 1998 and then in 2010. And now, Hungary’s prime minister has the people’s mandate to continue governing. His rhetoric struck a chord with supporters happy with how he and his Fidesz party have managed things.
On campaign, he told them: “Working together with you we have transformed Hungary. From an old banger with a flat tyre we have built a reliable, fast, bold race car.”
Both at home and abroad, critics called him autocratic, even populist, but the majority either disagreed or it was fine with them. Orban’s entry into politics coincided with the disintegration of communist regimes in eastern Europe.
In 1993, he was a staunch anti-communist, modern centrist then, but took a turn to the right when he re-anchored the Fidesz party, an alliance of young democrats he had founded five years earlier, in union with the middle class conservative Hungarian civic alliance.
In 1998, at their head, he became Europe’s youngest prime minister, at age 35. He had some good results but in 2002 the socialists won by a narrow margin.
He spent eight years in opposition. Eventually, the left coalition’s track record became a disaster and he was re-elected. Since then, enjoying a majority in parliament that brooked no argument, he has seized and held the initiative.
He slashed energy prices, and railed against globalisation and the power of the banks. In a country where four million people lived below the poverty line, he won political points with that.
But the poor bothered him, and Fidesz created a law, and with it some controversy, to keep homeless people out of some areas, out of sight. Another law followed, increasing government control of the news media to what critics called unacceptable levels. In spite of lively protests, journalist sackings showed the dissuasive resolve to silence dissent.
The constitution was modified in 2012, stoking further controversy with Hungary’s EU partners. This included the reduction of supposedly EU-guaranteed basic freedoms and centralisation of power, even laying down references to god.
In Brussels, Orban spoke in favour of European integration, in Budapest, he spoke out against it. Burnishing his image as a nation-builder, he struck a pose as defender of the people. It has worked so far.