Hungary election: Who is Viktor Orban and how has he stayed in power for so long?

Access to the comments Comments
By David Hutt
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban gestures after delivering his annual state of the nation speech, 12 February, 2022. Slogan reads "Let's go forwards, not backwards!"
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban gestures after delivering his annual state of the nation speech, 12 February, 2022. Slogan reads "Let's go forwards, not backwards!"   -   Copyright  Credit: Reuters

To his supporters, Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban represents true European values: Christianity; the predominance of the nation-state; government for the masses, not the elites.

To his critics, he’s an opportunistic populist who cares only about his own power and has made Hungary a pariah within Europe.

In this Sunday's (3 April) election, Orban, who's been in office since 2010, faces his biggest challenge yet to stay in power.

Who is Viktor Orban and how did he come to power?

In March 1988, Orban was anything but a right-wing autocrat. He and his fellow students at Bibo College near Budapest — many of whom would be rewarded with top jobs in his governments — formed the Alliance of Young Democrats, or Fidesz, an ostensibly liberal-orientated movement.

His first taste of fame came the following year when he gave a rousing speech in Heroes’ Square in Budapest, just as the country’s communist regime was collapsing.

At Hungary’s first free election, in April 1990, Orbán’s youthful party won 22 out of 386 seats in parliament.

Analysts tend to divide Orbán’s political metamorphosis across three stages.

Since the early 1990s, “he transformed from a liberal politician first to a national-conservative, and later to a populist radical-right leader,” said Daniel Hegedüs, an analyst at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Credit: Földi Imre/MTVA
A younger Viktor Orban at a Fidesz party congress in 1990. 'Listen To Your Heart' was their campaign song and slogan.Credit: Földi Imre/MTVA

On the one hand, this could be put down to sensible politics. Centre-right parties led the Hungarian government between 1990 and 1994, so it made sense for Fidesz, in opposition, to take up left-wing causes.

But the leftist government of Prime Minister Gyula Horn, from 1994 until 1998, was marked by calamity. With the economy failing, Horn was forced to impose crippling privatisation and austerity policies in return for financial support from abroad.

Now, it made sense for Orbán to attack the ruling party from the right. In a party speech in April 1995, he declared that Fidesz “must seek cooperation with the forces politically right of centre.”

That year, the party was renamed Fidesz – Hungarian Civic Party.

But analysts say more dangerous motives lurk behind Orbán’s protean nature. First, shifting between political positions allowed him to build up his own personal power. Around 1993, Orbán, who was vice-president of Fidesz at the time, pressured the party to move rightwards. As a result, liberal-minded members, including the more popular Gábor Fodor, left to join another party. Orbán was elected Fidesz chairman thereafter, cementing himself as its indisputable figure.

The Hungarian-born journalist Paul Lendvai, in his 2017 biography Orbán: Hungary's Strongman, identifies another personality trait that explains his career: a deep-seated sense of inferiority.

Born in 1963 near the city of Székesfehérvár, Orbán’s family was rural middle-class. A bright student — he studied at the University of Oxford for a year on a scholarship — he nonetheless perceived himself as being treated by others as a provincial. He felt patronised by leftist intellectuals in the early 1990s. His sense of inferiority, Lendvai wrote, made him particularly susceptible to feelings of “betrayal” by allies, and to the “cosmopolitan Europhiles” who dominated many of the other political parties.

In May 1998, to the surprise of many, Fidesz won the most seats in parliament at the country's general election, with Orbán becoming the youngest head of government in Europe at the time.

He entered government through a coalition with the centre-right Independent Smallholders Party and Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF).

“His first government period between 1998 and 2002 happened in his national-conservative period, and his politics were largely in compliance with liberal democratic principles,” said Hegedüs.

Much of that changed after the next election in 2002. Although the Fidesz-MDF alliance won the most seats, a left-liberal alliance was able to form a coalition government, evicting Orbán from office. He cried foul of electoral fraud and poor treatment by left-leaning newspapers. In opposition, Fidesz drifted further towards the political right. His nationalism was ratcheted up. He began to rail against the Treaty of Trianon, a post-First World War agreement that stripped Hungary of around two-thirds of its territory and two-fifths of ethnic Hungarians, who found themselves living in newly independent, neighbouring countries.

In a now-infamous speech in 2009, delivered at a closed-door party meeting, he called for a “central political forcefield” that would govern the country for the next decades. After almost a decade in opposition, by 2010 Orbán had been able to craft “a coherent national ideology attractive for a large part of the Hungarian society”, said Hegedüs.

Credit: Illyés Tibor/Magyar Távirati Iroda Zrt
Viktor Orbán with his daughter Ráchel at the Fidesz national campaign launch event in 1994Credit: Illyés Tibor/Magyar Távirati Iroda Zrt

How has Viktor Orban managed to stay in power for so long?

Fidesz's overwhelming victory in the 2010 general election freed Orbán’s hand, analysts say, allowing him to rework the constitution in 2012.

In alliance with the Christian Democratic People's Party (KDNP), its small satellite party, Fidesz went on to win a two-thirds majority in parliament in 2014 and 2018.

During this period independent media were shut down, while friendly newspapers were lavished. Courts were packed with cronies. The electoral system was re-written. Nationalism was ramped up, especially amid the 2015 migrant crisis in Europe, when Orbán’s government erected fences to keep out the mainly Muslim refugees. Internationally, Orbán made friends with the authoritarian governments of Russia and China, whose interests he has protected during EU voting. Meanwhile, Brussels challenged Hungary to mend its ways, now threatening to restrict economic relief until political reforms are made.

Andras Bozoki, professor of political science at the Central European University in Vienna, reckons Orbán’s autocratic tendencies were present from the outset of his career, and he had transformed Fidesz into a “highly centralised party” by 2003. However, this was masked during his first spell as prime minister, between 1998 and 2002, since Orbán had to govern as part of a coalition with two relatively strong parties.

What has kept Orbán in power? For Bozoki, it’s largest due to the political and constitutional changes enforced since 2010, which have clothed Orbán in immense power. Some changes are subtle. In 2014, for instance, the share of MPs elected from single-member constituencies — which favours Fidesz — was raised to 106 out of the 199 seats in parliament. The rest are appointed by proportional representation. At the 2018 ballot, Fidesz won just 49% of the popular vote but picked up 67% of seats in parliament.

Many of Fidesz’s populist policies are, indeed, popular, analysts say. The state invests heavily in welfare spending.

“He is a charismatic populist politician who used heavy state propaganda and always found an enemy to fight with,” Bozoki said.

Any problem in the country is usually blamed on Orbán’s go-to villains: migrants, the EU, or George Soros, a Hungarian-born philanthropist who Orbán claims is trying to impose cosmopolitan liberalism onto Hungary from afar.

Orbán has also been fortunate. He took power in 2010 as European economies were beginning to recover from the global financial crisis. Hungary’s economy contracted by 6.7% in 2009 but began to grow at a steady rate afterwards. In 2018, it grew by 5.4%, the largest annual increase of the post-communist era. At the same time, Orbán was fortunate in having to face off against a divided opposition. At the 2018 general election, almost 80 parties competed, with six gaining more than 1% of the vote.

Credit: John Thys/AP
Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks as he arrives for an EU summit at the European Council building in Brussels, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020Credit: John Thys/AP

Orbán’s facing his toughest fight yet

Come 3 April, Orbán faces a far different threat.

In December 2020, six of the country’s largest opposition parties, as well as some smaller groups and movements, agreed to contest the 2022 election as part of the United for Hungary alliance. After extensive primaries, the non-partisan Péter Márki-Zay, the mayor of the southeastern city of Hódmezővásárhely, was selected as the alliance’s prime ministerial candidate.

The latest opinion polls, taken in late March, vary greatly. Republikon, a think-tank, gives Fidesz a three percentage point lead on the opposition alliance. According to Társadalomkutató, another pollster, it has an eleven point advantage. Most pundits expect another victory for Fidesz and its junior KDNP partner, but they are not overly sure.

Much lies in its favour. It has much more money: perhaps around 20 times more than the opposition alliance, reckons Bozoki, of the Central European University. And Fidesz can use the electoral law to their own advantage.

“Since Hungary is not a democracy, but a competitive authoritarian regime, and there will be no free and fair elections, Fidesz always has a high chance to win,” Bozoki added.

Despite this, the opposition alliance cannot be ruled out. Analysts point to a large share of undecided voters in the opinion polls, suggesting that the outcome could be close.

Márki-Zay, the opposition candidate, is something of a conservative, which might attract some Fidesz supporters and undecided voters.

Liberals will opt for the opposition alliance regardless.

Dániel Mikecz, an analyst with the Republikon think-tank, reckons that even if Fidesz wins, it is likely to lose its supermajority in parliament. That could stymie its ability to alter political institutions and could make it more vulnerable to opposition attacks in parliament, but probably won't have any effect on Orbán’s style of leadership, said Mikecz. Fidesz would likely continue with their “polarising way of making politics.”

For some analysts, an opposition victory would fundamentally change Hungary. A new administration would drop many of Orbán’s most controversial policies and loosen up the political system. It would make peace with the EU. Without state funds, Fidesz would struggle to keep its loyal media and affiliates on side.

But the United For Hungary alliance is precarious. Its composite parties rarely see eye to eye on the most important issues. Agreements over which candidates to field have been unsteady. It is also lop-sided: most of its support comes from two parties, the liberal Democratic Coalition (DK) and the right-wing Jobbik, according to the latest opinion polls. How it would actually go about forming a coalition government is another matter, perhaps one best left for late-night arguments if the opposition alliance secures a surprise victory next Sunday.