March 20, 2012 | Foreign Policy

Hungary’s Pit Bull Prime Minister

How one of Europe’s most celebrated anti-communists become the bad boy of the continent.
March 20, 2012 | Foreign Policy

Hungary’s Pit Bull Prime Minister

How one of Europe’s most celebrated anti-communists become the bad boy of the continent.

BUDAPEST — Peter Molnar recalls the time he first suspected that Viktor Orbán might possess an authoritarian personality.

It was the spring of 1990, shortly after the country's first free election after the collapse of communism a year before. Molnar was one of the youthful founders of a political party called Fidesz (the Alliance of Young Democrats), and he had been a dorm-mate of Orbán at law school. It was there that a group of young revolutionaries held secret seminars to educate each other about Western liberal democratic capitalism, the system slandered by their communist instructors as “imperialist,” yet which they hoped to emulate, as the country's future leaders. “On one of the first days when we gathered for a break in the office of our parliamentary group, I put my leg up on the edge of the table,” Molnar recalled for me recently over lunch at a fashionable Budapest restaurant. “And I'm not proud of that. I mean I don't think I put it up in a bad way or something like that, people do that, it's just an easygoing way of sitting.”

Orbán didn't agree. “He told me to take it off,” Molnar says with a smile. “It would have been different if he had told me ‘Peter, I'm sorry, I don't want to teach you things or something but I don't find it nice,' or ‘I'm asking you to take it off.' But he didn't do it that way. He was basically giving an order.”

These days Viktor Orbán — nicknamed “Viktator” by his opponents — is being accused of far worse things than imperiousness at meetings. In 2010, after years in the opposition, he swept back into office as Hungary's prime minister with an election result that gave him and his political allies an unprecedented 68 percent of the seats in parliament — a majority that allowed his government to revamp the Hungarian constitution without consulting the electorate or the opposition. His critics accuse him of dismantling Hungary's hard-won democracy by drastically weakening checks and balances, eroding judicial independence, imposing a draconian media law, and jiggering the electoral system so that Fidesz can cement its massive majority for the foreseeable future.

Orbán likes to portray his opponents as disgruntled ex-communists who ran the country into the ground when they ruled from 2002 to 2010, and who still haven't come to terms with the crushing defeat they suffered as a result. His supporters contend that, rather than overreaching, Orbán is merely avoiding the mistakes he made during his first stint in power, from 1998 to 2002, when he erred by failing to embark on root-and-branch reform. This lack of zeal on Fidesz's part a decade ago prevented the country from becoming a true, Western democracy. What's happening now, Orbán's defenders say, is nothing less than a long-postponed “ballot box revolution” that will finally make good on the promise of the early 1990s. Endre Bojtár, editor of the liberal weekly Magyar Narancs, speaks derisively of Orbán's “rhetoric of crisis and failure.” The prime minister, he says, essentially denounces the last 20 years as a bust. The message: “everything is fucked up, nothing works in the country, everything is bad.”

It is this dismal view of the country's recent history that provides Fidesz its transformative raison d'être, and which justified the introduction of the new constitution on January 1. The revolutionaries of 1989 opted to revise the Stalin-era constitution rather than rewrite it completely — which is why Orbán and his colleagues took to denouncing it as “communist.” Yet this wasn't always so. The same constitution was good enough for Orbán when he first joined the parliament in 1990, and good enough for the European Union when Hungary became a member in 2004. “He voted for this constitution, he swore an oath on this constitution,” Mátyás Eörsi, a former member of parliament (from a now-defunct liberal party) told me. Nevertheless, portraying Hungary's contemporary political battles as a continuation of the anti-communist struggle helps justify behavior and actions that would otherwise be deemed beyond the pale. “They seem to think that their sacred goal — fight the anti-communist fight 22 years after the first free election — justifies almost everything,” Molnar complains.

That might be an approach that resonates with voters who are eager to seek clear enemies amid the turmoil of Hungary's transition to democracy. It's true enough that Hungary never went through a lustration process to bar ex-communist officials from holding office. Yet the political parties that occupy the left wing of the country's political spectrum today have little in common with the Stalinists of old. And Fidesz, for all of its talk of “ballot box revolution” and “national wrongdoers” in the opposition, has its own fair share of ex-communists, including the current foreign minister. “We have this expression: ‘My communist is a good communist, your communist is a bad communist,'” says Ferenc Gyurcsány, the Socialist prime minister from 2004 to 2009, and Orbán's arch-nemesis.

Orbán's ethos of centralization and national renewal might be more palatable if he were actually doing a successful job. But nearly two years into his premiership, the country stands on the brink of an economic crisis, and is seeking an aid package from the International Monetary Fund. His unorthodox policies have also driven Hungary into direct confrontation with the European Union, which is demanding changes to a variety of Hungarian laws. (That dispute has just led to an unprecedented exchange of rebukes between Orbán and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso.) “He wants Hungary to be Singapore under Lee Kwan Yew,” one prominent Hungarian businessman told me. “The only problem is that Orbán is not Lee Kwan Yew.”

In the days when Fidesz began as a rag-tag group of longhaired, libertarian revolutionaries, Viktor Orbán was one of the most beguiling anti-communist figures in Central and Eastern Europe. He earned worldwide fame in 1989, when, at the tender age of 26, he gave a speech at the reburial of Imre Nagy (the revolutionary leader executed by the Soviet Union for treason in 1958) demanding the withdrawal of Soviet troops. No other dissident figure in the region had dared to go that far. “Fidesz was absolutely liberal, they were genuine liberals,” says Attila Ara-Kovács, a dissident-turned-journalist who is now a fierce critic of Orbán and Fidesz.

In 1998, Fidesz was finally elected to power and Orbán became Europe's youngest prime minister at the age of 35. Two years later, he officially cemented what had at first been a gradual shift away from the party's liberal roots towards nationalist conservatism, that ideological standby of post-communist East Central Europe. Fidesz left the European Parliament's bloc of liberal parties to join the center-right European People's Party and cancelled its membership in the Liberal International.

A portent of Orbán's current contretemps with the EU can be found around the same time in his refusal to join the body's campaign to isolate Austria after Jörg Haider's far-right Freedom Party joined its government. The ascension of Haider, a xenophobe who had kind words for the Nazis, was akin to “a stone being thrown into an intellectually and politically stagnant pond,” Orbán said. Though he was keen to bring Hungary into the EU, Orbán saw its policy on Austria not as an attempt, however clumsy, to uphold basic European values, but as an unfair interference in a member state's domestic politics, a move that, as he put it, “forces us all to think harder than usual about the deeper meaning of democracy.”

This nationalistic rhetoric has served Orbán well. At a pro-government rally in Budapest yesterday, speaking before a crowd of 100,000, he compared EU leaders to Soviet apparatchiks. (It's not only the EU that has expressed displeasure with the actions of the Hungarian government. In a letter to Orbán sent last December regarding “the democratic institutions of Hungary,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote that, “[o]ur concerns are significant and well-founded.”)

Orbán remained leader of Fidesz despite its loss in the 2002 parliamentary elections, an indication of his firm control over the party. Today, he rules it to such an extent that there are no real “factions” of which to speak. “Viktor is very tough-minded and a tough disciplinarian,” says Mark Palmer, a former U.S. Ambassador to Hungary. “It's not highly likely that Fidesz will split.” Akos Balogh, a writer for the conservative, pro-Fidesz website, says that, “Fidesz is based on him. It's his personal story, from 1989, since his speech at the funeral of Imre Nagy.”

Ex-parliamentarian Eörsi mentions the specific case of László Mádi, one of only five Fidesz members to have served in parliament in the early years of the transition to democracy. Yet in January of 2010, three months before the election, he let slip that, contrary to the party's official policy, a residential property tax might be introduced. The following week, Fidesz dropped Mádi from its parliamentary list. (He subsequently landed a cushy job as chairman of the Hungarian Brewers' Association.) Rumor has it, says Eörsi, that Orbán keeps signed resignation letters for each of the party's MPs in his safe: all the prime minister has to do is fill in the date.

Orbán's defenders are as fierce as his critics. They allege that the attempt to discredit the current Hungarian government is nothing less than — in the words of former Orbán-confidante Maria Schmidt — “a cultural war against the traditional values Fidesz wants to defend,” being waged by a left-wing intellectual elite committed to discrediting any Hungarian government that is remotely right of center. Zoltán Kovács, the government's communications minister, says that the dominant narrative in Hungarian society has been shaped by the left, which has better connections to powerful figures in Western Europe and the United States. As a result, he claims, “the very existence of a civilized right, center-right politics was denied from the beginning.”

Schmidt, who now serves as director of the country's House of Terror Museum (which documents the country's experiences under fascism and communism), scoffs at the notion that Orbán underwent some deep, ideological transformation. “It's normal that he is not the same at the end of his forties as he was at the end of his twenties,” she tells me. “The problem is that Fidesz is much closer to the English [Conservatives] and to the American Republicans in how they think on basic values… It's unusual in the European Union that a prime minister like Orbán says that, ‘For me, Christianity, family and nation are important values.'” She favorably compares Orbán to George W. Bush. “It was also a cultural war against Bush, because he was a man who had his values.”

In that vein, many of Orbán's critics attribute his illiberal shift to personal background, identifying a sort of Nixonian resentment of elites borne from his rural upbringing. Orbán grew up in the countryside, the son of a miner who was a loyal member of the communist party. Gábor Horváth, deputy editor of the liberal daily Népszabadság, characterizes the current Fidesz leadership as “a bunch of country boys” who came to Budapest to dabble in politics. Eörsi says that Orbán “represents a first-generation intellectual. He never trusts the cities.” There might be something to such psychological analysis of Orbán, but it can come across as patronizing.

Yet whereas the Fidesz of the early 1990's did not place any emphasis on religion, today it openly reveres the country's Christian heritage. That position is exemplified both by the new constitution — which, controversially for a country where only 21 percent of the population regularly attends any religious service, explicitly endorses Christianity as the national faith — and Orbán's own public behavior. Recently asked on television how he prepares for Christmas, Orbán, a member of the Reformed Church in Hungary, told the interviewer that that he attends a mass that starts at 4 AM — an utterance that flummoxed Budapest's mostly secular intellectuals.

Orbán's critics and fans do agree on one thing: he thrives on conflict. This combative attitude draws upon deep wellsprings in Hungary, which once ruled a vast empire and suffered countless national humiliations in the past century. The country's present fiscal straits are just the latest in this long drama. Orbán's bowing and scraping before the EU when he visits Brussels and Strasbourg, and his demonizing of the institution when he returns to Budapest, is symptomatic of the bind in which he finds himself. But it is a strategy that appeals to many, if not most, Hungarians, who seem to sympathize with their leader's plight and see a little bit of themselves in him. At a January European Parliament debate, after enduring nearly three hours of denunciatory speeches by MEPs from across the continent, Orbán rose to say, humbly, that Hungary “is a land of freedom fighters and it has always been a land of freedom fighters.”

“In his character there is not any sign of compromise,” says Attila Mesterházy, the current leader of the Socialist Party. “He always wants to break through; he loves the conflict.” And what drives Orbán is a belief that he is a transformational figure, the likes of which Hungary has never seen. In a recent conversation with the prime minister, Mesterházy says, Orbán acknowledged that Fidesz's unorthodox economic policies can be found in “none of the economics books.” No matter, Orbán told him: “Somewhere in the near future they will write a book using the Hungarian example.”

Orbán's power grab may also be a symptom of a country that has yet to overcome its communist past; a place where democratic norms and practices are not deeply ingrained or respected, and where a winner-takes-all attitude prevails on both sides of the political spectrum. “He understood the lessons of his first government not quite rightly,” says Kornelia Magyar, of Hungary's Progressive Institute. “I think the fact that he lost, he thinks that this was because of the media, because he was not aggressive enough with the opposition, because he was too generous letting all his enemies flourish. And, therefore, now he began with strengthening and expanding his power immediately.”

“The most important thing to know about Orbán is that he is the best and the most effective in a conflict. He doesn't like peace, he doesn't like normality,” says Eörsi. “He cannot stop fighting. Like a shark, he cannot stop eating.”

James Kirchick, a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is a contributing editor for The New Republic and World Affairs Journal.