The Magazine

To Viktor Go the Spoils

Is Europe right to distrust Hungary’s prime minister?

Oct 15, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 05 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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‘Probably the nation which is most difficult to govern is the Hungarians,” says the man who governs them. It is late on an unseasonably warm Friday in September. Sunlight is slanting through the windows of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s office, which looks onto the Danube from the crimson-domed nineteenth-century parliament building in Budapest. “Ten million freedom fighters,” Orbán says. “That has some advantages, but from the governmental side it’s difficult.” 

Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán in Brussels, January 24, 2012

Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán in Brussels, January 24, 2012

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Orbán, the youngest of Hungary’s Cold War heroes, ought to find it easier to govern Hungary than his predecessors. Still in his 40s, widely read, Calvinist (like many Hungarian politicians through the ages), tough when he has to be (and sometimes when he doesn’t), he has a vision of a proud and prosperous Hungary that his followers find stirring. Two years ago, his Fidesz party took two-thirds of the seats in parliament—enough to rewrite Hungary’s constitution and reorder its society. Orbán and Fidesz have done just that. With the opposition split between a discredited post-Communist party, a disreputable fascist party, and a new party called Politics Can Be Different that is green in every sense of the word, Hungary is unlikely to produce an alternative to Fidesz in the near term. Orbán, therefore, has more power than any conservative leader has had in the West since Margaret Thatcher ruled Britain in the mid-1980s. Hungary is the clearest example we have of how a 21st-century conservative government behaves when it rules untrammeled. 

Yet Orbán is running into trouble. His name is mud in much of the West. Fidesz may be the party of Hungary’s business class and its working class. But it is not the party of Hungary’s intellectuals, its artists, and most of its journalists—those with good English and contacts abroad. It has not been viewed favorably by the network of foundations around George Soros, the Hungarian-born investor—even if it was Soros who funded Orbán’s brief stint at Pembroke College, Oxford, in the late 1980s. 

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dressed Orbán down on her last visit to Budapest. Freedom House altered Hungary’s “media freedom ranking” from “free” to “partly free.” The Franco-German Green politician Daniel Cohn-Bendit, speaking in the European parliament, accused Orbán of being anti-European. Orbán himself has a different explanation. “A chapter of European history is closed,” he says. “We are not competitive any more. We cannot live as we once lived. What we need is a deep transformation of European life. The only question is, which governments are strong enough, and have enough of a majority in parliament, to lead such a transformation, and which are not.” 

The Goulash Archipelago

Orbán became a political celebrity one day in the early summer of 1989. Then in his mid-twenties, he was invited to speak at a ceremony for the reburial of Imre Nagy, the Communist prime minister executed for permitting the 1956 uprising against Soviet rule. There were still tens of thousands of Soviet troops in Hungary. The Berlin Wall stood. Orbán was speaking as a representative of Hungary’s coming generations, and he looked the part. He had long hair and a Clark Gable mustache, and a weakness for loud, Wild-and-Crazy-Guy blazers, even if he didn’t wear one that day.

He had recently helped found Fidesz, which is a Hungarian acronym for “Alliance of Young Democrats,” and at the time it admitted no members over the age of 35. This was a group that saw no “good intentions” in communism, nor anything the past generation had contributed to Hungary except terror and corruption. Orbán’s speech was of a shocking brusqueness. He told the Soviets they should get out of Hungary, lock, stock, and barrel. Later, when Communists were negotiating a transition arrangement that would have allowed the party to maintain “workers’ combat groups” and party representatives in workplaces, Orbán was among those who blocked it. He has been the country’s top conservative politician for most of the intervening decades, serving a term as prime minister at the turn of the century.

Hungary has been among the least successful Eastern European countries emerging from the Cold War. It has resembled not so much Poland or the Czech Republic as Russia minus the mafia. Like Russia, Hungary has monopolies and alcoholism, and it has hemorrhaged jobs. In this country of 10 million, there are now a million fewer jobs than there were when the Berlin Wall came down. As the philosopher and former member of parliament G. M. Tamás put it recently, “What has happened is the failure of the democratic republic and of the liberal market régime to create a social order which is clearly superior to what preceded it.” 

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