Viktor Orbán has built an extraordinarily centralized strongman regime, which can be described as “Führer Democracy.” Nowadays, Paul Lendvai argues, even the term “Führer Democracy” is no longer valid for Hungary, since the first part of the term [führer] is getting stronger and stronger whereas the second part of the term [democracy] is getting weaker and weaker. Soon, all that will be left is “Führer.”
Interview by Alparslan Akkus
In 1989, a 26-year-old law student addressed a protest in Budapest’s Heroes’ Square. In his speech, the young Viktor Orbán called for an end to the communist dictatorship, the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary, and the holding of free elections. Later on, Orbán attended Oxford on a scholarship funded by George Soros, and after turning back to Hungary, he founded the political party FIDESZ or the Alliance of Young Democrats. He was hailed as the future of a new Hungary.
Today, Orbán is Vladimir Putin’s closest ally in the European Union. He obsessively attacks George Soros as an enemy of the people and considers China and Turkey as role models. In our interview with Paul Lendvai— a Hungarian-born Austrian journalist who has written extensively on Central and Eastern Europe for more than 60 years—we discussed how Orbán turned into one of the most successful populist autocrats of our times.
Lendvai’s latest book Orbán: Europe’s New Strongman (2018, Hurst and Princeton University Press), has been published in English, German, Hungarian, Slovene, and Polish (and later this year in Croatian). It portrays Hungary as an authoritarian system under the rule of Orbán. Exploring the deterioration of the country’s rule of law, the end of the separation of powers, and mass clientelism, Lendvai succeeds in tracing Hungary’s rapid slide toward authoritarianism in his excellent book.
The following excerpts from our interview with Paul Lendvai have been lightly edited for brevity and length.
The term “populist” carries negative connotations in current political culture. However, this may not sound valid for a ruthless authoritarian leader who is often referred to as the “Viktator.” Do you think being defined as a “populist” just serves to shadow Viktor Orbán’s more negative features?
Every politician can be called populist, but basically the question is whether it’s claiming to represent people without really paying attention to the issues and does everything to get or remain in power. There is no question that, in this sense, Orbán is a populist. In the early 1990s, he changed his political line because he realized that he could not get elected with his earlier ideals. He left the center-left position and moved then to center-right, then more and more right, and that is how he seized power in 1998. Then, he lost power in 2002, and following that, he showed his ability as a politician by getting re-elected after eight years in 2010. He is often described as right conservative in the international media. But actually, he is a right-wing populist nationalist. Regardless of the adjectives, his only ideology is to use every means to remain in power.
Do you think Orbán inherited much of his ruthlessness and vengefulness from his father, who is a product of “goulash communism” under Janos Kadar? And if we can speak of a sort of Kadarism creating a populist leader like Orbán, what should we expect for the future generations raised under Orbánism?
As a matter of fact, Orbán was a very rebellious person, and it is something of a personal contradiction that someone who was such a rebel could turn into a kind of authoritarian strongman in politics. He rebelled at school and in the army. And he also rebelled against his father, who was a typical product of Kadarism. His father, Gyözö Orbán, was not only a party member, but he was also allowed to go to Libya as an expert. He is now 81 and has become extremely rich. Orbán has luxurious private residences—one is a little bit like Putin’s palace, although not that huge—but it’s all under the name of his father and his son-in-law. His two brothers are also in business.
But turning back to your question, in terms of education and upbringing, Orbán’s father was very ruthless, beating Viktor up even at the age of 16. Perhaps we need a psychological study to fully understand how he became the person he is today.
Very Skillful Politician and A Very Cynical Person
As you note in your book, 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 Bibo College days—indeed, from the very start of FIDESZ, the Alliance of Young Democrats that Orbán and his friends set up in 1988. How do you emphasize the characteristics of this political brotherhood?
It is something exceedingly rare to see this kind of fraternity in the top leadership of a European country. They were a group of young people who were very committed to their ideals. They started their movement in 1988, and, in effect, the critical party positions have been retained by these 20–25 people or their relatives. It is not only the speaker of the parliament or the president but also many other positions. For instance, the chief justice is the wife of a former European MP who wrote the new constitution. She has now become a member of the Supreme Court for ten years. Following his second electoral victory in 2014, Orbán wanted full power over his party, his government, and the country. Therefore, he broke with his close collaborator, Lajos Simicska, the man who had built up the entire business empire of FIDESZ.
Another feature of Orbán is that he gets rid of people who can be potentially dangerous but never kicks them totally out. For instance, the present president [János Áder] was allegedly planning a plot against Orbán in 2006. He was then “exiled” to Brussels when he was elected as a European MP. When the FIDESZ government had the chance to nominate the president in 2010, he was passed over. Only later did Orbán call him back, and he was given a second chance. In 2017, he was re-elected for another five-year term as president. So, Orbán is very clever in the way he deals with potential adversaries. He has complete control over this tightly knit group, making him the most powerful politician in the European Union (EU).
To what extent Orbán’s “plebeian” roots played a role in transforming once liberal, anti-clerical, and anti-nationalist FIDESZ into an illiberal, clerical, and nationalist–populist party? And how do you assess FIDESZ’s policies toward minorities, especially the Roma people, its antisemitism, particularly against Soros, and its Islamophobia?
Orbán is a very skillful politician and basically a very cynical person. Take the Roma issue as an example. In 2011, when Hungary took over the rotating chairmanship of the EU for six months, Hungary promised to do many things for the Roma people (officially numbering 300,000 in Hungary; in reality, probably over 700,000). In practice, they did nothing. They just appointed a figurehead under their control; he was a profoundly corrupt figure. So, it was very cleverly handled without really doing anything essential.
We can see a similar move by Orbán with respect to the 100,000 strong Jewish community. As to antisemitism, no one has ever heard Orbán utter an anti-Jewish statement or remark in public. The point is not whether he personally is antisemitic or not. What really matters is what his politics are. He rewrote Hungarian history in an entirely new constitution, which the youngsters learn at school from the very beginning. It’s all about whitewashing Hungarian history in contrast to Germany or, to some extent Austria for the last 20 years.
Orbán is also deft at splitting the Jewish community or splitting the political opposition. Orbán is on good terms with a Jewish Hasidic Rabbi, who represents perhaps five or eight percent of the Jewish community in Hungary but has many wealthy supporters in the US. And he has excellent relations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. So, if anyone attacks Hungary about antisemitism, then this Rabbi objects to that.
On the other hand, Orbán conducted an antisemitic campaign against the Hungarian-born Jewish billionaire George Soros, who had donated hundreds of millions of dollars to Eastern Europe and Hungary. Still, no one can attack Orbán as an antisemitic; Netanyahu and his Hassidic friends would reject these claims.
Controlling Media and Judiciary Is the First Step Toward Authoritarianism
Drawing necessary lessons from his defeat eight years earlier, Orbán made two bold moves after his triumphant re-election in 2010. First, he took away most of the Constitutional Court’s power, and second, he took over the public and most of the private media. Which one do you see more critical-controlling the judiciary or the media? And do you think that controlling major checks on power is a first step on the way to authoritarianism?
I think they’re both extremely important. The judiciary was the basic steppingstone since they can approve everything [a government does] in contrast to Poland. For instance, the Hungarian centralization of power has always been seen as above board because the Constitutional Court approved most of the measures. FIDESZ started by appointing new judges and bringing the court gradually under their control. It took a certain amount of time, but there is no question that the Constitutional Court of Hungary is no longer a balancing to the executive.
As for the media, the move against the free press and the setting up of his own media, by chance, coincided with Hungary taking over the rotating chairmanship of the EU in 2011. Already after a year in office, it was quite clear internationally that Hungary’s public television and radio had come under government control and the other media outlets were under pressure. In the last years, the media has been subject to near-total pressure by the government. Some 80 percent of the news today is supplied either by government media outlets or by media companies controlled by oligarchs who are very close to Orbán or FIDESZ personally.
Both of these checks are especially important in a democracy and are connected. After all, an independent judiciary is a guarantee of the freedom of the press, and the free press is the guarantee of an independent judiciary. Unfortunately, both of them are under government control in Hungary today. Now the entire justice system will be totally taken over. And, of course, controlling these sectors is the first step toward authoritarianism.
Thinking of Orbán’s building a fence on the border with Serbia to keep out refugees and representing himself as the last protector of Europe, how do you assess the relationship between FIDESZ and the EU? Hard- or soft-Eurosceptic or Europhobic? Could you detail how FIDESZ has turned its anti-immigrant and xenophobic policies into an advantage in its relations with the EU?
These are two different but interconnected questions. Number one is the refugee issue, which was used by Orbán to consolidate his power and was unfortunately met with a high degree of approval by the Hungarian public. As a result of the hate campaigns by the government-controlled media, building a fence on the border and the entire anti-refugee policy was approved. But the situation has also changed in Germany and other EU countries.
And the other point of your question is about the EU’s approach toward Hungary. Ever since 2011, Hungary has been a target in numerous resolutions. But, FIDESZ remained a member of the European People’s Party, the EPP, for almost a decade. It was only in March this year that Orbán has recalled his 11 MPs from the EPP.
But it is a different matter regarding Hungary’s membership as a state in the EU. Once you are a member of the EU, it is tough to discipline a country defying the European principles of human rights and equality. Thus, over the next five or seven years, Hungary is in line to receive a minimum of €18 billion in transfers from the EU budget, plus €7 billion from the COVID-19 reconstruction fund.
Orbán Built Up A Kleptocracy For His Friends And His Family
How do you think corruption and kleptocracy paved the way for Orbán’s Hungary to emerge as a mafia state?
There is a significant difference between other countries and Hungary. For instance, in Italy, Silvio Berlusconi was elected prime minister four times. But he had become very rich before he seized the top position. In the case of Hungary, Orbán was a politician who first occupied the top political position and only afterward built up a kleptocracy for his friends and his family. There is the famous case of Lörinc Mészáros, a gas fitter in a small village. Mészáros went to the same elementary school as Orbán. And they met again in this small village of 1,800 people, and he became a close friend of Orbán. Then he became mayor of this little town and then the chairman of the local soccer club. He was running a small firm on the edge of bankruptcy. Today, he is the second richest man in Hungary, with assets of €1 billion across 200 different companies. This man has been accused in parliament by the opposition of being a crony of Prime Minister Orbán. Orbán’s spokesman says that the prime minister has nothing to do with business affairs.
Officially Orbán’s assets are tiny—half of a small flat with his wife in Budapest. Actually, it all works differently. For instance, one of his daughters is married to a young entrepreneur. Suddenly, this man, at the age of 32, became the 33rdrichest person in Hungary. So, this is all done in a very clever way. The people don’t get worked up by abstract overall figures. Several studies on the mafia state in Hungary conclude that were there a real change of government system through free elections and the imposition of a functioning system of rule of law, the group of people at the top would end up behind bars.
Orbán’s cabinet contains quite a few women. Yet he is on record saying he considers women to be insufficiently tough or cut out for politics. How do you see the relationship between populism and gender issues?
Until 2018, there was no woman in his cabinet at all. Proportionately, Hungary has the least number of women MPs in Europe. For instance, there are more women even in the Albanian parliament than in Hungary. In 2018, Orbán appointed two attractive young women; one as Minister of Justice and one as Minister for Women’s Affairs. They speak very good English. So, they can sell the government policies much better than their predecessors. But it doesn’t change the fact that the country has very strict anti-lesbian and anti-homosexual laws, prohibiting same-sex marriages or same-sex couples adopting or fostering children, etc. It is a much more restrictive and conservative society in this sense compared to Western Europe, and gender issues so far have not triggered massive protests.
As a journalist who spent several decades reporting on Central Europe for the Die Presse and the Financial Times, do you think Orbán would export his regime to Visegrad Four (V4)?
Yes, definitely. He uses this Visegrad Four group for this purpose. The four countries—Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia—emerged in 1990 mainly as a symbolic group. It became only in 2015 under Orbán’s leadership a kind of protest alliance against the influx of refugees. The turning point was the election of the right-wing PiS [Law and Justice Party] in Poland in 2015. There still exists a so-called Hungary–Poland axis for the moment. But there is one major difference between Hungary and Poland in terms of their relations with Russia. Despite the close collaboration between Budapest and Warsaw, one must not forget that the Poles are very suspicious of Russia and vehemently opposed to the Russian interference in the Ukraine. Whereas Orbán has met Putin at least nine times bilaterally in the last eleven years, and they have excellent relations. The network of corruption also connects the two regimes in Hungary and Russia.
And a newcomer as an Orbán ally is Slovenia, the most developed country in Central Europe, which was the first to join the Eurozone and NATO. It has been run for a year now by Prime Minister Janez Jansa, who in 1990 was a courageous anti-communist but has now become an extremely right-wing and corrupt politician, and above all, a very close friend of Orbán.
Biden Administration Knows What Is Going On In Hungary
The Hungarian leader seeks to be a European figure. Orbán was the first European leader to congratulate Donald Trump after his election victory in 2016, and the US didn’t raise any objection to Orbán during the Trump era. The honeymoon is now over because the new administration has a totally different policy toward Hungary. The new Secretary of State [Anthony Blinken] has close ties with Hungary; his mother is Hungarian, his father served as the US ambassador to Hungary between 1994 and 1998. So, this administration knows what is going on in Hungary.
You settle on the term “Führer Democracy” to emphasize the extraordinary centralization of power in Orbán’s hands. Can you please clarify how we should understand the term “Führer Democracy”?
The term “Führer Democracy” was not invented by me but by the moderate Hungarian political scientist Andras Körösenyi. And, it’s a very apt term. It means he is a führer and has a very strong position that cannot be overthrown by peaceful means like elections. As the great Austro-British political scientist Karl Popper said, democracy is based on the principle that bad rulers can be gotten rid of without bloodshed, without violence, by majority vote. But it is no longer possible in Hungary due to the change of the election system, gerrymandering, and the power positions the Orbán regime has built up.
As a matter of fact, even if there were a change of government in 2022, it doesn’t necessarily mean the system will change immediately. Every key position is in the hands of Orbán loyalists. So, the “Führer Democracy” is basically a strongman regime. It is, however, different from China, which is a führer regime but not a democracy. And, unfortunately, nowadays, this “Führer Democracy” term is no longer valid for Hungary either, since the first part of the term [führer] is getting stronger and stronger whereas the second part of the term [democracy] is getting weaker and weaker. So, in the end, only “führer” will remain. For the moment, the term seems to stick because there is the pretense of a democracy.
Orban Might Resort to Strong-arm Methods
The last chapter of your book is entitled “The End of the Regime Cannot Be Foreseen.” With Orbán as the dominant central power against the two major opposition parties—the post-Communists and the far-right party, Jobbik, which seem unable to unite against the government—how do you predict the future of Hungary?
No regime lasts forever, but you have to take into account several things in addition to the basis of the system like the army, the secret police, the prosecutor’s office, the judiciary, the media, the Constitutional Court, the election system, and so on. In addition to this, Orbán is only 58 years old. I raised eyebrows in Hungary very recently when I said in an interview for US media that he could lead the country for 20 more years. I mean, if you look at Joe Biden, for instance, he is 78 years old.
But you can’t predict anything. Everything is possible in politics. for instance, A combination of economic and social crises could arise. Orbán has no real advisers. Like every strongman, he is also intoxicated by power. If there were to emerge a real strong opposition threatening his power in the elections, then Orbán would take off his gloves and become a naked strongman. We are not yet there, but in the last year or so, state control has been tightened in the cultural and educational fields. Traveling abroad is free, but the state of emergency resulting from the epidemic helps him consolidate the power and tighten his grip. We don’t know what the results will be of the epidemic and the economic downturn. There will be unpredictable consequences. And the EU, despite everything, might tighten the rules. In that sense, everything is possible.
But on the present assumptions, I am rather pessimistic that anything major, dramatic will happen in the foreseeable future. The lack of a real united opposition allows him, for the moment, to do whatever he likes. Actually, Orbán is a very clever political operator. Thus, he pre-empted the right extremist party, Jobbik, through his strict refugee policy, by demagogy, and by helping the most impoverished working families through public works, by cheating, and by corrupting Jobbik MPs as he did with the socialist party.
The big question is whether the opposition parties can ever combine forces. If all the opposition parties were to join forces, they could theoretically win the elections. I don’t exclude the possibility that the opposition could threaten Orbán’s power in future elections. He might then resort to strong-arm methods. For the moment, however, the opinion polls don’t show a dramatic change.
Who Is Paul Lendvai?
Paul Lendvai was born in 1929 in Budapest to Jewish parents. He worked as a journalist but was arrested and jailed in 1953 and banned from the media until the Hungarian uprising. In 1957, he sought political asylum in Austria. He was the Vienna correspondent for The Financial Times for 20 years, covering Eastern Europe. He subsequently worked as editor-in-chief of the Austrian state television, again covering Eastern Europe, and director of Radio Austria International, the shortwave broadcasting service. Lendvai is the author of 18 books published in 10 languages.