The Hungarian democracy has dramatically backslid since 2010, as the Orbán governments have progressively built a populist autocratic regime controlling the judiciary and most of the media while silencing critical voices in civil society and undermining academic freedom. The Orbán governments have fuelled populism by exploiting the negative perception of the transition from state socialism to liberal democracy since 1989-1990, playing on the rights of the Magyar diaspora and arousing antisemitic and anti-Roma sentiments and Islamophobia. The governing Fidesz and the radical right Jobbik are the leading populist forces in the country, and Orbán himself provides a populist role model for the rest of Europe.
Located in central Europe, Hungary is a multi-party parliamentary republic and a middle-sized member of the European Union (EU). As a successor state to the Habsburg Empire, Hungary lost almost two-thirds of its territory and one-third of the ethnic Magyar population following the Trianon Treaty in the aftermath of the First World War. Hungary was a Soviet satellite during the Cold War and stood out as one of the relatively developed economies of the Eastern bloc. Following the Revolution of 1956, the Hungarian Communist leader János Kádár raised standards of living in the country by implementing the so-called Goulash Communism, a mild form of communism blended with limited market mechanisms.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and as a response to the persistent stagnation in the economy during the late 1980s, Hungary made a rapid transition to democracy and free-market capitalism coupled with a determined strategy to integrate with the West. In 1991, the post-Communist Hungarian state formed the Visegrád Group, a politico-cultural alliance with other central European states Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, and joined the OECD in 1996 and NATO in 1999. Hungary became a member of the EU in 2004 and has been a part of the Schengen area since 2007 while choosing not to adopt the euro as its currency.
Hungarian democracy has dramatically backslid since 2010 as successive Orbán governments have progressively built a populist autocratic regime controlling the judiciary and most of the media and silencing critical voices in civil society and undermining academic freedom. The major dynamics fuelling populism in the country are the alleged split between “real Hungarians” living in rural areas and Budapest’s liberal elites connected to global networks, the negative perception of the transition from state socialism to liberal democracy after 1989-1990, the rights of the Magyar diaspora, resurgent antisemitic and anti-Roma sentiments, and growing Islamophobia associated with the 2015 immigration crisis. The governing Fidesz and the radical right Jobbik are the leading populist forces in the country, and Orbán himself provides a populist role model for the rest of Europe.
Established in 1988 as a radical liberal youth party, the Fidesz-Hungarian Civic Alliance (Fidesz-Magyar Polgári Szövetség) supported the transition to democracy through anti-Soviet discourse and opposition to the ruling Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party. While in the opposition, Victor Orbán turned Fidesz into a conservative party and after ruling for a single term (1998-2002), the party stayed in opposition again as the socialist-liberal coalition was in power until 2010. Fidesz, as the main opposition party during this period, adopted a more nationalist conservative stance and formed a permanent alliance with the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) in late 2005. Upon the failure of the Hungarian center-left and deteriorating economic conditions in the wake of the global financial crisis, the two-party alliance, predominantly controlled by Fidesz, gained 53 percent of the votes in the 2010 election, which translated into a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly. The Fidesz-led alliance retained its majority through the 2014 and 2018 elections, and at present holds 133 seats of 199 in the unicameral Hungarian Parliament.
Having dominated Hungarian politics since 2010, the Orbán governments have dramatically shifted towards an authoritarian populist rule through an extraordinary centralization and concentration of power. The Fidesz-led government, using its supermajority in Parliament, singlehandedly adopted a new constitution in late 2011 without reaching consensus with other political parties or organizing a referendum. The constitution codified the Christian identity of the Hungarian nation and cemented the Orbán administration’s grip on public institutions. In 2013, a highly controversial set of constitutional amendments ensued. The amendments undermined the constitutional court’s powers, curtailed civil liberties, and limited political advertising to the state-owned media. Equipped with extensive powers and restrained by few checks and balances, the Fidesz governments have built a de facto one-party state by upending the rule of law, resorting to partisan gerrymandering, and enabling pro-Orbán oligarchs to purchase independent media outlets (Müller, 2018).
Fidesz does not have an ideology of its own but adopts populist rhetoric based on nationalist conservatism against liberalism, ethnic homogeneity against multiculturalism, and a soft-Eurosceptic stance against Brussels. In accordance with his “sunset of the west” discourse, Prime Minister Orbán argues that the age of liberal democracy is over – and liberalism itself is an impediment to economic success. For Orbán, the Hungarian political system should be based on different principles in line with his vision of building an “illiberal democracy” or “Christian democracy,” and these principles are not liberalism, human rights, and individualism, but conservative Christian values built around the nation and family (Walker, 2019).
Orbán claims that the country is split between rural Hungary representing “real Hungarians” and liberal-cosmopolitan elites connected to global networks. He links this divide with the negative perception of the “stolen transition” from state socialism to liberal democracy following 1989. The myth of the “stolen transition” is the idea that the post-Communist elites made a self-serving deal with bankers, corporations, and the West, which did not benefit the common Hungarian people (Krekó, 2014). Orbán touts his authoritarian populist rule as the “second transition” correcting the “stolen transition.” He portrays himself as the only leader representing the people and fighting to preserve Christian culture against the liberal elites and their global networks.
The Fidesz government presents itself as the bulwark of Christian Europe and uses the state-controlled media to broadcast relentless propaganda against liberal elites in Budapest and Brussels, as well as multinational corporations and foreign-owned banks operating in the country. Orbán’s anti-elitist populism primarily targets George Soros, a Hungarian-American billionaire, and the Open Society Foundations and the Central European University that Soros funds. Orbán’s discourses against what he describes as “the Jewish financiers” and symbolic revival of the legacy of country’s state governor and wartime leader, Miklós Horthy – who allied with Nazi Germany and deported Hungarian Jews to the concentration camps – breeds antisemitic sentiments and stereotypes. Such an atmosphere encourages neo-Nazi gatherings and mob attacks on Jewish community centers as well as various civil society groups representing LGBTQ+ and Roma people, with most of these attacks perpetrated by neo-fascist groups like Legio Hungaria.
With the 2015 European migrant crisis, the Orbán government-employed anti-Muslim populism as an instrument to defy Brussel’s immigration policy and consolidate its power at home after losing their supermajority as a result of a by-election. The government built a fence on the southern border with Serbia, to protect against the influx of refugees mainly coming from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, and then declared a state of emergency and stationed troops on the border. Government-led propaganda has sowed anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments in Hungarian society, stoked fears about Muslim asylum-seekers, and continues to legitimize hatred against Islam in general. The government-controlled media use Islam and violent extremism interchangeably and repeat the narrative that there is a cultural war going on between Christian Europe and the Muslim world.
Prime Minister Orbán dictates the political narratives by seeking to recreate the halcyon days of Hungarian power by referencing the 1920 Treaty of Trianon (through which Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory and a third of its ethnic Magyar population). He has reanimated the Trianon Trauma and promoted the rights of the large Magyar diaspora within neighboring countries (Lendvai, 2018). In the last decade, about 1 million ethnic Hungarians living mostly in Romania, Serbia, and Ukraine were given citizenship.
Hungary’s second-leading populist political party is the far-right Jobbik (The Movement for a Better Hungary- Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom). Founded in 2003, Jobbik takes a Eurosceptic stance and describes itself as a Christian conservative and patriotic defender of Hungarian values and interests. Jobbik, like Fidesz, exploits the same general discontent over the transition to a market economy while also stoking anti-elite, anti-immigrant, antisemitic, and anti-Roma sentiments. The party pursues a xenophobic campaign against migrants, honors the contentious legacy of Miklós Horthy, uses the rhetoric of law-and-order while raging against “Gypsy crime,” and supports dual citizenship as well as minority rights for ethnic Hungarians living in neighboring countries.
Under Gábor Vona’s leadership, Jobbik founded the Hungarian Guard (Magyar Gárda) as the party’s paramilitary wing in 2007. Though initially an unarmed organization, the Guard displayed a tendency for extremism. Its members pledged to defend ethnic Hungarians, promoted antisemitic messages, and intimidated Roma communities. The Guard, reminiscent of the wartime fascist Arrow Cross, was outlawed and disbanded in 2009 after organizing anti-Roma marches. In 2013, Vona initiated a campaign to change Jobbik’s image from an extremist party to a moderate conservative one; he expelled radical members and announced that leaving the EU is no longer on the party’s agenda (Casky, 2016). However, several prominent members of Jobbik – including the vice president, László Toroczkai – did not agree with Vona’s swing to the center; in 2018, these members split off and formed another radical right-wing group, Our Homeland Movement (Mi Hazánk Mozgalom).
Winning 26 of the 199 seats in the National Assembly in the 2018 election, Jobbik became the party’s second-largest party and the main opposition. Jobbik’s present leader, Péter Jakab, has Jewish heritage and has maintained the party’s moderate turn. This opens the possibility of cooperation with the liberal opposition against the ruling Orbán government. Whether the party’s purported shift to the center is genuine or not is open to debate, but Jobbik’s support still hovers around 20 percent and its populist policies continue to shape the governing Fidesz’s policies.
In terms of civil liberties, Hungary is partially free – at best. Freedom of expression is restricted by the government’s extensive control over the judiciary and media and through repressive measures on the remaining few independent media outlets, civil society groups, and universities. Elections are still free, albeit with widespread irregularities; they are certainly not fair given the Orbán government’s firm grip on public institutions. Orbán pragmatically combines cultural, socio-economic, and anti-establishment populism to maintain his autocratic regime and provides a role model for the other populist political forces throughout Europe.
Casky, Zselyke. (2016). “The Far-Right Hungarian Party Jobbik Is Moderating. Is That a Good Thing?” Freedom House. October 4, 2016. https://freedomhouse.org/article/far-right-hungarian-party-jobbik-moderating-good-thing
Krekó, Péter. (2014). “More Hungarys in eastern Europe?” Open Democracy. August 27, 2014, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/can-europe-make-it/more-hungarys-in-eastern-europe/
Lendvai, Paul. (2018). “The Most Dangerous Man in the European Union: The metamorphosis of Viktor Orbán”. The Atlantic. April 7, 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/04/viktor-orban-hungary/557246/
Müller, Jan-Werner. (2018). “Homo Orbánicus”, The New York Review of Books. April 5, 2018. https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2018/04/05/homo-orbanicus-hungary/
Walker, Shaun. (2019). “Orbán deploys Christianity with a twist to tighten grip in Hungary”, The Guardian. July 14, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/14/viktor-orban-budapest-hungary-christianity-with-a-twist.