The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Viktor Orban became the real threat to the West

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Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban seeks to win reelection for a third consecutive term this Sunday. His ruling Fidesz party is widely expected to secure enough seats to give Orban a fresh mandate, although a fragmented vote could deprive him of a decisive majority.

In power since 2010, Orban is Europe's second-longest-ruling leader after Germany's Angela Merkel — and he's become just as influential.

A liberal who drifted right in the decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, Orban, 54, now styles himself an “illiberal democrat,” a majoritarian populist who stands up for his nation's interests, traditions and culture. Since 2015, no European leader has been more vehement in opposition to migrants and refugees than Orban, whose scaremongering over Islam and the threats to Europe's Christian identity found loud echoes among the continent's far right and prefigured the arrival of a divisive demagogue in the White House.

Austria's new prime minister, Sebastian Kurz, who came to power in alliance with the far right, praised Orban's tough stance on immigration. President Trump seemed to take a page from Orban's book when he delivered a thundering blood-and-soil speech last year in Poland. On a trip to Europe this year, Stephen K. Bannon, far-right ideologue and former Trump adviser, hailed Orban as a “real hero” and the “most significant guy in the European scene.”

“Orban’s defiance presents the E.U. with a far different threat than the one it faced in 2016, when Britain voted to exit and speculation swirled over who might go next,” my colleagues Griff Witte and Michael Birnbaum wrote. “It may be more serious than that — a challenge that endangers the character of the union.”

Orban's critics see him as a soft autocrat. Hungary under his rule is far from a jackbooted dictatorship, but its democracy is diverging markedly from that of many of its partners in the European Union. Opponents point to a new class of crony capitalists establishing fiefdoms with the prime minister's blessing. Orban's government exercises subtle yet domineering control over the judiciary and the media. It has reworked the country's electoral system to its benefit partly through gerrymandering and giving citizenship to ethnic Hungarians abroad, the vast majority of whom opt for Fidesz. And it is squeezing the space for civil society, stepping up efforts to target NGOs and other institutions whose politics or work do not align with the ruling party's interest.

Politico's Lili Bayer likened Orban's tenure to an earlier era of Communist apparatchiks. “When it comes to the practicalities of governing and securing support, both Orban and his Polish counterparts have deployed an approach that — in its paternalism, heavy-handedness, obsession with external enemies and even class-based rhetoric — is reminiscent of their despised predecessors,” she wrote.

But at least for now, it seems to be a winning strategy. Orban beats the drum of a far-right populist, albeit one who has a seat at the table in Brussels and powerful allies across Europe. His signature tactic is a weaponized culture war, anchored in an emotional narrative of Hungarian victimhood and redemption. He wants to make the nation great again after centuries of subjugation and humiliation at the hands of the Ottomans, the victors of World War I, the Soviet Union and now menacing globalists to the west.

“We sent home the sultan with his army, the Habs­burg kaiser with his raiders and the Soviets with their comrades,” Orban said at rally to more than 100,000 people in central Budapest last month. “Now we will send home Uncle George.” That was a reference to Jewish American financier George Soros, who Orban cast as a central villain in the country's politics, the shadowy hand pulling the strings in the background, funding enemies who are somehow eager to flood the nation with migrants and otherwise betray the people.

“Our opponents are fighting, kicking, biting,” Orban said, darkly warning of a purge to come. “But, of course, after the elections we will take revenge — moral, political and legal revenge.”

It's particularly galling to some observers in Brussels that Orban can conduct such a campaign while drinking deeply from the economic well of the European Union. Generous E.U. aid and subsidies — in 2016, Hungary received $5.5 billion in E.U. funds, while contributing about $1.2 billion — have helped the leader bankroll giant public works programs and bring down unemployment. “Orban is waging his freedom fight against the E.U. with huge amounts of E.U. money,” Peter Kreko, executive director of the Budapest-based policy research firm Political Capital, told my colleagues. “Lenin said 'Capitalists will sell the rope to us with which we’ll hang them.' Well, the E.U. is not selling. It’s giving it to Orban for free.”

Meanwhile, Fidesz's place inside the European People's Party, a powerful center-right alliance in the European Parliament, gives it a degree of political cover. Orban can call on the support of prominent Western European politicians, including leading figures in Merkel's Bavarian sister party, who share Orban's antipathy toward migrants. This institutional backing, critics say, has prevented the European Union from taking a tougher line with Hungary.

“Orban’s success over the years does not demonstrate that right-wing populism is an unstoppable force,” Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Muller wrote in an essay for the New York Review of Books. “Rather, his victories have been enabled by the cynicism of center-right politicians in Europe who refuse to distance themselves from what is in fact a white nationalist government.”

Orban's detractors warn that the siren song of his populism is sending his country on a perilous course. “It seems that Orban’s model is Miklos Horthy’s antediluvian regime in interwar Hungary, a soft dictatorship that defied the country’s real and imagined foreign enemies and initially appealed to Hungarian pride,” wrote Charles Gati, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “But it left humiliation and destruction in its wake at the end of World War II.”

Muller, in a separate op-ed for the New York Times, feared that Sunday's ballot marked a moment of reckoning for Europe.

“This election is probably the last before Hungary shifts from what is already a deeply damaged democracy to what political scientists would call a full-blown electoral autocracy,” he wrote. “Elections would still be held in the future, but a real turnover of power would be impossible. Thus the weekend’s ballot is also a test as to whether there can be an autocracy inside the European Union, a self-declared club of democracies.”

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