When People Elect a Strongman to Rule

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In June 1989, a young Viktor Orban called for free elections and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary.

In June 1989, a young Viktor Orban called for free elections and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary. As a three-time prime minister and a Marshall Memorial Fellow, Orban played a key role in his country's transition to a liberal democracy and free market economy only to make a political U-turn and spend the last seven years dismantling both.

In this Leadership Perspective call, Andreas Desi, a Marshall Memorial Fellow and former editor at Népszabadság, a major Hungarian newspaper that was discontinued last year, discusses Hungary's incremental loss of freedom under Orban’s rule.

Executive Summary:

According to Desi, there are three historical reasons that lead to Viktor Orban’s rise to power and those reasons also explain why Hungarians are losing freedoms without significant protest today.

  • First, Hungary has enjoyed democracy for a very brief period of time. Its political history consists mostly of occupation by foreign empires. Hungarians have simply learned to survive under a strongman leadership. Most consider Miklos Horty, the regent of Hungary from 1920 to 1944, and Janos Kadar, the secretary general of the Communist Party from 1956 to 1988, as examples of effective leadership and crave leaders like them to govern.

  • Second, in the early 1990s, Hungary was the best positioned country for transition to free market economy among all former Soviet bloc countries. The expectation was that Hungary would catch up with Austria in ten years’ time. The transition, however, produced sizable economic suffering and income disparities, making free market economics an unpopular policy platform.

  • Third, the transition to democracy was very abrupt. Hungarians struggled to understand and champion democratic values. They remain confused about what civil society actually is as well as their identity as members of European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Hungarians still have a dilemma of whether they belong to the West or whether they belong to the East.

In this context, Orban saw an opportunity in shifting his party Fidesz to the right of the political spectrum and abandoning his liberal past for a conservative future. He used the confusion about identity to double down on issues of national sovereignty and provide a strongman leader that the people wanted. His style of leadership is exhibiting some similarities with that of Putin in Russia and Erdoğan in Turkey, but without violence.

Orban's "hybrid regime" exhibits features of democracy. It has a parliament, but one void of discussion. The Fidesz majority passes all the laws and directives without input from the opposition or from society. In fact, during his 2014 election campaign, Orban avoided all kinds of public debate.

Orban’s political agenda is not directed against the establishment, because Orban and his party are the establishment. His greatest similarity with illiberal politicians in the West is in his nationalism and opposition to immigration. There is an entire propaganda machinery that works on making the immigrant from the Middle East and North Africa “the public enemy number one or number two.”

After losing the election in 2002, Orban came to believe that he had lost the election because he had no control over the press and the media. Since his re-election in 2010, Orban and Fidesz have been systematically working on establishing this control. Businessmen with close connection to the government are buying out media outlets and establishing a government-friendly press atmosphere. More than 70 percent of media outlets in the country are now controlled by government friendly businessmen or Fidesz party members.

Desi's former newspaper, Népszabadság, was purchased by a government-friendly businessman who acted on behalf of Fidesz and the paper was suspended to deal away with its investigative reporting and critical voice. Népszabadság was a cultural institution in Hungary and a platform for public debate. Protests followed, but in two to three months, people got used to Népszabadság no longer being there.

Fidesz affiliates are also trying to establish control over the economy. They have set up economic enterprises and are buying everything from land to other companies. They are using EU and taxpayer money to bankroll this operation and their goal is to make sure that if one day a political change comes, their influence would continue. Here is another point of similarity with Turkey and with Russia, as is the control over the justice system that makes all this possible.

Nongovernmental organizations are still present in Hungary. In June, the government introduced a new law requiring nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign assistance of over $23,000 to register as “foreign agents” like they do in Russia. Foreign businesses are providing little support to nongovernmental organizations, because they do not want to upset their government relations.

There are some signs that Orban’s power structure is fragmenting. Many in Fidesz do not like the anti-EU and pro-Russia position. The next major election is set for April 2018. The opposition remains divided and Orban will claim another victory. Even if the opposition forces were to untie, they would find it challenging to convince the average Hungarian that Orban is acting against the national interest.

Hungary is a member of two alliances of democracies, but in the case of the EU, there are no mechanisms to prevent a member state from acting against the Union’s basic values. There is another problem too. Member states in the East, like Hungary and Poland, also see a different way of contributing to EU solidarity. In the case of the refugee crisis, Hungary’s contribution was to build fences to protect Europe, but not take on the housing and the care of refugees.

The situation in Hungary has created both economic and political migrants who are leaving for other EU member states. The outflow has created a void in the labor force and the shrinking of opposition against further government control. The number of people who have left the country is 600,000 and will most likely continue to grow.

András Dési was a senior editor and reporter with Hungary's lead online and print daily Népszabadság. The publication was "suspended" five days before its holding company was acquired by another with alleged ties to a ruling party. Mr. Dési worked for Népszabadság as Permanent Corresponded and Bureau Chief in Berlin (2007–2010), Paris (1999–2003) and Bonn (1993–1996). He conducted numerous interviews with lead personalities of our time and reported on European and transatlantic affairs, the Middle East, and Russia. He is a Marshall Memorial Fellow of The German Marshall Fund of the United States from 2006 and Cevalier de l'Ordre National du Merit de la Republique Francaise (Knight of the National Order of Merit of France). Currently, Mr. Dési works as freelance analyst, journalist, and columnist and a Country Reporter for the Paris-based nongovernmental organization Reporters sans frontieres (Reporters Without Borders).

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