Portrait of a leader
Many Hungarians feel well represented by a president that wants to protect his people’s identity, without any external interference.
- Wednesday, 31 October 2018
He was a young and determined leader, with liberal ideas, fighting a battle against an oppressive regime that shut its citizens away behind walls. He expressed the views of a generation seeking democracy, rights, an opportunity for a better life. He was twenty five when he founded FiatalDemokratákSzövetsége (Fidesz), a movement that encompassed the best of Hungary's liberal culture, young people who had trained abroad thanks to scholarships offered by foundations and non-governmental organisations. He too was given the chance to study "The History of Civil Society" at Oxford thanks to a bursary from the Soros Foundation. Yet today this youngster has become a champion of conservatism, a standard bearer for "illiberal democracy" inspired by nationalism and religion who builds walls along its borders, calls for the end of the European Community and gnaws away at democracy with laws designed to limit freedom of expression, bans non-governmental organisations. How is such a radical and profound transformation possible?
Basic political opportunism cannot satisfactorily explain the metamorphosis of an entire generation, of an entire movement, and, in a broader sense, of an entire political culture. Yes, Orban and his men have shaped their message according to the situation, but the progressive nature and consistent actions involved in bringing about the change seem to betray a true belief in what they are doing. He was sincere in 1989 when still just twenty six, with flowing beard and hair, he would harangue the crowds that had flocked to commemorate the Revolution of '56 while recalling that that revolution still had to be completed. And he was sincere in 2014 when, in the wake of his electoral victory, he said that "the new state we are building is an illiberal democracy". To understand the reasons for this mutation one has to review recent Hungarian history to discover after all that Orban is always the same and we were the ones who hadn't cottoned on.
There are two key steps in Fidesz's political development that help to understand how the party and its leader have changed. The first dates between 1994 and 1995, a time when the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MFD), the first of the new movements founded after the end of single party regime, was defeated in the elections. The death of its leader, JózsefAntall, in 1993, had left the conservative and Christian-Democrat electorate out to sea. The centre-right suddenly found itself without the man who had been the first to lead the country after the fall of Communism. Antall's death forced the Hungarian Democratic Forum onto the sidelines, but it also set the stage for the rise of Fidesz and its leader, Viktor Orban, who abandoned the liberal and moderate positions he held up to then and veered quite drastically to the right, and garnering the consensus of the MDF electorate. From that moment on Fidesz took on board conservative economic policies, paying lip service to the catholic electorate with traditionalist rhetoric that it had previously shunned. At the 1998 elections Fidesz's now political approach was rewarded in the ballot boxes and Orban was appointed prime minister. The electoral success put paid to the critical voices within the party which, in the meantime, had been taken over by men faithful to Orban. This was the first decisive step away from a liberal party, which supported an open society and was against state intervention in the economy, towards a very decidedly conservative, controlling and identitarian one. A mutation that didn't necessarily go down well with everyone. As Paul Lendvai recalls, in Orban: Hungary’s strongman (Oxford University Press, 2018),Fidesz's conservative shift led the Soros Foundation to stop funding the party, leading to a conflict that still dominates Hungarian politics.
The second key step came with the economic crisis of 2005, a time that witnessed heavy economic stagnation and unemployment. The socialist governments, which had been leading the party since 2002, didn't seem to have a handle on the situation. In 2006 the famous "Oszod speech", in which the then socialist prime minister FerencGyurcsany admitted lying on the country's real situation in order to win the elections, sparked a reaction that led Fidesz to triumphat the next elections in 2010 when it obtained 52% of the votes and a 2/3 majority in parliament. Orban won despite the fact that the Florin was falling off drastically and there were constant rumours of a possible default, with mortgages rising by 9% and the population in need of security. He found ways of reassuring and motivating, touching the most deep-seated chords of the Hungarian soul, bolstering the spirits with nationalist rhetoric, evoking the Revolution of '56 to be repeated, this time, against the country's new enemies: the international economic institutions, the socialists, the European Union.
Orban's nationalism is by no means simply instrumental. It has always been a fundamental element in the national reconstruction since the Communist yoke was lifted, the engine of that national counterrevolution that committed the Hungarians – much like the Poles and the Czechs – in their fight against the regime. The Hungarian identity is strongly linked to the spiritual dimension, like many other countries of the area Hungary too describes itself as a "martyr nation", in defence of Europe and a victim of history: victimism and revenge are powerful ingredients that Orban handles out of belief, rather than expediency. He knows how to represent the feelings of the Hungarian people, the rural, archaic, strongly identitarian and religious world which is the world he too comes from. For many Hungarians, he embodies an ideal. The young who followed his lead at the end of the Eighties have grown up with him, and like him they believe in the need for a Catholic and integrated Hungarian nation, untainted by different ethnic or religious convictions and without being influenced by external supranational organisms.
These issues have taken shape with the reform of the Constitution approved in 2011 in which in the preface, after an invocation to God, it explains how Hungary – which is no longer referred to as a "Republic" – is founded on Christianity and reiterated the role of the Holy Crown of Saint Stephen, the king that led to the conversion to Christianity, as a symbol of the nation. The new constitution, subsequently amended in 2013, bears witness to the completion of Fidesz's transformation and marks a decidedly authoritarian shift in the country's politics: among the many changes introduced, freedom of expression has been limited; the possibility that political parties can engage in electoral campaigns using the national media has been reduced; sanctions and jail sentences have been introduced for the homeless; the nature of a "family" has been redefined and does not include unmarried couples, couples without children or same-sex unions; the removal of the mention of peace has enabled the formation of armed organisations that pursue political objectives.
The generation which, at the end of the Eighties, fought for its country's freedom, once in power has built its own cage. Orban is the king of that cage, but he too doesn't have the keys. The mind that built the prison is also imprisoned. A captivity that also affects the opposition, incapable of coming up with alternatives. The Wall has fallen, but not in the mind of the Hungarians who saw it fall.