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The "real" Viktor Orbán

About the author
Miklos Haraszti teaches at the University of California's Budapest Study Center, and writes a weekly column for the Budapest Business Journal. He was a blacklisted author (of A Worker in a Worker’s State, among other books), and a participant in the 1989 Hungarian Roundtable Talks on the transition to free elections. As a member of the Hungarian Parliament, he was media affairs spokesperson for the Alliance of Free Democrats.
Who and what is Viktor Orbán, the still youthful but now – after his narrow election defeat to the Socialist Party candidate, Peter Medgyessy – ‘ex’-prime minister of Hungary?

The British conservative philosopher, Roger Scruton, thinks he knows. But his sketch of Viktor Orbán’s ‘centre-right’ politics amounts only to a sequence of ideological statements that simplifies the complex social and intellectual history of post-communist Hungary. The real Orbán story is factually very different to the Scruton version, and in ways that reverse the complaisant ideological picture he portrays.

In the beginning

Roger Scruton sees Viktor Orbán as having been a conservative from the start, “after some hesitation”. In fact, Orbán’s circle, before its sharp turn to the right in 1993 (a purely political manoeuvre), had been drawn in the 1980s from both of the two groups that are now the main opponents of his Fidesz party – first the reform communists, the predecessor of today’s Socialist Party, which founded the ‘elite colleges’ for Orbán’s generation, and later the Democratic Opposition, the predecessor of today’s liberal Alliance of Free Democrats.

I was a member of the latter, and Orbán’s presence filled us for a decade with the complacent belief that a rich supply of political talent was coming our way. And during this period Viktor Orbán was the ultimate anarcho-liberal (the first campaign music of Fidesz, the Federation of Young Democrats, in 1990 was – in English! – Roxette’s Listen To Your Heart).

He was both a pupil and an embodiment of the Democratic Opposition’s underground culture. In sartorial matters as well – his flowing, bearded locks were so similar to mine that Hans Magnus Enzensberger, visiting Budapest’s Bibó College in the early 1980s in response to my offer to introduce him to an exhilarating new opposition generation, actually ran up to Viktor and embraced him because he mixed us up…

In fact, Viktor was my best pupil less in style than in substance – that is, in the art of introducing new freedoms by calculated provocation. But he was even more influenced by János Kis, the strategic leader of Democratic Opposition. From that rigorously liberal philosopher he learned a legalistic, American Civil Liberties Union-style constitutional dogmatism.

In the early 1990s, nobody was sharper than Viktor Orbán on the Hungarian Forum of Democrats, when as a conservative governing party HFD tried to twist Hungary’s new consensus-based constitution into a majoritarian domination of the executive. Yet it was precisely this illiberal post-communist aberration that became Fidesz’ trademark reading of “conservatism”. Only, of course, after Orbán’s arrival in power, five years later.

No enemies to the right?

So what is Viktor Orbán today? Hungary’s most gifted post-modern politician, the builder of a bipolar system in this country. He hammers on the Liberals-Are-Communists theory in order to have a united “other side”. Aided by luck and talent, he has successfully pursued a unification of the right-wing forces since 1993. His luck consisted of leadership crises at some of the right-wing parties, and his talent consisted of a capacity to change ideology and perform as the idol of his target voters whenever needed.

He has led himself and his Fidesz party from radical anti-authoritarians to radical Christian-Conservatives. He took pride in 1990 in making Fidesz a member of the Liberal International one step earlier than SZDSZ (the Alliance of Free Democrats) managed; but after his 1998 victory his party officially left the Liberal International for the Christian-Democratic one.

It is appropriate to talk about Orbán’s völkisch politics, albeit not at the root (as alleged by Scruton) but at the end of Orbán’s journey to unify the country’s right-wing forces. For the dilemma that has transfixed the country for the last three years was whether or not he would govern with the help of István Csurka’s far-right Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIÉP) after the 2002 elections.

Csurka’s party slipped into Parliament in 1998 with slightly more votes than the required five per cent threshold, and for four years it acted as an open supporter of Orbán’s government from the “opposition” benches. MIÉP defines itself as “Not Left, Not Right, Just Christian and Hungarian”; it is anti-western, anti-capitalist, anti-communist and anti-liberal, and believes all these enemies are either Jewish or commanded by Jews.

Orbán has not solicited MIÉP’s support, but in exchange for it he refused to distance himself from Csurka’s views, and filled the state media with Csurka’s propagandists and their hate hours against the “Liberalbolsheviks”.

In the 2002 elections, Csurka’s party, although it did not diminish in support, could not jump the threshold because of the high turnout. MIÉP’s ejection from Parliament ended the trepidation that after the election, if parliamentary mathematics demands it, Orbán might formalise his cooperation with Csurka’s party (just as his best friend Wolfgang Schussel, the leader of the Austrian centre-right People’s Party, coalesced with far-right Jorg Haider’s Freedom Party).

I find it regrettable that this dubious relationship is missing from Scruton’s description of Orbán’s politics – even if there is a faint echo of it in his characterisation of the Budapest intelligentsia as ‘‘a long-distance product of the Habsburg imperium: cosmopolitan, with a large Jewish component, and strongly influenced by Marxism’’. For this is precisely the theory proposed by Csurka’s propagandists – and gradually accepted by Fidesz – to explain why the folks in Budapest criticise Orbán.

Being Viktor Orban

A belated but ardent anti-communism, and a shamefully opportunistic anti-liberalism is the natural connecting tissue of Orbán’s neo-conservative alliance, and the Socialist Party is its enemy of choice. But that does not prevent Fidesz from having a lot of joint goals with the Socialists. Their future two-party system needs first to get rid of the Liberals in the middle.

As this year’s election drew nearer, both big parties’ main message to voters was roughly as follows: “Decide who you are more scared of! If you are more alarmed by the coming alliance of Fidesz with Csurka’s racists, go to the Socialists. If you are more terrified by a comeback of the powerful ex-communist network, go to Fidesz. Seek force against force, do not bother with quality of argument, pluralism, liberalism, and republicanism; and above all, forget about how weary you are of both warring political Mafiosi. Forget how super-corrupt a two-party system would be in this part of the world, east of Austria!”

Which leads us unerringly to the actual meaning of Orbán’s politics for those who vote in this country, one that is quite different from Scruton’s ideological blueprints. The latter is right to think that Orbán’s government, whatever the politics of its leader, might have become the first central European post-communist government to be re-elected. But since Scruton’s paean was written, Orbán’s government and his united right lost the second-round election on 21 April to the Socialists and the Liberals.

How could Orbán have lost in 2002 to the very parties from which, in 1998, he inherited a nation stricken by economic shock-therapy, enabling him to reap not only the political yield of his predecessors’ neoliberal austerity programme, but also the first major growth cycle of the post-communist period?

The answer is that Orbán’s government, although managing not to halt the growth, behaved vis-à-vis the economy in a plundering way that was almost far-left in character. It re-nationalised much of the economy, and siphoned off immense resources of taxpayers’ money to the private accounts of ‘friendly’ companies, thus ending any possibility for the public to exert any control or supervision; then solidified this outrageous lack of transparency by using loopholes and unconstitutionally majoritarian institutional and legislative coups.

In a word, Orbán’s rule was utterly nepotistic – and here comes his ideological innovation compared to the former communists. Yes, Orbán did all this in the name of a belated anti-communist sociological revolution. But that populism is read in Hungary (unlike in Scruton’s study room) as a return to communist ways rather than a healing of the injustice that the nomenklatura-bourgeoisie inflicted on the nation. It is understood as stealing openly, while claiming an ideological justification. Does this sound familiar?

Yet while Orbán turned back the clock on liberal republicanism and state transparency, he did not move to reform any of the major fields still not westernised: health care, agriculture, or the tax system. This is what most voters thought of him: “The ex-communists were at least ashamed when robbing the taxpayers; they at least did not antagonise the society by cutting it into two artificial halves, a policy especially dishonest after Hungary’s exemplary ‘Handshake Transition’; they at least did not antagonise the neighbouring countries for the sake of a domestic political gain in the far-right camp; they at least did not tamper with the press; but they did at least try to introduce major westernising reforms.” This contrast of attitudes decided the vote.

The essence of Viktor Orbán’s political achievement is therefore very far from that defined within Roger Scruton’s ideological domain. The Hungarian voters saw Orbán’s unquestionable political talent shrink to the achievement of being the first post-communist uniter of the entire right-wing spectrum – while excluding the liberals from the blend. Has this frighteningly eastern peculiarity entirely escaped Roger Scruton’s attention?

Western European conservatives are both hopelessly pro-market and anti-statist, and therefore have never been able (nor even wished) to achieve political victory on the basis of an anti-liberal coalition. Orbán’s is a real “first” since the similar accomplishment of the central European authoritarian right between the two world wars. His success is diminished only by the blunder that this time, it is not bought by the electorate – for, unlike between the two world wars, the latter now has the right of a truly free vote.

I see in this development the ultimate proof of Hungary’s maturity, its readiness to be a “Western” nation. Hungary and its people have moved on by sending Viktor Orbán into opposition - and thereby granting him more time to study the truth that the centre-right should not be very different in a post-communist democracy than in any other settled kind.


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