'You cannot negotiate with Orbán': hardline PM seeks fourth term

Populist expected to win vote on platform of hostility to migration and pursuit of ‘moral amends’

Hungary’s Viktor Orbán rallies his troops from atop a white horse, before they advance in their thousands to slaughter an army of orcs, made up of the Hungarian prime minister’s political opposition and led by the billionaire George Soros.

The video, a crudely altered Lord of the Rings scene, was posted by a pro-Orbán media outlet on Monday, and provoked sniggers among opposition-minded, liberal Hungarians. But the military imagery and demonisation of the opposition are an apt reflection of an election campaign that has been marked by brutal rhetoric and occasional threats.

Hungary will vote in a parliamentary election on Sunday, and while the race has narrowed, Orbán’s Fidesz party is still expected to win a majority, giving its leader a third consecutive term as prime minister.

Orbán has campaigned almost exclusively on the issue of migration. He has portrayed himself as the defender of a white, Christian Hungary at risk from refugees and migrants, and under attack from Soros, the financier and philanthropist of Jewish-Hungarian origin.

His admirers, including nativist politicians across Europe, idolise Orbán for taking the fight for closed borders to Brussels, and for speaking about immigration in a way that goes beyond all but the most radical and racist of far-right politicians in the rest of Europe.

Hungarian soldiers patrol the border with Serbia near the village of Gara
Hungarian soldiers patrol the border with Serbia near the village of Gara. Photograph: Laszlo Balogh/Getty Images

His detractors despise him for the same reasons, and describe him as the most dangerous leader in Europe. In the eight years he has been in charge, Orbán’s government has rewritten the constitution, remodelled the justice system, tightened control over the media and placed loyalists in key positions across various previously independent institutions.

If there is one thing critics and supporters agree on, it is that Orbán is always up for a fight. His rule has been characterised by the battles he has picked: with Brussels, with Soros, with his billionaire best friend-turned-worst enemy, and with liberal ideas of compassion for refugees and migrants.

On occasion, Orbán has spoken explicitly of politics in military terms. In 2015, he told a gathering of students in Budapest: “If I stand in the field with a big sword in my hand and three people attack me, then I cannot start moralising or arguing; then there is only one task, slaughter all three of them.”

Over the years, this drive and viciousness have remained constant, even as the enemies changed. Long before Orbán was battling Soros, he was fighting the Russians, on occasion using Soros money to do so.

Fidesz was born three decades ago, in March 1988, as a youth movement aimed at opposing the tottering communist order in Hungary.

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Gábor Fodor, who was Orbán’s close friend and flatmate, as well as a Fidesz co-founder, recalled: “It was the first step towards doing something formally against the regime.” The first Fidesz manifestos were printed using copiers financed by Soros.

Almost immediately, Orbán, then in his mid-20s, stood out as a natural leader among the Fidesz pack, and he achieved national fame in 1989 when he called for Soviet troops to leave the country in a fiery speech on live television.

Fodor said Orbán was a genuine liberal at the time, but marked by burning ambition. “By the early 1990s, he had already decided he would be the next prime minister,” he said.

Orbán grew up in extremely tough conditions in a small town, and was never fully accepted by Budapest intellectuals. Some put the viciousness of his current campaigns against liberal elites to a frustration that he could never fit in.

Tony Blair with Viktor Orbán in 1998
Tony Blair with Orbán at 10 Downing Street for talks in 1999, during the Hungarian prime minister’s first term. Photograph: Ian Waldie/EPA

András Vágvölgyi, an early Fidesz member who edited the party magazine – also funded by Soros – in the early 1990s, said: “He’s like Rastignac from Balzac novels.

“He’s the country boy who comes to the city and wants to conquer it, but sometimes has an inferiority complex. He really hates liberal intellectuals.”

In 1993, Orbán and his close associates in Fidesz began to take a conservative turn, which over the years would become more pronounced, as the radical, scruffy revolutionaries became suited family men who stood for traditional values.

Zsuzsanna Szelényi, who left the party in 1993 along with Fodor and a number of Fidesz MPs, said it was impossible to have a political debate with him. “You cannot negotiate with Orbán. His way of negotiating is to push you down until you are too weak to stand up again,” she said.

Szelényi believes the ideological shift was pure opportunism, as Orbán spotted a political vacuum on the right. Fodor agreed the switch was cynical, but believes Orbán has grown into the role over time. “I think in the first years he was a Potemkin conservative, it was a cynical decision to win, but later I think he began to really believe it,” he said.

Fidesz won the election in 1998, and Orbán became Europe’s youngest prime minister. But the party experienced a surprise defeat in 2002, and the lesson Orbán took was to fight harder. The party has won two-thirds parliamentary majorities at the past two elections, enabling the prime minister to make constitutional changes via parliament.

Orbán’s success is not all down to ambitiousness and ruthlessness; there is also warmth and charm when required. One of the founding members of Fidesz, who is no longer active in politics and asked not to be named, said: “He has incredible charisma about him, he’s a real politician.

“I hate the things Orbán represents now, but each time I see him, I feel that attraction to him again. I can’t draw myself out of this magic spell.”

Since the 2015 migration crisis, Orbán has positioned himself as the champion of illiberal Europe, building a fence to keep immigrants and refugees out and promising to fight liberals who demand EU countries show compassion. In recent months, Orbán’s campaign rhetoric has involved textbook populist scaremongering, warning that increased immigration “would bring with it terrorism and crime, and would expose our womenfolk and daughters to danger”.

A member of the liberal Momentum party pastes a leaflet over an anti-migration poster in Budapest
A member of the liberal Momentum party pastes a leaflet over an anti-migration poster in Budapest. Photograph: Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images

Many still see Orbán’s populism as little more than a distraction tactic. Unlike many of the zealots in the Polish government, Orbán often seems more driven by retaining power than ideology. Péter Krekó, the executive director of the Budapest-based thinktank Political Capital, said: “The real driver for this government is nepotistic corruption.”

With the exception of Vladimir Putin, there is not another leader in Europe who is surrounded by a clique of those who have stood loyally beside him for decades.

The president and the speaker of the parliament are Fidesz founding members who have been with Orbán since 1988. His childhood friend Lajos Simicska was the power behind the throne for many years, becoming one of Hungary’s richest businessmen, but he fell out spectacularly with Orbán in 2015. Others close to Orbán have grown rich during his time in office, and faced corruption scandals.

As information about governmental corruption continues to leak, often through media outlets run by Simicska, there are signs that the electorate is tiring of the endless scaremongering on migration. The opposition goes into the election still fractured but newly energised.

Hungary’s electoral system means 40% of the vote will be enough to secure a healthy majority for Fidesz, but the closer-than-expected campaign has led some to fear that Orbán could become even more ruthless if he wins.

In a major speech in March, among the usual dark rhetoric on migration and Soros, Orbán dropped a threat against unspecified enemies. “After the election, we will of course seek amends – moral, political and legal amends,” he said.

Kreko said: “I think in this election campaign, he has felt the chilly wind of potentially losing power, and he will come back with renewed fight.”


Shaun Walker in Budapest

The GuardianTramp

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