Hungary Insight

The Orbán years: A look back on one decade of unchecked power and mixed results

Budapest, Hungary – May 29, 2020, will mark the 10-year anniversary of Viktor Orban’s rise to power as Hungary’s Prime Minister. Such a political longevity, especially rare among EU countries, makes him a key and central political figure in Europe. But his extensive media exposure, although partly due to this political feat, also stems from his notoriously stormy relationship with the EU.

In Western Europe, Orban regularly comes under fierce criticism for his political stance and fiery rhetoric. “The godfather of illiberalism”, “Budapest strongman” or the “populist-conservative Prime Minister”: Orban is more often than not portrayed in a controversial light in Western media, which nonetheless often addresses the topic in a neutral, descriptive way rather than adopting an in-depth analytical approach. This article seeks to shed some light on the key takeaways from Orban’s 10-year rule.

To understand the current situation in Hungary, one needs to look back on what came before and examine the historical background of post-communist Hungary. The country’s shift from a Soviet satellite to a Western-oriented liberal democracy was – as elsewhere in the region – brutal, even more so taking into account the EU’s demands to speed up the accession process. In order for Hungary to join the club of free-market economies and liberal democracies, Hungary had to mimic the Western European model. This transitional period was, in effect, far from miraculous, and many parts of the population were left behind.

To make matters worse, the economic transition led to higher unemployment and increased social inequalities. It was a brutal choc for a population that had until now been living in a state – despite its level of debt – able to maintain the illusion of economic robustness. With the abrupt arrival of economic and business competition, the daily lives of many Hungarians deteriorated, while some entire cities and regions were left behind, unable to share the spoils of foreign investments and renewed economic growth. In that sense, it appears impossible to compare, today, the situation of villages like Gyöngyöspata, Hejőszalonta or Törökszentmiklós, or of a city like Ózd, with the state of larger metropolises such as Budapest, Debrecen or Szeged.

The young Viktor Orban rose to prominence in the late 1980s as as outspoken critic of the communist regime and took center stage in the protests that led to the fall of communism.

Post-communist Hungary: from democratic transition to the 2008 economic crisis

Following the collapse of communism, Hungary underwent a series of political changes and experienced a rapid string of changing governments. At first, Hungarians automatically rejected left-leaning parties by association with the communist party that had ruled the country from 1946 to 1989. During the 1990 parliamentary elections, the MSZP (Magyar Szocialista Párt) socialist party gathered only 11% of the votes. The first post-communist, democratically elected government of Hungary was thus ruled by a coalition of right-wing, Christian-democratic movements.

The new, inexperienced government was often labelled as “varázsló tanítványai” (sorcerer’s apprentice) and lost the 1994 elections despite pushing through much-needed, significant structural reforms. But at that time, Hungarian voters were largely dissatisfied with the brutal and unexpected socio-economic consequences of the shift from a planned to a free-market economy. From 1994 to 2002, Hungary experienced a regular rotating from right to left-wing governments.

In 2004, Hungary joined the European Union, a symbol of the considerable progress that had been made throughout the 1990s. Less than five years later, the country was hit hard by the 2008 financial and economic crisis. In 2009, the country’s GDP shrunk by 6.6%. On top of the many hardships linked to the worldwide recession, the socialist MSZP party implemented measures following the International Monetary Fund’s recommendations, policies that came with strong sacrifices for a population already on edge. At the same time, a political scandal involving then-Prime Minister and MSZP leader Ferenc Gyurcsány came as the final straw in a long list of grievances.

Secretly wiretapped and recorded during a meeting with members of his MSZP party, Ferenc Gyurcsány said that he had “lied day and night to Hungarians” and was overheard to be considering additional austerity measures. Mass protests broke out, eventually forcing Ferenc Gyurcsány out of office in March 2009. Gordon Bajnai then briefly led, for more than one year, a transitional government of experts and pushed through most of the IMF and the EU’s reforms.

2010: Viktor Orban’s Fidesz come-back to power

A prominent figure of Hungary’s left, Ferenc Gyurcsány has been Prime Minister from 2004 to 2009 and source of many scandals and controversies.

Unsurprisingly, the May 2010 legislative elections were easily won by Fidesz and its Christian-democratic ally, KDNP, in an unprecedented victory with the conservative coalition gathering 54% of the votes and two-thirds of the Parliament’s seats. This “super-majority” gave Viktor Orban’s government massive leeway to implement its policies and left a deep imprint on the Hungarian political landscape – with particularly harsh consequences for opposition parties. The new government had free reins to implement numerous reforms “to push the country forward” – according to the Prime Minister’s own words – but also to destroy, for both ideological and political reasons, part of what MSZP had done before.

The first steps of the second Orban government were marked by the passing of a new constitutional law (which came into effect in 2012), supposed to scrap the communist legacy of the former Constitution which, although amended on many occasions, dated back to 1949. This new law came under fierce criticism from the opposition and abroad, particularly from EU institutions. According to the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, the new Constitution undermined the rule of law, threatened the checks-and-balances system and jeopardized freedom of the press. The law also illustrated the government’s agenda to put traditional and conservative values at the heart of its policies: Hungary’s Christian roots, the definition of a couple as the union between a man and a woman or the clause that a foetus is considered a living being were all added in Hungary’s Constitution.

Simultaneously to Orban’s growing domination of his country’s political landscape and, by extension, of the rest of society, the left-wing opposition made a dire strategic mistake that paved the way for their second consecutive defeat in 2014. After losing the 2010 elections, the main leaders of MSZP – Ferenc Gyurcsány, Gordon Bajnai and Attila Meszterházy – appeared unable to agree on more or less anything. Tensions increased and Gyurcsány ended up leaving the party to found the Democratic Coalition (Démokratikus Koalíció), while Bajnai created the Together (Együtt) party. The opposition’s deep divisions and inability to build up a common platform only facilitated Orban’s power grab.

‘Bête-noire’ of PM Orban, Hungarian-born financier George Soros has been the target of many government-led attacks over the past few years. Credit: World Economic Forum

A look-back on Viktor Orban’s actions at home

On the economic front, the track record of the Orban governments II, III and IV are, broadly speaking, rather positive. Growth is here: since 2010, the Hungarian economy only experienced one year of recession (-1.6% in 2010), while the average GDP growth rate over the last 10 years stood at more than 2.5% (and close to 5% in 2017 and 2018). Evidently, Hungary’s growth should also be examined in light of external factors, including the flow of EU structural funds and the overall good state of the world economy. At home, road and railway infrastructure were the sectors that made the greatest progress and attracted the highest level of investment. On the downside, the government has failed to properly improve funding in key areas, like education and health.

Hungarians appear increasingly critical of the government’s unnecessary and sometimes reckless spending, either for the renovation or construction of new sports complex or for some political campaigns (like during the 2016 National Consultation). The fluidity and dynamism of the labour market in Hungary is, however, another good sign of the healthy state of its economy, with the country’s unemployment rate of 3.4% being the fifth lowest in the EU.

To put these figures into perspective, we should also take into account the important share of precarious and unsteady jobs permeating the Hungarian job market. Hungary also has the fourth lowest minimum wage among EU economies – although both the minimum wage and households’ living standards have been steadily increasing since 1990.

Despite these promising economic achievements, one fundamental question remains: how will the Hungarian economy react, in the coming years, when the world’s economic growth slows down and EU structural funds run out? In the face of these challenges, two of the Hungarian economy’s main structural problems – which Prime Minister Viktor Orban failed to address in his ten years in office – could have a dire impact on the country’s future growth and development.

Accused of turning Hungary into an authoritarian ‘Orbanistan’, the Hungarian Premier has extended the government’s reach into nearly all areas of society. Credit: Akos Stiller/Bloomberg/Getty Images

First, the Hungarian economy remains excessively dependent on Germany, particularly investments from German companies that established themselves in Hungary, often attracted by the country’s low labour costs. Germany alone is the recipient of 27% of Hungary’s exports.

Second, Hungary is facing a dramatic demographic decline. Since 1990, the country lost more than half a million inhabitants (over 5% of its total population) And while the government attempts to upend this trend by implementing a pro-natalist policy, both the government’s financial incentives and spurring rhetoric haven’t achieved much yet. This trend is all the more worrying considering the emigration drive primarily concerns Hungary’s youth.

On the social front, Viktor Orban’s impact is far less encouraging. His government’s policies continue to favour the upper classes to the detriment of Hungary’s middle and working classes – a fact that even the government’s pre-electoral gifts and handouts to retirees and low-income households cannot hide.

More broadly speaking, Orban-led governments have largely ignored the state and situation of the marginalized fringes of society. In late 2018, the government passed a law criminalizing homelessness, now inscribed to the Constitution. The fate and treatment of Hungary’s Roma highly-marginalized population is even worse, and their situation has hardly changed an inch over the past ten years – as exemplified by the European Court of Human Rights’ ruling condemning Hungary for its failure to protect its Roma minority in the Király case.

Widespread corruption and cronyism remains another significant problem for Hungary. Since 2015, corruption has steadily increased under the Orban governments, with Hungary now ranked second to last in the European Union, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

Last but not least, it’s impossible to write about Orban’s rule without mentioning the democratic backsliding and moves to undermine the rule of law – exemplified by the fact that Hungary went from being ranked as a “free” to “semi-free” democracy, according to Freedom House. Press freedom has been one of the main victims of the Orban era. In 2011, the government passed a media law that faced harsh criticism both at home and abroad, including from the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission. Hungarian authorities eventually amended the original draft of the bill and reached a compromise with the EU.

Over his 10 years in power, Viktor Orban has sought to stifle dissent and silence all opposition to his policies, as exemplified by his latest move to bring theaters under government control.

The situation has continued to deteriorate along the years, leading, among other worrying developments, to the bankruptcy or shutting down of several prominent national media and newspapers, like Nepszabadsag and Magyar Nemzeten in 2017 or Heti Valaszen the following year. According to Reporters without Borders, Hungary dropped 14 spots in the international ranking on press freedom in 2018, falling to the 87th position in 2019 out of 180 surveyed countries.

More broadly speaking, Prime Minister Orban has failed to address the Hungarian society’s structural problems, or even worsened them in some cases, while centering almost his entire domestic policy on the sole topic of immigration. The Hungarian PM played on and manipulated the fears of the population regarding so-called “mass migration”, as exemplified by the fact that his opposition to the EU’s migrant quotas scheme has been met with large approval from the population.

A look back on Viktor Orban’s actions abroad

Under Viktor Orban’s rule, Hungary appears to have found an undeniable role to play in Central Europe, as well as in the EU as a whole, despite the numerous controversies linked to his foreign policy stances.

At the regional level, Hungary is a full-fledged member of the Visegrad Group. During the past decade, the V4 grouping gained in strength and visibility at the EU level and managed to showcase a common position on a number of issues. The group’s signature topic, immigration, handed Hungary and its allies their first big win in their battle against the EU, which was, and still is, unable to reach a European-wide agreement on the issue. The Visegrad Group has now become a key player of the EU debate on immigration, and has for now not faced any kind of reprisals, whether financial or institutional, despite their refusal to comply with EU demands.

The topic of immigration is a clear expression of the solidarity Visegrad countries seek to showcase. Also worth mentioning is the “special relationship” between Hungary and Poland, both facing proceedings from the Article 7 procedure and potential EU sanctions due to democratic backsliding. All these areas of cooperation between Central European countries should be nuanced with undeniable disagreements, for instance regarding their relations with Russia. Hungary has also taken center stage in its regional neighbourhood on the topic of EU enlargement, as expressed by the government’s efforts to facilitate Croatia’s EU membership during its 2012 rotating EU presidency.

Hungary has become increasingly active in the Western Balkans over the past few years, a region where it has multiplied trade deals and actively lobbied in favour of their EU accession in the near future. The nomination of Hungary’s Olivér Várhelyi as the EU Commissioner in charge of Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy in 2019 gave even more weight to Hungary’s vested interests in the region. But Hungary’s relations with its neighbours are also going, in some cases, through a rough patch. As expressed by Hungary’s relations with Ukraine, which have significantly deteriorated over the past year. The diplomatic rift was initially sparked by Ukraine’s move to pass a law restricting the use of minority languages, and thus undermining the use of Hungarian minorities’ language in the country. Since then, Hungary has blocked any attempt by the Ukrainian government to move closer to the EU and NATO.

The Visegrad Group’s focus on anti-migrant rhetoric and frequent clashes with EU institutions could threaten Central European countries’ standing in Europe, analysts argue.

Viktor Orban’s government has put a lot of energy to bolster relations with Hungarian minorities living in neighbouring countries (Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia and Slovenia). Apart from granting Hungarian citizenship to many of them, the government has funded a string of cultural and educational projects to help Hungarian minorities abroad preserve and safeguard their language, culture and traditions.

At the EU level, relations between Brussels and Budapest are, more often than not, notoriously stormy and tumultuous. Tensions reached an all-time high with the largely symbolic vote of the European Parliament in September 2018 to launch the Article 7 procedure, a so-called “nuclear-option” that could theoretically strip Hungary of its voting rights at the European Council.

The Hungarian government played on these frequent clashes to blame the EU bureaucracy and accuse them of trying to force multiculturalism on EU countries whilst facilitating a mass immigration process favoured by the world’s financial elites and its lobbies (most notably, those gravitating around Hungarian-born philanthropist George Soros). Taking a step back, it could be argued that this growing diplomatic rift between Hungary and the EU enabled both sides to legitimize and pursue their respective “domestic policy goals”.

Evidently, the Hungarian Premier has now become the standard bearer and most outspoken spokesman of an alternative European agenda: illiberalism. Over the past few years, Orban has tried to turn his domestic policy into a credible alternative to the progressive model most widespread in Europe. His ideology opposes multiculturalism, criticizes values and customs seen as too liberal and promotes a social-conservative approach to favour a come-back to traditional values – such as marriage, family and religion. In Orban’s illiberal mindset, no obstacle – whether the rule of law, democratic institutions or individual rights – should stand in the way of the “common good”.

Viktor Orban has sought to tighten ties with Turkish President Erdogan, who visited Budapest last November. Credit: Agency

In other words – in the PM’s worldview – supposedly faithfully respecting and serving the people’s interests justifies pushing aside democratic values and principles. Orban thus stands in opposition to the liberal and progressive model promoted by French President Emmanuel and has, in this ideological clash, positioned himself as a key political figure in the EU. We also shouldn’t fail to mention the importance gained by Fidesz at the European level following its landslide victories in the 2014 and 2019 European Parliament elections.

Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party has become a prominent actor in the European People’s Party (EPP) over the past few years, even though its increasingly radical positions have led to a growing gap with its a number of its right-wing conservative allies and paved the way for Fidesz’ temporary suspension from the EPP last year. Considering the Hungarian population’s predominantly pro-EU stance and the fact that the Premier has little room for manoeuvre on that front, this struggle could mark a turning point in Viktor Orban’s EU policy.

Orban’s Hungary also stood out on the international scene by fostering closer ties with three of the world’s main powers: China, Russia and Turkey. Hungary’s EU partners were vocal critics of Budapest’s rapprochement with these three autocratic states, prompted by the fear that such relations could harm the EU as a whole in the long run. Hungary’s repeated vetoes on EU measures meant to placate its Chinese and Russian allies only reinforced this view among the country’s European partners.

Prime Minister Orban was also keen to develop close relations with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey. In this bilateral context, Hungary plays on a cultural particularity that makes it close to Turkic-speaking countries: through its history and language, Hungary claims a cultural, linguistic and historical common heritage with Turkey and, more generally, other Turkic-speaking nations. In 2018, Hungary became an observer in the Turkic Council gathering five countries cooperating in the fields of economy, energy and culture. Hungary has since then intensified cultural and economic exchanges with those states and even took part in the World Nomad Games.

Almost ten years in the running, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s rule came with undeniably mixed results. Although the good state of the Hungarian economy has been met with approval by large parts of the population, his social polices remain riddled with shortcomings. On the international stage, Orban has upped Hungary’s role by becoming a key player in Central and Eastern Europe and, more broadly, in the EU. This broad observation is however tarnished by Hungary’s propensity to lead a dangerously individualist foreign policy.

Orban’s relationship with EU institutions, including the European Commission, is notoriously rocky. Will the election of a new executive bring any change? Credit: European Commission

Ten years after coming back to power, Orban remains highly popular in Hungary and is expected to easily win the 2022 parliamentary elections. His popularity appears the strongest among Hungary’s upper classes, elderly, rural populations and Hungarian minorities in neighbouring countries. The country’s youth and urban populations remain, on the contrary, largely beyond his reach. An echo of the country’s tumultuous history, many Hungarians see in Orban the stereotypical figure of the sovereign and powerful political leader able to defend the people’s interests against foreign threats. Orban has, for now, been able to embody such a figure in the eyes of public opinion and cater to the needs and expectations of large parts of the Hungarian electorate.

To some extent, his political victories and electoral successes are also due to the opposition’s weaknesses more than to his own tangible achievements. Keeping a particularly bad memory of the previous socialist-led governments, many voters decide to stick with the belief that Orban represents, for better or for worse, a more convenient alternative to what they’ve experienced before. Although the PM’s authoritarian tendencies should rightfully be a cause for concern, Hungary remains, as of now, a democracy, with an opposition getting increasingly organized and gaining momentum, including thanks to a young electoral base and through social media. Last October’s municipal elections brought proof that change is still possible, as long as the “sacred union” between opposition parties can endure until the next 2022 legislative elections.

Main photo credit: Philipp Horak/Anzenberger/Re​dux

This article was written by Benjamin Ősi Alquier and originally published in French by Euro Créative, an official partner of Kafkadesk.

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Euro Créative is an independent French think-tank undertaking reflection on the multi-thematic developments occurring in Central and Eastern Europe. Its objective is to increase knowledge and stimulate interest about this region in France in order to develop political, cultural and economic relations with these countries. Euro Créative regularly publishes policy briefs, thematic reports and articles, interviews, organizes conferences and implements civil society projects across Europe. 

4 comments on “The Orbán years: A look back on one decade of unchecked power and mixed results

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  2. Pingback: Thousands march in Budapest to reject Orbán’s Roma hate campaign – Kafkadesk

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