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When Orbán Was a Liberal

Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party began life as a liberal opposition to Hungary’s Soviet-backed regime. But far from waging a generic fight for freedom, Orbán and his crony capitalist allies turned Hungary into the laboratory for a new far right.

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban addresses supporters after the announcement of the partial results of European Parliamentary election on May 26, 2019 in Budapest, Hungary. Laszlo Balogh / Getty

In 1990, a group of young activists were called onstage at a Budapest concert called “Rendszerzaro Hazibuli,” translated as “House Party of Regime Change.” The rock concert combined with a campaign rally for Hungary’s hottest young liberal party, in an event celebrating the end of the dictatorship and the beginning of the Soviet army’s withdrawal. Towards one side of the stage stood a twenty-six-year-old law student with his hands shoved awkwardly into blue jeans — a young Viktor Orbán. The youthful liberal activist peered out shyly from beneath a late eighties bowl-fringe, giving a nervous smile to the crowd and a little wave to the camera. Orbán and his fellow activists even performed a sing-along with the headlining band, leading an amphitheater of thousands in a glam-rock anthem denouncing the corrupt, authoritarian regime.

The contrast with today’s Orbán is striking. The self-described “illiberal” prime minister is perhaps best known for his conspiracy theories about George Soros seeking to ethnically replace the Hungarian people with migrants from the Middle East. In stark contrast to the floppy-haired kid who sang onstage with a rock band, today’s Orbán is now a decidedly paternalistic figure, often making speeches in front of a massive Hungarian flag and railing against migrants. He concluded one 2018 speech by leading the nation in a mass prayer, shouting nationalist slogans as young Hungarians dressed in traditional folk costumes came out to join him on stage, cheered on by a feverish crowd waving red, white, and green flags.

But if in the early 1990s Fidesz was a “radical, iconoclastic” group of young people pushing for freedom and democracy in the post-Communist period, how did it become the nationalistic, uber-patriarchal, and despotic regime we see today? How could a group of scrappy young intellectuals in acid-washed jeans evolve into gray-suited despots waving in front of flags and ordering the censure and closure of universities?

The answer lies in the history of the organization itself. Tracing the shifting dynamics within the group that promised change after decades of Soviet-backed regimes, we can see how the corrupt authoritarianism that characterized that era reproduced itself.

In the thirty years since the fall of the old regime, Fidesz has established itself as an all-dominant party with Orbán as its helm. That party’s history is the story of a man whose hunger for power and personal gain transcended ideological commitment — and even more so any initial sense of idealism — as he dismantled Hungarian democracy itself. Delving into a particular example of the transnational right-wing populist discourse which proliferates across the West today, this is also the story of those who were unwilling to compromise their commitment to the new democratic ideals, and found themselves driven out of their party and power altogether.

Youth Activism

In the early 1980s, Bibó Istvan College was known as a nerve center of intellectual activity and outspoken youth activism. A prestigious “Szakkollégium”’ or student honors society, of the historic Eötvös Loránd University, the college was named after one of the tragic heroes of Hungary’s 1956 revolution. Istvan Bibó (as written using Hungarian name order, with the surname before the first name), is famed for making the last declaration of the Hungarian National Government before it was taken over by Red Army forces. Titled For Freedom and Truth, the proclamation called on the Hungarian people to resist rather than recognize the Soviet-installed puppet government. Bibó made the proclamation from an empty parliament, quite literally the only minister left in the building, who stayed to write his proclamation even after Red Army forces took control of the building. Urban legend has it that when the Soviet soldiers entered his office and ordered him to hand over his weapons, Bibó gave them his typewriter.

Bibó represented a fiery dissidence and conviction — qualities that carried over to the school itself. Not only idealistic, Bibó’s students represented the best and brightest of Hungary’s young intellectuals: its members had to be law or political science scholars and had to pass a rigorous entrance exam simply to join the society.

One promising young member was a young law student from the countryside named Viktor Orbán. He had come to Budapest in 1983 in order to study at Eötvös Loránd University — one of the best universities in the country. Though it stands only about sixty-six kilometers away from his hometown of Felcsut, Budapest was a world away. At around 2 million people to Felcsut’s 2,000, Budapest was the cosmopolitan locus of the Hungarian cultural elite and counterculture alike. Despite (or even partly thanks to) the Soviet-backed authoritarian regime, an underground intellectual class found its footing in Budapest, incubated in the cafes, bars, and university halls dotted along the Danube.

Within Bibo’s already select milieu, an even smaller segment of rabble-rousers emerged. Known as the “dorm kids,” these were the students who came from far enough outside Budapest that they had to live at Bibó’s dormitory — meaning they didn’t belong to the core of Budapest’s existing intellectual life. They included István Bajkai, today an MP, as well as Orbán’s family lawyer, László Kövér, Fidesz politician and current head of the Hungarian parliament, Gábor Szabó, sociology professor and vocal critic of today’s Fidesz, Gabor Fodor, former Fidesz party present and current opposition leader, Peter Molnár, who would become a legal scholar and anti-hate speech activist, and a young Orbán.

The dorm kids lived a vibrant artistic, intellectual, and political life. “Orbán and I actually met doing a student play,” recalls Molnár in an interview in the Central European University cafeteria. “It was a production of an absurdist play — the Peter Weiss drama ‘The Suffering and Curing of Mr. Mockingpot.’ Our friend directed it, and we all played in it. I had a fairly large role, but Orbán just had a very small part.” Molnár leans across the table, a humorous glint in his eye. “The funny part about it is that he played a despot.” Bibó was also home to an outspoken student journal, staffed by many of the dorm kids. When George Soros visited in 1985, he gave the school a photocopier and donated money to subsidize the publication — money that was accepted by the journal’s editor, one Viktor Orbán.

At the time, Orbán and his peers were no more drawn to politics than to any other intellectual and artistic field.

“It was not [Orbán’s] aim to be a politician” Gabor Fodor told the New York Times. Fodor — who today leads the small oppositional Hungarian Liberal Party — was Orbán’s roommate and self-described best friend. Fodor claims that the future prime minister’s goal in these early years was “to be an intellectual and to be a member of Hungarian intellectual circles.” Orbán seemed keen to shed the skin of the countryside as well as the two years of compulsory military service he completed between graduating high school and beginning at Bibó. In between semesters at the dormitory, Orbán crashed on couches and floors — staying on Peter Molnár’s spare mattress, instead of returning home to Székesfehérvár.

“Outsider intellectuals” like Orbán made up a good part of Fidesz’s membership in these early days.

“We called ourselves “the children of divorced parents,” writes Zsuzsanna Szelenyi, an early joiner of Fidesz – “a metaphor for the political divisions between rural and urban intellectual circles that we idealistically hoped to heal.” Fidesz was a movement that brought together all those who opposed the Soviet presence and its authoritarian policies.

On March 2, 1988, a group of three dozen dorm kids voted to officially form Fidesz — the “Alliance of Young Democrats.” Homemade footage kept at Budapest’s Open Societies Archive shows Fidesz’s founding members passing out fliers in the park and meandering the streets of Pest in threadbare coats. By the end of April, Fidesz held its first major event: a rally of 400 people at a Budapest cinema.

In just two short months, Fidesz had begun to make its name as something different from previous activist milieu. Szelényi caught wind of a “smart, ambitious and energetic group” that was quickly becoming “the face of a generation of activists who were more fearless — and more radical — than any other political circle at the time.” She joined Fidesz aged just eighteen, throwing herself into the energy and chaos of the movement. Klára Ungár, a young economics student, joined soon after — as did hundreds of others. Within a year, Fidesz membership numbered in the thousands, with chapters opening all over Hungary. With more and more young people joining them, Fidesz was at the center of opposition activism, often clashing with police.

During one such confrontation, Orbán leapt to physically block the police from beating G.M. Tamas — a fellow liberal who would turn left, not right — taking several blows in the process. Today a fierce critic of Orbán’s own regime, the Marxist philosopher Tamas recalls “He stepped in between me and the officer on purpose: He was protecting me.” On one occasion, when a handful of dissidents were arrested and made to wait for a long time in a police station corridor, Tamas delivered them a seminar on Spinoza to kill time. Among those listening were essayist and samizdat editor Csaba Könczöl, future liberal mayor of Budapest Gabor Demszky, and the young Orbán, who himself dreamed of becoming a lecturer in political theory.

By all accounts charismatic and well-spoken from those early days, Orbán was often singled out to represent Fidesz at public events. Beginning in 1990, Fidesz began to appear frequently on television, at rock concerts and rallies. When in 1989 Hungarians came together to rebury Imre Nagy, a martyr of the 1956 revolution who was murdered by the Soviets, Orbán was invited to speak. Before a crowd of tens of thousands, Orbán called for the Soviet army to leave Hungary and for free and democratic elections, saying: “If we believe in our own strength, then we are capable of bringing an end to the communist dictatorship. And if we are determined enough we can force the ruling party to subject itself to free elections.” Such words smack of irony, now that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) deems today’s elections free but not fair. This speech brought the twenty-six-year-old Orbán into the national spotlight and singled him out as a politician of the future. George Soros once again acted as Orbán’s benefactor, sending him on a prestigious scholarship to study at Oxford for a year.

Upon his return in 1990, Orbán ran for parliament in Hungary’s first ever free, democratic election. Those early years were chaotic, and saw a meager success for Fidesz, earning just 22 of 378 seats amidst a crowded electoral field and competition with a fellow liberal party, the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ). The newfound popularity of nationalism also contributed to Fidesz’s poor results, setting the stage for the party’s move towards the right in the coming decade. The twenty-two seats that Fidesz did win were represented by energetic young lawmakers like Szelényi. He had become an MP aged just twenty-three, in a parliamentary faction led by the twenty-seven-year-old Orbán.

Rebuilding the Party

It was at this point that the power dynamics in Fidesz began to shift. Hitherto led by a horizontally run collective leadership, it turned toward a new top-down model, with Orbán as its first president. He stepped into this role on April 18 1993, leaving him a year to cement his power before the next elections. By the time of the May 1994 contest, Orbán already had a firm grip on the party. When this election saw Fidesz perform even worse — barely securing the 5 percent needed to enter the national assembly — Orbán took the opportunity to reorient the party sharply to the tight.

With Orbán at the helm, Fidesz changed its ideological affiliation in order to court the vote of Hungary’s growing nationalist, conservative movement. Fidesz was quickly becoming a one-man show starring Orbán and a supporting cast of his buddies. Adept at pressuring fellow members to fall in line, Orbán built himself a close inner circle who responded to his charisma and zeal. When it was revealed in 1993 that Orbán and the party treasurer had used Fidesz funds to reap profits channeled through a luxury car company, many within the remaining liberal faction saw it as the last straw.

Orbán began to establish connections with the new oligarchy that emerged out of the swift and often opaque privatization schemes that followed the fall of communism. Center-right premier József Antall’s 1990–93 government would was beset with rampant unemployment, skyrocketing homelessness, and the beginnings of a shady business oligarchy. In December 1994 several hundred members of Fidesz and five of its MPs — including Péter Molnár, Gábor Fodor, Zsuzsanna Szelényi, and Klára Ungár — decamped, unwilling to continue with Fidesz as it turned to the kleptocratic right. Many joined the its one-time liberal rival the Alliance of Free Democrats, turned to more activist-oriented work outside of politics, or abandoned public life altogether.

Yet the mass departure of the party’s liberal wing also allowed Orbán to cement his control on Fidesz. His ideological flexibility paid off and in 1998 he became prime minister in 1998, leading a coalition of three conservative parties. While this government already had some extreme-right tendencies, it was by regional and international standards largely seen as part of the conservative mainstream. Orbán’s government was still a very committed proponent of European integration and the transatlantic alliance — in stark contrast to the anti-EU rhetoric Orbán brandishes today, describing the European Parliament as a group of “useful idiots” and establishing alarmingly close ties with Vladimir Putin.

From 1998 to 2002 Fidesz managed to absorb the lion’s share of its coalition partner’s voters, cementing Orbán’s grip on the parliament. Surprisingly, however, the 2002 election saw a triumph of the Hungarian Socialist Party (the reformed successor of the Communist Party), which managed to form a coalition with the Alliance of Free Democrats. This Socialist-Liberal coalition governed Hungary for the next two terms, embracing neoliberalism and the “third way” in a manner similar to Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder, and other center-left leaders at the time.

However, the Left’s embrace of neoliberal austerity was itself an opportunity for Orbán. Here, as in the cases of France’s Front National or Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland, the Socialist Party’s abandonment of its own working-class base was good news for the far right. This was especially clear after the 2008 financial crisis, which precipitated escalating payments for the hundreds of thousands of Hungarians with debt in foreign currencies. As the Hungarian forint plummeted in value, citizens’ debts skyrocketed. Faced with a socialist-in-name-only government, the far right promised to defend ordinary Hungarians against the banks and predatory lenders.

The opportunity for the far right was opened wider by the allegations of corruption against the Socialist-Liberal government. In 2006 a tape was leaked in which Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány admitted to lying to the general public during the run-up to the 2004 election, resulting in nationwide protests. Right-wing protestors took to the streets and even stormed the headquarters of the Hungarian public broadcaster, in a demonstration reminiscent of the storming of the public radio station in 1956. The government responded with police brutality unseen since the fall of communism, in which several demonstrators suffered severe injuries. Orbán was quick to use this episode to delegitimize the government and build a narrative of equivalence between the country’s former communist rulers and his present day left-wing opponents. Fidesz also advanced on the battleground of social services, successfully organizing a “social referendum” on government plans to introduce charges for nights in hospital and doctor’s appointments as well as university tuition fees. The publicly overwhelmingly voted to push back the Socialist-Liberal plans.

New Fidesz, New Hungary

Out of economic crisis and the chaos in the center-left coalition there arose a new Fidesz, more like the far-right party we know today. Its Euroskeptic and pro-family agenda harshened, and its claims to defend “ordinary” Hungarian people against predatory lenders were saturated with dog-whistle antisemitism. This move foreshadowed the “Stop Soros” campaign that Orbán would wage against his former benefactor in the coming years.

By 2010 — the year of Hungary’s sixth free election since the end of the socialist regime — a fully transformed Fidesz presented itself as the far-right party that we know today: anti-migrant, Euroskeptic, and “pro-family.” Orbán himself was no longer the boyish young lawyer with floppy hair speaking hesitantly onstage at the Budapest movie theater or singing awkwardly into the microphone at Rendszerzaro Hazibuli. His face and belly now swollen from middle age, Orbán had rebranded himself as a “fatherly” figure.

The result in that year’s election was what Orbán called a “revolution at the ballot box”; Fidesz won 68 percent of seats in parliament, securing the supermajority that allowed Orbán to dismantle Hungary’s constitution and replace it with an “alaptörény,” or “fundamental law,” for the country — the first major step towards his dismantling of democracy. The next years saw the construction of a sophisticated political machinery dedicated to trampling the independent institutions of both Hungarian democracy and civil society alike; in July 2014 Orbán declared Hungary to be an “illiberal democracy,” arguing that liberal values today represent “corruption, sex, and violence.” This was allied to a ruthless demonization of Hungary’s minorities; from summer 2015, when a wave of refugees came to Hungary via the so-called Balkan Route, asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East were also targeted.

For Fidesz members, Orbán is “the boss” — head of a firmly hierarchical party structure which offers reward and security to loyalists while threatening the swift ostracization of any dissenters. This arrangement is married with a cronyism that systematically favors Orbán’s personal family and friends in the private sector. These include figures like his childhood neighbor from Felcsut, Lőrinc Mészáros — a billionaire and the richest man in Hungary, with the bulk of his income derived from EU funds — and István Tiborcz, the thirty-three-year-old entrepreneur married to Orbán’s eldest daughter Rahel, whose net worth of roughly 107 million euro places him within Hungary’s hundred wealthiest people.

Rather like Trump, Orbán wages an economic war on the country’s poor and working classes, and yet still presents himself as the champion of the common people against international financial speculators and bureaucrats in Brussels. Playing up his humble roots, Orbán makes a spectacle of mingling with villagers — eating goulash soup with them and drinking palinka (a traditional Hungarian spirit). Fidesz also makes a show of “fighting” for the people — such as when they forced energy companies to temporarily decrease prices, making a massive propaganda campaign out of what they titled the “utility struggle” — in order to cover up regressive tax reforms that pushed money from the bottom to the top. This was in fact typical of a pro-rich agenda: under Orbán, Hungary introduced a flat income tax, along with the highest VAT rate and the lowest corporate tax rate within the European Union. This “people’s champion” has worked tirelessly to suppress labor unions and introduced an infamous “slave law” — allowing exploitative overtime levels, apparently in a bid to please German car manufacturers who are relocating their factories to Hungary because of Orbán’s generous corporate welfare and the country’s cheap labor.

Identity Politics

But at the heart of Orbán’s power is his strategy of ruthlessly delegitimizing his opponents, galvanizing his base via a ruthless deployment of identity politics rooted in nostalgia for Hungary’s lost glory. In the run-up to his 2010 landslide the issue of ethnic Hungarians living in territories the country lost in World War I became a tool for domestic propaganda in a style that echoed the protofascist Horthy era of the interwar period. When the Left refused to back Orbán’s plan to automatically extend citizenship to ethnic Hungarians in neighboring countries, he presented them as national traitors. After the law’s passing, Fidesz regularly scores close to 100 percent among these new voters.

Monopolizing the idea of the national is nothing new to Orbán: in 2002, when he suffered a surprising electoral defeat, Orbán said in an infamous speech that Fidesz would not be considered an opposition because “the nation cannot be in opposition.” In 2018, socialist parliamentarian Ágnes Kunhalmi echoed this by suggesting that “Democracy cannot be in opposition.” For now, unfortunately, it is.

Fidesz operates in continuous war mode, fighting phantom enemies created by its hegemonic propaganda apparatus. First the target was the Left, then Brussels, then NGOs, and later, asylum seekers, George Soros, and even a university — supposed threats from which only a powerful leader like Orbán can defend the nation. Like many populists, though Orbán is firmly in power he still presents himself as fighting an uphill battle against powerful shadowy forces that have corrupted: the European Union and international institutions, academia and the press. Though Orbán — a strong supporter of fellow illiberal Benjamin Netanyahu — avoids resorting to explicit antisemitism, it is hard not to notice the familiar dog whistles in his propaganda that seem to play on Hungarian society’s deep-rooted antisemitism, a tradition with a long and tragic history.

Like soft-fascists before him, Orbán has been waging a war on Hungarian intellectual life and freedom, forcing the Central European University (an institution co-founded by Soros) from the country, dismantling the prestigious Academy of Sciences, and defunding Eötvos Lorand University, his own alma mater. Given Fidesz’s beginnings as a student activist organization, these actions smack of both irony and a complete rejection of the very institutions that allowed Orbán to break out of his life as a boy from the countryside.

It is hard to be sure whether Orbán truly believes his own rhetoric. In contrast to his authoritarian Polish ally Jaroslav Kaczynsky, who appears to be a true believer in his Catholic-nationalist agenda, Orbán is remarkably flexible in his ideology. In many ways he might be comparable to Donald Trump in his ruthless readiness to say whatever can aid his lust power — something which has characterized him since the early days back at the dorm.

“More than anything else, I remember that Orbán always wanted power,” recalls Molnár, as we sit in an empty cafeteria in Central European University after hours. “He was one of these guys who wanted his own way, every single time.” Now in his fifties, Molnár dedicates his life to art, activism, and teaching. He runs a theater project at Central European University dedicated to platforming students who experience hate crimes and marginalization in Hungary — although his future role at the school as it begins its move to Vienna is unclear.

Some of the original members of Fidesz who left in 1994 have found their places in the meager Hungarian opposition. Fodór, Orbán’s former roommate and best friend, and Ungar are now leaders within Hungarian opposition forces — parties which have fallen victim to partisan infighting and hold no real hope for success at the ballot box now that Fidesz has gained complete control of the media and the courts. Others have left politics altogether, finding their footing elsewhere — such as Szelényi, who is now a highly respected psychologist.

Molnár, who once provided a homeless Orbán with a bed to sleep in, now haunts the halls of Central European University and the few leftist spaces that have managed to survive until 2019. Spotted around downtown Pest wearing a “Dissent is Patriotic” and riding his duct-taped bicycle, Molnár is still committed to the possibility of a free and democratic Hungary.

“We didn’t know at the time — we didn’t know back then how things would develop. I didn’t look at my fellow activists, like Orbán, and think ‘One day you would destroy this country. One day you will become a despot.’”

Surprisingly, Molnár looks up at me with a smile, his eyes twinkling under the cafeteria’s fluorescent lights.

“That’s how history works, I think. You just never really know.”