The New Authoritarian Hungary That Isn’t

Zeno Thysman/Budapest, Hungary

Mother always said not to discuss religion, politics, or money with strangers. Such niceties are unfamiliar to Hungarians. They will ask about your Sunday habits and salary without batting an eye. They are also not shy about discussing politics. “What do you think of Trump?” “Who did you vote for?” and of course, “What do you think about Orbán?” are almost unavoidable even in casual conversation.

“Orbán” is Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister and international avatar of right-wing populism. Before Trump, Salvini, and Brexit, there was Orbán. Since his election as Prime Minister in 2010—following an earlier period in the same office from 1998 to 2002—he has defied traditional barometers of global influence to become a genuinely consequential figure outside Hungary’s borders. To his supporters, Orbán is a vital check on European Union overreach, mass migration, and the excesses of cultural liberalism. To his critics, Orbán is a budding authoritarian, someone who has more in common with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Vladimir Putin, and Xi Jinping than his fellow European heads-of-state.

Hungarian directness is an interesting window into the country’s culture. From talking frankly about sex, to relaxed habits of dress, to a certain fondness for casual vulgarity, Hungarians are generally unconcerned with what we might call bourgeois norms. “Budafcknpest,” the capital’s unofficial slogan, adorns signs, stores, and T-shirts throughout the city. Depending on who you ask, Hungary is either the last hope of Christian Europe or a reactionary outpost of hidebound traditionalism. It is also awash in garish tattoos, exotic piercings, and thigh-hugging mini skirts.

Why are bourgeois norms so thin on the ground in Hungary? The simplest explanation is that the country’s bourgeois epoch was notably short-lived. The urban middle class did enjoy a brief period of ascendance in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Before World War I, Budapest’s famous cafes were populated by writers, journalists, and other liberal intellectuals, while a self-consciously Anglophilic upper class modeled its habits and genteel liberalism on British society. Then came war, and a nationalistic, rural reaction to bourgeois, cosmopolitan Budapest that produced Admiral Horthy’s interwar regency. The Second World War and Communism destroyed what was left of the urban middle class and the liberal upper crust.

Hungary’s flirtations with Western Europe have always been interrupted by invaders from the East. The medieval kingdom reached its apex under a French dynasty but was crippled by the Mongols and then defeated and occupied by the Turks. Following the Habsburg conquest, Hungary rejoined Europe as an eastern outpost of the continent’s most sclerotic Great Power. The defeated but independent Hungarian state that emerged from World War I balanced its authoritarian and revanchist tendencies with a loose adherence to the norms and procedures of Western parliamentary democracies. This vestigial liberalism was swept away by World War II and the Red Army, the latest invader to sever Hungary from the western half of the continent.

Hungary seems trapped in a liminal state, forever tilting between Eastern and Western Europe. You could say the same of many Eastern European countries, but the precarity of Hungary’s position is particularly striking because of its geographic and cultural proximity to the West. When crossing into Austria from Hungary, you won’t notice any profound geographic or architectural changes. The Great Pannonian Plain stretches on, and the buildings and churches on both sides of the border are almost indistinguishable. “It’s as if they took a Hungarian neighborhood and power-washed it,” a friend once remarked while driving through a small Austrian town. One wonders how things would look if the Turks had captured Vienna, or if the Red Army hadn’t withdrawn from Eastern Austria in 1955.

Political scientists have struggled to define the strange middle ground that Hungary now occupies. None of the academic terminology is particularly satisfying. A “transitional democracy” raises the question of what, exactly, Eastern Europe is transitioning towards. The Western European model has been tarnished by economic stagnation and political conflict, and Hungarians are unlikely to be enticed by the prospect of becoming a miniature, landlocked version of the United States. “Competitive autocracy” implies a degree of authoritarianism that does not exist. “Managed democracy” sounds like it could apply to any country with institutional checks on majoritarian rule.

Hungary’s status is ambiguous, but Orbán’s critics are not always wrong. State-backed media outlets usually parrot the ruling Fidesz party’s talking points, and the scarcity of independent journalism is noticeable. The media landscape is particularly barren in rural areas, where alternative outlets are scarce and most older, Fidesz-leaning voters get their news from slanted state TV programs. The December 2018 protests in Budapest that erupted over a controversial change to the country’s labor laws culminated in opposition political leaders trying (and failing) to get a hearing on state television.

On the other hand, the existence of visible protest movements, the relative openness of the Internet, and the willingness of Hungarians to discuss politics with strangers suggests that Orbán’s most strident critics are not quite right, either. Hungarians on social media frequently and scathingly mock biased state media outlets without fear of a Chinese-style crackdown. A representative political meme shows Tom of “Tom & Jerry” fame, representing a state-backed newspaper, retching with disgust when confronted with “igazi hírek” (real news). While Hungarian media is biased, Hungarians are anything but passive or uncritical consumers.

To Orbán’s more excitable critics, however, Budapest is “Moscow on the Danube” and Hungary is always teetering on the brink of fascism. On a recent New York Times podcast, the columnist Michelle Goldberg declared that Hungary was “fascist” as if she were simply reciting a well-established fact. Previously, the Times’ editorial board had blithely lumped Orbán in with Erdoğan and Putin. A recent article in The American Interest lists Hungary as among those countries which may better suit Americans who have given in to the “illiberal temptation.” Despite these extravagant claims, Hungarians are not living under a dictatorship. Hungarian democracy has not developed the framework of norms and institutions which exist in Western Europe, but neither has the country suddenly transformed into a giant labor camp.

Interestingly, countries like Singapore have escaped media criticism for many of the same policies that Hungary is routinely lambasted for. In 2018, Hungary gestured at blocking the non-governmental organization Open Society Foundations from funding local organizations, which led to a firestorm of criticism for overreach into civil society. But when Singapore refused to allow the registration of a company that had accepted OSF funds, the foreign press was virtually silent. This isn’t surprising. The Western liberal order has a sense of ownership over Hungary by virtue of the country’s membership in the EU and NATO and its cultural and geographic proximity to Western Europe. States further outside the Western club predictably get much less critical attention.

Because Orbán’s Hungary is typically lumped in with other autocratic regimes, outsiders tend to assume that Fidesz’s success is entirely the result of foul play. But it would be difficult to explain the last few years without acknowledging Orbán’s canny political instincts and the country’s broader political landscape. Orbán has certainly tilted the playing field in Fidesz’s favor, but it is less clear if this was the decisive factor in Hungary’s recent parliamentary elections. Voting took place against the backdrop of a strong economy and a fragmented opposition. Any incumbent party would thrive under such circumstances.

Orbán’s critics also have trouble distinguishing between issues that offend their political sensibilities and issues that Hungarian voters actually care about. Immigration is the most obvious example of a policy that rankles the foreign press but has little purchase with actual voters. Outside a few rarefied circles in Budapest, you won’t find many Hungarians who were enamored with Angela Merkel’s 2015 decision to welcome Syrian refugees, or who enthusiastically support more EU burden-sharing on immigration. During the recent parliamentary elections, the opposition conspicuously avoided the issue in favor of more prosaic concerns.

Crucially, the issues that move Hungarian voters are the issues that are most vital to Hungary’s political future. Even if you object to Orbán’s politics, liberal democracy is broadly compatible with immigration restrictionism. Corruption and the health of a country’s political institutions are more fundamental issues, something that most Hungarians understand well. When traveling outside Budapest, it is common to hear people openly criticize special treatment for Fidesz-connected oligarchs and deride Orbán’s grandiose spending plans. The Hungarian prime minister’s enthusiasm for building massive soccer stadiums that stand half-empty has become a running joke. Complaints about the state-run media’s pro-Fidesz bias are also common, particularly among the younger generation.

However, these concerns do not neatly align with the political sympathies of Orbán’s foreign critics. A tech-savvy Hungarian might deride pro-Fidesz fake news one moment and post an anti-immigrant meme the next. A common rumor circulating among younger Hungarian is that Orbán is actually a gypsy. At first blush, this is an odd accusation, given Orbán’s vocal Hungarian nationalism and Fidesz’s often antagonistic relationship to Hungary’s Roma minority. However, it makes a certain amount of sense for a young, forward-looking Hungarian to associate Orbán’s conservatism with the ethnic minority that is most obviously ill at ease with modernity in Eastern Europe. The uglier subtext is that Fidesz corruption is just another example of “thieving gypsies.”

Distinguishing between issues that incite international criticism and issues that Hungarians actually care about also offers a blueprint for how Fidesz might lose power. Budapest is often the site of student-led demonstrations and niche left-wing protest marches, but the recent winter protests stood out for two reasons. First, they united figures from across the political spectrum in opposition to a Fidesz-backed overhaul of Hungarian labor law. One of the most striking images to emerge from the demonstration was a picture of a Roma flag flying right next to a banner from Jobbik, a far-right party that is usually quite hostile to Hungary’s Roma minority. And second, the protests were not confined to the capital. Demonstrations quickly spread to smaller towns and cities, which suggests that Orbán’s core of rural and small-town voters are open to economic appeals from Fidesz’s competitors.

Nevertheless, the issues least likely to motivate Hungarian voters seem to attract the most attention abroad. In 2016, Luxembourg’s foreign minister said Hungary should be expelled from the EU for the crime of building a fence on its southern border. The highly publicized Sargentini report, presented to the European Parliament in September 2018, landed several solid blows against Orbán’s record on corruption and civil liberties. Instead of narrowly focusing on these issues, however, the report went on to criticize Hungary for its restrictive immigration and asylum policies (and, for good measure, its shortcomings on gay rights, gender equality, and old age pensions). In Vox, the fact that Hungary’s restrictive approach to immigration is broadly popular among voters is taken as prima facie evidence of underhanded political manipulation. Fidesz is vulnerable on corruption and civil liberties, but conflating these issues with immigration allows Orbán to plausibly claim that he is being targeted for closing the border and thumbing his nose at the EU.

It is certainly possible that Orbán’s immigration policy is a cynical ploy, and that he won’t stop until he has effectively neutered the opposition and Hungary’s remaining liberal institutions. Indeed, Fidesz is said to be pioneering a new model of authoritarianism that insulates the ruling party from criticism by retaining a veneer of openness and democratic accountability. But even if this model is successful, it would be more accurate to describe Orbán as the latest in a long line of Hungarian rulers who practiced their own versions of soft authoritarianism.

During the second half of the 19th century, Hungary under the Habsburgs alternated between periods of liberal reform and conservative backlash. Throughout the interwar period, Horthy outlawed far-left political parties and imposed mild censorship, but parliamentary elections continued and opposition papers were generally unmolested, provided they stayed within certain bounds. After the 1956 Hungarian uprising discredited hardline Communism, János Kádár tried to restore the government’s credibility by introducing an ersatz consumer economy and allowing a greater degree of personal freedom than anywhere else in the Eastern Bloc. None of these regimes were liberal, exactly, but they allowed considerable space for dissent. Orbán is less an authoritarian pioneer than an inheritor of a long and distinctly Hungarian political tradition.

Does Hungary’s uncertain political future mean that it is withdrawing from Europe? If anything, the opposite is true. Despite clashes between Orbán’s government and Brussels, Hungary is still engaged with the EU’s institutions and member states. But this cooperative framework is less about Europe as an ideological project—Hungary will never be Sweden—and more about realizing concrete policy goals. As Hungary pursues cooperation with other European countries, it not only normalizes bilateral cooperation outside traditional EU channels, it gives voice to European concerns outside of Western capitals. Eastern Europe is pursuing economic development while rejecting multiculturalism, mass immigration, and progressive Western social mores, and an expanding Europe will have to negotiate in order to ensure the cooperation of its newer members. If the grand re-negotiation of Europe envisioned by France’s Macron takes place, Hungary’s current policies seem designed to increase its bargaining power. Moreover, Hungary’s approach in Europe makes its relationship with liberal institutions harder to define. Were a country abandoning the liberal order, we might expect it to cut ties and isolate itself from such institutions as much as possible. Hungary has not done so. Despite public clashes between Orbán’s government and the Brussels establishment, Hungary has pursued ongoing and deepening involvement in the institutions of the EU and with its member states. Because Orbán’s critics often fail to distinguish between Europe as an ideological idea versus Europe as a set of institutions, they miss out on this important development.

While Western European countries have been roiled by Euroskeptic political movements, most notably Brexit, Hungary and the Central European bloc have worked within European institutions. Rather than eroding Europe, these countries are looking for a new European deal. Hungary has worked with the aligned countries of the Visegrad bloc, and even historical rivals like Romania, to forward its goals of regional development. Until recently, Fidesz was even represented in the European Parliament’s European People’s Party, alongside establishment conservative and liberal forces like Merkel’s CDU and France’s Republicans. While the party was partially suspended in March 2019, it continues to sit with this bloc in Parliament.

Hungary’s response to its growing rift with Brussels has been to pursue transnational engagements elsewhere. In addition to stronger alignment with Poland’s ruling PiS party, Orbán has declared his intentions to work more closely with Italy’s right-populist Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini. These relations are multilateral rather than bilateral, with one Hungarian government official praising the development of a “Warsaw-Rome axis.” Although these developments are clearly opposed to the ideology of Brussels liberalism, their practical effect is an expansion of European-level political coordination.

These members are not destroying a pre-existing liberal order. Instead, the liberal order is confronting the fact that swathes of Europe were never truly part of it to begin with. If Germany and France are no longer able to maintain the level of influence they once had, this is because Europe’s younger members are now developed and confident enough to exert their own leadership. While the EU once reflected the particular historical experience of its northwestern membership, it now has to adapt and integrate the desires of its southern, central, and eastern populations as well.

To a certain kind of expert, foreign policy can only be understood through grand ideological narratives. Global democracy, once inevitable and irresistible, is now supposedly threatened by Orbán and his confederates, who have developed an alternative political blueprint that marries populism, nationalism, and a perniciously soft form of authoritarianism. The striking parallels between Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy platform and the neoconservative views of Robert Kagan suggest that this crude heuristic has hardened into the conventional wisdom.

A more plausible explanation for recent developments within Hungary is that liberal democracy, having expanded only recently outside its historic core of wealthy states in North America and Western Europe, is now contending with unfamiliar and often inhospitable political terrain. If Hungary’s political trajectory signifies anything, it’s that liberal norms and institutions will often struggle to take root and may advance or recede rather suddenly, depending on local conditions.

Perhaps this is less exciting than the idea that Orbán represents a new and threatening ideological competitor to the United States and its Western allies, but it has the virtue of being true. The health of Hungary’s institutions is an important enough question for Hungarians without asking them to shoulder the added burden of keeping the world safe for democracy.

Will Collins is a high school teacher in Eger, Hungary. He can be reached at williamf.collins@gmail.com.