Power Hungary: Viktor Orban, Europe’s New Strongman

In Longreads

The soccer match hasn’t drawn much of a crowd. It’s being played in tiny Felcsut, Hungary (pop. 1,800), and the teams on the field are ranked 3rd and 10th out of the 16 squads vying for the national championship. Except for a small section where fans of the visiting team are clustered, only a sprinkling of the 3,500 seats are occupied.

This isn’t the kind of contest where you’d expect a prominent politician to show up—unless that politician is Viktor Orban, 51, the Hungarian prime minister. Having just returned from a trip to South Korea, Orban’s made the 45-minute drive from Budapest to Felcsut. He’s wearing a black coat and long gray scarf, and when the game begins he’s standing by himself just outside the glass walls of the VIP booth, in line with the center of the field. When the home team, 10th-place Puskas Academy, threatens the opponent’s goal, he puts both hands over his mouth. When the ball goes wide, he turns and slaps a concrete pillar. Just before halftime, a Puskas attacker rifles the ball into the back of the net. Orban raises both arms in triumph.

Orban grew up in Felcsut. As a young man, he played soccer professionally for the village team. In the early 2000s he and his wife bought a small house next to what was then the local soccer field. The sport remains central to Orban’s self-image. “Football is a contact sport,” says Peter Akos Bod, a professor of economics at Corvinus University of Budapest once championed by Orban as a future prime minister. “I once recommended he play tennis, but there’s a net between you and the other guy. It’s not for him.”

For nearly two decades, Orban’s bruising style and competitive drive have made him the dominant figure in Hungarian politics—and lately, one of Europe’s most polarizing leaders. He was first elected prime minister in 1998 at the age of 35, was voted out of office four years later, then returned to power in 2010 in an election that gave his party a two-thirds majority in Parliament. In the years since, Orban has rewritten the country’s electoral laws, curbed press freedoms, and appointed party loyalists to nominally independent institutions, including the central bank and the office of the chief prosecutor. When Hungary’s constitutional court overturned some of his initiatives—including laws that criminalized sleeping on the streets, banned gay marriage, and restricted political advertising—he used his supermajority to limit the court’s authority, then wrote the controversial laws directly into the constitution.

In July, speaking at a retreat for ethnic Hungarians in Romania, Orban delivered a speech decrying the failure of “liberal democracy” and announced his intention to construct an “illiberal state.” He was careful to explain that “illiberal” didn’t necessarily mean undemocratic, but his inclusion of Russia, China, and Turkey as models to be admired sounded alarms in Washington and Brussels. In December, while objecting to President Obama’s appointment of Colleen Bell, a former soap opera producer, as U.S. ambassador to Hungary, Senator John McCain denounced Orban as “a neofascist dictator, getting in bed with Vladimir Putin.” One Western diplomat in Budapest says of all countries in the European Union, Hungary, a member of the EU since 2004, is the most likely to turn away from democracy.

Orban’s allies insist he is acting well within democratic norms, though he largely avoids appearing in situations where he might face confrontation or debate. (The government press office declined a request for an interview.) In a Europe facing surging economic populism and the rise of the xenophobic far right, an increasingly antidemocratic Hungary may be a harbinger of a harsher continent.

During the Cold War, Hungary was part of the communist bloc, but its experience with Soviet occupation was far less onerous than that of its neighbors. The last decades of communist rule were marked by relative moderation. Shops were well stocked. Small businesses were permitted. The secret police were restrained. “We were like the happiest prison camp,” says Ferenc Gyurcsany, a socialist politician and Hungary’s prime minister from 2004 to 2009.

The country was once among the most promising post-communist states, and Orban was seen as one of its greatest democracy advocates. In June 1989, five months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, he took the stage during a national ceremony commemorating the leader of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, an uprising that lasted less than a month before it was crushed by Soviet tanks. Orban was 26 years old, unshaven, dressed in a white shirt and black jacket, no tie. In a speech broadcast across the country, he called for free elections and the withdrawal of the Russian troops stationed in Hungary. “It was really a dangerous thing to do at the time,” says Gabor Fodor, who helped plan the speech. “The regime was still in power, the Soviet troops were still there, and nobody knew at the time what the end would be.” Orban and Fodor, university roommates, had helped found Fidesz, a radical anticommunist political movement. In 1990 they were elected to serve in Hungary’s first post-occupation parliament.

By the time Orban was elected prime minister eight years later, his political positioning had already begun to shift. After a disappointing showing in the 1994 elections, he transformed Fidesz into a culturally conservative party, prompting a split with its libertarian wing, which included Fodor. “Today’s Orban is an anti-Orban,” says Fodor, now an opposition parliamentarian. “The most important element is power. The only value system is how he can reach power.”

Many in Hungary trace Orban’s authoritarian streak to his narrow loss in 2002 to the Hungarian Socialist Party, which eked out a victory by promising to raise pensions. Until then, Orban had maintained the trajectory charted by his predecessors: transitioning Hungary from socialism to a free-market economy. After losing, “he realized that the macroeconomic performance of the country is not as important as the popularity you get by promising something to the people,” says Tamas Mellar, an economist at the University of Pecs who served during Orban’s first administration as the president of the Hungarian statistical office.

Many of the controversial measures introduced by Orban after his return to power in 2010, particularly his economic policies, can be seen as a reaction to the overly rapid liberalization of the Hungarian economy and the destabilizing influence of the 2008 global financial crisis. Budapest, which served as one of the two capitals of the Austro-Hungarian empire, has all the trappings of a major Western European city. Bauhaus buildings and art nouveau palaces make space for neo-Gothic majesty; the city center is peppered with pubs, shops, and restaurants of all types. But it doesn’t take a very long drive into the countryside for the other side of the Hungarian economy to emerge: bleak rural poverty.

Orban has used his control of Parliament to transform the country’s tax system, shifting its weight from income to consumption. To plug holes in the budget—and stay below the EU’s deficit limit of 3 percent of gross domestic product—he introduced a series of targeted taxes on the energy, banking, and telecommunications sectors, all of which are dominated by foreign capital. “Some talk about protectionism,” says Zoltan Kovacs, a government spokesman. “We talk about patriotism.” In 2013, in a move popular among many Hungarian voters, particularly in rural areas, Orban’s government passed a series of laws requiring utility companies to cut retail gas, electricity, and heating prices by 20 percent. The savings from the initiative are required to be displayed on every bill in black letters on a field of orange—the color representing Orban’s political party.

More alarming have been Orban’s recent moves to curb civil liberties—especially given the shallow roots of Hungarian democracy. The country has a strong streak of nationalism. Hungarians trace their identity to the Magyars, warrior horsemen who entered the region from the steppes to the east in the ninth century, forming a cultural and linguistic island surrounded by Slavs and Germans. The nationalism manifests itself in ways that are sometimes eccentric—witness the widespread popularity of Baranta, a supposedly traditional martial art whose practitioners wield axes, whips, and bows—but more often frightening. From 1994 to 2011, the proportion of Hungarians who said they “feel antipathy towards Jews” rose from 14 percent to 24 percent.

The country nurses a festering resentment over its treatment at the end of World War I, when it was stripped of two-thirds of its territory, including many regions populated by Hungarian speakers. Orban, who’s made a point of reaching out to ethnic Hungarians in regions that formerly belonged to Budapest, once drove a car with a bumper sticker displaying Hungary’s prewar boundaries. His most powerful political rival is the far-right Jobbik party. Known for its anti-Semitism and anti-Roma bigotry, it took more than 20 percent of the vote in the April 2014 elections, when Orban was returned to office with another supermajority.

Over the last year, his government has taken steps to exert control over Hungary’s media. It introduced a progressive tax on advertising revenues, though only one company is subject to the tax’s top rate: Hungary’s most popular commercial TV station, RTL Klub, owned by the German media conglomerate Bertelsmann. RTL’s nightly news has become more aggressive and critical; and in response, Fidesz politicians attack its journalists at press conferences or refuse to answer their questions. “They consider our news to be opposition news,” says Dirk Gerkens, the station’s chief executive officer. “But that’s not the case. Our news is independent. We’re not going to talk about the guys in opposition that are basically doing nothing.”

The station has filed an official complaint with the European Commission, but in the meantime the top tax rate was raised—to 50 percent. Gerkens estimates that RTL will pay 90 percent of the revenue raised by the tax, although it commands only 15 percent of the market. If the tax remains next year, it will wipe out the company’s profits. Gerkens says he’s also received threats of violence, delivered via friends or e-mails. He’s moved his family out of the country, left his apartment for a luxury hotel in central Budapest, and hired bodyguards. “It’s not Russia or Mexico,” he says. “But better safe than sorry.”

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In September, Hungarian police raided the offices of the Okotars Foundation, a nonprofit backed by the governments of Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein, which distributes grant money to civil society groups. The government accused Okotars of fraud and mismanagement and of improperly supporting nongovernmental organizations close to Orban’s political opponents. Okotars denies the accusations The NGOs include Transparency International, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, and an organization of investigative journalists.

The police confiscated files and computer servers and escorted the organization’s director, Veronika Mora, to her apartment, where her computer was seized. Mora characterizes the government’s actions as attempts to intimidate groups like hers. “If they manage to take away an important funding source, they will have achieved what they wanted,” she says. “They will be able to continue to maintain pressure on NGOs, send them warnings, but at the same time not take any measures that would be seen as antidemocratic.”

If any single project epitomizes the questions about Orban and how he wields power, it’s the $15 million soccer stadium in Felcsut. In 2010, before construction began, the mayor of the village, Gyorgy Varga, objected to the price offered for the site. Shortly after, Orban’s government passed a law that disqualified Varga, who’d served two previous terms as mayor, from public office for outstanding tax debts. Varga says he complied with his tax obligations.

Varga’s successor, chosen in a by-election, was Lorinc Meszaros. A friend of Orban’s, Meszaros owns the company that later was awarded the contract for the stadium’s construction. Under Meszaros, who did not respond to requests to be interviewed, the land deal that Varga had rejected went ahead. The terms of the purchase haven’t been made public.

The stadium sits across the street from Orban’s house. It was built in part with what the EU has called state aid—some $10.5 million in tax-deductible donations made possible by a law passed by Orban’s government in 2011. The law doesn’t require that the contributors to the stadium’s construction be disclosed. But the sponsors listed on the website of the Puskas Academy foundation include the national oil and gas company, MOL; the country’s biggest bank, OTP; a media group owned by a close ally of Orban; a company owned by Orban’s father; and two companies owned by Meszaros.

Varga, 58, chooses his words carefully. “I could say more, but it is better not to,” he says. “Someone might take it as an attack.” After being stripped of the mayoralty, he says, he was investigated several times by Hungarian tax authorities. His small construction company folded, he says. He’s run through his savings. “When I was a boy [living under communism], my father used to say, ‘Don’t be afraid, for you a better world will come,’ ” he said. “Now I repeat the same to my children.”

The EU has so far remained largely silent about Orban’s rule. In September it reaffirmed its intentions to provide Hungary with €25.4 billion ($29.4 billion) in structural and investment funds from 2014 to 2020. In October, however, citing concerns over corruption, the U.S. confirmed that it had placed sanctions on six Hungarian officials, denying them entry to the country.

The same month, a proposed tax on Internet downloads drew thousands of protesters to the streets of Budapest until the government backed down. The tax was small, capped at a few dollars a month, but the proposal angered a broad swath of the public in a way that none of Orban’s previous measures had. “There was this feeling that now the government is interfering in the private sphere,” says Balazs Gulyas, one of the protests’ organizers.

Polls taken after the protests showed that Orban’s antidemocratic measures, combined with stories of cronyism and intimidation like the stadium project in Felcsut, had cost his party a drop in support of as much as 30 percent. “These postmodern populist politicians are like a show on stage,” says Andras Schiffer, president of Politics Can Be Different, a small green party. “The audience likes it a lot, but when they can see behind the curtain, the spell is broken.” In February, Hungary will hold a by-election for an open parliamentary seat. The voting is taking place in a Fidesz stronghold, but it could conceivably cost Orban his supermajority.

In the stadium in Felcsut, however, these problems seem furthest from Orban’s mind. A light rain is sparkling in the floodlights as the game comes to a close and Puskas emerges victorious. With the exception of about 20 minutes at the beginning of the second half, Orban has remained at the top of the stands for the entire game. He watches until the last player has left the field.

First published in Bloomberg Businessweek.


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Stephan Faris
Stephan Faris is Enterprise Editor at the European edition of Politico. Prior to that, he was a contributor to Time, Bloomberg Businessweek, and The Atlantic. He has lived in and written from Beijing, Nairobi, Istanbul, Lagos, and Rome and covered stories across Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, including the invasion of Iraq and the civil war in Liberia. His book, Forecast: The Consequences of Climate Change, from the Amazon to the Arctic, from Darfur to Napa Valley, has been translated into Chinese, Japanese, and Portuguese.