Orban’s juggling act: Illiberal democrat’s autocratic infatuation


Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is poised to win Sunday’s general election by a comfortable margin, though not by enough to secure another supermajority, reports suggest.

In a video speech to European Union leaders on Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky listed the countries that have shown solidarity with his people, notes New York University professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat, the author of “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present.” Then he came to Hungary, and his tone changed. “Hungary…. I want to stop here and be honest. Once and for all. You have to decide for yourself who you are with. Listen, Viktor, do you know what’s going on in Mariupol?” she writes for CNN Opinion.

Russia’s war on Ukraine and the upcoming elections in Hungary both symbolize the global conflict between autocracy and democracy, Ben-Ghiat asserts.

“If he wins – to me, that’s a sign the level playing field is just non-existent,” said Dalibor Rohac, a senior fellow focused on central and eastern Europe at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank based in Washington, DC. The “demoralising effect” of a fourth consecutive Orbán turn “will be enormous” for the opposition and civil society, he tells The New Statesman’s Emily Tamkin.

Ahead of the elections, the online channel ‘Partizan’ (right) – wants to challenge Orbán’s control over the media, DW News reports (above).

To his supporters, Orban represents true European values: Christianity; the predominance of the nation-state; government for the masses, not the elites. To his critics, he’s an opportunistic populist who cares only about his own power and has made Hungary a pariah within Europe. In this Sunday’s (3 April) election, Orban, who’s been in office since 2010, faces his biggest challenge yet to stay in power, EURONEWS reports.

Since the early 1990s, “he transformed from a liberal politician first to a national-conservative, and later to a populist radical-right leader,” said Daniel Hegedüs, an analyst at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Orbán claims to represent illiberal democracy so his infatuation with nakedly authoritarian China is, or should be, a matter of more than passing interest, says a leading analyst.

While we might describe Turkey or India as “illiberal,” that modifier would never attach to China, notes Arch Puddington, senior emeritus scholar at Freedom House and author of the Freedom House Special Report Breaking Down Democracy: Goals, Strategies, and Methods of Modern Authoritarians (2017). Unlike Orbán’s cautious assessments of Russian behavior, his praise for China, its leader, the ruling Communist Party, and China’s global role has been effusive and unqualified, at a level of enthusiasm that he usually reserves for favorite soccer teams, he writes for American Purpose:

National Endowment for Democracy (NED)

Orbán’s closest political allies are like-minded politicians, populist party leaders in Western Europe, and Putin admirers in the Balkans. More telling still is his attachment to the leaders of communist China, who have built a neo-totalitarianism that is more thorough, efficient, and rigidly enforced than Soviet communism was during the Brezhnev years. National conservatives should make no mistake: Orbán does not believe in democracy—illiberal, Christian, or otherwise.

Hungary is now the only European Union country considered merely “partly free” by Freedom House, AFP reports. To illustrate the changes Orban hopes to set in stone by winning a fourth consecutive term on April 3, it approached five major figures in Hungary’s judiciary as well as its business, media and religious worlds who have found themselves on the wrong side of Orban’s revolution.

Orban’s long march through Hungary’s legal institutions has transformed the nation, The Daily Beast adds.

“This all has the veneer of legality, so you assume Hungary is still a democracy based on the rule of law and respecting fundamental rights and European Union values,” Petra Bard, an expat Hungarian legal scholar told NPR. “It’s hard to stomach that laws have been used to drive a democratic country into authoritarianism.”

Peter Kreko

Orban has also courted Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the promotion of conspiracy theories through the Fidesz-controlled media helps explain why a recent poll by think-tank Publicus found that 24% of Fidesz voters believed Russia’s attack on Ukraine was a defensive move, while 91% of opposition supporters believed it was aggression, Reuters adds.

“I would say that blaming the victim, Ukraine, for this conflict, and the U.S., is very widespread among the right-wing electorate and is partially a result of many years of West bashing that the government did,” said Peter Kreko, a former NED Reagan-Fascell fellow and director of liberal think-tank Political Capital.

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