Viktor Orban and the Myth of the Self-Destructing Strongman
The timing could not have been more striking. On April 3, nearly six weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine had apparently reinvigorated and reunified the liberal democratic West, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was easily reelected to his fourth consecutive term in office, and his fifth in total. Although Orban has long emulated Putin and presides over an increasingly authoritarian regime—and although he faced for the first time a largely united opposition front—he had little trouble winning, drawing more than 53 percent of the vote and securing a continued supermajority in parliament. With the retirement of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he also now carries the dubious distinction of being the longest-serving head of government in the European Union, a supposed bastion of human rights and democracy.
The outcome of the election has startled observers in Europe and the United States. In the opening weeks of the war, Orban had notably refused to allow Western weapons to be transported across Hungarian territory and ruled out sanctions on Russian energy. Given the Hungarian leader’s awkward proximity to the Kremlin—Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has referred to Orban’s Hungary as a “Russian branch in Europe”—and the determination of the Hungarian opposition, many thought that Orban had at last overplayed his hand. Moreover, these predictions dovetailed with growing confidence in the United States and Western Europe that Putin’s regime was finally meeting its long-delayed but preordained fate, undermining itself the way that all autocracies do, sooner or later.
A belief in the inevitability of autocratic self-destruction was prevalent at the end of the Cold War, and Russia’s so far catastrophic war against Ukraine has revived it. Putin’s miscalculations, so the theory goes, are due at least in part to the Russian leader being cut off from accurate information, with the military and security elite on whom he crucially relies too afraid to present him with the facts on the ground. In short, autocracies are apparently incapable of admitting mistakes and hence unable to learn over time. As a series of influential studies in the 1990s suggested, these regimes also have poorer economic development than their democratic counterparts: arbitrary, politically motivated interference and suppression of information also harm markets. Today, Russia—a country that has notably failed to develop a diversified economy and continues to rely overwhelmingly on the exploitation of natural resources—would appear to confirm this rule as well. In this view, not only has the liberal democratic West united against Putin; Putin himself, through the continual strengthening of the autocratic features of his regime, might turn out to be his own worst enemy.
But Orban’s decisive victory flies in the face of such comforting illusions. After all, as recently as early February, Western assessments of Russia itself were quite different. Many commentators noted the apparent modernization of the Russian army and Putin’s seemingly clever strategies of accumulating currency reserves and getting partners in the West, including Germany, to go along with nefarious geopolitical projects such as the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Had Putin not ordered his soldiers to invade Ukraine—or had things gone differently in the initial assault—few would have revived the idea that autocracies are bound to fail, just as the Soviet Union did in 1991.
Indeed, the Hungarian election—the first major vote in Europe since the war in Ukraine began—calls into question any facile assumptions about the limits of autocracy, even within the EU itself. Instead of weakening over time, Orban has carefully crafted a system that is apparently inoculated against democracy and smart enough to survive even in the face of policy blunders. International observers have focused on his government’s successive campaigns against refugees, George Soros, the European Union, and, as of late, the LGBTQ community. (After all, each time Orban faces election he has needed to conjure up a new existential threat to the nation.) But beyond these strategies, which are easy enough for other aspiring autocrats to copy, there is the more complex picture of how Orban, a trained lawyer who surrounds himself with other savvy jurists, has for so long kept up a façade of perfect legality—and even legitimacy—for his rule.
A MONSTER MADE IN BRUSSELS
The key to Orban’s success has always been what one might call a tactic of redundancy within a larger strategy of incremental but systematic moves toward authoritarianism. Thus, in order to continually constrain the opposition and broaden his power, his Fidesz party pushes on multiple fronts and tries different legal tools at the same time. When one approach fails, the same end might be achieved by an alternative means; when there is resistance—for instance, from the European Union—to a questionable new law, the Hungarian government makes cosmetic adjustments to address the concerns, even as its substance stands and the political facts on the ground that it seeks are established. A prime example was Hungary’s move, back in 2012, to lower the retirement age for judges by eight years, which allowed Orban to get rid of senior jurists who posed a potential check on his regime and to appoint regime-friendly replacements. The EU, which is supposed to be a guardian of the rule of law for its member states, duly found fault with the measure, but although the deposed judges were compensated for their lost years of service they were not reinstated: Fidesz got the compliant jurists it wanted.
The definition of success, in life in general and in the game of autocracy creation more particularly, is simple: doing more than is necessary. Of course, at the outset, when Orban first came to office, it was hard to predict which strategies would allow Fidesz to achieve a two-thirds majority in parliament in every election and thereby give him almost unlimited power. Once secured, that supermajority allowed Orban to change in the constitution at will; if a court finds fault with a Fidesz law (now extremely unlikely, since the courts are controlled by Fidesz judges), the law can simply be written into the constitution. If you make the law, almost nothing you want to do can be illegal. Orban has thus made efficient use of what the sociologist Kim Lane Scheppele calls “autocratic legalism”: rules and procedures are not openly violated; only their spirit dies a slow death. Seemingly small legal changes can have large systemic effects. Scheppele has also coined a memorable term for this dynamic: the Frankenstate. Just as Frankenstein’s monster was created from normal human parts, many of the individual elements of the Hungarian system look fine; they do not appear repressive in and of themselves. But assembled together in a certain way, they spell the end of democracy.
The individual parts of Orban’s system look fine; together they spell the end of democracy.
To obtain a permanent structural advantage, Fidesz has engaged in laser-sharp gerrymandering throughout the country (while ceding liberal Budapest, the capital, largely to the opposition). To promote Fidesz and its candidates, Orban has used state resources to fund nonstop propaganda around election time (and even at non-election time). He has steadily undermined Hungarian civil society, taking a page from Putin’s playbook by forcing NGOs to register as “foreign-funded” and to undergo special state audits. He has made ad hoc changes in electoral laws to counter the attempts by the opposition to unite effectively, allowing citizens to register anywhere in the country and enabling voter tourism in areas where a Fidesz majority might be threatened. Many observers estimate that a challenger to what has effectively become a one-party state would need to obtain about five percent over and above any Fidesz rival to win an election.
At the same time, Orban has been careful not to move beyond autocratic legalism into the terrain of more openly coercive authoritarianism that might have prompted EU intervention. Merkel cooperated with Orban for more than a decade, and the European Union, while critical of his government’s authoritarian direction, lavished some $45 billion on the country between 2014 and 2021. Many European observers felt that if there were open anti-Semitism or violence on the streets, such support would cease. (Dog-whistling, including by the prime minster himself, remains acceptable.) But short of that, Brussels was simply unwilling to rein in the Frankenstate.
The destruction of media pluralism has been another important part of Orban’s strategy. Orbanversteher—the Hungarian leader’s persistent coterie of international defenders—never fail to mention that there is no censorship in Hungary: critical journalists can blog and write damning investigative reports about the government to their heart’s content. But given the importance of state TV and the systematic acquisition of media companies by regime-friendly oligarchs, it is exceedingly difficult for such reporting to reach a national audience. Indeed, the opposition is unable to reach about a third of the electorate. During the entire run-up to the April election, Peter Marki-Zay, the opposition leader, was given a total of five minutes to make his case on state television, which was otherwise largely filled with pro-Orban propaganda. Like other right-wing populists (many of whom fashion themselves as heroic defenders of free speech), Orban refuses to take part in an open debate with any challenger: far better to avoid difficult questions and shape his own message by chatting with regime-friendly journalists every Friday and taking part in carefully scripted moments in which he encounters “the people” directly. (It is a lesson that the Republican National Committee in the United States has taken to heart in its recent decision to withdraw from the nonpartisan Presidential Debate Commission, and to take part only in debates of its own devising.)
Law is crucial for savvy autocrats, but so is money. Another foundation of Orban’s system, and one that contrasts it with Poland’s, with which it otherwise shares many similarities, has been the creation of what the Hungarian sociologist Balint Magyar calls a “Mafia state.” Such a state is not about banal corruption, as in envelopes of cash changing hands under the table. Rather, it is based on the political use of state structures and the manipulation of what are on the surface legal means: in particular, public procurement processes in which, strangely, only one bidder ever shows up. In Orban’s Hungary, this has meant that the government has continually sponsored overpriced projects—especially in construction—to enrich the coffers of regime-friendly oligarchs; many of these projects are submitted to the European Union for financing.
Through such mechanisms, what Magyar describes as “the political family” of Orban loyalists are kept in line, and in return, they have done the regime favors such as acquiring the country’s media companies, which thereby remain firmly pro-Fidesz. Even the most egregious forms of theft by these oligarchs are not prosecuted, because the public prosecutor is a faithful Fidesz party man.
Nor has Orban been content to limit his corruption to Russian-style oligarchy. He has also used extensive economic deals with Russia itself to entrench his regime. In a deal whose details remain largely unknown, the Fidesz government has contracted with Russia for an enormous loan to finance the construction of a nuclear power station (which is being built by a Russian company). Russia also won the bid for Budapest’s third metro line, despite offering lower standards and higher prices than others. To cover his flanks with the European Union, Orban has also been busy buying weapons from Germany and allowing German companies such as Mercedes, BMW, and Audi to enjoy highly favorable treatment in Hungary.
The point is not that Orban’s careful strategy of autocratic legalism and Mafia statecraft is based on unique dark political arts or that the regime is invincible. But it is naïve to assume that the strategy is bound to be self-undermining, any more than it is to assume that Putin’s is. It is also naïve to think that Orban’s adversaries will be successful as soon as they reveal how the system really works. Voters want to know what alternatives are being offered and what they can hope for by way of a better future. The united opposition in Hungary—cobbled together from six different parties ranging from postcommunist to something like Fidesz lite—could not agree on any positive vision (or even something like a shadow cabinet, for that matter). All that held them together was opposition to Orban.
THEIR PROBLEM IS OUR PROBLEM
It has often been convenient for international observers to conclude that, ultimately, people need to solve their own problems: after all, Hungarians voted for Orban and got the regime they chose. If the Hungarian opposition and what remains of Hungarian civil society cannot save democracy, then the EU, let alone the U.S. State Department, cannot do it for them. But such assertions are misleading, not least because outside actors can hardly be called neutral: consider the billions that European countries are still paying Russia for oil and gas, thereby financing Putin’s war of aggression. Analogously, for Hungary, the EU’s billions have been what oil is for Gulf states: a free and apparently unlimited resource that can be used for self-enrichment and the targeted buying of political support.
For years, Hungary has enjoyed more EU funds per capita than any other country (partly because the Orban government submits so many projects); inadvertently, the EU has also provided a safety valve, as domestic discontents, especially young people, can simply emigrate to other parts of the Union and take up employment—a form of relief that was not available during the Cold War. This particular set of factors—subsidies, emigration, and protection from powerful member states like Germany—has resulted in what the political scientist R. Daniel Kelemen calls an “authoritarian equilibrium” inside the EU.
Hungary has enjoyed more EU funds per capita than any other country.
Following this month’s election, that equilibrium might finally become destabilized: Brussels is beginning to turn off the tap. Two days after Orban’s victory, the European Commission announced that because of concerns about corruption and fraud, it will freeze EU funds for Budapest—a particularly inopportune moment for Orban, as he spent lavishly in the run-up to the election and will now have to impose austerity on his country. (Though whether restrictions will go through in the end will depend on getting the support of a qualified majority of other EU states.) Already, such efforts have been met with predictable complaints that the Union is seeking to punish Hungarians for having voted the wrong way. The fact is that it’s never the right time for imposing sanctions or withholding subsidies; before the election would have seemed political, and after the election also seems political. The same is true for other strategies that should have been tried years ago, such as measures to clamp down on the International Investment Bank, a Russian entity whose headquarters are now in Budapest. Until now, the bank has been allowed to operate without real oversight, ensuring plenty of channels for money laundering and international immunity for a host of suspect characters. And the Global Magnitsky Act could be used against some of the corrupt Hungarian oligarchs.
If there is now a larger struggle between democracy and autocracy, as U.S. President Joe Biden keeps pointing out, then democracies cannot forfeit tools that could help their cause. Above all, Western leaders should stop making the problem worse by funding the rise of autocracies they claim to oppose. And they should let go of the illusion that those same regimes will collapse on their own—especially when they are actively subsidized by democracies themselves.