Stefano Bottoni: How a Child of Kádár’s Time Built a Post-democratic Autocracy [Part 1]

In this extended conversation with Luka Lisjak Gabrijelčič, Stefano Bottoni – author of the recent Italian-language book Orbán. Un despota in Europa – discusses the biography and political trajectory of Viktor Orbán as a key element of contemporary Hungarian history; the character of the system he has been building and the nature of his personal power; his (counter-)revolutionary élan and his international “moral leadership”; as well as the sources of his relative popularity and the possibilities of the near future in Hungarian politics.

Luka Lisjak GabrijelčičOrbán. A despot in Europe: a provocative title. It might suggest that this is a polemical book. However, it is a historical analysis. Why the choice of such a categorical term? Is Orbán a “despot”?

Stefano Bottoni: The title of the book emerged from a long discussion with the publisher. I wanted to define Orbán in more sophisticated terms, proposing titles that sounded more like political science essays. The publisher required an easily understandable message. However, I was left with the question of whether we should at least put the question mark on it. Without the question mark the title may seem hard to digest but it makes sense. We can understand despotism as a system based on brute force: in this sense there was talk in the past of “oriental despotism”, and “Stalinist despotism” etc. But there is also a “soft” despotism, which is much more modern or even post-modern and technologically advanced, based on the rational use of the administrative and economic resources of the state to the maximum political profit of those in power. Placing the whole state machine at the service of the ruling party is an egregious form of despotism because it narrows the space for political and even cultural pluralism. This was true two years ago when I finished the book, and it is even more true today. Although I was not entirely convinced of this fact, the notion of “despot” – which may sound strong – actually has its own significance.

Orbán rules through arbitrary rule, so this is despotism, although not one based on the use of physical violence as was the case in the 20th century. Orbán’s despotism represents a much more clever and subtle variant, which relies on a mixture of institutional disruption (if you prefer, this could be labelled “permanent revolution”) and mass popular support. This should stimulate a serious reflection on the increasingly ambiguous boundaries between democracy and autocratic despotism.

The term “despotism” is also deeply linked to the tradition of Western political thought, and to the question of the taxonomy of political regimes: one may think of Montesquieu, and the 18thcentury discussions about “mixed regimes” etc. Although yours is a historical and not a political science book, there is strong interest in these taxonomic questions: how do we define a regime like Orbán’s?

Yes, these taxonomic issues were already in vogue when I first started thinking about this book three or four years ago, and now there is a really impressive literature. There is much talk of “electoral autocracy”, of “soft authoritarianism”, of “post-communist mafia state”, of “demokratura”, right up to the “externally constrained hybrid regime” proposed by András Bozoki and Dániel Hegedűs…

Or “competitive authoritarianism”, as suggested by Steven Levitsky already 10 years ago which has recently been taken up by some Hungarian scholars, such as Zoltán Gábor Szűcs …

Exactly. There are so many good definitions. It was precisely on this point that I struggled a bit with the publisher: I would have liked to blur the definition, and he would say to me: “This stuff is too complicated, you don’t understand.” In fact, these definitions fix a certain framing of the regime. This poses a serious methodological issue for me, as history is made up of a multitude of frames that you have to place side by side in order to capture them in motion. If I fix a frame in the form of a normative definition, the problem is that in two or three years this frame will inevitably move, and we will need another set of definitions. The system is like a moving target – it is constantly evolving. From a historical point of view, the challenge for anyone dealing with Orbán’s Hungary is to grasp its internal transformations, and to grasp them at various stages! I don’t believe that Orbán already had the intention of building the regime we know today 20 or more years ago. This system is the product of multiple circumstances and also many accidents. The task for us historians is to make selective use of the many explanations and definitions offered by political scientists, having in mind that our final aim is to grasp not only the complexity of the system (today we know well that between democracy and totalitarianism there is an infinity of nuances), but also its internal evolution. And we aim to grasp not only the evolution of the system, but also of its internal characters! I do not like to chain these factors in descriptions which are too static and might end up imprisoning the scholarly research in a discursive battle over definitions. 

Let’s talk about the evolution of the character, then. In the book, you begin to trace it from childhood. In the first chapter, you introduce the young Orbán as a typical “product” of Kádárian “upward social mobility”. You add that he was born and raised in a village just 40 kilometers from Budapest, “a geographically negligible but culturally abysmal distance”.

I think this is a valid description for many places in Central-Eastern Europe – not only during those years – and it is certainly valid for the Hungarian context. When Orbán arrives in Budapest in the early 1980s, he is barely an adult but already a grown man, with a rich (and burdening) experiential baggage in the Transdanubian province. Orbán is – among many other things – the product of his childhood in Kádár’s Hungary. We often hear and read about the cultural nostalgia of the Miklós Horthy era in contemporary Hungary. Of course, some parallels can be made with the 1930s: for example, the Eucharistic Congress held in Hungary in September 2021 finds a clear historical precedent in the 1938 Eucharistic Congress, when another right-wing system led by Admiral Miklós Horthy celebrated itself by showing Christian commitment. Horthy vehiculated the image of a powerful country that overcame the shock of Trianon. Orbán does exactly the same today, showing off his little proud Hungary as reborn after the pandemic and the economic upheavals. Despite these similarities, however, from the point of view of the cultural mindset Orbán is essentially a son of his time, and his mental time is late Kádárism. 

It may seem weird for a party that, ideologically speaking, is now part of the European far-right, but in reality tout se tient, as the French say. The fact is that today it is pensioners, people who were educated before 1989, and blue-collar workers who vote fairly stringently for Orbán. Alongside, of course, those who are the main beneficiaries of the inherently unequal tax and social welfare system: the upper-middle class. Orbán’s system therefore works on various levels: on the upper floors of the social pyramid, it stimulates a more conservative type of consensus; on the lower floors quite different sources of legitimacy emerge, like the barely dissimulated nostalgia for many features of Kádár’s Hungary.

The Kádár regime represented the promise, in part fulfilled, of a very predictable life: there is little to think about and very little to decide on. The state gives you a paid job, entertains you, feeds you, warms you. There is one Party and one uncontested leader for decades, who becomes an almost fatherly figure because he ages with us… The Orbán system reflects much more the dynamics of late Kádárism than those of the Horthy era, which no one remembers anymore. On the contrary, the social memory of the time of Kádár and of the transition of the late 1980s is still very vivid.

But there is the paradox that Orbán began his political career as a liberal whose critiques of the system targeted precisely this Kádárian conformism.

Here we can see a generational element somewhat similar to those young people of the Italian, French, and West German middle-classes who later became the “sixty-eighters”: it was a revolt against the society of the fathers, against conformism, against a world that was considered backward and oppressive. The beginning of the 1980s, when Orbán was admitted to university, coincided with the crisis of the Brezhnevian social compromise in the Soviet Bloc. It was the beginning of the terminal phase of the Soviet system. 

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the multiple crises in Poland, and the first rationing and price increases in Hungary in the early 1980s gave rise to a protracted economic crisis. The price of bread, which had been the same since 1963 – three forint and sixty fillers – increased after almost two decades. We have to try hard to imagine this: from one day to the next it costs much more than before. It is the end of a long stability – a mimed stability, of course, and a long parenthesis, in any case – that ends precisely when Orbán, born in 1963, enters adulthood.

The example of Solidarność is fundamental from this point because it signaled that there was something beyond the communist state. This was an alternative that was no longer just a moral testimony – painting slogans on the wall or publishing a samizdat – but instead opened up a new horizon of self-organization.

In the mid-1980s, at university, Orbán organized more or less authorized student clubs. This was the Bibó István Szakkollégium, inspired by the figure of the heterodox intellectual István Bibó, a formidable character who remained on the Index almost until the end of the regime because he was indigestible more or less for everyone, but above all for the communists in power, despite basically being a left-wing figure. In early 1988 the idea of founding a new political movement became reality: “You Communists, more or less reformed, tell us that you want to expand the space of pluralism. Let’s see if you are serious!” It was the first fully political movement that emerged in Kádár’s Hungary. The fact that they were law students, and that they spoke fluent English, matters a lot. They were not afraid to challenge the authorities. They understood something that others did not: power was actually very weak. Their bravado was due to the awareness that “they won’t do anything to us anyway.” On the contrary, a large part of the population who had the memory of 1956 and subsequent repressions was terrified of the idea of ​​going to the streets. This strategic advantage allowed Orbán and the Fidesz founders to do things that seemed unheard of at the end of the 1980s.

How did Orbán position himself in the post-communist scenario? In the first democratic elections, Hungary saw two liberal parties competing: the Alliance of Free Democrats, SzDSz, and Orbán’s Alliance of Young Democrats, Fidesz. What was the difference between the two? Where is the differentiation between Orbán’s group and the liberal mainstream at that moment?

First of all, there is a generational difference, as the name already suggests. The exponents of the SzDSz were either part of the great post-war generation or they were born in the so-called “Ratkó era”, named after the health minister who had prohibited abortion, thus artificially prolonging the population boom in Hungary until 1953. Orbán’s generation was born in the 1960s. But these 10 to 15 years represent a world of difference. For example, some of the founders of the SzDSz had grown up during the myth of ’68. For the generation of Orbán, 1968 counted for nothing – indeed, it is the stuff of deluded extremists from the left. Furthermore, many members of the SzDSz were from Budapest, often Jews of petty bourgeois origin, or even children of Party officials. Theirs was a typical generational revolt. Often, they came from a left-wing tradition: as young people some were even Maoists, before they moved on to the various currents of liberal thought, often even to the neoliberal “Washington consensus”. 

The majority of Fidesz exponents, on the other hand, came from the provinces. Since the early 1990s, Fidesz embraced a liberalism that seemed more “national”; I would not say it was nationalist because the nationalist camp was occupied by many other forces, but the party was quite attentive to issues such as Hungarian minorities in neighboring countries.

However, it was a small party, because in the liberal camp the SzDSz dominated with around 20% of the votes. Orbán’s challenge, from the mid-1990s, was to override the great liberal party, and he would do it with a take-over of the right by going to occupy a nationalist camp that after 1994 had remained vacant. In fact, in that year, as already happened in Poland, the post-communist right collapsed. The Socialist Party of Gyula Horn, an old Communist official, won the elections by taking an absolute majority of seats in parliament. Fidesz was faced with a choice: either it remains a 5% liberal party or it moves to the right and tries to build the right-wing mass popular party that at that moment had failed. And Orbán’s strategic choice was precisely the latter.

How did this turn to the right manifest?

FIdesz abandons the Liberal International and joins the European People’s Party, adopting its rhetoric. Perhaps the most obvious turning point, seen from afar, was the gradual abandonment of secularism that was very pronounced in the first iteration of Fidesz, to the point of having anti-clerical touches.

Today the amount of money that the Hungarian government gives to religious denominations – to Catholics, Protestants but also Orthodox Jews and other charismatic denominations such as Hit Gyülekezete – is truly impressive. It is very different from how Orbán posed in the 1990s. He himself was practically an atheist. He had grown up in an agnostic environment, and he only converted to Calvinism as an adult; his wife came from a Catholic family, but religion played absolutely no role in Orbán’s family. However, since the mid-1990s he has pragmatically understood that hierarchies and religious structures can become an important support for the political level in a changing world and within a context of transition without social points of reference. He then began to build a network of alliances in religious circles. Unlike Poland, where it was enough to have good relations with a single religious community, Hungary was and still is a multi-confessional country that requires a multilevel approach. 

You have explained Orbán’s first great evolution from a “fringe” liberal to a center-right leader. You described the Orbán who came to power in 1998. Can you tell us something about the first Orbán government? What were the differences from how he would govern from 2010 onwards, and where can we already glimpse the seeds of a future national-populist involution?

Here I would start from the criticisms that have been made against my book. Some have said that I was too benevolent with the first Orbán government: they claim that the chapter dedicated to the period 1998-2002 exudes a certain nostalgia. In short, you would see that I sympathized with him and therefore I treat that as a “golden age” which would be nice to return to, even though I realize that history goes on and it is not possible to return to that idea of ​​bourgeois, moderate Hungary etc. I confess that this is partly true. To me, as with a large part of a Hungarian generation born in the 1960s and 1970s, that moment seemed to be an acceptable compromise. On the one hand, the affirmation of some national values ​​in a broad sense – both through a proactive foreign policy regarding the rights of Hungarian minorities abroad and an attempt to build a sort of autochthonous capitalism with a greater role for the state – and on the other hand, support to those multinational companies that already had a central role in the Hungarian economy then, as they do now.

Those were also the years of negotiations for accession to the European Union, which were be carried out successfully by both left- and right-wing governments. The EU annual progress reports of those years show that Hungary was not considered a problematic country regardless of who was in power. However, in the context of international politics, I tried to point out some aporias that could be seen as symptoms of subsequent developments: for example,

the unveiled sympathy of the Orbán government for the Schüssel-Haider coalition in Austria, or the decision to attend Franjo Tudjman’s funeral in Zagreb in December 1999. Except for the Turkish president, no other European leader showed up to honor the controversial president of Croatia.

Both cases could be presented as a matter of good neighborly relations, but the political endorsement of that kind of “beyond the mainstream” right-wing was rather clear. It can be said that Orbán had already begun to distinguish himself from the European political standard, to present himself as the “maverick”. However, all in all, his government was still compatible with the general approach to East-West relations which at that time was absolutely dominant in Hungary as part of what I call “the great Western consensus”.

The fundamental break, from a personal as well as a political point of view, came after the electoral defeat of 2002. Orbán firmly believed he did not deserve it. He thought his government had done well and therefore people should vote for him. In fact, Fidesz received many more votes than in 1998 but not enough – it lost the majority by a small margin. This was a shock from which the “first Orbán” – a much more polished Orbán, willing to appease his European partners, and very pro-Atlantic – would never recover. Dr. Jekyll didn’t quite die, but a Mr. Hyde began to appear next to him. This Mr. Hyde had many entirely new traits: he believed in strong mass politics, based on simplified and much more aggressive top-down communication. From this moment on, the discourse of “us versus them” was affirmed. Such rhetoric had not been heard in Hungary since the time of Rákosi: “Whoever is not with us is against us”. This kind of speech, “we are the national forces (nemzeti erők)”, implies that if you are not with us you are… it is almost never said, but it is implied: you are Jewish, cosmopolitan, inherently and inevitably suspicious. From 2015 onwards this rhetoric would crystallize in the demonic figure of “Soros”.

Alongside this rhetorical change, however, there was also a quite radical shift of program: from a liberal policy, centered on individual responsibility and the critique of the residues of Kádárian conformism, towards a much more paternalistic conception of the state. Is that correct?

Absolutely. A much more paternalistic conception not only of the state but also of social relations emerged. The pre-2002 Orbán offered participation in a “polgári” society, which in Hungarian means both civic and bourgeois. Put simply, this meant entering a middle-class, both from the point of view of economic status and personal values.

When he realizes that a large chunk of Hungarian society will never have the chance to enter this middle-class, and that an equally large part of society does not want to either – there is instead a profound rejection of civic and bourgeois values – he and his spin doctors and the party, between 2002 and 2004, made a decisive turn towards a populism that almost smacks of the populist left.

“Don’t you want us economically? Don’t you want us liberals? Perfect. Then we will be what you want. ” So we come to the Orbán of 2005-06, who presents himself at the electoral debates dressed in a modest manner, with hideous clothes that seemed to have come out of a provincial wedding, while Gyurcsány and the other exponents of the center-left were instead dressed in a suit and tie in the latest fashion. All this was part of the idea of a plebeian leader that was to be communicated to the “little man.” “Plebejus” is a word that Orbán repeatedly used in those years. 

In 2006, however, he again lost the elections. And it was the first time since 1990 that a ruling party was able to confirm its mandate.

Yes, for Fidesz that was a really heavy defeat. This is also an interesting and unusual thing: a top politician who manages to stay afloat despite two consecutive lost elections. Orbán encounters difficulties within the party but he is helped by a formidable event in late spring 2006: Gyurcsány’s famous post-election speech behind closed doors in which the socialist premier confronts his own party comrades, using extremely vulgar language, with the heavy economic situation in the country. It was a real political earthquake that suddenly changed the mind of significant portions of the electorate. Orbán was able to use public indignation to his advantage and was smart enough not to demand early elections after the turmoil. In 2008-09, the economic and financial crisis hit Hungary very hard, and also helped to reshape the political spectrum. The forint lost 1/5 of its value against major Western currencies, 1 million people who had debts in Swiss francs were bankrupted: there were foreclosed houses, people evicted, waves of layoffs, and the real estate market collapsed. It was truly a social catastrophe. And Orbán was ready to exploit it. He had expected the ruling center-left coalition to reach total consumption. He let the left introduce the most unpopular measures, accelerating its own self-extinction. 

The socialists and liberals arrived at the 2010 elections completely exhausted, and although it is true that Fidesz received “only” 53% of the popular vote, we must also take into account 17% for the far-right Jobbik, which was really a new player in Hungarian politics. Today we are used to thinking of Jobbik as a worthy member of the anti-Orbán coalition, but the Jobbik of 2010 was very different: radical right is an understatement, by comparison the French Rassemblement National or the German Alternative Für Deutschland seem like a company of boy scouts. The Jobbik of 2010 was an anti-system party that preached political violence, and it received a million votes. If we add up the votes of Fidesz and those of Jobbik, we see that in an absolutely clean democratic election almost 3/4 of the Hungarian electorate expressed a total rejection of the policy that had been pursued. The shocking result could also be interpreted as the final crisis of the already sick post-1989 liberal democracy. 

Starting from this victory, amplified by a semi-majoritarian electoral system, Orbán constructs what you describe in the book as a “constitutional dictatorship”. Can you explain its characteristics?

In Orbán’s public speeches it was very clear that a new system was being built: “Here the 20 years of chaos – 1989-2010 – die.” It is the first time that a leader from Central and Eastern Europe has publicly considered the entire 20 years as bankrupt. He could have said: “a success with some shadows”, but instead he speaks directly of failure. In saying this, he is in tune with a good part of the Hungarian electorate who came to think of 1989 and the democratic transition as a failure. This seems to me to be a very serious endpoint. This is what makes what Orbán offers possible. Orbán’s package, the “national cooperation system” (Nemzeti Együttműködés Rendszere), as it will be called, is more or less: “We are going to be in power as long as we want” – not just while we can: as long as we want. Let’s build a system that has a constitutional basis that will make it almost impossible, even for those who win the elections against us, to govern. This is huge news within the European Union. We will see it, perhaps, after the elections in 2022: this is in fact a system of power that can only be dismantled by dismantling its constitutional structure – that is, with a two-thirds parliamentary majority.

I don’t think Orbán always had the idea of ​​becoming a despot. However, from 2009 onwards, when it became clear that he would obtain a landslide victory at the upcoming election, the idea prevailed of continuously expanding power along what one of his advisors Gábor G. Fodor called centrális erőtér, the “central space of power”.

What does this mean? Quite simply: I put myself in the center of the field and occupy everything, including the wings to the left and much of the right. I practically leave no room for my political opponents: they have no air to breathe, as I take it all away from them. It is the denial of effective pluralism. Instead, a table pluralism is created which today looks quite similar to the Russian model set up by Putin – “I need an opposition party, so let’s create it!” Four years ago, it was not yet like this, but today we have got political figures and parties created or manipulated to gain a grip on a small slice of the electorate that Fidesz wants to control in this way. [End of Part One]

This conversation, originally conducted in Italian, was first released in Slovene translation in Revija Razpotja

We are grateful for Revija Razpotja for allowing us to release an English version and for both Stefano Bottoni and Luka Lisjak Gabrijelčič for greatly helping us prepare it.

In cooperation with Oliver Garner and Ferenc Laczo

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