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 Gabrijelčič: At the beginning of your book, there is a beautiful Orbán quote from 2006 when, speaking to diplomats accredited in Budapest, he stated: “I can only repeat to you not to pay attention to what I say but only to what I do”. However, the interpretations of Orbán abroad, both positive and negative, rely strongly on what he says instead of what he does. On the rhetorical level, Orbán proved to be extremely skilled, with a very clever use of ideological discourse as a smokescreen. This discourse was projected abroad, as well, with Orbán presenting himself almost as a moral leader of the European right.
Stefano Bottoni: Orbán likes to talk and often acts as an ideologue. In judging his political work as historians, we had better see what he does through comparing the words with the concrete measures but above all through studying the economic and cultural impact of these measures on the social fabric. The quotation seemed to me very relevant for understanding the apparent contradictions in economic policy after 2010. On the one hand, a post-colonial style economic liberation struggle was preached, with verbal and even fiscal attacks on multinationals operating in “non-productive” financial sectors. On the other hand, there was a much more silent yet effective construction of an oligarchic system of patronage.
There is an excellent book by Gábor Scheiring, Authoritarian Capitalism and the Accumulative State in Hungary (2020) that describes the synergy of this “accumulative” system and the large multinationals, especially German and Austrian ones. Fidesz preaches the construction of domestic capitalism and the fight against transnational capital, but in actual reality it has hardly touched the privileged position of the multinational companies that not only keep on operating in Hungary, but indeed receive more and more subsidies to maintain their investments or start new ones in the country.
Another egregious feature of the “actually existing Orbánism” has been a long-standing policy of “wage containment”, to put it in a euphemistic way. This combines very low salaries with a restriction of trade union autonomy. Therefore, this is a neoliberal policy. Indeed, Orbán has always been an admirer of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, two myths of the 1980s generation he belongs to. Orbán stands with that transnational financial capitalism which could not care less about the rule of law or workers’ rights. The only thing these people care about is profit. In Hungary, there are no armed gangs on the street, and no one goes on strike: what is the problem here? So, instead of building a “Hungarian capitalism”, Orbán enriches his protégés.
In 10 years, he has built an enormous patronage system that resembles the well-known post-Soviet oligarchies: there is a ranch with underground parking for thirty jeeps, and armed men everywhere. This is somewhere halfway between the Donbas and Latin America. It is very distant even from the shady Hungarian post-communist democracy we knew before 2010.
However, this is still a regime based on an undeniable electoral consensus. Of course, there is gerrymandering, and control of the media and institutions, but the ruling party still manages to maintain that 45% of votes which then, expanded by the electoral system, allows it to reach a two-thirds majority of the deputies. How do you explain the reasons for this popularity?
I encountered an important methodological problem when, not being a sociologist or economist, I wanted to use some good scholarship published in recent years on the impact of economic policies on income distribution. When diving into this literature, I found a number of contradictions. Many economists argue that Orbán’s social policies favored the rich. But then when we scratch under the surface, we seem to find a more differentiated reality.
Despite the uneven distribution of incomes and benefits, the system managed to integrate at least partly, from a social point of view, many among the poorest. The most striking example are the Roma. Today, a significant part of the Roma population is objectively a little less poor than 10 years ago. Many more Roma have jobs than since the late 1980s – not undeclared work, but legal employment, albeit underpaid. When government officials say: “Never since 1989 have so many Hungarians worked,” there is an element of truth. Unemployment is really and steadily lower than before.
Indeed, there is such a huge shortage in the work-force that anyone in Budapest or other cities who wants to work is easily hired. This obviously doesn’t apply everywhere: if you go to the Northeast or Southwest provinces, it’s another world. There are strong geographical differences. But the overall picture is of very high employment rates compared to the previous decades. So when my sociologist friends write that the Orbán regime harmed the poor, I remain skeptical as I find this claim ideologically motivated and not so much supported by empirical evidence. And if we look at the map of the electoral consensus, we notice profound changes going on in this field. Let me give you an example: Fidesz was always less strong in Budapest than in the provinces, but until recently they could count on strong support in the most affluent neighborhoods. I live in the XII. district, in a hilly district of Buda favored by the managers, company-owners, well-to-do families, members of the relatively tiny Hungarian bourgeoisie. This was a traditionally conservative district, which from 1990 onwards was a stronghold of the center-right. Today, the liberals here are much stronger than Fidesz because younger educated people no longer vote for the right. Even the class of “yuppies” today would rather vote for a party like Momentum, or the new rising star of the Hungarian political sphere, the independent candidate for Prime Minister Péter Márki-Zay. Instead, Fidesz is stronger in some neighborhoods with a blue-collar vocation on the outskirts of Pest, and gains support among the elderly generations. Without these structural changes it would be difficult to explain how in a system where electoral competition still exists, the ruling party – which has also lost many supporters among the more “visible” classes of society for foreign observers – has managed to maintain its overall level of support.
There is still a strong, intergenerational consensus for Fidesz, especially in the countryside and the many small towns of Hungary, with entire families voting in the same way for decades; this ingrained consensus is based on a rather genuine enthusiasm for Orbán and his system.
Of course, we cannot leave out the whole media system that is dependent on Fidesz and incessantly hits the public with pro-government messages. It is a consensus created from top to bottom, much like the Kádárian era, but it is also measured and often corrected. I will give you an example. Fidesz has always been a party of males, with a macho imprint, in a country where female emancipation is de facto (that is to say, it is not formally recognized) very strong; half of marriages end in divorce, so it is one thing to speak of a “traditional family”, and another thing is the reality in which many members of Fidesz have also married several times. Or they do belong to sexual minorities but are afraid of coming out. In short, when Fidesz realized that they are losing their consensus among women, they quickly began to promote female ministers to important positions, and also increased their media presence. The same happened with the Millennials: when they realized they were weak among young people, they began to promote in a very systematic way political communication centered on the language of the very young. There is a continuous, almost chameleon-like, ability to reinterpret oneself, even if internal polls say that Fidesz has not been able to recover popularity among the urban young population.
And then there is the core business. Nowadays, what is the largest single social stratum in the Hungarian electorate? Retirees. Out of an electoral body of about 8 million people, nearly three million are retired. Once you get their loyalty, it is difficult for anybody else to gain their support. And in some rural areas – we must admit it, even if it is a politically sensitive issue – the other core groups are the Roma. Little is said on the liberal-democratic side about this fact, but the overwhelming majority of the Roma vote went to Fidesz in 2018. It is quite obvious that in many cases these votes were fraudulently bought or “stimulated” through mechanisms of patronage and fearmongering. The day before the election there was a day of celebration, with the distribution of gift packages, and then they said: “Now let’s vote well”. This is a widespread phenomenon in many rural areas, and it has been part of the tools of administrative power since the 1990s, when the Socialist party was the main beneficiary of these informal ruling techniques.
it would be an error of judgment to think that support for Fidesz is based only on transactional votes. In Budapest, where the elections are pretty clean, Fidesz still managed to keep 35% of the votes at the last election: for a – culturally speaking – far-right party this is no small feat in a large European capital.
Then there is the campaign, in which you are not forced to vote for Fidesz, but you are … encouraged. There is not a physical constraint, but a psychological one. For example, you go to the lady who has eight children and say “your husband does socially useful jobs, right? It would be good if he could do them again next month, right? It wouldn’t be nice if we had to send him away. Then you would be left without those 200 euros. ” It is a very clear way of saying: “vote well”. As I see it, this is an arbitrary use of economic and administrative resources, and therefore a form of despotism: “I use the state as I like it. When I can, I bend the law as I please. If what I do is illegal, the judges will do nothing. “
This paternalistic element you have described has a long pre-history though, doesn’t it? The civic radicals of the early 20th century already denounced the fact that, under the dualist constitutional regime, there was a system of patronages and semi-feudal relationships very similar to the one you describe. However, there is a new element in the Orbán regime: what you call in the book “the permanent revolution”. The regimes of Horthy and Kádár were predictable, while with Orbán there is always a very strong element of unpredictability: a need to create new enemies out of thin air. How do you explain this “Maoist” element of the regime – this constant spiral of radicalization that seems to prevent real consolidation?
It is said that Orbán likes to rule through chaos. What is evident is that he does not like to govern through ordinary administration. His is not a “strong government” in the sense of an orderly – even if decisive or arbitrary – management of the ordinary, but instead there is always the creation of extraordinary situations to be managed by “saving the nation”.
There is always a danger – the economic crisis, the multinational companies, a natural catastrophe, George Soros, external and internal enemies, migrants, LGBTQ communities – and then they say: “We’ll save you!” This is a mechanism that has been successfully tested over the last years. Unlike the Dual Monarchy after 1867, the Horthy system, and the Kádár regime, the Orbán system depends very much on the outstanding personality of its creator.
This is so much the case that some Hungarian political scientists have spoken of a “regime” instead of an “Orbán system”, insisting on the distinction according to which the regime is incapable of consolidating. It is an interesting distinction, but as a historian I don’t know what to say about it. We will have to wait for it to finish. If it succeeds in somehow consolidating, it will overcome other crises; if it is not able to consolidate, we will say that it lasted about 10 years and then fell apart – hopefully in a peaceful manner.
It is undoubted that the system, or regime as you prefer, depends very much on the moods of Orbán, and also on his creative genius. I take a recent example. After waging a violent campaign against the European Union for months and months, even now with the Recovery Fund issue, at the picnic of Kötcse (the traditional party summit held behind closed doors) it seems that the new party line has been issued, to use the proper Bolshevik terms: the European Union is no longer to be frontally attacked. Furthermore, anti-LGBTQI rhetoric fades. This is quite interesting. It means that Orbán believes he has gone too far with this. He understands that a large part of Hungarian voters appreciate the European Union, including Fidesz voters, and do not like such violent anti-Brussels rhetoric. You let the car go forward, but you don’t take your foot off the accelerator. If he hadn’t done this, the rhetoric would have gone ahead a thousand-fold. But after this I am sure that from one day to the next the propaganda-media machine will shift, and the new guidelines will give voters the correct interpretation of his thought. This demonstrates the degree of dependence of the system on the founder. Then there is also an economic dependence: Viktor Orbán, who officially has a few tens of thousands of euros in his bank account, is by far the richest person in today’s Hungary. The system depends to an impressive extent on his will and his whims. When entrepreneurs and oligarchs line up to ask him for support for a project, he is like the Roman emperor: thumbs up, or thumbs down.
I could also have called this book “The feudal lord”. The state functions as a fiefdom, managed in a personal and hierarchical form, where at the apex there is the undisputed master. This is a still young master around whom no successors can be seen. Like a good Bolshevik, such as Stalin or Khrushchev, he kills or despises them all. When any of these secondary characters try to emerge, they are hit and sunk. Then maybe he can re-emerge after 5 or 10 years. But no one is ever allowed to challenge the boss – in fact he is called that, főnök, “The Boss”. His leadership of Fidesz has been undisputed for 30 years. Fidesz is his party that he founded and runs as he wants. So there is a concentration of personal power that Hungary has never seen in all of its modern history – not even in the time of Mátyás Rákosi, who was much feared but in fact a mere agent of Moscow in the late 1940s. The power that Viktor Orbán has accumulated over the past decade is absolutely unprecedented in the modern history of Hungary. And this is real power. This is why I wrote a book about him.
Perhaps the regime of István Tisza would come to mind in the years immediately preceding the Great War, whose liberal authoritarianism makes one think of the Orbán of the early 2000s …
But Tisza had not amassed such strong economic power, and even less so media power around himself. And above all, let’s not forget that there was Vienna! Hungary was still part of an empire, and the room for maneuver of any Hungarian government was limited. Orbán often speaks of national sovereignty in danger. But the degree of effective sovereignty of Hungary had never been greater! Never. Someone will say: and the European Union? … And what prevented him from doing it, Brussels? In fact, the EU gave him a lot of money, making him richer than anyone else. The famous external constraints, typical of semi-peripheral countries, are weaker than ever in this part of the world.
And there is the same realization that you mentioned in the Orbán of the late 1980s: “anyway they won’t do anything to us”…
Exactly! Orbán, in a very clever, cynical, and unscrupulous way, understood that there was a window of opportunity to build almost unlimited personal power, financed largely by European funds. Is this window of opportunity about to end? Perhaps. But he exploited it to the last centimeter.
We are just a few months ahead of the elections. If I’m not mistaken, it is the first time since autumn 2006 that Fidesz is no longer the undisputed leader in the polls. Anyway, something is changing, isn’t it? How do you see the prospects for an extremely heterogeneous opposition when faced by such a strong power system?
I am more pessimistic about the outcome of these elections than the majority of analysts linked to the liberal and progressive camp. Fidesz largely remains the first party in the polls: if we consider all the opposition parties, there is a more or less equal situation. This, it is true, is a new situation. In 2018, the opposition was still fragmented despite some tactical agreements to withdraw from certain constituencies.
Today, in virtually every single-member constituency, there will be only one candidate from the opposition parties – the maverick and charismatic independent runner Péter Márki-Zay – plus other showcase candidates inserted by Fidesz to disturb him. It seems like a big step forward. But it suffices to say that in 2018 all the opposition parties won 12 single-member constituencies in Budapest out of 18, but just 3 out of 88 in the provinces. To have a concrete chance to take a simple parliamentary majority, the opposition must win a good number of the so-called battleground constituencies in the provinces. It will be difficult, since Orbán has just made clear that he is ready for total war until April 2022.
The great problem of the opposition remains the lack of efficient provincial networks. In Budapest, and in some regional centers, opposition mayors now rule. But if we look at what these administrations have done in the last three years, we see that they are not in good shape – also because all financial resources have been removed from them. A mayor in Hungary today counts for almost nothing, including Gergely Karácsony, the general mayor of Budapest. One could make a lot of the fact that he has made an alliance with the mayors of Warsaw, Prague, and Bratislava. But the mayor of Warsaw matters because he has a billion-dollar budget.
The mayor of Budapest counts for very little. He has no money, and he has no resources to distribute. This is one of the pillars of the system: Orbán throttles opponents by preventing them from distributing resources. And politics – here I speak from an Italian background – is essentially the distribution of resources. Parties have always been a conveyor of resources, of clientele, of opportunities. If the opposition parties cannot serve this purpose, what do they do? They say: “No to Orbán”. But to do what? What is the project?
A pars construens struggles to emerge. It is true, however, that a pars destruens is strengthening, which now prevails in the milieu with a high degree of social and cultural capital. Among university students and the underground Budapest, being in Fidesz today has the same social stigma as belonging to the League of Young Communists in 1987. It is an interesting development: it was not like that 20 years ago. Fidesz rallies used to be full of cute girls and handsome guys, young and trendy people – they seemed to be held in a disco. Not anymore. Fidesz’s audience at public events is made up of retirees. But the Millennials are fewer in number and often do not bother to go to vote; by contrast there are many retirees, and they usually vote. All of this means that the masses that support Fidesz today are less visible than a decade ago, but not necessarily weaker.
For Fidesz to lose the election would require very negative events that quickly change the opinion of a large part of the population. The last time such a thing happened in Hungary was the Gyurcsány speech going public and the subsequent riots of September-October 2006. Without a similar political or social earthquake, Fidesz remains my absolute favorite. But I bet that the opposition will manage to prevent Orbán from taking two-thirds of the parliamentary seats. If the opposition manages to win, then a new story begins. In all cases, we are heading for a long and dramatic campaign.
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.