A life for power? Viktor Orbán’s long affair with Hungary

An op-ed by Gábor Egry

Viktor Orbán’s famous speech at Imre Nagy’s reburial on June 16, 1989 made me sense a willful character, a person unfairly bending truth and lusting for power. I was 14, growing up in a family whose de facto head belonged to the younger, economically reform-minded and more technocratic mid-level echelons of the Communist party, but who held opinions close to the party’s center when it came to political change, and what shaped my opinion was not so much foresight, but rather the insecurity those words implied for me – and the injustice I thought they had radiated towards people like my mother. 

It did not take significantly more than a year in Hungary which was undergoing a peaceful transition, with the government under attack by its liberal opponents and with “my party” no longer threatened by disappearance although now in opposition as well, for me to perceive Fidesz as a refreshingly iconoclastic group whose politicians were the most honest and spoke the clearest language in parliament. However, the pendulum of my opinion swung back to where it started in 1989 soon after Orbán acquired power in 1998 and has not significantly shifted since, although – as a historian – I would now claim this opinion is far from subjective. 

A hunger for power, and its employment without accepting the limits of democratic conventions and customs have characterized Orbán’s politics throughout his whole career, and it is often seen as his sole motivation. 

His very first major public appearance back in 1989 was immediately followed by accusations that he lacks principles and creates divisions where reconciliation would be needed for the sole purpose of gaining power.

The following decades have certainly taught Hungarians that every politician aspiring to, or acting in government will have to face such charges – simply because the application of power is central to politics of any kind. Orbán’s long and (at least seemingly) winding road from generational and liberal politics and its culture of mockery towards what was viewed as antiquated nationalism, to the role of a stalwart of traditional values, institutions and morality has certainly contributed to this opinion gaining salience. For about a decade after 2000 this view of Orbán might have been the crucial glue uniting against him not only his major political opponents but a slim majority of voters too. The past thirteen years have only been truly different in terms of how his super-majoritarian rule appeared to confirm not only his lust for power but the conventional view about the deep entanglements of power and corruption as a means of accumulating wealth and as a source of the degradation of personal character.

Orbán’s 25 years since 1998 was about the construction and reconstruction of an ever more complex system of power, in parallel (paradoxical as this may sound) with its simplification.

His system is no longer about trying to demonstrate that the Hungarian Right is capable of governing in accordance with the norms set by consensus politics, neither is it about “good governance” as an alternative technocratic vision. Nor it is about building a party state: Fidesz hardly qualifies as a party with a clear program reflecting an ideology anymore. It is rather a structure of control and rule, and a political machinery that upholds that structure. 

Power is, according to sociologist Imre Kovách, the most important integrative structure in Hungary today.

This form of integration is realized through an intricate system of state control and cooptation of elites at all levels, leaving them enough room in their own spheres to make them accept and legitimize a politics that is regularly encroaching on institutional autonomy and intruding the private sphere ever more too.

Today it amounts to a system that does not even pretend to operate through the division of power and roles at least within the government, like it still did after 2010 when Tibor Navracsics was “hired” for his seemingly more liberal and technocratic credentials to direct the “reinstitutionalization of the state.” Today, ministries and national authorities do not matter much at all. They are regularly reshuffled and redistributed between the “barons” around Orbán.

This system offers an easy run for analysts and observers who wish to identify the classic features of political systems built on personal power: warring cliques behind the facade of unity, opaque politicking and competition for favors, unexpected rise and fall of politicians, sycophantic praise and a growing personality cult, the belief in infallibility, rampant corruption and ever more palpable disfunction of the state, the constant cycles of redistribution of economic assets and resources, and many more. It all feels like it has been directly lifted from classic tracts on Rome or Renaissance Italy. 

Do we only see in this story how Orbán has been driven solely by his longing for power for power’s sake? That is the truly puzzling and vexing question today.

Do the familiar tropes of anti-tyrannical literature explain anything about what happened and is still happening in contemporary Hungary, a country that has changed so profoundly not only as compared to its post-1989 realities but from its 2010 self too?

If Orbán did not change at all in terms of his relation to power, were the many changes only about its preservation and extension? 

Orbán was once an intriguing and rare politician, eager to read and learn, and intellectually stimulating to analyse. He is not one anymore. However, he still retains a taste and desire to show that he could be part of a serious intellectual conversation with anyone. He clearly wants recognition as a thinker and a peer of intellectuals, whose power emanates from two distinct sources: the will of the people depicted in a fanciful manner as “the sovereign nation’s choice”, on the one hand, and his unique intellectual ability to understand the world and provide a vision that captures its realities, its natural order, and its possibilities, on the other. 

Orbán used power to reshape the country, and in an era of “evidence-based” and “technocratic” politics, such a promise of a different kind of politics that would bring profound changes also amounts to a form of power – as shown by many examples around the world from Barack Obama to Jeremy Corbyn. What makes Orbán stand out is his endurance and perseverance, what he certainly thinks of as a consequent use of this power to achieve change, and his firm belief in his own mission.

Once he was ready to pay the price of being seen as an opportunist who only craves power. Today he is sticking to opinions and positions that are costly, create conflict with powerful enemies, and bar him from concrete material gains and resources. 

Back in 1989, I was fearing Viktor Orbán as someone whose anti-communism was only a means to sideline his rivals and ease his way to power. In 2023, I rather fear that he is not an opportunist anymore, not just a master tactician of power. I fear that power turned him into a “leader who meets destiny” and it may now be our destiny to watch this drama unfold until the classic last scenes. 

Gábor Egry is a historian, PhD, senior research fellow and director general at the Institute of Political History, Budapest. His research focuses on nationalism, everyday ethnicity and politics of identity in modern Eastern European history. His current position is Principal Investigator of the ERC Consolidator Project NEPOSTRANS (Negotiating post-imperial transitions: from remobilization to nation-state consolidation. A comparative study of local and regional transitions in post-Habsburg East and Central Europe) that compares transitions from Austria-Hungary to the successor states at the wake of WWI at the local level.

In collaboration with Karen Culver and Ferenc Laczó.

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