Viktor Orbán and Emmanuel Macron (Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Why Orbán endures

Critics of the Hungarian government have to understand its popularity

Artillery Row

Last week in deep provincial Hungary, you might have spotted a group of writers and journalists — yours truly included — queuing on a Sunday morning to be frisked before watching a 15-minute open-air political speech. The speaker was Prime Minister Viktor Orbán; the occasion, the opening of a memorial to Hungarian churchman and patriot Cardinal József Mindszenty, persecuted by fascists and communists alike. The place was Zalaegerzeg, the base of Mindszenty’s ministry.

Whatever the foreign press may think, Orbán is no rabble-rousing ranter

What had enthused us to accept an invitation to attend the event and meet government ministers and others was the paradoxical position of Orbán’s Fidesz government inside and outside Hungary. To much of the liberal media in the US and the rest of Europe, it is a monster: bigoted, homophobic, anti-immigrant, socially reactionary, cynical about the rule of law and of course worryingly subservient to Vladimir Putin. Possibly proto-fascist too. Yet here is the puzzle. At home it trounced an overtly cosmopolitan, EU-approved opposition in the 2022 election, a poll certified by independent observers as largely well-conducted. Unless Hungarian voters are themselves overwhelmingly bigoted, authoritarian and lacking in common decency, something peculiar is afoot. 

True, some allege government manipulation of the media, and indeed most newspapers are in the hands of Fidesz supporters. By no means all media broadcasters are government-supporting, however, and a fair number of news sources are foreign-based or otherwise beyond the reach of governmental pressure. Even taking this into account Fidesz’s majority at 54 per cent was too big to blame on mere media imbalance. 

Why is Orban, excoriated outside Hungary, so popular within it? The first clue is that, whatever the foreign press may think, Orbán is no rabble-rousing ranter. He is known for a willingness to give time to journalists and patiently defend his positions to them. About three weeks ago, interviewed by the liberal German magazine Cicero, he explained his apparently anti-Western position on relations with Russia and on sanctions against those connected with it.

With crowds his style is to persuade and not to harangue; his trick is to woo his audiences as intelligent listeners. Granted, on this occasion he stood on a podium resplendent in the Hungarian national colours and resolutely demanded a defence of Hungarian values against outside interference. He pulled no punches in accusing the West of abandoning his country in 1956 and subverting its values in 2022. But this was no Hitlerian rant — rather, something much more like an enthusiastic teacher encouraging his class. Ranging over not only politics but ecclesiastical history, the 1848 revolution and the 1956 uprising, he simply argued Hungary’s side in the best way he could. You may not have agreed with his position, but he was certainly prepared to provide plausible arguments in favour of it.

The Orbán regime is unashamedly and unequivocally pro-Hungary

The second attraction of the Orbán regime is its refreshing element of plain speaking. Of course, one encounters political prevarication. Ministers were as uncomfortable as you might expect when we asked how they reconciled the continued purchase of Russian energy with the need not to bankroll Putin’s war effort, or how they could be confident that the EU would eventually release all funds blocked on the basis of the ongoing rule-of-law debate when all the signs from Berlaymont were, to say the least, rather different. But generally the government makes a point of telling it like it is. Even whilst protesting undying support for EU membership, ministers made no bones about their view that in Brussels both Parliament and Commission detested Fidesz and its policies, whether on nationalism, immigration or child protection (in particular, limits on schools teaching small children about LGBT issues). They argued, plausibly if explosively, that the EU was using rule of law arguments against Hungary, not because it was particularly concerned with the point as such, but rather as a specious excuse to withhold funds totalling between €20 bn and €30 bn to pressure Hungary to toe the liberal Brussels line on other matters like the child protection law. Again, unlike politicians in many other EU states, Orbán’s deputy minister Balasz Orbán (no relation) did not mince his words on immigration. For him, the fight against irregular migration was important for a nation wishing to retain its soul. Excluding would-be arrivals whilst their claims were being processed, as the UK planned to do in Rwanda and Hungary has ambitions to do, was the obvious way forward. 

Thirdly, the regime is unashamedly and unequivocally pro-Hungary: not in a nationalistic tub-thumping way, but rather in assuring anybody who will listen that it sees itself as bound to act for the benefit of the people who elected it. This is true on immigration, where it taps into a genuine fear for Hungarian Christian values, and on energy sanctions against Russia, where its position is opposed to the EU’s. Here it is blunt. Whatever the finer moralities, it makes no apology for prioritising keeping the lights on and protecting the economy from collapse. This matter it has emphasised by holding a public consultation on the issue (and graphically illustrating it with posters showing a bomb falling on Hungary inscribed with the words “Brussels sanctions”)

Hungarians origins are closely tied to the Turkic peoples further east

It is easy for those writing from Brussels, London or Washington to forget the Hungarian people’s understandable sense of exceptionalism, to which the government’s conservative and anti-internationalist stance is well suited. It is not simply a matter of appealing to its instinctively conservative religious culture (still much in evidence, despite relatively low church attendance), though that helps. Other less obvious factors play an important part. One is Hungary’s fairly small population (about 10 million) and its attachment to its own unique language and culture which it sees as threatened with dilution. Another is that potentially hostile states, and armed conflicts, are much closer to Hungary than to western Europe: in many ways, too close for comfort and needing sensitive handling. Also there is, almost uniquely in Europe, a long-lasting eastward affinity. Hungarians remain aware that their origins are closely tied to the Turkic peoples further east, and they wish to preserve the relation. Not for nothing has Hungary since 2018 participated as a welcome observer at the Organisation of Turkic States, with whose other members it has and feels a good deal in common.

You may dislike the line taken by the Orbán government, and agree with the substantial minority in Hungary that looks longingly for a government embracing the values of the liberal internationalists in Brussels and elsewhere. But the rights and wrongs don’t really matter here. What is important is that Hungary is in practice one of the freest countries for political and social argument. By and large that argument is conducted in an open, civilised and respectful way. At present, whether Brussels likes it or not, the Orbán government has managed to tap into the feelings of ordinary Hungarians and reap the rewards, whilst the opposition has not. If Orbán’s opponents want to change this, they will have to take a leaf out of his book. So long as they speak the language of Euro-idealism rather than that of ordinary Hungarians, they are likely to remain marginalised for a very long time.

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