Orbán’s Playground

Years ago, when the well-known historian Norman Davies decided to have a look at Polish history, he gave it a significant title God’s Playground. It is a proper title for current situation in Hungary. Only that the small plot of ground there is tended not by the God himself, but by Viktor Orbán.

Writing about today’s Hungary, you must start and finish with Viktor Orbán. There is no other way. This politician once led the Civic Party—Fidesz in such a way that when he spoke, everybody stood and applauded, and after 2010 he has been running the country in a similar fashion. Fidesz has turned into a sect and the country into a hostage. If Orbán wanted to, he could quote the famous formula: “The state is me.” For obvious reasons he does not, because the formula it not appropriate in our times, especially in a member state of the European Union (EU). However, he did build his own system, fashioned for his own purposes and imaginations. Very few have any doubts about that.

This system is a travesty of liberal democracy, which in 1990–2010 Hungary attempted to build. Today in the government media, which are completely dominating the scene, this period is consistently referred to as ”two shady decades” (két zavaros évtized). Liberalism, however we understand it, certainly has some distinctive features, such as civil liberties, freedom of competition, dominance of the market, limited government and limited control or top-down management. The focus should be on the individual, not the authorities, and those who serve the government, should also serve the citizens. Liberalism is a polyarchy in a sense, where government decisions are controlled by representative bodies.

In the Shadow of Two Anachronisms

The system built in Hungary as a result of the “revolution at the ballot box” (fülkeforradalom) stands in direct contradiction to these values. It is characterized by concentration of power, centralization, nationalization, curtailing autonomy, and clientelism. So we may classify the system as an illiberal democracy (Daniel A. Bell, Fareed Zakaria), a nation state, a corporate postmodern state, and compare it to the autocracies in post-Soviet countries, or even to a “mafia state,” following in the footsteps of a group of liberals headed by former Minister of Education Bálint Magyar, who used this term in the book Hungarian octopus. The trappings of democracy and its institutions have been retained, but their role and content have been transformed to such an extent that every citizen is aware that other mechanisms are in force and the legitimacy of the regime is no longer purely democratic. Usually power is bestowed rather than following from the free choice of the citizens. And even more importantly, it cannot be contrary to the will of the creator of the System. This is new paternalism in full bloom.

There is no doubt that in 2010 a “revolution” did take place, equated by many analysts, those from the opposition inside and from outside Hungary, with ”a constitutional coup” (alkatományos puccs). In a truly revolutionary fashion, the qualified majority (2/3) in parliament was used for political purposes: The Constitution and the law was changed so that doubts arise whether we are still dealing with the rule of law. For the equality of citizens before the law was questioned. Some people are in the System and some are outside it. They are not treated equally.

The quality of the current Hungarian legal system may be a subject of dispute, but it can hardly be denied that as a result of this “revolution” the system of checks and balances was effectively dismantled, completely subordinating the institutional system to the executive branch or even to the person heading it. Orbán achieved his goal. His state fulfils the ideal from Carl Schmitt‘s Political Theology, one of his favorite books. He has become the only Sovereign— and he always has the last word, that is the “decision-making monopoly.”

To quote Schmitt: “The one who can introduce the state of emergency, is sovereign.” And the situation in Hungary after 2010 really is an emergency and—as we shall see—it is unique and incomparable to other polities, at least in Europe. Democratic ideals and practices have gone to rest. They were replaced, to use the apt formulation of János Kis, by two anachronisms: the national one from the Miklós Horthy era (1919–1944) and the populist-plebeian one from the János Kádár era (1956–1989). The first anachronism appeals to nationalism and the uniqueness of Hungary, the second one reaches for welfare populism (for example, through the great campaign of bringing rents down). They have one thing in common: a distrust of Strangers (foreigners but also co-nationals who do not share the views imposed on them from above). National populism has merged with welfare populism and they mutually support each other.

In this way two worlds, two languages, two realities have emerged: of those within and those outside the System (in a legal and practical sense). There is no indication that the two worlds will co-exist side by side. But there are symptoms showing that in the latter world the initial political activity, in the form of protests and mass movements, was replaced by apathy and discouragement, under the slogan: “nothing can be done anyway.”The opposition is fragmented and helpless, also in terms of agenda and ideology, not only in terms of assets or institutions. A description of the System is available and it is even becoming more and more precise, but it is hard to see an idea from current opposition side for overturning the System, except for the slogan “restore democracy,” which—given the high efficiency of the regime—does not carry much political weight. Will the spring 2014 elections change anything in this respect? We will see, although currently there is not much hope for a profound change, not to mention rejecting the System.

The Fatherland Cannot Be in Opposition

The citizens have been pacified and the state has been taken over. Pacification of the regime’s own ranks involves coercion and blackmail: if you are obedient, we will reward you, if you are disobedient, you will lose privileges (your job, your property or government licenses; these are the most painful things). The pacification of the whole society is based on exclusion. One of the closest associates of Orbán, János Lázár, hit the crux of the matter when he said: “If you cannot cope in life, it means you deserved it.” Yes, this system is founded on benevolence or severity of the government, rewarding loyalty, cutting disloyalty in the bud. If you do not want to play this game, you automatically exclude yourself from the Community (the preferred term for the nation in the official lingo).

A new System of National Cooperation (Nemzeti Együttmüködés Rendszer) was formally established, but the agent of cohesion in this system is not co-operation, but the nation. Appropriating the country is done on its behalf. All institutions in the country are run by people designated by the Prime Minister, from the President of the Republic through heads of the media, courts, universities and the Academy of Sciences. A completely new category of all-powerful people in their respective areas has emerged. For example, Andrew Vajna, once an influential Hollywood producer, calls the shots in the film industry (so successfully that there is almost nothing left of it), György Fekete, known for his conservative views, runs museums and fine arts, and Attila Vidnyánszky runs the National Theatre. Naturally, they all promote only patriotic and national values. It is on this principle that the names of streets, squares, and institutions are changed, and on the anniversary of the national calamity, that is the Treaty of Trianon (June 4, 1920) a new holiday was proclaimed, with “uniting the people” in its name. Only those who believe in the nation (read: the new System) have the right to benefit from its privileges and mechanisms. The rest remains outside the System. And they must not come anywhere near the national symbols.

Under the new System completely different mechanisms than before are at work. The most important mechanisms to be named here are: the strong will of the Commander or Father of the Nation (the Prime Minister), ritualization or spuriousness of government institutions (all run by people appointed by the Prime Minister), a deep-going exchange of the elites and building the regime’s own clientele, marginalization of political opponents in accordance with the formula Orbán had voiced before assuming power: “The Fatherland cannot be in opposition” (a haza nem lehet ellenzékben). Thus the citizens were divided into “ours” and “strangers,” “patriots” and “traitors.” While those who challenge the new System, starting from the liberals and socialists who used to govern the country, are stigmatized as “enemies of the Fatherland” or traitors on foreign payroll or at least controlled by foreign powers.

Clientele and Disneyland

The ruthlessly pursued exchange of the elites also concerns the economy. Three previously richest Hungarians, who, by the way, supported Fidesz before its electoral victory in 2010, namely head of the Association of National Savings Kas (OTSZ) Sándor Demján, president of OTP Bank and head of the national football association Sándor Csányi, and media mogul Gábor Széles, have clearly lost some of their influence.

Not so much in their place but alongside them a new elite of power and money is being built, loyal to the Commander and anointed by him. These phenomena are extensively described in the book Hungarian octopus I already spoke about, and even more profoundly by another opposition politician, Joseph Debreczeni, once Orbán’s biographer (the first volume was favorable for the protagonist, the second one highly critical).

From these books, as well as from a close monitoring of the Hungarian media, new stars emerge. One in fact has been known for a long time and is considered to be a megastar. I mean the Prime Minister’s high school friend here (from 1976–1979), Lajos Simicska, who has been building a business empire around Fidesz for many years. After 2010, both his role and his wealth—as difficult to estimate as it is to trace, for it is not particularly transparent, consisting of a complex web of parent companies and subsidiaries —increased immeasurably, which is common knowledge. Hence some authors even write about the “Orbán-Simicska regime.” It is this tandem that currently dominates on the Hungarian political and economic scene.

However, also other important figures emerged in the economy. The undisputed media mogul, comparable to Vajna in the film industry, is Zsolt Nyerges, of course a close associate of the Prime Minister. Another person calling the shots for a long time is Dezső Kékessy, who also has the ear of the Prime Minister, alternately playing the role of a diplomat and a businessman. Entering the public scene in their trail, although reluctantly, were new businesspeople, including entire clans: Fleir (János and Tamás), Mészáros or Tiborc (the Prime Minister’s only son-in-law so far, István, is a Tiborc, just 27 years old, and already a wealthy man managing many companies).

Most of these families are connected with Orbán not just through business but also family ties. It is them who manage the Prime Minister’s dream project in his hometown Felcsút near Budapest. The farms surrounding the house where the current Prime Minister had been raised were bought out together with many local acres of land, and the Ferenc Puskás Football Academy (PFLA) was established, run by a foundation receiving money from government contracts and private donations. Thus the well-known weakness of Orbán for football, amply documented, for example, in Igor Janke’s best-selling book Napastnik (Striker), turned into a spectacular show.

Next to the Prime Minister’s family home, just over his fence, a modern football stadium is being built (and a few others around the country), and the fields purchased earlier are crossed by a narrow-gauge railway, which ultimately is to reach Budapest, but for now runs only for 6 km between the stadium—or rather the PFLA seat—and the entrance to the arboretum in the nearby town of Alcsútdoboz. It was built with government and EU funds. The next step is the construction of infrastructure, such as hotels, roads, etc. The whole thing is overseen by companies and individuals in one way or another connected to the Prime Minister and his family. As the authors call it, “a private Disneyland of the Prime Minister” is born.

If we add to this the well-known fact that both the Prime Minister’s spouse and father, and recently also his son-in-law, are wealthy persons, there is a growing suspicion—much highlighted on the pages of the Hungarian Octopus—that we are dealing with clan capitalism, combining or even identifying private interests with government interests, and hence a new political class linking power with wealth is being constructed. A pyramid is raised, that is a hierarchical system of family and business ties, which some analysts— of course from the opposition—call clientele, others a “vassal system,” and others still openly and explicitly speak of an “organized overground” (which is an equivalent of an “organized underground,” also criminal and on the wrong side of the law) or “a post-communist mafia state” (post-communist, because such a system would be unthinkable without the previous warping of the minds and the human mentality by communism or real socialism, as some called it).

Orbán—a False Realist

The new System is strongly marked by nationalism, in the government media (“royal media,” as people in the street call it) of course labeled as “patriotism” and immortalized and embodied in the memorable words of the Prime Minister, uttered on the anniversary of the 1956 Revolution: ”We will not be a colony” (nem leszünk gyarmat). Who is the modern colonialist? He did not specify it, but it is self-evident: it is foreign institutions (EU, IMF, the World Bank), foreign capital, foreign banks, transnational companies and ventures, the ominously sounding Multik. They are to be replaced—as proclaimed by the government propaganda—by the “national middle class” (nemzeti középosztály). The thing is that the actual situation looks quite different: a vassal class, fully dependent on the centre, is being born.

Still full of enthusiasm, vigor and verve, the charismatic Prime Minister Orbán sees the future of the country in bright colors. He announces an Eldorado. Has he inspired the nation with his plans? In other words, has he sparked widespread enthusiasm and national fever around his projects? This is erroneous thinking, as the Hungarian nation—contrary to what the official propaganda is saying—is not united, it remains deeply divided: into those supporting Orbán and those who are against him.

So you cannot unleash a ”political hysteria,” once so insightfully analyzed by the prominent thinker István Bibó, who scrutinized first the Weimar Germany and then the Nazi Germany. But he coined two terms which seem to describe the current situation in Hungary very well. One of them is a ”hysterical vision of the world,” which is ”closed and homogeneous: it will explain everything and justify everything, there is a perfect harmony between its projections and findings.”

The problem is that such a vision is glorified by “false realists,” holding a “false vision of the world.” It is they—to quote Bibó from with his excellent essay “The Causes and History of German Political Hysteria”—”who gradually put a permanent mechanism of negative selection in motion. Hypocritical advocates of duplicitous compromises come to the fore, masterfully coining formulas reconciling irreconcilable things.” These are the “false realists, whose realism essentially boils down to cheekiness, cunning or obstinacy.” And the worst part is that under their dictatorial command ”people who see things clearly and assess reality soberly are repressed and silenced, because their warning voices echo from the walls of the surrounding world of hysteria and complacency […] What emerges is […] the pursuit of great rewards and the belief in the magical power of words relating to non-existent things, that is—in propaganda […] There comes a time for a great eruption of megalomania and moral complacency, a moment of basking in your own power and provoking everybody around to fight.” The Striker enters the stage.

Years ago, when the well-known historian Norman Davies decided to have a look at Polish history, he gave it a significant title God’s Playground. It is a proper title for current situation in Hungary. Only that the small plot of ground there is tended not by the God himself, but by Viktor Orbán, who obviously is not a God, but he may feel to be anointed: He has everything that he wanted or imagined. He shaped the state according to his own will, he brought to life a unique System, inimitable, thoroughly Hungarian, that is based on national traditions, symbols, myths, traumas, which are a legion in this small country on the Danube.

Now, as polls suggest, he will win the next election. The only question is whether he once again will have a qualified majority in parliament. But even if he does not, he will hold all the strings of power. What will Europe and the EU say to that? Will they keep this illiberal democracy as an example and experimental plot or will they protest at last?

Bogdan Góralczyk

is professor in Centre for Europe, University of Warsaw, since September 2016 also a director of the Center. Former Ambassador of Poland to Thailand, the Philippines, and Republic of the Union of Myanmar (Burma). He was also Chief of the Cabinet of Polish Foreign Minister and long-term diplomat in Hungary; a prolific writer, author of many books and articles in Polish, English, and Hungarian.

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.

Current issue - 01/2020

Heart of Europe on the Periphery

Illiberal backsliding is getting stronger in Visegrad countries recently. Central Europe suffers from a complex of inferiority, they say. Is it a legitimate feeling? Discover the heart of Europe and its pounding chambers on the periphery.

Download PDF