Q&A: A Peer of Orban's Explains How He Turned Hungary Into an 'Electoral Autocracy'
Zsuzsanna Szelényi was an activist and MP in Fidesz. Then Orban came to power.
Zsuzsanna Szelényi is a foreign policy expert and former Hungarian politician. She is the author of a new book, Tainted Democracy: Viktor Orbán and the Subversion of Hungary. In the book, she provides a first-hand account of Hungary's shift from democracy to electoral autocracy under Prime Minister Viktor Orban. During late communism and the early period of Hungary's democracy, Szelényi was an activist and MP with Orban in the youth movement Fidesz. She left politics in 1994, after Orban had ascended to become leader of the party. She returned to politics in 2012, representing the liberal opposition in Parliament until 2018. Now, she is Director of the Democracy Institute Leadership Academy at Central European University's Democracy Institute in Budapest. We spoke last week over Zoom. Our conversation follows, condensed and edited for clarity.
Luke Johnson: At the fall of communism, you were a member of Fidesz, the political party that Viktor Orban now leads. Can you paint a picture of what you're doing and what you hoped Fidesz would accomplish in 1989?
Zsuzsanna Szelenyi: Fidesz was a youth organization established in 1988. It was still during communism. However, no one thought that communism would disappear in two years. Our original aim was to make the system more democratic; to have multiparty elections. We had a very clear view: we wanted liberty, democracy, and rule of law. There were many law students; the rule of law element was very important in our identity, which was completely new. We also wanted to move towards Europe. No one thought that the Soviet Union would collapse. In 1990, Hungary had multiparty elections. We identified ourselves as a radical liberal organization. It was the most radical of the opposition movements as a youth movement, and liberal: we identified ourselves in the center of the political arena, between communists, socialists, and conservatives. It was a very balanced organization in terms of leadership. Viktor Orban was a radical person in the party, but he was not the only leader.
LJ: Can you explain why you fell out with Orban in the early 1990s?
ZS: We got into parliament [after free elections]. Getting access to status and resources, personal and political battles become more prominent. In Parliament, this movement had to professionalize and have a core team. In 1993 we decided to have a president. This was the moment when Orban moved ahead. When he was elected as party president, there were already some tough fights. Then he started to centralize the party with quite a strong hand. He also centralized communication and decision-making using finances. He thought that there was more room for Fidesz to grow on the right. He started to pull the party to the right. This [shift], coupled with his autocratic leadership style managing both party and financing, were very critical, and in 1994, a lot of people left Fidesz.
LJ: Including you as well.
ZS: I left then, among many other politicians and party members. When we left, Orban became stronger, because most of the ones that were critical left. You had to make a decision whether you were with Orban or not. By 2000, he made Fidesz the strongest right-wing party in Hungary. Ever since he has occupied the right side of the Hungarian political arena. The other side was organized around the Socialist Party and liberals. This [balance] was actually pretty stable up until 2010, when, after the 2009 [financial] crisis, Orban’s party had a landslide victory. Hungary has a very majoritarian election system. Viktor Orban has this big victory with 52% of the votes. But he got 67% of the seats in the Hungarian Parliament. Because this is a unicameral political system, it meant that he had everything in his hand.
LJ: In your book, you write that on election night 2010,
Exactly how this would proceed was impossible to imagine on election night. Many might still have been hoping that Orban would set about building a new system with the attitude of an enlightened absolutist-ruler. That evening we did not remember his statement made just a year earlier: 'To win just once, but decisively, that's the way.'
What were you imagining?
ZS: We were quite aware that he has unusual power in his hand. But we didn't think that he would change the constitution within a couple of months, and change the system into an illiberal system, which he called it a few years later. Hungary today is an electoral autocracy, where there are elections, though not fair, to legitimize power. It's very hard to imagine that opposition forces could defeat his party under this electoral system, because this is a system which is changing all the time. Orban could manage in 2014, 2018, and 2022 to reproduce its supermajority -- not a simple majority. This means that he can change any rule any time. For example, the election law, party finance law, and advertisement law, was changed more than 20 times since 2010. This is always changed before each election. If the opposition, composed of various parties, comes up with some kind of strategy, the governing party changes the rules just a little bit, but that's enough to destroy the opposition strategy. This is one factor why the opposition is losing again and again. There are other reasons: for example, the governing party’s domination of the public and commercial media, also by now, the online media. They already have most of the television channels, almost all of their radio channels which produce news and also they went online with a lot of funding which is from the government budget. Because the parliamentary opposition has very little competencies, there is a very little oversight on how the national budget is used. The opposition has to maneuver in an environment which is changing all the time.
LJ: Can you talk about when you were back in politics from 2012 to 2018? As a member of the opposition, were you able to oppose any policies? And how can you describe how it was for you dealing in this sort of environment that you just laid out?
ZS: We established a new party in 2012. When Orban came to power in 2010, he was very strong, but he lost popularity because of the quick and very radical economic and political changes. It made a lot of sense to come into the political arena with a new effort. The party was called "Together." The aim was to bring together as many opposition parties as possible because the election law is a winner-takes-all system. Our party got into Parliament in 2014, but together we could not overcome Orbán’s party. [The supermajority] made it very complicated to make reasonable politics, because the governing party does not need the opposition for legislation. Fidesz would consult among each other, and never sit down for any debate. Fidesz never discusses with any opposition party. There are smear campaigns against the most popular opposition politicians.
This is something specific to illiberal systems, which is rather new. It goes without any violence. It goes without opposition or journalists being imprisoned. There is no open repression, because it's done by law. For example, financial misconduct of state funds is happening all the time. But because the leading party is able to nominate leaders to state institutions, these institutions do not function properly. For example, the public prosecutor is blocking each and every case which would hit governing politicians or their circles. Oftentimes, there is very targeted legislation. In Hungary, this is done in a very systematic way. For example, the governing party can create monopolies for the benefit of certain state companies, saying it is a national interest. Then, when these new state companies grow big, they privatize them to their own business circles. In such a way entire sectors got to the hands of business circles close to the government. A new business elite was born in this way in the last 12 years. Their companies are made very lucrative through rent-seeking. This is a system where the governing party’s power can overcome any social, political, or business actors who might produce some kind of alternative to them.
LJ: What do you think is behind Orban's appeal?
ZS: Fidesz built a very strong voting base by the end of 2000s, because the party was very successful in rallying local groups. After Orban lost his power in 2002, and 2006, there was a very strong nationalist mobilization. Today, in elections, you have to have a certain number of people in order to get to power. In Hungary, this is approximately 2.5 million out of 10 million Hungarians. If you have 2.5 million people [for one party], you get the supermajority in Parliament. There is a permanent campaign in Hungary. It is somewhat familiar to the U.S., but it's very rare in Europe. It's also very, very expensive. You can only do it if you have a lot of resources. Fidesz runs a permanent ‘government information campaign,' which is in practice highly political. The campaigns are against an imaginary enemy. It's a very populist type of narrative. Orbán’s party is always fighting something bigger than Hungary, because in Hungary there is no more powerful person than Orbán.
LJ: Like George Soros?
ZS: Well, yeah. At first; in the 2000s it was the ‘communists’. But since the opposition is so small, it always had to be someone else. After the 2008 crisis, it was the multinational companies, and since 2015 they created a new enemy: the ‘European liberals, led by George Soros’, who [they say] mobilized the migrants against European civilization. These campaigns come through media outlets and government information campaigns at the same time. Recently, this was the LGBT community, called 'gender ideology,' and the anti-woke campaign, which is interesting, because there is no 'woke' movement in Hungary at all. It's actually the 'great replacement theory,' it's just not called this. Central Europe is not very multicultural. Hungary is very homogeneous, even in terms of ethnicity. It's incredible how these moral panic campaigns are presented. Because Hungary is relatively small, and the governing party has a lot of resources, you can really test new narratives which can be used elsewhere [in the world.] I think many radical right groups in the U.S. and Europe are favoring Viktor Orban because he also has the tools to implement what he's talking about.
LJ: Can you talk a little bit why U.S. conservatives are fascinated by Orban? Is it that Orban uses a rural conservative base to maintain power?
ZS: When he is taken seriously by politicians in the U.S., then he is bigger than he looks. He is isolated in Europe. Some years ago, he hoped to have other strong partners in France, Poland, and Italy. But now he's quite isolated, because of his behavior in the war in Ukraine.
LJ: How has Orban remained popular despite making enemies with Volodymyr Zelensky, the most popular European leader in a generation?
ZS: It's a very puzzling question for many Hungarians. Most Hungarians see that the aggressors in this war are Russia and Putin. They are not specifically anti-Ukrainian. What Orban is doing in this conflict is something else. He does not openly stand by Putin [and he does not openly blame Zelensky]; he tries to maneuver. There is just too much dependence on Russia. Orban gave a speech in 2007, when he explained to his followers why Hungary is a part of the West. He completed this speech by saying, "oil may come from the East, but freedom always comes from the West." 15 years ago, he understood pretty well that European values keep Hungary in the West. It's also strategic for Hungary to stand by Europe, because Russia is dangerous for all smaller countries in our region. Since 2010, Hungary has become more dependent on Russia in various ways. This is why I think he is maneuvering; he probably can't afford to be more critical towards Russia.
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Is the law that if a party gets 2.5 million votes out of 10 million ..the party gets a super majority in the parliament. ..a law created by Orban or did it predate his rise to power? This kind of election law was important in the rise of fascism in Italy in the 1920's. Also, is there any even remote threat to Hungary that its membership in the EU could be threatened by becoming an autocracy?