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Hungary’s Orbán Has Become the Global Ringleader of Right-Wing Autocrats
He’s no longer a mere critic of liberal democracy—he’s a champion of dictatorships
The triumph of a conservative alliance in Italy’s recent elections ranks as the high point in a modest winning streak for the global right. It also reaffirms Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s status as the unofficial leader of world conservatism, or at least that version that has broken with the traditions of limited government, market economics, individual rights and informed patriotism. Since directing his Fidesz party to victory in Hungary’s 2010 elections, Orbán has emerged as a guide and inspiration for national conservative parties in Europe and the Trumpist wing of the Republican Party. Unfortunately, the West appears largely oblivious—both to Orbán’s global influence and his increasingly open embrace of an unmasked authoritarianism.
The Pied Piper of the Nationalist Conservative Movement
Orbán’s influence can be detected in the recent campaign pronouncements of the new prime minister of Italy, Giorgia Meloni, leader of the Brothers of Italy party. In a pre-election interview with the Washington Post, Meloni described the Brothers as within the broad conservative tradition and side-stepped terms like nationalist right and far right. But in more specific descriptions of her priorities, she enumerated the centrality of the family, Christian values, “protection of borders from unchecked immigration,” and “defense of … national identity”—all staples of Orbán’s campaigns in Hungary. In discussing whom she opposes, Meloni’s list corresponded item for item with Orbán’s favorite hate objects: the left, globalists, advocates of gender ideology, proponents of same-sex couples’ rights. In other venues, she threw in Orbán’s ultimate bête noire, the 92-year-old philanthropist George Soros, whom she described, a la Orbán, as an “international speculator” who finances “mass migration” that threatens a Great Replacement of white, native-born Italians.
Italy is not the only country where the right has borrowed extensively from Orbán’s program. The Sweden Democrats, a party with neo-Nazi origins that placed second to the long-dominant Social Democrats in recent parliamentary elections, campaigns in the Orbán mold, with unrelenting hostility to immigration as issue number one. Jimmie Åkesson, the Sweden Democrats’ leader, has taken a cue from Orbán (and former U.S. President Donald Trump) by linking immigration to crime, instability and especially national decline. Another Orbán admirer, French right-wing leader Marine Le Pen, has found Orbán an inspiration and says she shares his vision of “giving more power to nations and less to the EU.” More to the point, during France’s national presidential campaign this year, Le Pen said that if elected she would hold referendums on a wide variety of political questions, a tactic used to considerable effect by Orbán during his 12 years in power. In Poland, the ruling Law and Justice Party closely aligned itself with Orbán to form a bloc of Euro-skeptic parties within the EU (Orbán’s neutral stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine later created a rift in the alliance). Orbán has also been reaching out, moving to enhance his influence in the Balkans through Hungarian-financed media in Slovenia and North Macedonia, and through Hungarian-language media targeting Hungarian speakers in Romania, Slovakia and Serbia.
America’s national conservatives cite Orbán as a model politician—adept at campaigning, governing, achieving his goals and remaining true to his core commitments. Trump went out of his way to endorse Orbán in Hungary’s most recent parliamentary election, while former Trump adviser Steve Bannon has praised Orbán for his anti-EU views and worked for Fidesz during an election campaign for the European Parliament. Orbán is even a favorite of Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who spent nearly a week in Budapest to hype Orbán and his achievements. Orbán is so aligned with the American right that when he visited the United States in August, he bypassed Joe Biden’s White House, visited Trump at Trump’s New Jersey golf course and gave a keynote address to the Conservative Political Action Conference, where he told the assembled leaders of American conservatism that Democrats and liberals “hate me and slander me and my country as they hate you and slander you.”
Letting the Piper Play Uninterrupted …
Orbán generally lays out his ideas about Hungarian and global politics in his speeches to the Fidesz aktiv. This was the audience in 2014 for Orbán’s infamous “illiberal democracy” speech, in which he predicted that the future of politics lay with “systems that are not Western, not liberal, not liberal democracies, and perhaps not even democracies.” Four years later, at the same setting, Orbán reemphasized his commitment to illiberalism, even giving his system a name: “Christian democracy.” Orbán made it clear that the Christian democracy he had in mind was much different from the Christian democracy of former Chancellors of Germany Angela Merkel and Helmut Kohl. Orbán’s system is not, he insisted, “about defending religious articles of faith.” Rather, Orbán’s version seeks to protect “the ways of life springing from Christian culture” and defending “human dignity, the family and the nation.” Among other things, this bit of ideological hocus-pocus enables Christian nationalists to invoke Christianity while evading vexing questions about Christian “articles of faith” as they apply to the treatment of immigrants or racial minorities, to take one highly relevant example. Orbán is thus promoting “Christian” politics without Christian values.
Like all political leaders, Orbán can engage in the usual pettifoggery, trimming and lying when it suits his objectives. But his actions since that landmark 2014 speech suggest it was a serious indication of his future plans for Hungarian politics.
This is an important point given the consistent underestimation in Western Europe and North America of Orbán’s ideological influence and political impact. Within Europe, there is criticism of his authoritarian bent but virtually never a rebuttal of his arguments and ideas, such as they are. Nor has there been sufficient appreciation of the ideological and practical affinity that has developed between Orbán and the authoritarian regimes in China and Russia. From within NATO and the EU, Orbán promotes a vision of strongman leadership, state capitalism, winner-take-all politics and strict state sovereignty, all of which are at odds with EU and transatlantic tenets. No one in Europe or the United States is making a sustained and substantive—rather than technocratic—case to challenge him.
We’re Not in Hamelin Anymore
It is thus worth a careful look at a recent speech he delivered to the party faithful in which he discussed the Ukraine war, relations with the EU, the state of European conservatism and the prospects for continued Fidesz political domination well into the future. In this case, Orbán’s remarks are especially intriguing since the event was closed to the press and the text was not published, either in Hungarian or in other languages. What we know of the speech comes from an account written by a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalist based on information from people who attended the meeting.
Ukraine. The speech was delivered prior to the Italian election, but Orbán suggested that a rightist victory might give him an important ally in his struggle against the EU’s Russia sanctions policy, which he has opposed but not vetoed. (For the record, Meloni has insisted, during the campaign and after, that she blames Vladimir Putin for the war and supports EU policy). Orbán also opined that the fighting might go on for the rest of the decade, with major territorial losses for Kyiv. Orbán’s stance has increasingly been one of neutrality toward Putin; he has studiously avoided criticizing the Russian leader, while treating Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy with disdain and blaming America and Europe for having transformed a local conflict into an international war. Alone among European leaders, Orbán has visited Putin and shunned Zelenskyy since fighting broke out.
The EU. Orbán argued that Hungary and the other Visegrád countries would by decade’s end be net payers and no longer net recipients of EU largesse, and he suggested that if EU membership no longer brought material benefits to Hungary then, “if we cannot find positive answers, we must draw conclusions.” Orbán, in other words, treats EU membership as a strictly transactional arrangement. If Hungary is paying more into the EU than it is receiving in assistance, the prospect of leaving the EU would have to be faced, a development that leaves him unfazed.
Demography as Destiny. Orbán spoke with urgency of the need to maintain a stable, ethnically Hungarian population. In assessing the demographic future of Europe, Orbán went beyond his recent declaration that countries where Europeans and non-Europeans mingle were “no longer nations.” He now seems to regard Western Europe with contempt, his views encapsulated in a prediction that by 2040 a number of French cities would have a majority Muslim population—a fate, he said, that might befall capitals in other European countries. According to the RFE/RL report, Orbán declared, “Our relations with these capitals must be reevaluated, as it is a question how European a country can be called in which the indigenous European nationalities are confined to a few settlements and minorities.”
To avoid the fate of immigrant-friendly countries, he called for an accelerated campaign to promote population growth without immigration. Orbán has already adopted a series of tax and welfare policies to encourage Hungarian families to produce more children. During his 12-year rule, Hungary’s fertility rate has inched up from roughly 1.3 births per woman to 1.5. This is still well below the 2.1 children per family rate needed, however, for a stable population, and it lags behind France, Sweden and the United States.
China. Orbán is an admirer of China, its economy, political culture and leadership. In his speech, he expressed admiration for Beijing’s state capitalism, a model he said was worth Hungarian emulation. Orbán, however, may have more immediate things in mind. Hungary is confronted with a serious budget deficit, due in part to state spending programs aimed at stimulating population growth. Meanwhile, the EU has suspended a large tranche of assistance to Hungary over rule-of-law concerns. Under these circumstances, there is speculation that Orbán might seek loans from Chinese sources.
The Future. Orbán claimed that having successfully trained a young leadership cadre, Fidesz has the capacity to retain control of the state through 2060. Projecting even further, he even envisioned the spread of the Hungarian model internationally, through a global network of contacts with conservative politicians and think tanks that has developed in recent years. Orbán spotlighted this network in his keynote speech at this summer’s Conservative Political Action Conference event in Dallas.
The First Step Is Admitting You Have an Authoritarian Problem
As global democracy has suffered broad reversals, analysts have been careful to distinguish the modern, milder autocracies that have emerged during the 21st century from the dictatorships and totalitarian regimes that preceded them. While acknowledging the seriousness of authoritarianism’s headway, scholars have underscored modern autocrats’ reluctance to shed blood, jail dissidents, crush opposition parties or impose censorship. Until recently, scholars included all major autocracies, with the important exception of China, in the less repressive category.
These assessments were more or less appropriate a decade ago. More recently, however, modern autocrats have increasingly thrust aside the restraints that prevented outright dictatorship and adopted more repressive methods of control. In Freedom House’s annual report on the state of global democracy, practically every autocracy has undergone major declines between 2010, when Orbán’s rule began, and 2021—the worst getting worse, with no letup. The idea that modern autocracies would slide only so far is difficult to maintain given the deteriorations of conditions in China, Russia, Belarus, Venezuela and Nicaragua, as well as the steady march towards something approaching one-party rule in several other countries, including Hungary.
To be sure, Hungary is not a police state; opposition parties still compete, despite Fidesz’s control of the election mechanisms, judiciary and media. But Hungary did rank among those countries with the most substantial declines on the Freedom House scale. Since the 2010 Fidesz election victory, Hungary has registered declines across the board, with major reversals in the conduct of elections; the institutions of pluralism; press, religious, and cultural freedoms; honest and open government; equal treatment under the law; maintaining an independent judiciary; and property rights and economic freedom, the latter a testimony to the rampant cronyism in Hungary today. And if we can take Orbán’s most recent speech as a reflection of his attitude toward what remains of Hungarian democracy, the prospects look bleak.
Particularly distressing is Orbán’s increasingly open role as the EU’s chief apologist for Russia and, especially, China. Orbán is quick to condemn the EU for its rules and regulations, and he damns liberal democracy as quasi-totalitarian, but he is a consistent defender of Russian policies and is an open and outspoken pitchman for Beijing. As China’s repression has escalated and grown more brutal, Orbán’s rejoinders to the EU’s Beijing critics have become strident and insulting. He called a proposed EU statement condemning the crushing of Hong Kong’s freedoms “frivolous.” His foreign minister dismissed an EU resolution on the repression of Uighurs as “pointless, self-aggrandizing, and harmful.” Going an unusual step further, Orbán has described the Chinese people as “serene,” while he reproaches Westerners for their obsession with “freedom,” an idea that, Orbán submits, leads to “conflicts.”
Under Fidesz rule, Hungary has evolved from an annoying critic of EU rules and values to a hostile force that actively undermines, wherever possible, European and transatlantic values. Orbán’s actions should no longer be ignored by the political leaders of Europe and the United States. A firm, public acknowledgement that his role has shifted from critic of democracy to ally of democracy’s most implacable adversaries is a necessary first step.
Arch Puddington is an emeritus scholar at Freedom House.