In “Orban: Europe’s New Strongman” Paul Lendvai tracks the ambition of the increasingly authoritarian Hungarian prime minister.
In politics, symbols matter. So it was on Heroes’ Square in Budapest that some 250,000 people gathered on June 6, 1989, for the “monumental” funeral service in honor of Imre Nagy, prime minister of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, and four others, all executed after a secret trial 31 years earlier.
Atop a tall column, the archangel Gabriel presides over the majestic space, encircled by colonnades of kings and commanders: As an “expression of collective national memory, this square works magnificently,” writes Austrian journalist Paul Lendvai in Orban: Europe’s New Strongman, his uncompromising portrait of the Hungarian leader.
It was here the 26-year-old Viktor Orban made his first appearance on the political stage, the final “youth” speaker on this highly emotional day of reckoning.
Coming six months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was a brave, even reckless, statement, calling for democracy and independence, an immediate withdrawal of Russian troops and an end to the communist regime. Covering the speech for ORF, Lendvai was moved to tears. Orban became famous overnight.
Still, few could have predicted that just nine years later – now 35 and minus the beard – Orban would be catapulted to power in 1998 as head of his youth party Fidesz, the youngest freely-elected prime minister in Hungarian history.
Rise of an Autocrat
So begins Paul Lendvai’s compelling story of Viktor Orban’s decade-long journey from idealist to autocrat, defying political norms along the way and flouting the values of the European social democracy he had defended so passionately that day on Heroes’ Square.
Along the way, he shifted from progressive reformer to conservative nationalist, even converting to Catholicism and re-consecrating his civil marriage to his wife Anikò with a traditional church wedding in 1997.
To his critics, his newfound faith became the subject of ridicule, with biographer Jósef Debreczeni wryly commenting that “Viktor Orban is a man who almost automatically believes in the veracity of whatever he considers politically useful.”
Once in office, Orban began a “determined and rapid” centralization of power and undermined parliamentary controls. In the cabinet, there were no debates and no minutes were taken. Ministers met to hear decisions made in the back room.
In public, the popular young prime minister was often seen out with his family or playing soccer at his local club. In private, he worked incessantly, going over speeches and interviews to avoid mistakes and sharpen his message further. Then, on the eve of the 2002 parliamentary election, he opened the financial sluice, jacking up wages and pensions, outstripping GDP growth. Even so, he lost – not because of a failure of policy, he told an interviewer, but because of “communication.”
“Orban was not disheartened in the slightest by the shock of defeat,” Lendvai commented. From 2002 to 2010, he smoldered in the opposition as two prime ministers from Socialist-Free Democrat administrations, well meaning but politically naïve, each resigned due to charges of mismanagement. Their mistakes were a gift to Orban, who, “borrowing from American concepts of public relations,” came roaring back to power attacking the “illegitimate” government of a “chronic liar.”
Since then, Orban has only consolidated his power, silencing the independent media and filling key jobs from a close circle of lifelong allies. Disappointed by both capitalism and social democracy, many Hungarians seem all too ready to trust in authoritarian control.
Throughout this long, tangled tale is the throbbing drumbeat of failed leadership and weak institutions, the power of symbols over argument, and the relentless reminder of just how difficult it is to (re)build a democracy after 40 years under communist rule.
And just how little time any new government has to win public confidence before the next suitor appears, promising the world.