How did Orban win a fourth term? Illiberal democracy in Hungary with David Jancsics

April 18, 2022

Professor David Jancsics, San Diego State University, discusses Viktor Orban, corruption, and the Hungarian elections, on International Horizons.

David Jancsics appears to the left in the background is Viktor Orban speaking at a podium with associates behind him, colored in the Hungarian flag

Hungary's Viktor Orban, the originator of the notion of illiberal democracy, has now been reelected for four more years as prime minister of Hungary. This is on top of the 12 years that have preceded this election, and a previous stint as prime minister. This time he won with a supermajority that allows his party to revise the Constitution unilaterally. How did he do it? What can we expect from the ruler whom many regard as the greatest threat to democracy and Eastern Europe other than Russia? What will the EU do?

David Jancsics, associate professor, School of Public Affairs, San Diego State University, and Graduate Center alumnus (Ph.D. '13,  Sociology) talks with Ralph Bunche Institute Director and Graduate Center Presidential Professor John Torpey about the recent victory of Victor Orban after 12 years in office and how this time he has managed to amass more power than ever before. Jancsics discusses the Hungarian state as a “monopoly of corruption” where Orban has created a network of clientielism and loyalties that keeps him in power while giving the impression of legitimacy. Additionally, Jancsics unveils how the war in Ukraine has served Orban’s electoral strategy of enhancing the rhetoric of “us and them,” where the outer world creates threats against which the only stable protection is Orbanism.

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John Torpey  00:07

Hungary's Viktor Orban, the originator of the notion of illiberal democracy, has now been reelected for four more years as Prime Minister of Hungary. This is on top of the 12 years that have preceded this election and a previous stint as prime minister. This time he won with a supermajority that allows his party to revise the constitution unilaterally. How did he do it? What can we expect from the ruler whom many regard as the greatest threat to democracy in Eastern Europe other than Russia? What will the EU do?  

Welcome to International Horizons, a podcast of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies that brings scholarly and diplomatic expertise to bear on our understanding of a wide range of international issues. My name is John Torpey, and I'm the director of the Ralph Bunche Institute at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. We're fortunate to have with us today David Jancsics, who is an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs at San Diego State University. He received his Ph.D. in Sociology from the Graduate Center in 2013. And he was in fact my student; I can't believe it's almost 10 years that he's been gone. His fields of interest include corruption and informal practices in Central and Eastern Europe, and more specifically in his native Hungary. His current research agenda focuses on corruption in border law enforcement agencies. He frequently consults with international organizations and NGOs, such as the United Nations, the European Commission, and the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre. He's also a member of the board of Transparency International Hungary. Thank you for being with us today, David Jancsics.

David Jancsics  01:54

Thank you very much for having me.

John Torpey  01:56

Great to have you with us. All right, so Viktor Orban has been elected again. I mean, I said it was on top of 12 years, but that's just only in the immediate past. He was also Prime Minister earlier than that, but he seems to have in any case, once again cemented his hold on power. I mean, can you explain what happened in the election last weekend?

David Jancsics  02:16

So what happened, as you mentioned, was a landslide victory for Orban and his party Fidesz. So it's the fourth consecutive term. And it's very interesting because most polls and surveys predicted much closer competition, but they were wrong. So Fidesz even increased its ballots with 100,000 votes compared to the 2018 election. So as you mentioned, the party won a super majority in the single chamber of Parliament, which allows them to change the constitution. And the defeat was devastating for the opposition, especially because the expectations were very high this time on the opposition side.  So how can we explain this huge victory? Of course, there is no one big factor explaining the victory. I believe there are multiple reasons. 

This time, six opposition parties have joined forces, as they call the united opposition, and the prime minister candidate on the opposition side was a relatively new face. His name is Peter Marki-Zay. And for a moment last year, it even seemed that he could be a real challenger for Orban. And he's a kind of interesting figure. He's a conservative, proudly Christian person, father of seven children. He's not from Budapest, the capital. He's from an agrarian town in southeast Hungary but he's also a Canadian citizen. And the most important part of his story is that he speaks the language of everyday people. He didn't have any political party behind him. So he's basically a political entrepreneur.  In some way, he also fits the anti-establishment, anti-elite Zeitgeist we have seen in many countries. So the opposition's idea was that the traditionally elitist liberal left is not strong enough to defeat Orban, but with Marki-Zay, they could attract conservative people, or they could attract ordinary Hungarians disillusioned with Fidesz, but it didn't work. There were several problems with the opposition coalition; there were internal conflicts. 

But I think the main reason for this huge Fidesz victory was rather Mr. Orban himself and the whole empire he has built over the last twelve years. Very important to understand that Orban needs huge electoral victories because they provide the necessary legitimacy for his autocratic regime. So he can show, "look, Hungarian people wanted this. I'm not a dictator who obtains control by force."  And because this time Marki-Zay seemed to be a real challenger, Fidesz deployed all available troops are in the campaign. First of all, it was an unprecedented campaign spending. The money was allocated to almost every social group. It included pension supplements, tax benefits for families. The government nationally froze the gas price. so people didn't feel the full burden of the inflation. But actually, Fidesz was already in a good position because the pre-COVID period was especially prosperous for Hungarians; the economy was booming. So thanks to this increasing living standards, rising wages, higher consumption, many people already supported Orban.  

Fidesz also spent about eight times more on propaganda such as Facebook ads, or billboards, than the opposition parties together. The supposedly independent state media also communicated only Fidesz propaganda. And Orban had a very effective communication regarding the war in Ukraine. And then there was the whole institutional system shaped by Orban to serve Orban. For example, they have created an election system that benefits only Fidesz. So let me just mention two examples: They redesigned election district boundaries, so this kind of gerrymandering, you can see, I mean, it's familiar from the US. It could boost Fidesz' share of seats by 10 percentage points. Another one: ethnic Hungarians living in neighboring countries such as Romania or Serbia, can vote by mail, which is very easy. So 90-95% of them are Fidesz supporters. By contrast, Hungarians residing abroad, with Hungarian address, for example, you know, people working or studying in Western Europe or in the US also, they are typically very critical of Orban, they had to go to a Hungarian embassy or consulate to vote. In many places, it's a long trip. So in the US, there are only just a few Hungarian consulates, so you have to fly.

John Torpey  07:14

Right. So let me interrupt if I could. It's a kind of remarkable story that you've just described. I mean, it seems practically undefeatable. I mean, he's got everything covered. He's got the media. I heard something yesterday that a speech that the opposition had had, over the course of three years, there's only five minutes of coverage in the official media, I mean, the state-run media, and the speech he had given in the last week or so was repeated nine times in 24 hours or something like that. It just sounded impossible to believe. I mean, Orwellian, if you like. And, the access to funds that he can distribute, dole out in the interest of currying favor with the populace. 

I mean, at the same time you describe a situation in which, at least for the last few years, the economy has been doing well. So it may be authoritarianism, but it sounds pretty comfortable, and it sounds relatively like the people who are opposed to it are kind of misfits, like, what's wrong with them? Why don't they get on board? Right? So, but in any case, it sounds like a regime that, as you say, does indeed, probably enjoy a lot of legitimacy from the population. And while there may be lots of things you can't get away with, as a person, a thinker, a writer, a critic, a protester most people probably are going to be relatively happy with this situation. That portends, who knows, he stays in power as far as the eye can see.

David Jancsics  09:01

Yeah, I have to mention just one more factor. Because yes, you are right, many people are very comfortable in the system; they're very happy. And this is also part of his decade long project, you know, this ambitious social engineering project. So they created a highly centralized state capture system, in which public and private resources are allocated to particularistic actors, to special social groups. And this structure is able to maintain social order, but in a way of forced social integration. So there are patron-client networks everywhere. And if you are in this network, you have almost unlimited resources: you can win public procurements for your company; you can get government contracts; you can get a well paid job, positions in the cultural field or sportsclub.  

But you must be loyal to Orban. If you are outside of this network, you are basically enemy. So you won't have access to any resource. So there is no neutral position in this world, it's a highly polarized society in a constant civil war. But I mean, you can benefit if you just have to be loyal so you can benefit from the system. And these client networks were also mobilized during these elections. There are anecdotes, for example, employers threatened their employees, if they don't vote for Fidesz, they will get fired. So, you can see this almost everywhere, every sphere of Hungarian society that there are these dependency relations. You can get resources, but only if you are loyal to the power. So I believe these are the main reasons for this huge Fidesz victory.

John Torpey  10:58

Right. But your work is more specifically on corruption, and indeed on corruption in Hungary. So I want to ask you a little bit about, what does that look like? What does it mean? How does it sort of help us describe the situation that you've just been outlining in such detail? I mean, what does corruption mean in contemporary Hungary?

David Jancsics  11:25

Right. I mean, there are different types of corruption, different forms of corruption. There is petty corruption, there is corruption related to your family, just helping family members, nepotism, and things like that. What we see in Hungary is a very different type, it's a top-down centralized corruption, which means state capture. So the state, the political elite captured almost every institution in the country, political institutions, they even control a huge chunk of the private sector economy. And at the top of this is Viktor Orban, so he is the godfather. And he put loyal people in every organization, and they use this huge machine, to channel resources first to oligarchs, but those oligarchs are controlled by Orban, they are not independent. It's very similar to the Russian system, where Putin basically controls the oligarchs. So they created huge wealth, right? They restructured the Hungarian economic elite, but they also used these resources to feed those patron-client networks at lower levels, you know, local government levels, municipal levels. So I mean, in some way, it's a very smart system; you can control a whole society, and you can channel resources where they are needed.

John Torpey  13:10

To what extent - I mean, you just compared it to what's going on in Russia - is the corruption you're describing a post-Soviet phenomenon? To what extent is it a characteristic of all countries in the former Soviet bloc?

David Jancsics  13:24

I think we saw the typical post-Soviet type of corruption right after the collapse of the system. So I'm talking about the 1990s. That was the time when state institutions were weak, it was a new democracy. So, it was basically the law enforcement agencies were weak. So it was basically a huge, huge unemployment. So ordinary people try to survive, and that's why we had this huge post-socialist type of corruption when you had to bribe almost everybody: policeman on the street; low level/street level bureaucrats if you needed a permission or something like that. So it was really widespread. But it was also a kind of survival tool. But that kind of corruption disappeared, at least in Hungary, because the state with Orban started to control corruption as well. So there's minimal middle or low level corruption right now in Hungary. So they basically monopolized corruption. This is just this top-level grand state corruption.

John Torpey  14:48

I see. All right, so speaking of corruption, I mean, one of the things that's been suggested since the invasion of Ukraine by the Russians is that politicians west of Russia who had aligned themselves with Putin would suffer electorally. And so this is something that is going to get thrown around in the second round of the French elections, for example, with regard to Marine LePen. But, Orban was best friends with Putin until shortly before the election, or before the invasion, that at least as far as I knew, and yet this doesn't seem to have hurt him. How did he manage to finesse that relationship? Or what do Hungarian people think about the war? Maybe it's part of the question. 

David Jancsics  15:41

So he used the war in Ukraine very successfully in his communication during this election. So it was a huge success domestically, but I believe that there must be geopolitical prices for that, as you mentioned. So first of all, Orban understands the Hungarian culture very well. And the Ukrainian war happened just right before the election. And he quickly reacted. And his message was like this, "stay away from the conflict, because cheap gas from Russia and the peace are more important than solidarity with Ukraine, who, by the way, are harassing Hungarian minorities."  The opposition strategy on the war was very different. So they follow the West in this case. So for them, it was like a choice between East and West, right? 

But for Orban it was the choice between war and peace. And it perfectly fits Orban's rhetoric, because in this narrative, the external world is always dangerous. There are wars outside, there are strange people, there are gay people, transgender people, migrants, refugees, Muslims, barbarians. And all of this is currently outside of the country, but the opposition wants to bring them in. So the only stable point in this chaos is Viktor Orban. He can maintain order, he can block these evil external forces at the border of Hungary. And a few days before the election, he started to use even stronger language. So it was this apocalyptic vision that the opposition wants to send our children to a war, a war we have nothing to do with, that they will bring blood in Hungary. So he won this communication battle because many people chose safety over supporting the West and Ukraine.  

But as you mentioned, internationally it's not a comfortable standpoint, right? So Orban is getting more and more isolated internationally. And there are signs of this. For example, the V4 countries, the Visegrád Group (Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary), they already started to make a distance. So Budapest had to cancel a V4 meeting after Poland and the Czech Republic pulled out because of Hungary's stance on the war. And this breakup with Poland is especially painful for Orban, because Poland was the biggest ally in his fight against the West. So for the short term, the international costs are big for him. But who knows what's next. I mean, it may change in the future.

John Torpey  18:27

So I obviously wanted to ask you about the relationship with the European Union. And Poland and Hungary have been the problem children of the EU now for some time. And so it's interesting that there may be growing isolation, even from the Poles, so I want to ask you about that. But I also want to get back to make sure we talk about the impact of the war beyond the political or the immediately political. I mean, people don't seem to mention very often that Hungary shares a border with Ukraine. I mean, not a very long one, but it's one of the borders. So they're obviously refugee questions to ask. So perhaps you could just speak a little bit to the EU issue, and then we'll get back to the impact of the war on Hungary.

David Jancsics  19:16

Okay. Well, the relationship between Hungary and the EU is a kind of strange, interesting relationship. Because for many years, the EU seem to be very reluctant to sanction Hungary for its illiberal turn. It already had some tools to stop decentralized grand corruption. But those tools were minimally used. And as I mentioned, corruption is one of the most important elements of Orban's system. In a seven year EU budget period, we are talking about 60,000 projects in Hungary fully or partially financed by the European Union. So it means tens of billions of Euros, and a huge part of this money disappears in the pockets of Orban's family, Orban's friends. So these people are the wealthiest Hungarians right now.  

So again, EU was reluctant, nut something has changed because after the election, the European Commission announced that it will trigger a powerful new mechanism to cut funding to Hungary, over rule of law breaches. This is a new thing. And Hungary will be the first country to face these new sanctions. And it's not just because of corruption, because Orban and his cabal also control the whole institutional system: the judiciary, prosecutor agencies, state media, private media, the whole education system, including universities, cultural institutions, sports clubs, and other supposedly independent institutions. So it's basically, as I mentioned, it's a total state capture, and it seems that the EU is ready to move forward. But it's going to be a long bureaucratic process. So eventually 55% of EU countries must approve these sanctions. So I'm afraid it may end up as a typical EU horse trade between countries and it will be watered down.  

But the biggest problems, I think that the EU underestimated Orban for many years. So Hungary was just one of those small post-socialist countries. The EU didn't care too much about the illiberal tendencies, because it was an insignificant country. And Orban handled the 2015 migration crisis with heavy hands. The Hungarian government abused refugees; it made it practically impossible for asylum seekers to submit their claims. So the government totally neglected international human rights law. But that was intentional. So that was Orban's big moment. He wanted to play the role of the defender of the white Christian European culture. And it worked very well because many European people felt the same way.  

So Orban used this migration crisis in 2015 to build his own brand. And he actually stepped on the stage of world politics. So, he's not anymore, just the prime minister of a small country. He's a name, there is Orbanism, right? So he's a brand, he's on covers of international magazines. He's the challenger of contemporary West from inside. And he started this before Trump. Thanks to Tucker Carlson, now Orban is the reference point for Trump supporters in the US. So when compared to the size of the country, Orban's influence is huge. And this is unprecedented. So I think it's too late for Europe to stop him.

John Torpey  22:58

Well, that's not encouraging, especially given the stranglehold he seems to have on the prime minister's office. So sounds like he's not going anywhere, anytime soon. Well, I mean, I guess we could explore that further, but you've explained it in fairly considerable detail. So maybe what we should spend a little time talking about the impact of the war and the refugee situation, because as I said, very few people really mentioned Hungary as part of the landscape, the near abroad, I suppose, of Ukraine. Much of the attention is focused on Poland, Slovakia perhaps, but I don't really hear Hungary mentioned very much. So what is the refugee situation like? What are the relations between the countries and how does that all look?

David Jancsics  23:47

Alright, so yeah, I mean, a lot of refugees arrived in Hungary as well. And I think that the government is much more friendly to them than it was to the refugees from the Middle East and Africa in 2015. But still, a lot of civil society organizations had to step in, especially during the first days, to help this huge crowd at train stations. And I believe most of them didn't want to stay in Hungary. So they moved forward to Western countries, probably Germany and Austria or maybe more northern European countries.  

But the Hungarian society is totally divided on this issue. And this is a political device. So, the urban liberal middle class, they are totally pro-West on this issue. So they support the NATO Western countries, they are totally against Putin. The other side, the Orban side, they are more cautious. So Orban stopped openly supporting Putin, which was the case before the war, but still, there is a there is this narrative, I already mentioned that, you know, we have to get away from this war, we shouldn't be involved. The West wants us to get involved in this war, and we should avoid it. Because it's more important to be safe here in Hungary. So that's the typical sentiment.

John Torpey  25:37

So this raises the question, which is on the table for all the other countries in the neighborhood, such as Poland, in particular: what if there is some kind of attack or mistake? A missile falls on some town in the east of Hungary, and suddenly maybe Hungary is in the war and NATO follows. I mean, are people worried about that? I mean, again, Orban takes up so much of the air in the room, I guess, that there's no room left to talk about how the Hungarians may be thinking about the fear, worry about attack, and that sort of thing?

David Jancsics  26:25

Right. It's a hard question. So Orban is using this double speech. So he supports the Western sanctions against Russia. But when you listen to the official state media, there is no clear statement against Putin or Russia. Or sometimes it's even the Russian propaganda, soft-version of Russian propaganda, right? So the whole thing was designed by the US, so Ukraine is just a puppet of the grand United States politics. Sometimes you can hear voices like that in the state media in Hungary. So I don't know. I mean, Orban is a great survivor, this strategy has worked very well, domestically. I don't know how he's going to handle this case internationally. But I'm sure he has some ideas about that.

John Torpey  27:25

I'm sure he does, as well. But I wonder, you've described his sort of growing isolation in the neighborhood, I suppose, of Eastern Europe or Europe generally. And at the same time, this kind of weird influence on the far right in the United States, at least, I don't know about other far right movements. So there is this election coming up in France. I mean, I don't have a clear sense of how tight Marine LePen, for example, might be with Orban, but my guess she's  probably fairly cozy or has been fairly cozy. What kind of effect is his growing isolation going to have on somebody like Marine LePen who seems to be doing better, as you probably know, in the polls against Emmanuel Macron, than people had expected or then she had done the last time around?

David Jancsics  28:21

I don't know. I have no idea. I mean, Orban was aware of the price of using this rhetoric domestically, so he knew that he's going to pay the price internationally. That's for sure. But I think the international environment around Hungary is very dynamic right now. So we don't know what's going to happen. It may make him significantly weaker, or even stronger. You know, the war, the possible recession, next elections in the US or in other countries, right now in France, or the role of NATO in terms of European security. So who knows, I mean, just think about the possible next Trump presidency, that would create a powerful ally for Orban again, right?  

But I mean, unfortunately, he's an international brand now. So, he's one of the most resilient of these new populist leaders. When you see many of them were defeated after one or two terms, but Orban is stronger than ever. Trump is down, Netanyahu disappeared, but Orban is still there. So, also, he's different from Erdogan or Putin because he is inside the European Union. So he's in a much better position. Hard questions, but what I see right now is that he's very strong, and he's gonna stay. He's young, he's 58, he will stay in this position for years, probably decades, 15 more years, 20 more years. And he built an empire. It's a kind of indestructible Death Star in Hungary. So he's a heavyweight boxer in the ring, and there is no contender right now. It's going to be extremely difficult to defeat him in future elections.

John Torpey  30:27

That's a great image, however unfortunate, the reality that it describes "this indestructible Death Star", I think was the phrase. So, before you go, I think that would have been a good place to wrap up. But there is one other question I thought I wanted to ask you, since we're academics, maybe this is of greater interest to us than it might be to a non-academic listener. But what was the significance of the whole expulsion of the Central European University? I mean, expulsion is not exactly the right word; it left on their own account, but Orban made it very difficult for them to stay as best I could tell. So now it's in Vienna, maybe everybody's happier in Vienna? Probably in certain respects, they are, but of course, it undermines the founding donor's intentions with the whole thing. So maybe you can tell us a little bit about that story and what's been the result?

David Jancsics  31:32

Who knows that the real truth in this story? But it is definitely related to the government's "Stop Soros" campaign, which they started during this 2015 refugee crisis. So the narrative was that there are these western NGOs in the country, including Open Society Foundation, created by George Soros. And also the university, also founded by by George Soros. And these organizations are basically foreign agents in the country. So they are manipulating media, and they basically orchestrated this whole refugee crisis to make Europe weaken. So that I think the attack against the university was part of this narrative, which is a kind of interesting thing, because a lot of people believe that he may attack Open Society Foundation, he may attack some international NGOs. But he is not going to touch the university. Especially because this whole thing happened right before the university just opened a brand new campus in downtown Budapest. So they build a new, super-modern new building. So it was a sign that the university is safe. But you know, he improvises, so you never know what's his next move.

John Torpey  33:14

Right. And he's a savvy operator. That's clear. Well, on that not entirely encouraging note, let me say that's it for today's episode. I want to thank David Jancsics of San Diego State University for sharing his insights about developments in Hungary. Remember to subscribe and rate International Horizons at SoundCloud, Spotify, and Apple podcasts. I want to thank Juan Acevedo for his technical assistance as well as to acknowledge Duncan Mckay for sharing his song "International Horizons" as the theme music for this show. This is John Torpey saying thanks for joining us and we look forward to having you with us for the next episode of International Horizons.