Viktor Orbán: the populist throttling Hungary

Former Hungarian dissident Viktor Orbán was once a champion of a liberal, open society. Now that he’s entrenched in power, critics say he’s the chief danger to it. Jane Lewis reports.

In 1988 a Hungarian dissident wrote a letter to billionaire investor George Soros, asking for help to obtain a scholarship to Oxford University to study "the rebirth of civil society" and duly won a place at Pembroke College. The young supplicant, says The Economist, was Viktor Orbn, the Hungarian premier who has just won his third election in a row and is "now busy throttling the independent society he once championed".

The author of Hungary's "illiberal democracy" has "shed beliefs as a chameleon shed skins" and now depicts himself as "the defender of Christian Europe". Soros in particular has every reason to feel affronted, says The Times. Orbn is likely to use his landslide to increase his power over the judiciary and media. But a spokesman from his right-wing Fidesz party says that his "first priority" is to pass a "Stop Soros" bill to shut charities backed by the financier, who is of Jewish Hungarian origin, and whom Orbn has accused, in thinly disguised anti-Semitic attacks, of "trying to overthrow" Hungary's indigenous culture.

Hungary's "descent into semi-authoritarianism", says The Economist, is taking place "with the collusion and compliance of the EU". Not only are European taxpayers "propping up a government that undermines the rule of law", but their transfers "feed the systems of patronage that have come to define Orbn's rule". Much of this EU money finds its way to his "cronies", via overpriced procurement contracts. Meanwhile, notes the Financial Times, the wider Orbn family, notably his father, brothers and son-in-law (currently under investigation by the EU's anti-fraud agency) have also cleaned up. In 2015, Forbes Hungary put the family's wealth at €22m. Economically speaking, critics say that Hungary "is becoming a miniature version of Vladimir Putin's Russia".

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Orbn was born in Felcst, a small village near Budapest. His father was a labourer and agricultural engineer. Orbn still lives there in "a modest farmhouse" with his wife and some of his five children, but across the road now is a stadium a temple to Orbn's passion for football, widely pilloried as a vanity project. He grew up under the relatively stable and prosperous regime of Jnos Kdr, the communist leader who ruled Hungary from 1956 to 1988, says Politico. "He began his career as an anti-communist, co-founding Fidesz in university, and calling for the withdrawal of Soviet troops." But over the decades he became a "strident nationalist". Part of his appeal among older voters "is the promise of a return to the golden age of their youth, when life felt simple and full of promise".

Fidesz has always been driven by "a roughly equal blend of ideology and thirst for power", says The Economist. Pragmatism still rules. "Were Fidesz-friendly pollsters to discover that voters were no longer animated by migration," says Orbn's biographer Andras Kosa, "the party would simply manufacture a different foe." There's a ready one on hand. Having spent much of his political career championing the EU and other Western institutions, Orbn recently observed that the chief "danger" to Hungary now comes "from politicians in Brussels, Berlin and Paris".

The growing bond between Hungary and other ex-Eastern bloc states "should set alarm bells ringing in Brussels", says Die Welt. "One could go so far as to say that Viktor Orbn is getting ready to become the gravedigger of the EU."

Jane writes profiles for MoneyWeek and is city editor of The Week. A former British Society of Magazine Editors editor of the year, she cut her teeth in journalism editing The Daily Telegraph’s Letters page and writing gossip for the London Evening Standard – while contributing to a kaleidoscopic range of business magazines including Personnel Today, Edge, Microscope, Computing, PC Business World, and Business & Finance.

She has edited corporate publications for accountants BDO, business psychologists YSC Consulting, and the law firm Stephenson Harwood – also enjoying a stint as a researcher for the due diligence department of a global risk advisory firm.

Her sole book to date, Stay or Go? (2016), rehearsed the arguments on both sides of the EU referendum.

She lives in north London, has a degree in modern history from Trinity College, Oxford, and is currently learning to play the drums.