Orbán: From Liberal to Populist in 3 Steps

An up-to-date ideological guide to Orbán – for those who simply don’t have the time to keep an eye on him.

Everyone gets old. And as the saying has it, old people often become conservative. But Orbán’s ideological journey was calculated.

In a nutshell, the Orbán of 1898 would refuse to shake hands with Orbán of 2010.

Step 1 – 1989: Young Democrats

“Fidesz” stands for “young democrats” and that is what his party used to be. They even had an age limit of 35 when they first entered the parliament after the elections in 1990.


Viktor Orbán, cca 1990

Around the fall of communism in 1898, Viktor Orbán used to be a young liberal, living off a Soros scholarship and already positioning himself as a political force, right out of university. The youngest son of an extremely ambitious father, he was not allowed to pursue his dream of becoming a football player – he had to go to law school.

“He was born and raised in Székesfehérvár, a provincial town southwest of the capital. “I’m a village boy,” he says. His father was a disciplinarian prone to violence. He came from what he called an “uncultured” background and in his teens he was active in the Communist Young Pioneers.”

Politico profile

When thinking about Orbán, the image many foreign commentators still remember is this:

orbán nyag imre

“The communists took away our future” Orbán in 1989, giving his famous speech sending the Russians home. The speech was – despite appearances – pre-approved by both the Budapest and the Moscow party leaders.

In 1989, a young, liberal revolutionary made his political debut by giving a speech in which he bravely demanded that Russian troops leave Hungary. Contrary to what it looked like, the speech was not risky. We know now that it was pre-approved by both the Hungarian and Moscow party leaders.

“In that iconic year for Europe, Orbán the public man was born. At 24, he was the charismatic and fiery co-founder of a youth movement called the Federation of Young Democrats, or Fidesz. He wore jeans, longish hair and frequent stubble. His party didn’t allow anyone over 35 years of age to join.”


Fidesz came fifth at the 1990 elections, with 9% of votes and 5.8% of mandates. The other liberal party, SZDSZ – Alliance of Free Democrats – became the leading liberal force, coming second and gaining 24% of the mandates. But things got even worse for Fidesz – and thus Orbán, as the party is him.

In 1994, to everyone’s shock, the descendants of the state socialist party, MSZP, won the elections by 45.6% of the votes, and 54% of the parliamentary seats – allowing them to form a government without a coalition party if they so pleased.

Fidesz gained marginally (7.7%), while SZDSZ stayed roughly the same size. But SZDSZ committed the fatal mistake of joining the socialists on government, giving the two parties a qualified majority – enabling them to even adopt constitutional changes if the so wished. They refrained from changing the constitutional system without all-party consensus. (For contrast, Orbán changed the constitution 7 times after he received a supermajority in 2010, refusing to even discuss it with other parties.)

But Orbán was aghast at the communist nostalgia in his country. Only 4 years after the fall of communism, people voted the old cadres back into power. At first, he pivoted into conservatism, realizing that there were opportunities there.

Step 2 – 1998: Fidesz becomes soft-nationalist “conservative”

By 1998 Fidesz switched to soft-nationalist conservatism. Their rhetoric changed from liberal to bourgeois (which is fine with voters as long as you use the Hungarian term, “polgári” for it). And the re-branding was popular because the voters wanted to become bourgeois, too. It evoked the image of well-off, urban families with children learning the piano in elegant drawing rooms.

The rebranding was a success, giving Fidesz 4 years on government – although in coalition.

“To some people who know him well, the transformation from the ’89 Orbán to the Orbán of today wasn’t so much Damascene as pragmatic. In the early days, Fidesz appealed to progressive urban youth and the intelligentsia. It was a crowded space, dominated by another party called the Alliance of Free Democrats. Fidesz did well in the first free elections, then lost badly in 1994. Orbán got the message. He took the party sharply right, and from the cities into the conservative provinces.”


It was the coalition government of Fidesz between 1998-2002 when we first got a glimpse of Orbán’s remarkable political talent of slicing up the competitors. Or, more precisely, letting them slice up themselves. (In the communist playbook it is called the Salami-tactic, in case you were interested.) Orbán effectively got rid of his coalition partners by beautifully enabling their sinking into in-fighting and political suicide. (After 2010, he did that to his opposition.)

In 2002, the unspeakable happened. Fidesz lost and the socialists made a comeback, and once again forged a coalition with the much-weakened SZDSZ. (This time there was a mathematical need for it – unlike in 1994.) Orbán’s Fidesz produced its best performance ever, but was forced into opposition nonetheless. Many blamed it on Orbán’s thinly veiled tendency to act like a king. He even brought the royal crown of the long-gone monarchy into parliament in a lavish ceremony and floated the idea of moving into the royal castle.

In 2006, insult came upon injury, and Fidesz was, once again, beaten by the socialists who won on the promise of a soft-populist spending bonanza (the infamous 100 days program).

The two terms spent in opposition made Orbán embittered and he inferred the following lessons:

1. Hungarians are not to be trusted not to bring back “the communists”. So Orbán must ride the communist nostalgia and build on old authoritarian reflexes – just pay strong lip service to anti-communism.

2. Communist nostalgia rules. So Orbán has to become the next Kádár. He hired a new spin doctor who lacked both an education and inhibitions.

3. “Communists” could beat him because they had economic power – which Fidesz had neglected. Orbán thus set out to gain economic control and build his own clientelism after he got back into power in 2010. Everyone in this country must depend from him personally. 

4. Conservatism was too noble for these. Populism and autocracy it shall be. 

Step 3 – 2010: Nationalist, protectionist, grabbing control of the economy

In 2004 a new staff member entered the meeting of Fidesz’ parliamentary group – according to an ex-Fidesz MP. He announced that the Kádár-system has triumphed, referring to the last communist strongman who ushered in Goulash communism in the 70s and a soft dictatorship that inspires plenty of nostalgia today. Orbán announced that the new party strategy is no longer bourgeois, they will “ask the people”, for whom material concerns and safe livelihoods are paramount. It naturally beats their desire for dubious freedom. As a consequence, Fidesz got to work to rebuild the communist state-party system.

In the 2010 elections Fidesz reemerged as a nationalist, nativist, and protectionist party. The label was anti-communist, but the tactics were straight out of the playbook of pre-1989 autocrats.

Fidesz was still “conservative” on the label (which confuses and misleads international experts to no end) but striving for central control of the economy, either by nationalization or – more likely – through playing the economy into crony hands. They were also pushing out foreign capital, sector by sector.

Orbán has learned his lessons:

  • Peasants are not to be trusted not to bring back “the communists” because they are used to living in an autocracy. Peasants are disappointed with whatever happened to them under freedom, and they will nicely ease back into authoritarianism if someone finally offers it.
  • They are not to be trusted to have any common sense at all. Those who still do can be made to question their own senses by shrieking propaganda.
  • Perception creates reality and not the other way around. Voters might dump a politician despite good economic performance – but they might vote in a bad one if they perceive he is good.
  • A policy that is designed in the “public interest” is wasted on the public.
  • Anything he does must either serve his own economic power grab (through cronies, straw men and nationalization) or be useful for communication. Preferably both.

In 2010, Orbán gained power with a clear idea as to how he will centralize political and economic power, how he will erode every check and balance on executive power, how to erode the independence of institutions, and how to push his peasants further down in servitude. He had a playbook and you can watch it unfold. He even sells it abroad.


2014 Photo: Reflektor blog

Without apology and with great fanfare, Orbán personifies the rise of illiberal politics in Europe. “Liberal democracy can’t remain globally competitive,” he said in a 2014 speech to a group of ethnic Hungarians in Romania. “The most popular topic in thinking today is trying to understand how systems that are not Western, not liberal, not liberal democracies and perhaps not even democracies can nevertheless make their nations successful.” His examples are Singapore, Russia, Turkey, India (strangely) and China. “We have to abandon liberal methods and principles of organizing a society, as well as the liberal way to look at the world,” he said. His own state, a member of the EU and NATO, “will undertake the odium of expressing that in character it is not of liberal nature.”


Please note that throughout the last 28 years, Orbán has been the uncontested ruler of his party. (There hasn’t been a contender for Fidesz’ leadership – apart from a little guy back in 1994, but that wasn’t a serious challenge. At some point Fidesz even forgot to organize its bi-annual party congress to vote on leadership. When the press made fun of them, they grudgingly put up the show and reelected Orbán.) Despite major election defeats and hard times, Fidesz was always the party of Orbán, led in a top-down and clientelist fashion.

Today, the whole country has been arranged under the party, became part of his hierarchy. He called in ‘NER’, which is short for a Systen of National Cooperation.

Throughout his political career Orbán went from sending the Russians home to bringing them back, from tearing down walls to building them, from demanding human and civic rights to becoming the greatest threat on both, from helping to establish the rule of law to empty and cynical legalism.

His “illiberal nation” (he did not say “illiberal democracy”) rests upon the assumption that people are dumb and to be looked down upon, that force and coercion (legal, economic or otherwise) are perfectly good tools to herd cattle, that strength is the only legitimate currency in interactions (which is weird from the leader of a small country that benefited greatly from a rule-based international system, rather than a strength-based chaos). He is a shameless collectivist, sexist, feudalistic landlord with views that may have been progressive in the late 19th century – but probably not. They are alarmingly outdated and simplistic today. And now he has the power to push his ideas through and there is no one around him to say no.

Maybe it is about getting old. Maybe he is just disillusioned and bitter. Maybe it is just the condescension that inevitably comes to someone who spent his entire adult life in the political elite, isolated from the world (even though he likes to speak like some sort of anti-establishment outsider, which is amusing).

But the conclusion is clear: Orbán of 1898 (or even 2002) would refuse to shake hands with Orbán of 2010.

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