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 his latest version of views.

Everyone gets old. And those who do often become conservative. But Orbán’s ideological journey is more complex and less innocent than that. 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: In 1989, a young, liberal revolutionary made his political debut by giving a speech in which he bravely demanded that Russian troops leave Hungary.

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.

Contrary to what it looked like, the speech was not risky – 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 – stole the show, coming second and gaining 24% of the mandates. But it got worse for Fidesz.

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 less votes (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 constitutional changes. They refrained from changing the constitutional system without all-party consensus (which they didn’t get), so that wasn’t the biggest issue.

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.

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) because the voters wanted to become bourgeois, too. It was a success, and their voter base rewarded Fidesz with 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.

In 2002, the unspeakable happened. 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.

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 two terms spent in opposition made Orbán embittered and he was determined to learn his lessons:

1. Hungarians are not to be trusted not to bring back “the communists”.

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

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

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

Step 3 – 2010: Populist, nationalist, protectionist, with an intention to grab 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. Still “conservative” on the label (which confuses and misleads international experts to no end) but striving for central control of the economy, nationalizing anything that promises some pocket money and juicy positions for cronies, and pushing out foreign capital, sector by sector.

Orbán has learned his lessons: Peasants are not to be trusted not to bring back “the communists”. Not to be trusted to have any common sense at all. Perception creates reality and not the other way around. And policy that is designed in the “public interest” is wasted on the public. It must either serve his own economic power grab (through cronies, straw men and nationalization) or be useful for communication and clientelism.

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. Despite major election defeats and hard times. At some point Fidesz even forgot to organize its bi-annual party congress to vote on leadership. Everyone knows it’s Orbán.

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 thereof, from helping to establish the rule of law to empty and cynical legalism. His “illiberal nation” 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 world, 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 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 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 outsider, which is cute).

But the conclusion is clear: Orbán of 1898 (or even 2008) would refuse to shake hands with Orbán of 2010.

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