Viktor Orbán and the Fidesz Party – the Authoritarian Rulers of Hungary

Belarus is often described as “Europe’s last dictatorship,” however, Hungary has rapidly become Europe’s second dictatorship ever since Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party came into power in 2010. After Orban’s victory, the country experienced a crackdown in freedom of press, the gerrymandering of elections, and the appointment of Fidesz loyalists in the courts. The press, in particular, has been turned into a propaganda machine for Orbán’s government; according to a report from the European Federation of Journalists, there is little independent media left in Hungary, with the remaining free press intimidated, harassed, and even threatened by the government and its supporters. The other media left in Hungary are often little more than government mouthpieces that help parrot the government’s message, with an estimated 90% of the news agencies in the country being controlled by the ruling Fidesz party. 

Hungary-Chinese Relations: How the EU is being Harmed

Hungary is a member of the European Union, as well as of NATO, which means that on paper it is part of the Western Bloc. However, under Orbán, Hungary-China relations have remained warm, and have even improved, amidst the recent East-West tension buildup. The nation has been an ardent supporter of China’s Belt and Road initiative amongst other projects, such as railways, universities, and vaccines. In fact, the Chinese ambassador to Budapest, Qi Dayu, even said that “bilateral relations [between the two nations] have entered the best period in history.” 

The strength of this bond can be seen by Hungary’s recent blocking of an EU joint statement criticising Chinese policies on Hong Kong. Orbán and his government seem to want to prioritise their friendship with China, also a dictatorship, over their allies in the EU and NATO – an approach that may be backed up by Orbán’s own Eurosceptic views. These views include anti-immigration policies and the belief that Hungary should take its own path forward independent of the EU. In fact, they also help Orbán discredit political opponents, as anyone who opposes Fidesz and their policies is labelled by the state media as being allied with Brussels. 

Despite his views, Prime Minister Orbán seems to want to walk a fine line, manipulating his way between the two powers of the EU and China. Should the European government challenge any of his authoritarian policies in the European Court, Orban complies with the ruling fully, but he is free to pursue any policies that Brussels does not attempt to overturn in court. Some of these actions and policies include criticising the EU’s liberalism and refugee policies, and building what he calls an “illberal democracy,” both against the EU’s wishes. By appeasing both sides, Orbán manages to receive support from everyone – Hungary received €5 billion more in EU funding than it contributed in 2018, in addition to the Chinese loans and funds. 

In this sense, Prime Minister Orbán is doing what so many countries did in previous worldwide conflicts: placating both sides just enough to stay neutral. Examples of this include Sweden and Turkey in World War II, which both provided support to the Axis as well as the Allies. Balancing Hungary in this tenuous position between the two global blocs also allows Orbán to build and shape the nation in his vision. While the EU and NATO are staunchly pro-democracy, Hungary being friendly with the dictatorial China-Russia bloc ensures that the Western bloc will not do anything too drastic lest Hungary turns completely to the Russia-China side. 

In addition, the governing Fidesz party was also part of the largest political group in the European Parliament, the European People’s Party (EPP), until recently when it left. This meant that for the past 10 years, the EPP, and by extension, a large part of the European Parliament, has been hesitant to act on Fidesz’s abuses of human rights and growing authoritarianism. It remains to be seen how the European Parliament’s stance on Hungary will change following Fidesz’s departure, but it is reasonable to assume that without the pressure of embarrassing Fidesz, and therefore themselves, the EPP will take a harsher stance against Hungarian authoritarianism.

Even if the EU had the political will to challenge more of Orbán’s policies, one additional nation stands between Brussels and the EU’s Western powers: Poland. Poland and Hungary have been mutual supporters of one another’s authoritarian nationalist policies, and Poland has largely followed in the footsteps of Hungary in terms of democratic backsliding. The EU’s veto policies mean that any one country in the bloc’s 27 members can veto a decision, and Poland and Hungary have used this power to veto decisions that harm their own, or each other’s, interests. As an example, the two vetoed the EU budget in November 2020, which would have had clauses regarding the rule of law in EU members. That’s not to say the EU isn’t fighting back – there have been calls in the bloc to eliminate the veto power of single nations in favour of simple majorities – but for now, Poland and Hungary have the regulations of the Union on their side. 

Will the Orbán Era End? 

Despite his best efforts, protests and dissent against Orbán’s regime have continued in Hungary. Recent protests over the building of the Chinese Fudan University in Budapest have shown that the Prime Minister and his Fidesz party do not have complete control over the country, with the government’s backing down amidst the widespread public backlash only strengthening this point.

Hungary is increasingly becoming, if it is not already, a symbol of the more rebellious members of the Western bloc. Being a dictatorship in the Western bloc requires appeasing both sides of the global order in a careful balance – the superpowers of the West do not wish to upset the dictators, for fear that they’ll turn towards the East completely. 
Hungary will hold elections next spring, and the country’s opposition parties are so determined to get rid of Orbán that they have formed a united front to challenge the 2022 elections. Opinion polling suggests that this coalition may have a chance at winning – providing that this unlikely alliance with left and right-leaning parties does not fall apart. For now, however, only time and the will of the Hungarian people will tell whether Orbán will be out of power for good.    

Edited by Majeed Malhas

Jonathan Chan

Born in Hong Kong and living in Vancouver, Canada since 2016, Jonathan (he/him) is currently a first-year student in the Faculty of Science at the University of British Columbia. He is passionate about...