I met Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbàn in May of last year.  With a few others, we shared breakfast before the opening session of the second Budapest Demographic Forum.  He was every bit the “footballer” I had been told to expect.  Of modest stature, he moved—even at age 54—with an assured athleticism.

This event was held in conjunction with the World Congress of Families XI, a project I had launched 20 years earlier.  During the intervening time, I had met and listened to an Old English “gross” of politicians claiming to be pro-family.  Alas, relatively few of them actually understood the issues; fewer still advanced a coherent agenda.  Orbàn stands among the handful of exceptions.

Just the day before, he reported to us, his cabinet had resolved that 2018 would be Hungary’s Year of Families.  He described plans to raise substantially the tax breaks granted to families with two or more children.  Sharing an idea I had advanced in the U.S. back in 2006, the government would cancel 50 percent of student-loan debt for the parents of two children and 100 percent for three.  The state would also assume $5,000 of mortgage principle for families with three children, and another $5,000 for each additional child.  An existing program of Baby Bonds for maternity support would also be extended to new mothers among the three million Hungarian speakers living outside the nation’s boundaries—a curious legacy of the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, which had dissected Hungary after World War I.

In his opening address to the Demographic Forum, Orbàn referred to the refugee crisis of 2015, when Hungary defied the European Union and raised a fence to shut her borders to illegal migrants pouring into the Balkans from the Middle East and Africa.  While Brussels has looked to immigrants as a solution to Europe’s population decline, he said, Hungary has taken a different course: by shaping “a family policy which encourages the birth of children” and secures playgrounds that “echo with the happy cries of children, rather than with the sirens of police cars and ambulances”; and by “renewing ourselves spiritually.”  In the face of a form of invasion, “Hungary will . . . protect its families at all costs, regardless of the opposition that may come from Brussels.”  This restoration of “natural fertility” was not just “one” national cause, but rather “the national cause.”  “And it is also a European cause: not just one European cause among many, but the European cause.”

An otherwise uninformed reader of Orbàn: Hungary’s Strongman, by the Hungarian-born journalist Paul Lendvai, would be bewildered by the coherence and clear orientation of values found in these remarks.  Lendvai’s purpose in his book is to cast Orbàn—prime minister of Hungary from 1998 to 2002, from 2010 to 2018, and recently reelected with a parliamentary supermajority—as a man driven solely by an “unbridled lust for power,” insatiable greed, and a vicious disregard for democracy, the rule of law, and “the EU’s set of values.”  Lendvai emphasizes “the disastrous legal, political, social, and economic consequences of Fidesz rule,” this being the name of the political party Orbàn leads.  Elsewhere in the book, Lendvai describes this political movement as a power grab by “a Freikorps of plebeians.”  Other characterizations of Fidesz that he embraces include a “Hungarian mafia state”; a “fascistoid mutation”; a “semi-dictatorship”; and an “authoritarian and strongly centralized political power, a state without limits.”

The truth about the rise of Orbàn and Fidesz is actually quite different . . . and fascinating.  The future prime minister was born in 1963 in what Lendvai calls the “wretched” farming village of Alcsútdoboz.  Orbàn had an “orderly,” albeit very poor, youth.  His father was a leader in the local farm cooperative, responsible for the agricultural machines.  His mother taught children with special needs.  A grandfather, who had been a soldier and POW in World War II, passed on to young Viktor a strong passion for football; he spent most of his free time on “the football pitch.”  Orbàn grew up working in the fields, tending vegetables, chickens, and pigs.  In boyhood scraps, he became known for his fearlessness: “If I am hit once, then I hit back twice.”  Conditions at home were fairly primitive.  His memorable first use of a flush toilet came only at age 15.

That coincided with his admission, through merit, into a respected residential high school in a nearby small city.  Following mandatory military service (which he deplored for its brutality and wretched ideological indoctrination), he won admission in 1983 into the new Bibó István Special College for law students in Budapest.  It was funded by the expatriate Hungarian billionaire George Soros, champion of what he called the Open Society.  Bibó became the incubator of the Fidesz Party.  The faculty and curriculum were subversively anticommunist and neoliberal.  Most of the students had rural or small-town backgrounds.  In this milieu, Orbàn proved to be an effective student politician, becoming chairman of the executive committee of its 60-member student body.  In 1988, Orbàn and 36 other students founded the Alliance of Young Democrats.  To this day, that group provides the leadership core of Fidesz.

Orbàn’s first big break came in July 1989, when he was recruited to be the “youth speaker” at an enormous public event in Budapest’s Kossuth Square.  It would mark the recent death of long-time Hungarian “strongman” János Kádár, the architect of Hungary’s form of communism lite, often called “goulash communism.”  With the Party seemingly still in full control and with the state police still suppressing dissent, Orbàn—long haired, bearded, and in scruffy blue jeans—startled the crowd and the nation with a call for rapid regime change: “If we trust our own strength, then we will be able to put an end to the communist dictatorship.”  Lendvai acknowledges that these were “courageous and politically rebellious words.”  Orbàn escaped arrest, and the communist system began to unravel.  Three months later, the Second Fidesz Congress voted to turn the youth organization into a political party.

During these few years, Orbàn worked part-time for Soros’s Open Society Foundation.  In autumn 1989, a Soros-funded fellowship took him to Oxford University to study the “idea of civil society” in European philosophy.  Yet in January 1990 he returned to Hungary to resume the leadership of Fidesz.  In April of that year, Hungary’s first free election saw the party win 22 seats in parliament.  Free-market in economics, libertarian in morals, and anticlerical (opposing, for example, the restitution of lost properties to the Roman Catholic Church), Fidesz embodied the fresh winds of a new and open Europe.  In 1992, it joined the Liberal International.

Two years later, though, Fidesz lost votes and parliamentary seats in new elections.  In 1995, Orbàn abandoned the liberal political center, arguing that Fidesz “must seek cooperation with the forces politically right of center.”  The beards disappeared; hair was trimmed; and suits and ties replaced the blue jeans.  Orbàn’s speeches increasingly focused on the Magyar nation and traditions, on national as opposed to European interests, on middle-class values, and on protection of the family.  He courted leaders of the Catholic and Protestant churches.  Lendvai casts this shift as a cynical ploy for votes.  Deeper changes were actually at work.

Simply put, Orbàn and his fellow Fidesz leaders had grown disillusioned with the realities of 1990’s Western liberalism: hedonism, secularism, radical feminism, and the Sexual Revolution instead of ordered liberty.  Most of them, not coincidentally, also became Christians.

Regarding “gender,” Fidesz has always been, in its leadership, a men’s party.  Its early election lists were exclusively male.  Following the 2014 election, Fidesz ruled with an exclusively male cabinet while a mere six percent of its parliamentarians were female.  As the Fidesz “Speaker of Parliament” recently explained, “The crowning of the personal fulfillment of women is that they give birth to as many grandchildren as possible for us.”  The grimy world of politics should not intrude upon this.

Regarding faith, Orbàn underwent a genuine conversion in the mid-1990’s.  Though Aniko Levai, his wife since 1987, was a practicing Catholic, Orbàn had grown up surrounded by nonbelievers.  Then he developed a friendship with Zoltán Balog, a Calvinist pastor who has recently served as State Minister of Human Capabilities, the equivalent of the American Department of Health and Human Services, plus Education and Sports.  Orbàn’s baptism was followed by a church wedding with Aniko, ten years after their civil ceremony.

It is true that this shift toward the social right was also good politics.  By 1998, Hungary’s transition to capitalism had proved to be a vast disappointment.  The ruling coalition of Socialists and Free Democrats had slashed social benefits, wages, and pensions, and imposed new tuition fees at the universities.  Real wages had fallen by 20 percent; the value of pensions by 25 percent. The International Monetary Fund and European bankers were delighted; the voters were not.  In the 1998 election, Fidesz won 148 seats in parliament.  Joining in coalition with the agrarian Smallholders Party, they came to power at last.

Viktor Orbàn became the youngest prime minister in all of Europe.  With a stylish wife and young children, he emerged as a European counterpart to John F. Kennedy, circa 1961.  As he had promised to do, he retreated from free-market liberalism and turned to pro-family politics, raising per-child family allowances substantially.  But the election in 2002 unexpectedly delivered a narrow defeat to the Fidesz-led coalition.  It also produced an event that was unsettling to Paul Lendvai: “[O]nly some deeply shocked veteran party stalwarts remained with Orbàn.  Then the beaten prime minister said ‘Let us pray.’  And the one-time anticlerical rebels . . . now all prayed together.”

For the next eight years, the left-center coalition ruled Hungary.  Troubles mounted shortly after the 2006 election, though, when the Hungarian economy began to unravel again, and Orbàn received his second big break, perhaps as an answer to prayer: the “lie speech” of Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány.  Shortly after pushing massive cuts in social benefits through the newly elected parliament, Gyur csány gave a “secret speech” to his party colleagues.  We had no choice in this action, he said, “because we f–ked up.  Not just a little but totally.  No other country in Europe has committed such stupidities as we have. . . . Obviously, we have been lying our heads off for the last one-and-a-half, two years.”  Mocking his “motherf–king country,” he repeated again: “we’ve been lying morning, noon, and night.”

Unbeknownst to the Socialist leader, his remarks were recorded by a still-unknown actor, and promptly delivered to Viktor Orbàn.  Within a few days, all Hungary could hear the voice of her prime minister dismissing them as dupes and idiots.  Full-blown riots followed in Kossuth Square and other locales, eventually drawing rubber bullets from the besieged police.  A three-and-a-half-year “cold war” in Hungarian politics ensued, as economic conditions soon worsened during the global recession of 2008.  Absurdly but predictably, Lendvai blames the resulting political paralysis on Orbàn.  It is clear, though, that the Fidesz leader simply let the Socialist Party hang itself with its own noose.

The 2010 election delivered a smashing victory to Fidesz.  The party won 57 percent of the total vote and 68 percent of the seats in parliament: an unprecedented supermajority, granting it extraordinary powers to push legislation through quickly and alter the nation’s constitution.  Fidesz moved with astonishing speed to implement its agenda.  As a post-election Manifesto declared, “work, home, family, health, and order,” resting on “Christian national unity,” would be the pillars of the new system.  Using entirely “constitutional” means, Fidesz rewrote Hungary’s constitution, giving priority to Christianity, Magyar ethnicity, family, and national pride.  The government increased the number of justices in Hungary’s Constitutional Court from 11 to 15, giving Fidesz appointees a majority.  It imposed a compulsory retirement age of 62 on all judges and prosecutors, thus cleansing the courts of old communists (now relabeled socialists).

A new law allowed the government to fire state employees virtually at will, and fill the openings with supporters of Fidesz’s agenda.  Orbàn consolidated publicly funded radio and television outlets under one state-controlled foundation, fired over 1,000 “experienced employees,” and cancelled the Socialist-driven programming.

The Fidesz government imposed new taxes on foreign investors and multinational corporations doing business in Hungary and sharply limited foreign ownership of Hungarian farmland.  As Lendvai correctly reports, Orbàn also identified “a major European Kulturkampf between, on the one hand, a left-wing International and, on the other, the champions of piety, of the traditional family model and of the nation.”  George Soros, a friend of the young Fidesz Party, now stood as its mortal enemy.  As Orbàn remarked during the 2015 refugee deluge, “this crisis offers the chance for the national Christian worldview to regain supremacy, not only in Hungary but in the whole of Europe. . . . We are experiencing the end of all the liberal babble.”

Against this record, Lendvai levels charges of vast corruption, even accepting the claim that Orbàn has almost 700 million euros stashed away in secret accounts or held on his behalf by “cronies.”  However, he produces not one shred of real evidence, only a series of hostile journalists quoting one another in a vast echo chamber.  Lendvai’s claims become almost silly at times.  For example, he is shocked—shocked!—that of the 100 richest Hungarians, 15 have some ties with Fidesz.  For a political party holding over two-thirds of parliamentary seats, they actually seem severely underrepresented here.  Public records show Orbàn to hold only modest personal assets.

To his credit, Lendvai does occasionally admit some truths.  He labels the opposition Socialist Party “a disgusting snake pit of old Communists and left-wing careerists posing as Social Democrats.”  When the Panama Papers emerged a few years back, exposing the secret bank accounts of political thieves around the globe, not a single Fidesz politician was on the list.  However, a string of Hungarian Socialist Party “finance chairmen” with their caches of stolen funds were found there.  Lendvai also reports that the other major opposition party, the Free Democrats, is equally corrupt and incompetent, “without any hint of scruple.” 

There is real evidence that Orbàn may be succeeding on economic grounds.  Hungary’s GDP growth is now robust, in comparison with other members of the European Union. Lendvai admits that “German investors love Orbànistan”; Audi, Daimler, and Bosch all have made major recent investments in the country. 

Alas, even the now routine charge of “antisemitism” leveled against moral conservatives has failed to stick to Viktor Orbàn.  It turns out that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is his solid friend, personally and politically.  Then again, according to Lendvai, Netanyahu is merely “an equally cynical, ruthless and shrewd operator,” and probably an antisemite as well.

The source of Lendvai’s venom may really be primordial, an ancient matter of social class.  He agrees with the legal scholar Tamás Sárközy that Fidesz is run by “ambitious upstarts of the first generation.”  Translated: rural bumpkins with ridiculously antiquated values, who refuse to defer to their cosmopolitan, Euro-sensitive “betters” from Budapest.  All the same, Lendvai provides moral conservatives with good news: “I have never, since the regime change in 1989, seen so bleak a future for a progressive and liberal change in Hungary, or for Enlightenment values.”  May it be so!


[Orbàn: Hungary’s Strongman, by Paul Lendvai (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press) 231 pp., $29.95]