President Donald Trump is meeting Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban at the White House Monday. The meeting is sure to generate controversy due to the way Orban has drastically altered democratic institutions and norms in Hungary since winning back the prime minister’s job in 2010. He first served from 1998 to 2002.
A self-described populist and leader of the far-right Fidesz party, Orban has campaigned on a nationalist-heavy agenda, buoyed by a fierce anti-immigration stance. He won a fourth term as Hungary’s prime minister in April 2018, whipping up support by promising to protect the country’s sovereignty against the European Union and its Christian majority from Muslim migrants.
Orban’s rhetoric was described as “the hate campaign” by his political opponents in Jobbik, Hungary’s largest opposition party. With his re-election last year, Orban won a huge majorities in Parliament that effectively gave him the power to reshape the government, news media and other institutions across the country.
Under his leadership, the 55-year-old Orban has called Hungary an “illiberal democracy.” Nicknamed the “Viktator,” Orban was sued by the European Union in 2012 for anti-democratic measures and saw his political party, Fidesz, suspended by the international voting bloc earlier this year. In 2016, former President Bill Clinton said Hungary wanted to become an “authoritarian dictatorship” under Orban. Conversely, former Trump political advisor Steve Bannon has described Orban as a “hero.”
Orban has taken near total control over Hungary’s news media. He has used financial pressure to silence independent outlets and has consolidated the rest to create a state media machine that is loyal to him.
Orban has also radically changed Hungary’s courts, relentlessly chipping away at judicial independence. In 2018, he created an alternative court system that gives his executive branch power over the judiciary, where Orban himself can pick and choose his own judges.
In another move that was bitterly criticized by proponents of free speech, Orban recently closed Central European University in Budapest because it received funding from its founder, the Hungarian-native billionaire philanthropist George Soros. Critics have pointed to Orban’s demonization campaign against Soros as being filled with anti-Semitic tropes and false accusations.
This is not to say Hungary had much of a tradition as a democratic country governed by western ideals. In fact, for most of their history the people of this landlocked Southeast European nation were ruled by tribes, monarchs and foreign kings, and later absorbed into the Ottoman and Habsburg empires. Hungary allied with the Nazi Germany in World War II. Between 1949 and 1989, it was under the sway of the Soviet Union as a communist bloc member. A nascent uprising was brutally crushed by Soviet troops in 1956. Only after the fall of the Soviet Union did it make the transition to democratic rule, holding elections in 1990.
As a young man, Orban was a liberal dissident against the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain. He studied at Oxford University and began his career in Hungarian politics as a center-right politician who supported Hungry’s acceptance into NATO and the EU.
By 1993 he assumed leadership over Fidesz, making the party more nationalistic, more religious, and less liberal. In 1998, Orban was elected prime minister for the first time, serving until 2002. After Hungary was mismanaged by the Hungarian Socialist Party and experienced economic setbacks from the 2008 global financial crisis, Orban and Fidesz won re-election by a landslide in 2010. Upon re-claiming power, he has not looked back.
His fervent nationalism has proven popular with voters even as it chills his detractors.
In a 2015 speech, Orban said Hungary “must protect its ethnic and cultural composition” from immigration. He continued, “I am convinced that Hungary has the right — and every nation has the right — to say that it does not want its country to change. One can argue whether or not this is the correct position; on whether or not this is fair; on whether or not this is humane. … But we should not argue about whether a community has the right to decide.”