It’s a remarkable metamorphosis for a man who was once a student champion of democracy, a fiery left-wing atheist, and a youth so poor he says he was 15 years old before he turned on a tap and enjoyed warm water for the first time. How did he change, and change his country, so drastically? And why is the leader of a small landlocked Danubian country now being described, to quote the chairman of the European Stability Initiative think tank Gerald Knaus, as the “most dangerous man in the European Union”?
After graduating from university in 1987, Orbán worked part-time for the financier George Soros’s Open Society Foundation. Two years later he moved with his wife and baby daughter to Oxford, intending to complete a nine-month research project, also financed by Soros’s foundation, on the idea of civil society in European political philosophy. But barely four months later the family returned to Budapest, and Orbán made the fateful decision to become a career politician. He threw himself into the campaign for Hungary’s first free parliamentary elections in 1990, and placed first on the list of candidates for Fidesz, the “party of youth.” Although the party ended up winning only 22 seats, making it the second-smallest group, its MPs had a youthful image—beards, long hair, jeans, open-neck shirts—that helped endear them to the public. They advocated liberal economic, educational, and social policies, and were quick to condemn nationalist and anti-Semitic undertones in the government coalition parties.
Full of ambition, charisma, and tactical skill, Orbán, not yet 30, soon seized total control over Fidesz. After the party’s disappointing performance in the 1994 elections, which saw the triumph of the Socialists (the old communist party), he moved his party to the right. The populist nationalist option seemed to offer the only realistic chance for future success against the left. In the 1998 parliamentary election, Fidesz won more seats than any other party, and Orbán, now clean-shaven and wearing a business suit, became the youngest freely elected prime minister in the history of Hungary.
Fidesz has gradually become the main political force in Hungary by exploiting the highly explosive “national question,” which concerns the trauma caused by the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, through which Hungary lost two-thirds of its historic territory and over 3 million Hungarians found themselves living in foreign states. The national humiliation, and the fate of ethnic Hungarians now living in bordering states, have filled generations with bitterness. Since his lurch to the right, Orbán’s rhetoric has been characterized by professions of faith in the nation, in the homeland, and in Christian values.
Under Orbán, Fidesz suffered two surprising consecutive electoral defeats, in 2002 and 2006. But it went on to score two epochal triumphs in 2010 and 2014, winning a two-thirds parliamentary majority. Faced with a divided and discredited opposition, Orbán proceeded to fill all positions of state power with trusted supporters.