The Autocrat’s Legacy

Defeating Viktor Orbán will be hard, but undoing Hungary’s democratic decline will be harder.

Viktor Orbán rests his head on his hand.
Daniel Biskup / laif / Redux

“We have destroyed the myth that Fidesz is unbeatable,” Gergely Karácsony said after defeating Viktor Orbán’s party in Budapest’s mayoral race in 2019. Now, he hopes to prove it at the national level too.

After 12 years, Orbán claims near-complete control over Hungary’s public funds, its institutions, and its media ecosystem. Hungarian elections are “free in the sense that no one stuffs the ballot box,” Péter Krekó, the director of the Budapest-based Political Capital Institute, told me. “I think we are heading towards a point of no return where it will be practically impossible to replace the government through elections.”

Karácsony, the main challenger to Orbán’s dominance, is undeterred. Speaking from his office in the Hungarian capital, he told me the country’s best—perhaps its only—chance at defeating Orbán lies in opposition parties banding together, as they have since the beginning of the year. While the individual parties in this united coalition each claim only a fraction of the total vote, together they are projected to be neck and neck with Fidesz when the country heads to the polls next spring. For the first time in more than a decade, no one knows what the outcome of the Hungarian elections will be. “It might be the last chance,” Karácsony said. “If we lose now, that would have major consequences.”

Winning the election is only half the battle, though. Even if the united opposition manages to form a government, it faces the arduous task of reversing Hungary’s democratic decline—a process that has seen its institutions undermined, its media curtailed, and its resources exploited by Orbán and his allies. Taking power will be hard, but the de-Orbánization of Hungary will almost certainly be harder.

The opposition’s goal isn’t simply to unseat Orbán or even to return Hungarian democracy to its pre-2010 status. “That system did not provide enough democratic safeguards,” Karácsony told me, noting that though the period between 1990 and 2010 was when Hungary was perhaps at its “freest,” that freedom still couldn’t prevent the country’s authoritarian turn. “We do not want to go back to the pre-2010 system. We want to go forward and create a new system.”

This challenge isn’t unique to Hungary. In the United States and Israel, opposition factions have proved that temporarily setting aside differences and joining forces can overcome entrenched and autocratically inclined leaders. But those countries’ examples have also demonstrated the fragility of such coalitions, and the challenges that come with undoing damage already wrought.

Orbán’s influence on Hungary will not end when his tenure does, much in the same way that Donald Trump’s and Benjamin Netanyahu’s legacies loom over the United States and Israel, respectively. Like the former American president, Orbán can be comforted by the fact that many of his actions, particularly his packing of the country’s courts with loyalists, will endure long after he exits politics. And like the former Israeli prime minister, Orbán is no stranger to being in the party out of power, where he will no doubt be willing to wait—or more likely push—for the governing coalition to collapse.

If the Hungarian opposition succeeds—not simply in winning, but in undoing Orbán’s damaging legacy—its strategy could prove instructive for opposition movements in other budding autocracies. If it fails, Hungary’s next election may be, in the deeper democratic sense, its last.

The Hungarian opposition banded together in December, but the idea to do so came nearly a decade earlier. In 2011, Karácsony, then a member of Parliament for a green-liberal party, told a Hungarian newspaper that only by joining forces would the opposition stand a chance at beating Orbán, who since returning to power the year prior (his first stint as prime minister was from 1998 to 2002) was already redrawing the electoral map in Fidesz’s favor. Karácsony was better positioned than most to understand the political calculus: Before entering politics, he had made his name as a pollster and political scientist who specialized in electoral behavior, public opinion, and election campaigns. Understanding the shifting dynamics in Hungary’s political landscape was literally his job.

Karácsony told me (via an interpreter) that, for a long time, opposition parties simply couldn’t overcome their deep-seated political differences. It wasn’t until after Orbán’s third consecutive victory in 2018, by which point his consolidation of power was well under way, that they began to take the idea more seriously. The 2019 municipal elections, during which opposition parties tested their united front, “was a very good laboratory for the coalition to experiment,” Karácsony said. It was a good springboard for him, too. The Budapest mayor is widely seen as the front-runner in the race to be the opposition’s unity candidate for prime minister.

Several people I spoke with for this story, including friends and allies of Karácsony in Budapest, told me that he is, in many ways, the exact opposite of Orbán: While the Hungarian prime minister fits comfortably within the global far right, Karácsony hails from the green left. While Orbán is largely associated with the Hungarian countryside, where his core base resides, Karácsony is seen as part of the country’s cosmopolitan intelligentsia. Orbán is an illiberal strongman whose politics is defined by a rotating cast of enemies (among them Muslim migrants, LGBTQ people, the Hungarian-born financier George Soros, and Brussels); Karácsony is an environmentally friendly progressive who preaches consensus-building and compromise. Orbán is old and familiar; Karácsony, 12 years the prime minister’s junior, is a fresh face. “He is short and fat, and I am tall and slim,” Karácsony recently told The Economist—a gag for which he later apologized. (Orbán probably wouldn’t have.)

Being anti-Orbán isn’t enough to win elections, though—at least not for any single party or politician. A united opposition would give Hungarian voters a viable alternative. That didn’t exist in 2018, Gábor Tóka, a senior research fellow at the Central European University and the editor of a blog about the Hungarian elections called Vox Populi, told me. “If you voted against Fidesz, you voted for complete uncertainty.”

A vote for the united opposition would be more than just a vote against Orbán. If elected, Karácsony said one of his main priorities would be to help Hungarians overcome the economic hardship caused by the pandemic (“Of all the countries in the EU, the Hungarian government spent the least,” he noted). Correcting the “social injustices done in the past 12 years” would be another.

But there are some things that a united opposition might not be able to overcome. For starters, there’s Fidesz’s control over the country’s airwaves and state coffers, as well as Orbán’s reengineering of the Hungarian electoral system, including gerrymandering the map to benefit Fidesz and extending voting rights to hundreds of thousands of ethnic Hungarians in neighboring countries, the majority of whom are Fidesz voters.

None of this suggests that next year’s election will be fair or, arguably, even all that free. Orbán doesn’t follow the classic authoritarian playbook of jailing opposition politicians, arresting journalists, or violently cracking down on protesters, as is so often the case in places such as Russia or Belarus. But Hungary hardly meets the threshold of a democracy either—some scholars opt for alternative labels such as “soft autocracy” or “competitive authoritarianism.” In Hungary’s case, this means holding elections while simultaneously undermining the opposition’s ability to compete in them.

If step one for the opposition is winning, then step two is maintaining the broad coalition long enough to form a new government.

It’s a behemoth of a task, not least because reversing Orbán’s antidemocratic abuses and creating future safeguards would likely require a two-thirds majority in Parliament. It was this “supermajority” that enabled Orbán to enact sweeping changes, including rewriting the constitution, packing the country’s constitutional court with loyalists, and installing allies at key posts such as the central bank, the prosecutor’s office, and the media-watchdog agency. Without a supermajority of their own, the opposition “will have no chance to replace Fidesz nominees in these public bodies,” Krekó said. “This kind of quite efficient shadow state can block many initiatives of the next government.” (It is perhaps a symbol of Orbán’s success that he is now the one charged with being at the head of a deep state, language populists of his ilk have often used to rail against a faceless establishment.)

Although Karácsony acknowledged the challenges that the opposition would face were it to enter government, he disagreed with the notion that they are insurmountable. There was, he said, “no real social legitimacy” underlying Orbán’s supermajority, arguing that once the supermajority ends, Orbán’s structure of influence “will fall like dominoes.”

Orbán has already set his sights on the opposition, dismissing the united coalition as the brainchild of “the real enemy,” Ferenc Gyurcsány, Hungary’s deeply unpopular former prime minister. He has also, tellingly, transferred the control of nearly a dozen state universities, as well as billions of euros in public funds, to private foundations run by his allies, in an apparent bid to solidify his influence should his party lose power.

“Those are the signs not of a regime that is certain of victory,” Michael Ignatieff, the president of the Central European University, which Orbán successfully drove out of Hungary in 2018, told me, but of one “trying to protect itself against reversal.”