Orban’s Grip Over Hungary Is More Brittle Than It Seems

Orban’s Grip Over Hungary Is More Brittle Than It Seems
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban arrives at a press conference in Budapest, Hungary, Dec. 21, 2023 (AP Photo by Denes Erdos).

For almost 15 years, the sight of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban strutting into leaders’ summits in Brussels has been a constant of European Union politics. Leveraging his authoritarian grip on power in Hungary, Orban has pressured the EU into providing subsidies to patronage networks controlled by his Fidesz Party, while leading a populist onslaught against liberalism and the left. But even as Orban attracts fawning admiration from other anti-liberal populists in Europe and the United States, cracks are beginning to show in his own power base in Hungary.

The recent surge of infighting within Fidesz’s political machine has taken many observers in and outside Hungary by surprise. After the party’s initial massive election victory in 2010, the collapse of rival parties that had mismanaged the economy and become engulfed in scandal when in government provided Orban’s inner circle with the opportunity to seize control of state media, the central bank and appointments to all levels of the judiciary. Having secured complete control of the state, Orban and his Fidesz cronies used repressive tactics by the security services as well as aggressive disinformation to divide the opposition and intimidate business leaders and civil society networks.

The regime’s near-complete dominance of Hungarian-language media has enabled Orban as well as the party’s regional bosses to use a blend of anti-migrant xenophobia and hostility to LGBTQ rights to sustain a strong base of support in small towns and rural communities. Orban has been more careful in recent years when it comes to fueling irredentist hostility against Romania, Ukraine and Slovakia over territory lost to neighboring states after Hungary’s defeat in World War I. But the Fidesz machine still tries to present Orban as a protector of Hungarian minorities abroad to its right-wing domestic audience.

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