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A Surprising Role Model for European Politicians

Far from being Brussels’ darling, Viktor Orban has, however, endeared himself to some European leaders who admire his pragmatism and political know-how.

by Martin Ehl 12 January 2018

Political leadership is a discipline in which contemporary Europe does not score well. Even the populists, so much in the news, didn’t win in places it was feared they would grab power. And it’s not just Europe: there are very few political leaders around the world able to keep pace with the latest developments in international affairs, a digital society, and a changing economic landscape.


But there is one example in Central Europe that could serve as a role model for anyone aspiring to be a successful leader in today’s world. His “success,” in this case, isn’t to be judged by the content of his policy, but with the style, energy, strategy, and tactics that he devotes to his chosen profession of politician. All of those characteristics and methods have earned him admiration at home, along with consecutive election victories, and an aspirational stature among leaders in neighboring countries.


Yes, your guess is right, the person I am talking about is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.


His party Fidesz will be the inevitable winner for the third parliamentary election in a row in April of this year. The opposition can only hope to strip Fidesz of its two-thirds majority in parliament, but, given the new constitution adopted in 2011 that would not be an overwhelming tragedy for him as the new version sufficiently protects the strong role of the ruling party. 


How did Orban, now 54 years old, become some kind of guru for right-wing populists in Poland or Austria, and even farther afield? Why is he an object of secret admiration from the likes of Robert Fico, his Slovak counterpart who hails from the opposite, socialist camp? Why are German and French politicians not standing up to Orban at the EU level?


There are several reasons. The first one is Orban's total devotion to politics as a discipline. Since his famous address on live television in 1989 during the reburial of the hero of the 1956 revolution Imre Nagy – when Orban openly called for Soviet troops to withdraw from Hungary – he has been clearly been living and breathing politics. It would be an understatement to say that he takes it seriously.


Secondly, he is a superb speaker in his native Hungarian, and partly through a stint at Oxford (ironically funded by George Soros’s Open Society Institute), he can easily defend himself in the English-speaking international arena. The same cannot be said, for example, about Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of the Polish Law and Justice (PiS) ruling party. And Orban, unlike Kaczynski, has learned how to cultivate partners at the EU level, where Fidesz is a member of the powerful, transnational European People's Party, which so far has never openly attacked its Hungarian member. Kaczynski's PiS, on the other hand, is part of a European reformist fraction that is set to lose a lot of clout after Brexit due to the loss of Tory members.


But Orban has another trump card: he has been carefully building relations with the German Christian Democrats, and, as of late, mainly with the conservative Bavarian party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). The situation in Austria is even more to his liking, given that its new deputy prime minister, Heinz-Christian Strache,  is the leader of the far-right Freedom Party, which has openly admired Orban's policies, especially regarding migration.


On the domestic front, after an electoral defeat in 2002, Orban patiently built and unified right-wing forces in Hungary, and took back power in the 2010 elections. He then swiftly and decisively changed political systems while his domestic opponents drowned in a sea of their own troubles – from corruption to loss of credibility.


Orban knows what is good for him and his party, and is able to push it through the political process. In the eyes of his voters, there is a perfect match between the interests of his party and the interests of Hungary. He has built his own economic oligarchy, which is quite different from those in Slovakia, Poland, or the Czech Republic, where the interests of other competing local, as well as foreign, business groups somehow counterbalance each other.


Orban has shown that the centralization of political and economic power is possible even in a global economy oriented for export, and even in a country that is a member of the European Union. He plays quite a clever game with Brussels: two steps forward, one step back in case of criticism, coupled with an innovative approach when it comes to introducing changes not openly challenging EU rules. He knows how to walk on that edge. For example, the Polish government is now under heavy criticism for lowering the retirement age of judges in a bid to replace some of them with new ones affiliated with the ruling party. But this measure is a dead ringer for the scheme that Orban put into practice after his 2010 victory.


But the most important of his political skills is his determination to achieve goals. We do not have to agree with those goals – which include a more authoritarian ruling style, silencing critical media, and increased control over the economy.


But the skills that Orban uses in such a superb way are what is now needed in Europe. There is only one politician who can compete with the Hungarian leader, Emmanuel Macron. The French president, however, lacks the experience that one painful defeat and three victories bring – the track record of Viktor Orban over the past 14 years.
Martin Ehl 
is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.
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