Domestic reactions to Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy”

In the wake of Viktor Orbán’s speech in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad on July 26 politicians on the left have been united in their condemnation while journalists on the right have been scrambling to make the speech more palatable.

The reactions of MSZP, DK, and Együtt-PM to the horrendous political message about establishing an “illiberal democracy” were fairly similar. They all deplored the fact that the Hungarian prime minister seems to be following the example of Putin’s Russia.

József Tóbiás, the newly elected chairman of MSZP, was perhaps the least forceful  in his condemnation of Viktor Orbán’s political philosophy. Tóbiás pointed out that Orbán with this speech demonstrated that he has turned against all those who don’t share his vision: the socialists, the liberals, and even the conservatives. Because all of these ideologies try to find political solutions within the framework of liberal democracy.

Együtt-PM found the speech appalling: “The former vice-president of Liberal International today buried the liberal state. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán not only lay to rest liberal democracy but democracy itself.” Subsequently, the party decided to turn to Brussels, asking the European Commission to protect the independent NGOs.

Gábor Fodor in the name of the Hungarian Liberal Party recalled Viktor Orbán’s liberal past and declared that “democracy is dead in our country.” The prime minister “made it expressly clear that it’s either him or us, freedom loving people.”

Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy in the name of the Democratic Coalition (DK) was the most explicit. He said what many people have been hinting at for a while: that “a fascist state” is in the making in Hungary. “Unfortunately,” he added, Orbán “is either insane or a traitor, or both.”

LMP’s András Schiffer, as usual, had a different take on the speech. According to him, Orbán’s critique of liberal democracy is on target. Only his conclusions are wrong. LMP, which likes to describe itself as a green party, is an enemy of capitalism and also, it seems, of liberal democracy.

Magyar Nemzet published an interesting editorial by Csaba Lukács. He fairly faithfully summarized the main points of  the speech with one notable omission. There was no mention of “illiberal democracy.” And no mention of “democracy” either. Instead, he went on for almost two paragraphs about the notion of a work-based state and expressed his astonishment that liberals are so much against work. “Perhaps they don’t like to work and that’s why they panic.” Lukács clumsily tried to lead the discussion astray. Surely, he himself must know that the liberals are not worried about work but about the “illiberal democracy” he refused to mention in his article.

Journalists who normally support the government and defend all its actions seem to be at a loss in dealing with Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy.” Deep down most likely they also know that this so-called “illiberal democracy” will not be democracy at all. So, they simply skirt the issue.

Válasz‘s editorial avoided the term as well, but at least István Dévényi wanted to know more about Viktor Orbán’s plans. After discussing the reactions of the opposition parties which talk about the end of democracy, he added: “I don’t think that for the time being there is reason to worry, but it would be good to know what exactly the prime minister has in mind when he talks about a nation-state, a work-based state that will follow the welfare state.”

A new English-language paper entitled Hungary Today managed to summarize the speech that lasted for 30 minutes in 212 words. Not surprisingly this Hungarian propaganda organ also kept the news of “illiberal democracy” a secret. Instead, the reader learns that “copying the west is provincialism, and we must leave it behind, as it could ‘kill us.'”

As for DK’s reference to Italian fascism, it is not a new claim. For a number of years here and there one could find references to the similarities between the ideas of Prime Minister Gyula Gömbös (1932-1936) and those of Benito Mussolini. As prime  minister of Hungary, Gömbös made great strides toward establishing a fascist state in Hungary. József Debreczeni, an astute critic of Viktor Orbán who uncannily predicted what will happen if and when Viktor Orbán becomes prime minister again, quipped at one point that comparing Orbán to Horthy is a mistake; the comparison with Gömbös is much more apt.

Népszava's headline: "He already speaks as a dictator / Getty Images

Népszava’s headline: “He already speaks like a dictator / Getty Images

Péter Új, editor-in-chief of, rushed to the library to find a Hungarian-language collection of the Duce’s memorable speeches. I might add that the book was published in 1928 and that István Bethlen, who happened to be prime minister at the time, wrote the preface to Benito Mussolini gondolatai (The thoughts of Benito Mussolini). In this book Új found some real gems: “The century of democracy over.” Or, “Unlimited freedom … does not exist.” “Freedom is not a right but a duty.” “It would be suicidal to follow the ideology of liberalism … I declare myself to be anti-liberal.” “The nation of tomorrow will be the nation of workers.”

Others searched for additional sources of Orbán’s assorted thoughts and claims in the speech. I already mentioned Fareed Zakaria’s article on illiberal democracies. Gábor Filippov of Magyar Progressive Institute concentrated on Orbán’s assertion that a well-known American political scientist had described American liberalism as hotbed of corruption, sex, drugs, and crime. Filippov found an article by Joseph S. Nye, former dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, in the June 2004 issue of Foreign Affairs entitled “The Decline of America’s Soft Power.” (You may recall that Zakaria’s article also appeared in that periodical. It seems that one of Orbán’s speechwriters has a set of Foreign Affairs on hand!) But whoever wrote the speech badly misunderstood the text. The original English is as follows:

Autocratic regimes in the Middle East have eradicated their liberal opposition, and radical Islamists are in most cases the only dissenters left. They feed on anger toward corrupt regimes, opposition to U.S. policies, and popular fears of modernization. Liberal democracy, as they portray it, is full of corruption, sex, and violence—an impression reinforced by American movies and television and often exacerbated by the extreme statements of some especially virulent Christian preachers in the United States.

Radical Islamists are the ones who claim that liberal democracy is full of corruption, sex, and violence. Viktor Orbán is now joining their ranks. Putin, Mussolini, radical Islamists–these are Orbán’s ideological friends. And he has unfettered power to transform this frightening ideology into government policy.


  1. Istvan, the word “plan” was used by me as a synonym for “more action-oriented idea”, if that is comprehensible, not as “social engineering”. But generally I am not too confident that ideas that suggest that we can very well do without the “state” (be it a nation state or above that) are of great use in Europe, the tradition of setting up new living in the free wilderness is not very entranched (there is not too much of unoccupied wilderness in the first place, people who hoped for that have had to emigrate for instance to the United States). So I understand this is a topic in the United States, but I believe there are few followers of such ideas in Europe.

    So the organised state which acts on the society is a given in Europe, and policies that sound to Americans like “social democracy” also (the welfare state may be difficult to finance but few Europeans find the welfare state too “daring” an idea, the Christian Democrats/conservatives on the continent of Europe also count as “social democrats” by American standards). And yet it appears possible to secure individual rights of people, certainly those to free speech, voting etc.

    Liberal ideas were around in the 19th century also, admitted, but their applicability has been quite debated and the concrete interpretation has changed quite a lot. I need not bring the examples of women’s voting rights, whether initial inequality has to be balanced etc. But, as I read here frequently, in Hungary the word “liberal” was either related to an era when aristocracy insisted on their entrenched rights over other people, or it is related to “Jews that sat on money in Budapest”, but never has it been related to individual rights of people – if necessary against the state. The 1848 declaration had been in the spirit of other revolutions of the time, but it has not succeeded in ending the aristocracies privileges. That is missing.

    And finally, if Viktor Orban were ranting against “dying capitalism”, why would he choose the phrase “illiberal democracy” as his solution to it? Capitalism appears to me to be mainly about the organisation of the economy, while democracy is a way of government, so more a political term.

  2. latefor,

    “I’m sure you all know what he meant by this statement: CONTROLLED Free Market Economy, which has nothing to do with the death of democracy.”

    Au contraire, it is quite clear that he also means “managed democracy”, á la Putin, Mugabe, Chavez, ad infinitum. His point in the speech was about the welfare state, not the overall economy, I think, but I haven’t read the whole thing. Suffice it to say that if he meant “controlled free market economy” (a contradiction in terms if I have ever heard one), he would have said just that, not “illiberal democracy”. Besides, how can you have a controlled economy with a real democracy? Even France never had that, nor any other country I can think of.

  3. @latefor
    – Orbán never used the context “illiberal democracy” (which is an oxymoron in my opinion) in his speech, he’s been talking about “illiberal state”, quite a difference. Checked, sure.

    – His Highness Orbán as well as many more obviously confusing “liberalism” with “neoliberal economy”, you shouldn’t make the same mistake, look up and you’ll see the differences yourself instead.

    – Wrong conclusion from Schiffer, (too) saying that Orbán’s assessment basically correct regarding the “end of liberal democracies” – while I think he knows the truth deep down. However, being such opportunist as he is, he was eager to come out with the statement right away, most of all in order to distance himself from the liberal-democrats, showing up just how “different” he is, while assuring that Viktor find him the kindest of the bunch, providing the Great Leader the escape-route to explain away the unexplainable. Good boy!

  4. @latefor – one more thing, actually the first one:

    “– I’m sure you all know what he meant by this statement..”

    – Are you sure, that a statesman, the Prime Minister of Hungary should leave such significant statement open for interpretation?

    – Are you sure, that he can afford sloppy wording of his greatest of all decision, which even surpasses the regime change of ’89?

    – Don’t you think that that is a requirement, that a Prime Minister of Hungary can deliver a coherent speech and say what he really mean at the same time?

    – You didn’t certainly meant, that we were listening to some babble of a certain illiterate former soccer player, and now we are left to figure out, what he meant, with the exception of András Schiffer, who understand him perfectly, did you?

    I don’t think, you did, anyway, so I rather assume, that Viktor Orbán the Hungarian Prime Minister knows what he’s talking about.

    And that’s the problem, you see.

  5. Spectator “– Don’t you think that that is a requirement, that a Prime Minister of Hungary can deliver a coherent speech and say what he really mean at the same time?”

    He should’ve been more specific regarding the economy, by saying that his government believes in some form of control on the economy, in order to avoid future nightmares like the Financial Crisis of 2008.

    As far as my interpretation goes re: “Illiberal state”, he should’ve come up with an example so everybody could understand, something like lets say:
    Because of my governments’ decision, blow jobs will be limited to 2 x productions a year at the National Theater, or the emphasis will be on promoting the importance of the vagina instead of gay marriages, or the nurturing role of women will be respected etc. etc. With all due respect, this would’ve stopped all the speculations and misunderstandings in the media. But than again, we’d have nothing to debate about….

  6. Thanks for the reply M!
    From now on I prefer your alternatives – sounds much better.

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