Fidesz rally in Hungary, April 2022
Fidesz party rally in Hungary, April 2022

When Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán strode up to the podium in April to give his victory speech, a look of glee was spread across his face. He had just beaten a six-party united opposition to win the parliamentary elections and would now return to office for a fourth term.

I was standing among the sea of supporters that night as they waved the orange flag of his far-right party Fidesz. Grown men and women’s eyes glistened with tears. One inebriated fan roared: “I love you Viktor!” on repeat. They had braved the bitter cold to hear the strongman speak about their victory, but Orbán also had a message for his critics: “Here in Budapest tonight the whole world has seen the victory of Christian Democratic politics,” he said. “And our message to Europe is that this is not the past: this is the future.”

Orbán, I came to understand, had not just undermined Hungary’s democracy by attacking the judiciary, gerrymandering the electoral map and hollowing out the independent media. He had also built a deep cult of personality, grounded in the false idea that Hungary is now the guardian of Europe’s old Christian Democratic tradition. In order to comprehend the enduring popularity of Fidesz, we have to look back at this complex history.

Protecting "Christian culture"

Following the Second World War, Christian Democracy became a prominent political force in western Europe. Distinct from the political Catholicism of the pre-war era, Christian Democrats tried to represent all societal groups. They were strong advocates for European integration, fiercely anti-communist and wary of free markets. Nationalism, at that time, was regarded as the enemy and blamed for all the ills that had befallen Europe in the 20th century.

By 1951, six countries led by Christian Democrats came together to form the European Coal and Steel Community and later the European Economic Community. They are often credited, therefore, with founding the European Union. Even today the European People’s Party group, which is traditionally made up of Christian Democrats, is the largest political faction in the European Parliament.

However, by the mid-1960s, Europe’s leading Christian Democratic parties had begun to splinter as society looked for change. The final nail in their coffin was the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, which vanquished one of the movement’s main opponents. Since then, the ghost of Christian Democracy has haunted European politics, drifting in and out of political discourse but never given centre stage.

Until Viktor Orbán, that is. “The thing you have to know about Christian Democracy in Hungary today is that it has absolutely nothing to do with religion and nothing to do with the old European tradition,” sociologist Éva Fodor tells me from her living room in central Budapest. A leading voice on Hungarian democracy, the scholar has followed the shifts in Orbán’s rhetoric throughout his career. “This is a purely political manoeuvre . . . It’s about rallying [political] support by creating a symbolic struggle between Hungarians who want to protect their traditions and outside influences that want to destroy them.”

So what does Orbán mean by “Christian Democracy?” The words entered the vernacular of his Fidesz party around 2018. After his victory in the parliamentary elections that year, the emboldened Prime Minister announced that one of the main tasks of his new government would be to protect Hungary’s Christian culture. Although the party had used Christian narratives to rally support for its hardline immigration policies during the refugee crisis in 2015, the statement bred confusion among the Prime Minister’s opponents.

The Church as a tool for the state

This embrace of Christian Democracy was unexpected due to the simple fact that religion had never before played a key role in Hungarian politics – and Orbán himself was a known atheist, before this apparent conversion. The previous separation of Church and state was rooted in Hungary’s communist past. Under the communist regime, the Catholic Church was mostly cut off. After the introduction of democracy in 1989 the Church sought to wield influence over Hungarian society, a mission that was swiftly sidelined by the people, who saw no link between governance and religion.

Today, less than 15 per cent of Hungarians out of a population of 9.7 million say religion is “very important” to them. Roman Catholicism is the dominant faith in the country with 51 percent of people identifying with the Church. However, according to the Pew Research Center, mass attendance remains low at around 12 per cent.

“Hungarians are Christian in a cultured sense,” Fodor tells me. “Throughout our history there were very few civil organisations run by the Church . . . What Viktor Orbán has now done is give Christian organisations who show him loyalty more power within the state.”

It started with family policy. In 2019, Fidesz introduced its seven-point family plan, designed to prompt more Hungarian pregnancies to combat population decline. Under the rules, every woman under 40 is eligible for a preferential loan when she gets married and commits to having a child; families with two or more children can get help with their mortgage; women who have had, and raised, at least four children are exempt from personal income tax for life, and grants are available to purchase a new car for families with at least three children.

The plan has moved Hungary’s welfare state away from protecting individuals to protecting the family, a unit which Orbán believes should be comprised of a heterosexual couple with many biological children. The Church in Hungary has played a growing role in supporting these policies. Since 2010 the number of Church-run educational institutions, and the number of children who attend them, has doubled. Foster and adoption services are also increasingly influenced by Christian authorities. There are financial as well as political benefits for the Church; under Hungarian law people can donate one per cent of their income tax to charity or the Church. Enrolments to the scheme are up 10 per cent since 2020.

However, Fidesz is also wary of the Church’s thirst for power. For example, whereas the Polish government has ended state funding for IVF due to influence from the Polish Catholic Church, in January 2020 Orbán announced free IVF treatment for Hungarian couples with little regard for the clergy’s thoughts on the matter.

“The Christian Churches in Hungary are completely captured by the state . . . so the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in terms of politics, for example, is very functional,” László Kürti, a Professor at the University of Miskolc, tells me. “Orbán has developed strong relations with the high clergy in Hungary. He has done the same with the rural churches and that’s important because support for the government comes from these communities.” In April’s parliamentary election the only constituencies not to vote for Fidesz were in the capital, Budapest.

Plans for European expansion

Orbán has benefited from presenting himself as an ideological figurehead fighting against western liberals who want to destroy so-called “traditional family values”. Since 2015, Hungary has hosted the biannual Budapest Demographic Summit, a glitzy event attended by right-wing leaders from around the world. Speaking at the last meeting in 2021, Orbán said: “Hungary is defending itself, because the western left is attacking. The western left attacks the traditional family model by relativising the concept of family. The tool for this is the LGBTQ lobby and gender propaganda. They specifically target our children, so we have to protect ourselves.”

Sitting in the audience was Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić, the Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, and the former leaders of Slovenia and the Czech Republic Janez Janša and Andrej Babiš – all illiberal politicians who have responded positively to Orbán’s claims that he is building a truly Christian Democratic state.

But the Hungarian Prime Minister is not just concerned about regional leaders. Part of his strategy is to energise the thousands of ethnic Hungarians living just outside the country’s borders, in what the government is increasingly presenting as land that belongs to the nation, and that needs to be reclaimed.

Hungary was once almost double its size. After the First World War, the country lost almost two-thirds of its territory, resulting in generational trauma among Hungarians who feel that the dismemberment of their country was an unfair punishment. Today, thousands of ethnic Hungarians live in Slovakia, western Ukraine, Romania and northern Serbia.

Since returning to power in 2010, Orbán has offered these people voting rights in Hungary and lobbied for their interests on the international stage. Hungary blocked Ukraine’s attempts to join Nato, alleging that Kyiv is abusing the rights of Hungarians in Transcarpathia due to a language law that made teaching in Ukrainian mandatory in secondary schools, therefore downgrading the status of Hungarian among the community.

"Make Hungary great again"

At the heart of Orbán’s embrace of Christian Democracy is a desire to turbocharge Hungarian nationalism, while increasing support for Fidesz across central Europe. “When Orbán speaks about Christianity he also includes nationality,” Kürti, the professor, told me. “To the Prime Minister, nationalism is something that is necessary to save the ethnic minorities abroad.” In the Transylvanian region of Romania, the Hungarian government has bought local media outlets through Fidesz-funded NGOs. In Slovakia and Serbia, newspapers have also moved into close alignment with Orbán’s nationalist narratives after becoming beneficiaries of Hungarian money.

It’s a strategy that has proved successful, as most ethnic Hungarians are ardent supporters of Orbán and his brand of illiberal Christian Democracy. Every year thousands of them gather in Budapest to join the “Peace March”, a Fidesz-backed gathering established to commemorate the 1848 revolution against Habsburg rule.

This year at the march I met Katalin, Aniko and Zsuzsanna, three women in their late seventies from Transylvania who had never once missed the event. Waving the Flag of the Székelys, the blue and yellow colours of the Hungarian Székely community of Romania, the women told me they believed that Orbán had made Hungary great again. “We agree with Fidesz’s policies one hundred per cent,” Katalin said. “What the United States [and the west] is doing is trying to kill our souls, trying to kill our bodies, and our minds. We will not allow that,” she added.

Allies in the American right

Despite such criticism of the United States, the greatest international support for Orbán has actually come from across the Atlantic. Seduced by the implementation of hardcore family and migration policies, a number of America’s conservatives have begun to see Hungary as a country that “got it right”. Former Vice-President Mike Pence attended the Budapest Demographic Summit in 2021 where he praised Orbán’s drive to “make family the central focus” of Hungarian policy. Weeks earlier, the controversial Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson made the unprecedented move of broadcasting his hit show Tucker Carlson Tonight from Budapest.

“One of the reasons why Hungary is so attractive to American conservatives is because it delivers on all of their policy preferences while still preserving the image of democracy,” Anna Grzymala-Busse, a political scientist at Stanford University, told me on the phone. “Elections are still being held, there is still an element of a free press, but it is fundamentally controlled by one party. So to them [American conservatives], this is an ideal image of what the United States could be.”

Donald Trump’s presidency boosted this thinking significantly. However, after Joe Biden won the US election in November 2020, relations between Washington and Budapest took a turn for the worse. This winter, when the new president hosted a virtual Summit for Democracy, Hungary was the only EU member state that wasn’t invited. In July, the US Treasury announced it was moving to terminate a 1979 tax treaty with Hungary after Budapest blocked an EU plan to introduce a 15 per cent corporate minimum tax. The move was denounced by the Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó, who said his government would continue its “professional consultations on tax issues” with its “Republican friends”.

The Biden administration’s position on Hungary has reassured America’s conservatives that the central European nation is a true illiberal icon. In May, Budapest hosted an international version of CPAC, or the Conservative Political Action Conference, an honour that cemented Fidesz’s place among the American right. Under the slogan “God, Homeland, Family”, Orbán delivered the keynote speech in which he called for the world’s illiberal allies to join forces. “We have to take back the institutions in Washington and Brussels. We must find allies in one another and coordinate the movements of our troops,” the Prime Minister said to the adoring crowd.

Although the event was mostly attended by low-level American right-wingers, Hungary’s message was heard. Weeks later it was announced that Orbán would speak at the flagship CPAC in America this summer alongside gun-rights activist congresswoman Lauren Boebert and Fox News host Sean Hannity.

Learning from Vladimir Putin

Hungary’s so-called Christian Democratic government has also found camaraderie in Moscow. Since his early days in office, Russia’s Vladimir Putin has also sought to ground his country in strong “family values”. Since then, Putin has introduced a slew of discriminatory laws with the support of the Russian Orthodox Church. In 2013 the Russian parliament passed a federal law banning “gay propaganda”. The Kremlin has also moved to infringe on the reproductive rights of Russia’s women by rolling out plans to halve the country’s abortion rate by 2025. Russia and Azerbaijan were the only members of the Council of Europe not to sign the Istanbul Convention in 2011, a treaty that aims to end violence against women.

Orbán has been taking note. In a mirrored manoeuvre, the Hungarian parliament passed a law last year that introduced a ban on showing content about homosexuality or gender reassignment to minors. The argument for the legislation was the protection of children – the discriminatory measure was attached to a bill that introduced tougher penalties for paedophilia. This was the very same narrative that had been used by Putin years before. Budapest has also rallied against the Istanbul Convention, arguing that it promotes “destructive gender ideologies”.

“I do see Putin’s capture of the Russian Orthodox Church as being very similar to what Orbán has been doing since the early 2000s,” says Kürti, the professor. “Putin and Orbán need religion to support the nations they are building.”

In fact, Orbán’s admiration for the Kremlin has been a spanner in the works for his desire to export his brand of Christian Democracy across Europe. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, Hungary was wary of overtly criticising its longstanding ally. Although Budapest eventually fell into line behind EU sanctions and condemned the invasion, it ultimately delayed the bloc’s sixth packet of sanctions until it had negotiated an exemption to receive Russian oil imports. Hungary also successfully lobbied to remove the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, from the EU sanctions list.

This ruffled feathers in Poland, where the ruling Law and Justice party has been fierce in its support of Ukraine. In an unprecedented move, the head of the party Jarosław Kaczyński condemned Hungary’s approach to Russia’s war and said if Orbán continued on his current path of Russian appeasement, the two countries would not be able to cooperate in the future.

Liberals, take note

In his mind, Orbán is making Hungary great again. He is restoring the pride lost after the First World War. He is reminding people who were born outside Hungary’s modern borders that they are just as Hungarian as a person born in Budapest. To distract voters from his encroaching authoritarianism, he has cast LGTBQ+ and women’s rights groups as enemies of the state. He believes he is protecting his country from liberals who want to destroy its traditional family values.

Underpinning all these developments is the unmitigated belief that Orbán and his far-right party Fidesz are the guardians of Europe’s Christian Democratic tradition. But in order to substantiate this ideology, the Prime Minister has turned to the American right and the nefarious forces in the Kremlin, with little regard for his growing political isolation on the world’s stage.

Looking at Orbán today, I remember the atmosphere at the election victory party back in April. The mood had beenintoxicating, almost religious in its essence. As young and old danced to the patriotic music booming from the speakers, it seemed that they genuinely believed the future belonged to them.

Given the wanton destruction of Hungary's democracy, under the guise of patriotic faith, it is a future that Europe would do best to avoid.

This piece is from the New Humanist autumn 2022 edition. Subscribe here.