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Orban’s Hungary: From “Illiberal Democracy” to the Authoritarian Temptation

Part of the The Sciences Po Series in International Relations and Political Economy book series (SPIRP)


“The new state that we are building is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state.” Viktor Orbán made a name for himself in 2014 by co-opting a political science term to “theorize” his regime’s drift toward authoritarianism. Under his leadership, his party Fidesz (Alliance of Young Democrats) has won six elections in a row, three of them parliamentary elections. Each of the latter victories has given him a two-thirds majority of seats in parliament, enabling him to revise the constitution so as to radically transform the institutional system and consolidate his grip on all the levers of power. The scale of this ascendancy, accompanied by nationalist and sovereignist rhetoric, raises the question of what kind of regime this has become. “Democratic backsliding,” “competitive authoritarianism,” “democratura,” “national-populism”: these terms and many others have been used to describe Hungary over the past decade. Has the poster child of democratic transition become the champion of authoritarian regression? How has the paradigm of democratic transition shifted to one of de-democratization in Central Europe?

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  1. 1.

    Viktor Orbán, “Speech at the XXV Bálványos Free Summer University and Youth Camp,” Băile Tuşnad, July 26, 2014 (

  2. 2.

    Fidesz (Alliance of Young Democrats), established in 1988, became Fidesz-Magyar Polgari Part (Hungarian Civic Party) in 1995.

  3. 3.

    Jacques Rupnik, “Hungary’s Quiet Revolution,” The New Republic, November 20, 1989.

  4. 4.

    Interview in Le Monde, 4 February 2012.

  5. 5.

    For a personal profile of Orbán, see Jacques Rupnik, “Portrait de Viktor Orbán, Premier ministre de Hongrie,” Institut Montaigne blog, July 19, 2018 (

  6. 6.

    Hungary: Freedom in the World 2021 Country Report | Freedom House, 26/03/2021.

  7. 7.

    Bertelsmann Stiftung, “Sustainable Governance Indicators. Hungary,” 2017 (

  8. 8.

    v-dem_democracyreport2020.pdf, p. 16 “Hungary emerges as the first member of the EU ever to host an electoral authoritarian regime, and according to V-Dem data it is the most extreme case of democratic regression in recent times. It was classified as a liberal democracy in 2009 and long before the indicator on the freedom and fairness of elections fell in 2014, the media, civil society, and civil liberties had been significantly constrained”.

  9. 9.

    2020 World Press Freedom Index (rankings produced by Reporters Without Borders

  10. 10.

    Freedom House, “Nations in Transit 2018: Confronting Illiberalism,” New York (N. Y.), Freedom House, 2018. The trend has only become more pronounced in subsequent Freedom House reports.

  11. 11.

    By reducing judges’ retirement age, Orbán managed to rid himself of an entire branch of the judicial system, which he immediately replaced with younger and more politically “reliable” judges.

  12. 12.

    Kim Lane Scheppele, presentation to the Council for European Studies, Paris, July 7, 2015.

  13. 13.

    Szajer, who was tasked with giving the Constitution its nationalist-conservative and Christian tone, the éminence grise of a government that has proclaimed the urgency of battling “LGBT ideology,” was arrested by the Brussels police at an all-male sex party in December 2020 for violating lockdown rules. For a profile of Szajer, see Reka Kinga Papp, “The drainpipe of destiny” (

  14. 14.

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  15. 15.

    Cf. Reporters without Borders 2018 report (

  16. 16.

    “En Hongrie la radio indépendante Klubradio privée d’antenne,” Le Monde February 9, 2021.

  17. 17.

    The Economist August 17, 2019. See also Luc André, “Hongrie: dix ans de détricotage de la liberté de la presse,” L’Opinion May 8, 2020.

  18. 18.

    Viktor Orbán, speech of March 15, 2018 commemorating the 1848 revolution.

  19. 19.

    Viktor Orbán speech of January 28, 2017,

  20. 20.

    In the CV attached to the letter, he gives the title of his undergraduate dissertation at Budapest University’s law faculty in July 1987: “Self-Organisation and Movements in the Political System: The Polish Example.” Orbán was part of a research group looking at the Solidarność experience in Poland, directed by Ferenc Miszlivetz, an academic involved in the democratic opposition movement. In the cover letter, he said that he wanted to go to Oxford because the civil society concept in Central and Eastern Europe tended to be based on the ideas of Hegel and Marx, and he wanted to learn about “the English liberal tradition.”.

  21. 21.áns-speech-at-baile-tusnad-tusnadfurdo-of-26-july-2014/ (accessed on June 7, 2021).

  22. 22.

    On 9 October 2020 the European Court of Justice rejected Lex CEU as liberticide and a threat to academic freedom and independence. In the words of CEU Rector Michael Ignatieff, “The judgement comes late—the university has already been forced to move most of its teaching to Vienna—but it is a landmark ruling that is bound to dissuade other European regimes from similar attacks on free institutions,” “Hungary’s abuse of the rule of law is now incontrovertible,” Financial Times, 8 October 2020.

  23. 23.

    A book based on a lecture series which took place during CEU’s last year in Budapest, exemplifying the spirit of the institution, was published under the joint editorship of the university’s Rector Michael Ignatieff and Stefan Roch: Rethinking Open Society. New Adversaries and New Opportunities, Budapest, CEU Press, 2018.

  24. 24.

    The Swiss Franc, worth 140 Forints in 2008, was exchanging at 260 Forints in 2011. At this point Orbán imposed an exchange rate of 180 Forints on foreign banks for the repayment of real-estate loans. The difference was therefore a net loss for the Austrian and German banks, provoking reprimands from the governments in Vienna and Berlin. Former vice-governor of the Czech National Bank (and current MEP) Ludek Niedermayer called it an “unprecedented political intervention in private contracts … something never before seen in Europe,” “Jak oskubat banky” (How to fleece the banks), Respekt (Prague) no. 38–39, 2.10.2011.

  25. 25.

    Janos Kis, a figure in the Hungarian dissident movement pre-1989 and a professor at CEU in Budapest, puts the regime’s stability in perspective: “Kis Janos az orbaznismus valsagarol es a tuntetéskrol” (Janos Kis on the crisis of Orbánism and protests) in

    For Kis, the regime’s stability is based on two factors that also make it vulnerable: economic and social policies that hurt a large part of society and only work thanks to European funds, and a government stranglehold on all institutions that eliminates mediation and turns any sector-specific grievance into a challenge to the system.

  26. 26.

    Cf. the special issue of Pouvoirs on “democratures,” no.169 (2020). For a comparative study of how hybrid regimes have evolved, see Jan Zielonka and Jacques Rupnik (2020) “From Revolution to ‘Counter-Revolution’: Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe 30 Years On,” Europe-Asia Studies, 72:6, 1073–1099, DOI:

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    G. Gotev’s interview with minister of justice the Laszlo Torcsanyi, « Il y a différentes visions de la démocratie» assure le ministre de la justice de Hongrie,, March 27, 2015.

  28. 28.

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  29. 29.

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  30. 30.

    Valerie Hopkins, “Protests against ‘Slave Law’ Add to Pressure on Hungary’s Orbán,” Financial Times, December 18, 2018.

  31. 31.

    On European Union policies toward Hungary, see Jacques Rupnik, “Hongrie-Pologne: l’Europe sort de sa prudence,” Alternatives économiques, special issue, 113, 2018. On Fidesz’s relations with the EPP, J. Rupnik, “PPE Blind in one eye. The Hungarian question and the European People’s Party,” Eurozine April 10, 2020, (accessed April 10, 2020).

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Rupnik, J. (2022). Orban’s Hungary: From “Illiberal Democracy” to the Authoritarian Temptation. In: Dieckhoff, A., Jaffrelot, C., Massicard, E. (eds) Contemporary Populists in Power. The Sciences Po Series in International Relations and Political Economy. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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