Kim Lane Scheppele on Hungary, Viktor Orbán, and its Democratic Decline

Kim Lane Scheppele

Kim Lane Scheppele is the Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Sociology and International Affairs and the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University.

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So, I came back from that trip and said to one of my good friends back in Budapest, ‘I think I’ve met the most dangerous person I’ve ever met personally.’ And she said, ‘Oh Viktor, he’s nothing. He’s like a kid. He’s in his thirties.’ I mean, he was an aspiring politician at this point. His party was at the bottom of the polls. It didn’t look like he had any future. And I said, ‘No, this guy has something. It’s hard to define what it is, but we’re going to be hearing from him.’

Kim Lane Scheppele

Key Highlights

  • Introduction – 0:50
  • Kim Lane Scheppele meets Viktor Orbán – 2:45
  • Viktor Orbán as Prime Minister 1998-2002 – 9:21
  • Hungary Changes its Constitution – 15:56
  • Orbán Undermines Democracy Legally – 26:32
  • Why do Voters Support Orbán and Fidesz – 41:48

Podcast Transcript

Perhaps no country better symbolizes the democratic recession than Hungary. Viktor Orbán has become one of the boogeyman for democracy activists and scholars and for good reason. Hungary was considered a real success story for liberal democracy after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today it is considered one of democracy’s great losses. 

Kim Lane Scheppele has written about Hungary for years. She was there shortly after Hungary’s transition from communism into a liberal democracy and has followed its decline under Orbán’s government closely. Kim is the Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Sociology and International Affairs in the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. Recently, she wrote a remarkable paper in the Journal of Democracy called “How Viktor Orbán Wins.”

Our conversation explores how Hungary is more than just an illiberal democracy. It’s really not a democracy at all anymore. Kim walks through the ways Orbán manipulates Hungarian elections so they remain neither free nor fair. But before we start I want to give everyone a heads up that I have started experimenting with ads. For those who want to listen ad free, I plan to post episodes without ads for supporters at Patreon in the private feed. You can actually listen to the private feed on most podcast apps and you’ll also get access to additional bonus content. Like always you can email me with your thoughts or questions at Here is my conversation with Kim Lane Scheppele…


Kim Lane Scheppele, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Kim Lane Scheppele

Nice to be here.


So, Kim, in the 1990s, Viktor Orbán is already somebody who people know. People recognize the name. He has already given some speeches that brought him essentially to fame. I mean, people recognized who he was. He was a serious politician. My understanding is that you actually had met Viktor Orbán in the 90s when you were in Hungary. Can you just tell us a little bit about the first time that you met Viktor Orbán along with what he was like and what his politics were like?

Kim Lane Scheppele

So, Viktor Orbán sort of shot to fame in 1989 when he gave this fiery speech at the ceremony that dug up and reburied the body of Imre Nagy who was the guy who led the ‘56 uprising against the Soviet Union. Of course, when this was happening, it was still the Soviet Union then, so the Soviet army was still camped out in Hungary and Orbán took the stage and said, ‘Soviet soldiers get out. We are an independent country now. Leave.’ So, it was considered very brave. It was considered very bold. He kind of shot to fame as a result of this.

He founded this political party which they called Fidesz. It’s funny, because the acronym in Hungarian, the FI part, is ‘fiatal’ which means young. It was the young democrats. These were like the kids. Right? So, the fact that Viktor Orbán is now pushing 60 with the same name of the party is interesting. Anyway, he founded this youth party and it was a Hayekian libertarian party. What they were known for was showing up in expertly tailored Western suits. They were on the pages of fashion magazines, because they all looked like this was the wave of the future. This was Hungary joining the west and they were in favor of a small state, deregulation, and individual rights. But in this kind of almost extreme way where dismantling communism, I mean, dismantling big chunks of the state, was what they were all about.

They won actually quite a few votes in the first free and fair elections in 1990. But then in 1994 they stood for office and they lost massively. Now they lost massively partly because that was no longer a message that resonated and also because this political space of liberals was kind of occupied by another party that wound up becoming more popular. So, Orbán began in 1994 to think through how else he could get back to power. And this is when it starts to become clear that he is not a man of great conviction. He’s a man who wants power.

So, he starts drifting to the nationalist rightwing of the political spectrum which is sort of the opposite of where he started. He was doing this, because he thought that this was a place where he could make inroads against the parties that were already occupying that space. So, this brings me around to the way that I met him. He had to go through a transformation to figure out how to go from being a libertarian to being a nationalist. So, the way he did that was to go try out his message on Hungarians living just over the border in neighboring countries.

I happened to be teaching at that time in a city that the Ukrainians call Uzhhorod and the Hungarians call Ungvár. This is a part of Ukraine that has 150,000-200,000 Hungarians. It used to be part of Hungarian territory before World War II. It’s a few hours drive from Budapest. So, Orbán shows up in Ungvár, the city where I happened to be teaching at the time. I’m preparing my lecture as I look out the hotel window and up pull all these cars that I recognize, because they’re the Hungarian state cars and a door opens and out comes Viktor Orbán whom I recognize from television. So, I thought this is interesting. So, the symbol of Fidez was and is an orange. It’s a long story. It’s a movie reference. But I knew at this hotel, there was a fruit bowl in the kitchen.

So, I went downstairs and I got an orange from the fruit bowl, walked into the hotel lobby, and walked over to Viktor Orbán and handed him the orange. I said, ‘I welcome Fidesz to Ungvár.’ And he said, ‘Who the hell are you?’ And it quickly became apparent that his English was better than my Hungarian at the time. So, we switched into English. So, I said, ‘What are you doing?’ And he said, ‘I’m trying to see the political views of the Hungarians who live here.’ And I said, ‘Can I tag along?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ So, for several days I was able to have meals with him and his entourage and tag along as Orbán was trying out these nationalist messages in front of these Ukrainians who were thinking, ‘What the hell is this?’ Right? I mean, they were used to living in Ukraine.

So, Orbán was trying out how to be a nationalist there and it was very interesting, because he really didn’t know how to do it. But I will say one thing though. That meeting him in person at this time… he was the most charismatic person I’d ever met in person. It was almost like when you were talking to him, if he fixed on you, it was like a tractor beam pulling your brain into his. Now I’m not someone who tends to fall for that kind of thing. But I was surprised by how much I felt like I was in this bubble of his creation whenever I was talking to him.

So, I came back from that trip and said to one of my good friends back in Budapest, ‘I think I’ve met the most dangerous person I’ve ever met personally.’ And she said, ‘Oh Viktor, he’s nothing. He’s like a kid. He’s in his thirties.’ I mean, he was an aspiring politician at this point. His party was at the bottom of the polls. It didn’t look like he had any future. And I said, ‘No, this guy has something. It’s hard to define what it is, but we’re going to be hearing from him.’

So, I don’t want to be vindicated on this question. But I’m afraid that what’s happened since has shown that he really has been able to figure how to crack this nut of Hungarian democracy and destroy it. So, he’s now an autocrat, but at that time, most of the people who knew him thought he was a libertarian.


Now, this is before he’s prime minister the first time?

Kim Lane Scheppele



My understanding is his first stint as prime minister was very different than his current one as prime minister. But I’ll be honest. I haven’t gone back and done the homework and really kind of studied what he did during his first term I think it was between ‘98 and 2002. Can you kind of give us a sense of the difference of Viktor Orbán when he was prime minister during that period compared to today?

Kim Lane Scheppele

So, Orbán goes through this transformation between ‘94 and ‘98. By the ‘98 election, he portrays himself as one of the parties of the Hungarian right-wing, not the extreme right. There was an extreme right party, but he was on the moderate right-wing. His party got more votes than any of the other parties in that part of the political spectrum. So, he wound up at the head of a coalition government that included his party, the Christian Democrats, something called the Democratic Forum, and I think there was one other party. Oh, it was the Smallholders. So, because his party got more votes, not a lot of votes, but more than the others, he wound up as the prime minister. But the fact that he governed in coalition meant that he couldn’t do everything he’s done since 2010. Since 2010, he’s been governing alone.

However, if you were following closely, what he did in this period, the first time he was prime minister, you could tell that if he got to govern alone, he would be dangerous. So, since I worked at the Constitutional Court, one of the things I was paying attention to was who he named as Constitutional Court judges. There’s a regular rotation of judges and each prime minister gets to appoint some judges. So, there were a whole series of judges who had been appointed for nine-year terms whose terms were up during this period. So, if the court opened in 1990 that whole first batch of judges were all due to be renewed, because they could be renewed then, or replaced.

Orbán replaced them all. That was the first thing, including the President of the Court who was up for renewal. Other parties supported his renewal. The President of the Court had led this constitutional transformation and Orbán dangled him for a bit and kind of forced the president of the court to kind of say he wanted the job publicly and then didn’t renew him. He humiliated the President of the Court and put in people who were law professors, so not unqualified people, but law professors who had no experience in constitutional law.

I remember going to interview one of the judges that Orbán appointed, just to figure out like, ‘Who is this guy?’ Because I’d never heard of him and I knew all the people who knew constitutional law. I went to interview this guy and he knew nothing about the court’s decisions. So, I knew some pending cases and I said, ‘Well, the court said this, so what are you going to say about this new case?’ He said, ‘Oh, the court said that.’ And by the end of the interview, this new judge that Orbán had appointed asked me to come and give him lessons in Hungarian constitutional law so that he didn’t look like an idiot. Meanwhile, I’m thinking, this is a way of shutting down the court: appointing judges who have no idea what the court’s already done.

So, Viktor Orbán and his whole circle, I should say, are all lawyers. This particular person that Orbán put on the court had been one of his law professors. So, I asked, ‘Well, what are you going to do if Viktor Orbán crosses a line and does something unconstitutional?’ And the judge said to me, ‘Oh, Orbán would never do that. He’s a lawyer. He knows these things.’ So, I’m thinking, this is not the attitude of somebody who’s going to uphold the constitution. Anyway, it’s a long story, but it’s just to say that Orbán started filling these important positions with people who were not likely to criticize him and who were unqualified for the jobs, so they didn’t have a lot of confidence to stand up against what Orbán was going to do.

So, you could see already during this period, and particularly with regard to the Constitutional Court which like I said was kind of running the country and in a way was as powerful as the government. He was just determined to disable that court so that it stopped doing its job and that’s when he’s in coalition. The other parties didn’t care as much about the court as Orbán did. So, fast forward to 2010. Orbán was clearly going to win the election. By this time the party system had shaken out, so all those right-wing parties with whom he governed the first time had collapsed.

You know, I think actually Orbán was partly responsible for the collapse, because almost all of them collapsed in scandal when their leaders had various compromising bits of information get published in the press. The question was where did those leaks come from and how. None of that’s ever been solved. But by the time of 2010, Orbán’s party is the only one sitting there on the center-right of the political spectrum. The only other two parties running against him that were known at that time were the Socialists on whose watch the economy had collapsed and gone into receivership with the IMF. So, they were not going to win. And then there were the neo-Nazis to the right of Orbán.

So, I was kind of relieved when Orbán won in 2010, because I was just grateful that the neo-Nazis didn’t win. You know, there was a real chance that it could have been worse. So, he wins in 2010 and he wins so overwhelmingly that he gets to govern alone and he wins two-thirds of the seats in the parliament under Hungary’s election law which gave disproportionate seats to the plurality winner in a multiparty competition. So, the constitution has a provision that says you can change and amend any feature of the constitution with a single two-thirds vote of the unicameral parliament. So, once Orbán had that constitutional majority, it was all over.

From there he just starts amending the constitution. He replaces the constitution. He locks in a whole bunch of policy topics and a whole bunch of people by requiring any future change to any of that stuff be carried out only by a two-thirds, majority. Then he changes the election law, so the opposition, even if it were to win, which I don’t think at this stage it could, could never get the two-thirds vote that would allow any of it to be changed. So, the difference between the two is he governed in coalition. He didn’t have a constitutional majority. But since Orbán has had a constitutional majority, basically democracy is over.


So, there was a paper from Péter Krekó and Zsolt Enyedi a few years back called “Explaining Eastern Europe: Orbán’s Laboratory of Illiberalism. They wrote that, “The framers had assumed that no single party would ever win such a majority. They turned out to be wrong.”

But when I look at Hungarian elections, like when I look at the way that the vote’s kind of shook out, it’s surprising to me in some ways that they would think that. Going into the 2002 election, the 2006 election, it looked like there was a real consolidation between the socialists and Fidesz. It looked like it was moving very much towards a two-party system which in a way kind of makes sense because there were so many single member districts that were there that contributed to electing members to parliament that I would think would put some pressure towards a two-party system naturally. Is that part of the reason why Fidesz was able to be the last man standing when the Socialists experienced such dramatic scandals near the end of their term?

Kim Lane Scheppele

Yeah, exactly. So, the election law was written in 1989 when nobody had ever been elected to anything including the communists. So, what everyone expected, because it was basically what happened everywhere else in Eastern Europe, was that you’d get a ton of tiny parties and the big problem would be governing. Getting a coalition that was compact enough to govern with, not this problem of one party having two-thirds. So, the election law was written to be disproportionate, to put a thumb on the scale of whoever got the most votes in a plurality competition. So, whoever gets the most votes in a plurality competition might have gotten 30% of the vote. Then you kind of boost their seats, so they get closer to being able to form a coalition. So, the election law was written for a scenario like that.

But you’re absolutely right that Orbán sort of knocked out all the parties in the center-right and the socialists had always been the big party of the center-left. Moreover, the liberal party also collapsed which were in coalition with the socialists and got a bad name for it. So, by the time you get to this 2010 election, actually, even really before that. It already is happening by 2002. You’ve got basically two blocks and then you’ve got some neo-Nazis, you’ve got some tiny liberal green party also. But basically, it’s two blocks and the party system collapsed, but they still had that same election law.

So, what they should have done was to amend the election law to make it less likely that any one party would get a constitutional majority, but they didn’t do that. Part of the reason why they didn’t is that it wasn’t strictly speaking a single member district system in which it’s first past the post which is what it is now. It’s like in the US or UK where those systems are always disproportionate, because even if you win by one vote, you get the whole seat. Those systems we know always have that kind of tendency. What the system was before Orbán was that all these single member districts had a runoff. So, it looks more like the French presidential election than like a US congressional election.

If you recall the way French Presidential elections work, you get a whole bunch of parties in round one and the top two vote getters stand off against each other in the second round. Then all the people who voted for the other parties divide themselves between the two highest vote getters. So, in the sense, you’ve got coalition politics in the second round and that tells you who wins. So, one of Orbán’s electoral reforms when he took power in 2010 was to eliminate the second round. He turned it into a first pass the post system and made it even more disproportionate than it had been before.

He also did something else, which people, I mean, not just Orbán’s folks, but folks across the political spectrum had been saying for some time that the parliament is too big. It was 450 representatives in a country that has 9 ½ million people. Okay. That’s too many. So Orbán came in and one of his first constitutional amendments was to cut the size of the parliament by half. Actually, even the opposition thought that was a good idea until everybody turned around and realized first Orbán gets to redistrict the whole country at once.

Second, he can say to the members of his party, not all of whom were necessarily going to be on board with some of the autocratic moves he made immediately, ‘If you don’t vote for every single law I put under your nose, you will not be one of the people I will sponsor for one of these scarce seats. Look to your left. Look to the right. Half of you will not be here next time.’ So, he created this party discipline in a way that he might not have had without it. Now, in the 2014 election, there were 106 of these single member districts and Orbán with 43% of the domestic vote won 91% of the districts. So, he got his two-thirds back again. But the problem now is the way the districts are drawn. The opposition has no chance.

Hungary, like the US, actually Poland has this problem, a lot of the autocratizing countries have a problem where it’s the cities against the countryside. It’s the professional classes against the folks who are working class, less well educated, and so on. So, when you divide up Budapest like a pie, so that half of every district are people who are likely to vote conservative, the left can never win. And that’s how the districts are drawn. Literally the boundaries of the districts, like the boundary between district one and district two, goes down the center of this street. That specificity is in a law that can only be changed with a two-thirds vote.

So, even if the opposition were to win (and people thought the opposition might win this last time… I mean, I didn’t, but many people imagined it might happen), they could not have changed the boundaries of the district, because they were never going to get two-thirds. So, Orbán locked in this system where he’s guaranteed to win more seats than his vote share would lead you to believe he should get.


Yeah, there’s an assembly speaker. It’s… I’m going to butcher the name here. It’s László Kövér. A few years back he said, “We have rebuilt the country from the cellar to the roof. If we are able to govern successfully for four more years, many of our changes will become irreversible, not only in Hungary, but through our example across Europe.” At least within Hungary, that’s exactly what they’ve done. So, what amazed me in your piece was you actually were able to dissect a lot of these electoral laws in a way that I haven’t really seen somebody do. I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘Well, Hungary feels autocratic.’ But they never really go through the steps to say this is the law that makes it impossible for the opposition to win. This is the next law that makes it difficult for them to win.

So, when you mention about gerrymandering the districts, I think a lot of people in the United States think there has to be an equal proportion of people in each one of these districts. But you explained in your piece that that’s not necessarily the case. Can you explain a little bit about the population numbers in some of these districts?

Kim Lane Scheppele

So, in the US actually there’s a requirement that congressional districts be of the same size. I mean, almost literally the same size. What Hungary did was to borrow the German rule that the German Constitutional Court had declared unconstitutional by the way. But the German government at the time when Orbán adopted the rule was not yet in compliance with its own Constitutional Court decision. The German rule was that districts can vary by 10% above and below a mean which means when you translate it out that districts can vary by 30%. Now in Germany, that doesn’t matter so much, because they have single member districts and then they have these party list seats.

I mean, Hungary has the same system, but in Germany they go to great lengths on the party list seat to compensate for the disproportionality of the single member district so that the parliament overall in Germany always reflects the percentage of the vote that various parties got. In Hungary, there is no compensatory mechanism.

So, when Hungary adopted this rule first for the single member districts, they said 10% above and below a mean, so the smallest districts in Hungary are about 60,000 voters and the largest ones are pushing 90,000. Now, if you can vary the districts by that amount, of course, the people who live in the 90,000 districts each vote counts for less than the ones who live in the 60,000 districts. And those 90,000 districts are disproportionately the urban districts. It’s Budapest. It’s Szeged. It’s the other cities and then the rural voters get these districts where their votes count for more. So, that was a big chunk of what Orbán did.

But there’s this other piece of it because every Hungarian goes to the polls and like Germans, they have two votes. So, you vote for your representative in your single member district and then you vote for a party with your second vote. Again, in systems like Germany, which use the party list vote to compensate for the disproportionality of the single member districts in Hungary, the party list vote accentuates the difference. I mean, it’s fairly technical, but all I’ll say is instead of having these rules that reduce the number of seats that the winning party gets, because they already have all these seats that they won in the single member districts, under the Hungarian rule for counting party list votes, the party that won gets additional seats for having won.

So, in this last election, he actually won big in the Hungarian system. He got 53% of the vote, but he got nearly 68% of the seats in the parliament. In the last two elections he got 43 and 46% of the domestic vote and still got his 67% of the seats. So, he uses all these tricks, both the thing about gerrymandering and the unequal districts to make the gerrymandering worse, but then he uses all these other tricks. Because the system is complicated enough to allow him to tweak every single trick in the book.


So, this idea that you call winners compensation in the paper actually makes the difference in multiple years to get him over the top to get that two-thirds majority which in Hungary that’s all that’s necessary to be able to amend the constitution. Which even though they wrote the constitution in 2011 without any support from other parties, they were able to do it single handedly and crafted it exactly the way that they wanted, they continue to perpetually amend the constitution pretty much at will. Which allows Viktor Orbán to be able to act as a lawyer, like you’ve mentioned before and say, ‘I’m always following the law.’ But, of course, he’s the one who’s writing the law before he follows it.

Kim Lane Scheppele

Exactly. So, when I talk to an American audience, I talk about the book Harold and the Purple Crayon. I don’t know if you ever saw this book. It is a book about a kid named Harold. He has a purple crayon. He has a terrific imagination and with his purple crayon he can draw anything and then live in it. So, he writes these stairs that go to the stars and he climbs up the purple stairs that he’s written with his crayon. So, Orbán is like Harold and the purple crayon. So, if Orbán wants to do something, he gets his parliament to pass the law so he can do it.

In fact, people wonder how I write about all this stuff from here. I’m not living there, but as long as they publish the laws, I know exactly what Orbán is going to do, because they put it into the law and then he does it. This was true with the election law. You could see where they were going. Because if you just follow what the Hungarian parliament is doing or actually since COVID started Orbán’s been mostly governing by decrees. So, you just read all the decrees. Fortunately, they still believe in publishing them. But then you can see exactly what the government’s going to do.

So, for this election when you eliminate the runoff, when you’ve gerrymandered the districts, when you’ve done all that, the only way the opposition could win an election is if all the opposition parties got together and ran one candidate against Orbán’s candidate in each district. So, that the voters really did have a two-party choice, because if the opposition was divided into a lot of small parties and the plurality party won, that was one way that Orbán was winning all these seats. So, the opposition got together and this was hard because as I mentioned before, Orbán’s party is in the middle of the political spectrum. There’s a bunch of small parties to his left and then there’s a relatively large party to his right.

The only way that the opposition stood a chance of winning is if all those left parties got together with the right party and agreed that the most important thing is dislodging Orbán. ‘We’re going to unite and run one candidate against each of his and if we win, then we’ll work out what we do because we disagree about everything else.’ They were remarkably disciplined. I mean, they had this great idea of running primaries so that in each district they could figure out does the far-right party win this one or does one of the left parties win this one. So, they ran all these primaries. They got these individual candidates to stand up against Orbán’s people. It looked like they might win. That was the only way under this election law that they had any chance.

So, Orbán then amended the law four months before the election. He amends the law and now suddenly he legalizes what the Hungarians call voter tourism. What is voter tourism? So, if you’ve gerrymandered the districts to win them all, he would know exactly which districts were going to be close under the scheme. So, voter tourism allows him to move his voters from one district where they’re going to lose into the districts that they have a chance of winning, if they can add another 500 or 1,000 votes and so on. So, there were all these reports in the Hungarian press of Orbán supporters who registered 150 new voters at one address. So, Orbán could move his people into these districts. Of course, the opposition didn’t have the kind of information that Orbán had.

I mean, Orbán has been gathering tons of information about every Hungarian. Data protection is… Well, it’s a surveillance state and Orbán knows more or less everything about everybody. So, he would know exactly which districts needed these extra votes. So, in this last election, he just moved his people into the districts that he thought he might lose. Even though the opposition had this great strategy, Orbán won 83% of the districts. So, they had some effect. They won all the Budapest districts, because Orbán took his voters out to the countryside where he might lose to Jobbik, the far-right party. But Orbán still won his two-thirds, more than two-thirds.


And what’s important about that is even if the opposition wasn’t going to actually win, even if Victor Orbán had remained prime minister, if they could just pick up more seats, they could take away that constitutional majority where he can amend the constitution at will. And not only that. Laura Gamboa has a new book coming where she emphasizes that the strategies that the opposition takes can have a huge impact on whether or not a country actually erodes its democracy. So, if the opposition doesn’t have any seats in parliament, if their presence is so limited, it just limits their toolkit so much that it allows that autocrat effectively to just continue to steamroll through, using effectively legal means to be able to undo democracy.

Kim Lane Scheppele

So, what happened in this last election in Hungary was not only that the opposition lost and you’re absolutely right that they were aiming first to win a majority in the parliament. That would’ve been obviously their first choice. They could never get to two-thirds. But at least they thought they could get to a third and take away Orbán’s constitutional majority. In fact, they didn’t do it and they couldn’t do it, because of all these tricks that Orbán put in place. But what made it even worse was that they didn’t get to one third among all the opposition parties combined.

But then, of course, within the group of six parties, Jobbik the far-right party got disproportionately more seats, because they won a couple of these single member districts. But also, because they were the largest party going in they got more places on the party list because Orbán forced the six parties to run a single party list. So, that meant that they all had to fight among themselves about who was first, who was second. So, Jobbik got a disproportionate number of seats in the parliament among the opposition party.  So, the left is down to less than one quarter of all the seats in the parliament, because Jobbik has the rest.

And to make matters worse what Orbán did in this election was he put a referendum on the ballot. A referendum that made no difference because Orbán had passed this law which got copied by Florida as the ‘Don’t Say Gay Law’ which basically meant you can’t discuss any issues of unusual sexuality shall we say where kids may be present. So, they’ve been banning children’s books and doing all kinds of stuff. The referendum on election day this year asked whether the government should do that. It was already doing that. So, again, it would make no legal difference. But the one issue, the wedge issue that divided the right-wing party from the left parties was this one. When this law went before the parliament, Jobbik, the right-wing party, had voted with Fidesz for the law.

So, this was the wedge issue referendum and what it did was to pull out Jobbik voters who were very much against any kind of, shall we say, gender flexibility. So, what they did was not only vote for the referendum, but the six parties that went into coalition did not all bring their voters with them. The Jobbik voters overwhelmingly refused to vote for the slate that included these left-wing parties. They voted for Fidesz instead and in the meantime, this right-wing party called Mi Hazánk won seven seats in the parliament, because some of the Jobbik voters went far-right.

So, basically, what happened was that when the leaders of all these parties tried to figure out how to game the election system, they did perfectly from the standpoint of what you’d have to do in order to win with these election laws. But Jobbik failed to bring its voters with them, because the Jobbik voters will clearly not vote for any coalition that has these left-wing parties in it. So, where does the opposition go next time? Orbán has convinced them that he’s a better friend to them than the party that they started with so this left-right split in Hungary means that it’s hard to see how the system can ever be overcome.


One of the key takeaways from your article was the fact that Viktor Orbán and Fidesz has been able to continue to win because they’ve been able to fragment the opposition. And you just described how in this last election the opposition came up with a strategy to try to unite, so they wouldn’t be as fragmented. But the presence of Jobbik within that coalition seems odd, not just because of the situation you just described where it kind of exacerbated the right-wing support within parliament. But it also seemed odd as a strategy to me because it feels like another strategy could be to implement the same strategies against Orbán to try to fragment Fidesz on the right. Why hasn’t Orban’s party fragmented. Why has it remained so united with voters and not been able to kind of fall apart the way that the left has into multiple parties?

Kim Lane Scheppele

So, Orbán, in addition to being a master lawyer who designs the system to make it hard for the other side to win by the rules is also a master politician. So, this is where actually lessons for the US are. Orbán’s support hovers between 30 and 40% in the general public which is about where Trump’s support hovers in the United States. In other words, these are leaders that don’t have a kind of natural base that is a majority. So, the question is how they get to that majority support or plurality support in time for the election. What Orbán does before every election is his government engages in essentially buying votes with policy.

So, this time, for example, he gave a so-called 13th month pension to pensioners. Like here. Have an extra month of money. He eliminated the income tax for voters under 25. He actually buffered the entire country from inflation which, of course, has been a big thing in 2022 by freezing the prices for basic food stuffs and more crucially freezing the prices of fuel and utilities. So, Hungarians were living in an inflation free zone while the news is coming in from the rest of the world through the Orbán controlled media that the rest of the world’s experiencing inflation. So, Orbán says we are not because of our great leadership. Of course, what’s happening is the Hungarian government’s paying for all that.

So, there were these massive giveaways and then there was this weird thing that didn’t look like a giveaway, but turned out to be. And that is the war in Ukraine. Orbán had just been to Moscow three weeks before the war broke out to ask Putin to sign an agreement to get cheap supplies of natural gas. That’s what he was planning to run on as his main platform. ‘Because I’m buddies with the guy who has all the gas. Hungary will have cheaper prices than anywhere else in Europe.’ He had signed that deal and came back and said, ‘You have lower prices, because I am such a great diplomat. I have not burned bridges with Russia. I am their friend.’

So, then Putin invades Ukraine and you’d think this would be a liability. The government’s message was totally scrambled for a few days. Then they landed on the formula. The formula was somebody needs to make peace. And it needs to be somebody who is already on good terms with Putin. ‘And I,’ said Orbán, ‘am the one who can mediate between our friends in the US and our friends in the EU and Putin. So, I will be the peacemaker.’ So, that’s part one.

Part two is that going back to when I met Orbán in Ukraine in 1995, Orbán had been whipping up support among the Hungarians who live over the borders in the near abroad. In fact, one thing he’s done to win elections is he’s given them all the right to vote in Hungary. He’s also given them pensions and given them various forms of social support so that they’re endlessly grateful. So, this near abroad votes 96% Orbán each time. So, it also gives him his extra majority. He needs to get to the two thirds.

But the thing is that Orbán had been whipping up hatred against the government in Ukraine from long before the war broke. The reason why is that the Ukrainian government including under Zelensky had passed a series of laws that were designed to marginalize the Russian community in the east. So, there were laws that made Ukrainian the official language of the state even if majorities of the populations in different parts of Ukraine spoke other languages and more crucially it obliterated what had been a really impressive system of bilingual education throughout the country. It was aimed at the Russians in the East, but it also affected the Hungarians in the West. So, Orbán had been saying, since these laws started in 2017, we will have nothing to do diplomatically with Ukraine as long as they deprive Hungarians of the right to educate their kids in their own language.

In fact, Orbán had been blocking high level meetings between Ukraine and NATO since 2017, because of this language issue. He’d been, of course, at home saying, ‘I will defend Hungarians abroad when they are repressed by our neighbors.’ So, Ukraine had already been pre-demonized by Orbán before all of this. So, he comes out and says, ‘I will be the peacemaker and Hungary will not get involved in this war. So, we will not allow weapons to transit Hungary to go to the Ukrainians. We will not support Ukraine, because we know that they don’t support Hungarians.’ And that turned out to be amazingly popular.

A lot of the reason why he won a majority this time, not just his usual pluralities that he can buy with the giveaway programs, but the reason why he got this overwhelming support is that Hungarians were terrified. There’s a war on their border and it looked like NATO was plunging in and that NATO might be attacked because of its arming of the Ukrainians. So, Orbán is saying, ‘We’re going to stay out all of that. We are friends with Russia. We are the peacemakers. We are the bridge and there’ll be no war here.’ That was an incredibly popular message.


Yeah, it’s really overlooked the fact that Southern Ukraine, particularly in the West has a much larger Hungarian population than people recognize. It’s an ethnic minority within Ukraine. So, their rights or their concerns are easily overlooked. And that’s fascinating how the dynamics of that make Hungary approach the situation within Ukraine very differently than its neighbor Poland which has generally adopted similar policies. But here in foreign policy, it’s very different.

As we look to wrap up, voters do continue to support Viktor Orbán. I mean enough voters to be able to get him to have close to a majority just in a straight up popular vote. In the paper you actually write, “Presented with a united opposition that could have ousted an autocrat. Most conservative voters took a pass.” So, it really begs the question. Why do voters continue to support Viktor Orbán when his autocratic tendencies to the rest of the world seem to be so obvious?

Kim Lane Scheppele

Well, we all wish we knew. Right? Because if we could figure out why people support him, we would try to undo it. At least those of us who want to bring back constitutional democracy. So, I think it’s actually a combination of several things. One is that in most of these post-communist states, the public is actually pretty demobilized from politics. One way that people survived under communism was just to have not much of your life hinge on what kind of government you had. So, people hang out with their friends, they do private things, and they just figure we’ll leave the government alone and it will leave us alone. And Orbán has basically honored that promise. So, if you don’t get in his face, then you can live a perfectly reasonable life leaving politics to him. Right? So, that’s the deal.

The vast majority of people are thinking, ‘Well, okay, we can go along with this especially if he’s going to give us all these goodies and benefits.’ And frankly, some of these votes are bought. I mean, literally some of the votes are bought because the local mayors of small towns say, ‘If there’s any vote against Orbán in this town, Orbán will cut off all of our funds to our town.’ So, there’s some coercion underneath the surface. So that’s, that’s part of it. The other thing is that frankly, the opposition is not strong. The opposition leaders are not nearly as experienced or user friendly as Orbán seems to be. They’re not talented politicians. So, people look at the opposition and think, ‘Really, do I want to vote for them? They don’t know what they’re doing.’

The opposition is also fragmented. Some of that is that so many people have left the country. Some of it is that every time Orbán sees somebody coming up in the opposition that looks like they might be a contender there’s some scandal that erupts and the person is sidelined. The ‘some scandal’ that erupts, I think, is one of Orbán’s strategies. So, the opposition looks weak. But I think also people have to be trained to realize that politics is not about left, right substantive issues. Like, do you get a 13-month pension or what exactly is the sales tax? Those are important, but when democracy’s on the ballot – like, will we get to throw the bums out when we get sick of them? People need to learn to vote for that. Frankly, Hungarians haven’t seen that as the issue. They, including the opposition, still blame the opposition.

I mean, fortunately, the opposition didn’t turn into a circular firing squad, but there was an investigative journalistic report that reported all the squabbles within the coalition, because they couldn’t agree on anything. So, the opposition looks even worse after the election. Even worse than being defeated, they looked like they were incompetent at putting together an opposition. All of that is going to make it harder for the opposition to come back. And Orbán controls all the media, all the TV, all the radio, almost all the newspapers. If you get online and especially if you read foreign languages, you can find out what’s happening. There’s still some investigative journalists still reporting, although several of them had their phones infected with Pegasus this year.

So, basically most Hungarians are swimming in a sea of government sponsored information. That also affects what they think of as the viability of this opposition. So, whenever I look in the US and I see the ‘Democrats in Disarray’ headlines, which have been all we’ve seen for two years until this last month, that’s the kind of thing that you also saw in Orbán’s media. They’d highlight the fights between the socialists and the liberals between this group of liberals and that group. So, they played up every single controversy in the opposition. So, when voters went to vote, they said, ‘You know, who agrees with us substantively?’ And Hungary’s a center-right country. Orbán’s party sits right in the heart of what most people believe substantively.

Are they going to not vote for what they believe in substantively on the procedural ground that democracy is at risk? And are they going to vote for an opposition that Orbán’s media has branded as completely incompetent. So, holding all those levers, the election law, the media, being able to sow ferment and discontent in the opposition and between the public and the opposition, all those forces mean Orbán can stay there basically indefinitely.


Well, Kim, thank you so much for joining us today. Your paper, “How Viktor Orbán Wins,” I found it to be the most insightful paper that I’ve read on Hungary so far. I’ve read quite a few articles. I’ve been paying attention to it for a number of years like many people who are concerned about democracy in the world. And I just thought your paper was so brilliant, the way that it broke down a lot of the concerns to show that Hungary isn’t just an illiberal country today. It’s actually becoming an undemocratic country today. So, thank you so much.

Kim Lane Scheppele

Well, thank you. And thanks to the Journal of Democracy for publishing that paper and giving me more words than they originally thought I could use to explain all that. So, thank you.

Key Links

Learn more about Kim Lane Scheppele

How Viktor Orbán Wins” by Kim Lane Scheppele in the Journal of Democracy

9/11 and the Rise of Global Anti-Terrorism Law: How the UN Security Council Rules the World edited by Kim Lane Scheppele and Arianna Vedaschi

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