Budapest, Hungary — Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been in power for almost 14 years, making him the European Union’s longest-serving head of state. Critics at home and abroad say the 52-year-old has systematically tightened his grip on power by eroding democratic institutions and has long been a thorn in the side of European and NATO unity, threatening to block support for Ukraine and European Union sanctions on Russia.

Despite EU efforts to curb Hungary’s behavior, Orban believes that he will soon have new allies in the West. In a recent speech, he said there are “great opportunities ahead” for Hungary as both the EU and the United States hold crucial elections later this year.

“Electoral autocracy”

Orban’s opponents in Hungary portray a political landscape dominated by the prime minister’s Fidesz party.

For 35-year-old Marton Tompos, an opposition lawmaker with the Momentum Party, Viktor Orban has been in power almost all his adult life. “Hungarian politics is a show. Officially you can have a vote. In practice, the election system is so rigged that there is a very slim chance that any change can happen,” he said.

Critics say the prime minister has amassed power and wealth by co-opting state institutions.

“Mr. Orban’s party is so intertwined with all the institutions, all the authorities, all levels of the Hungarian state, that it’s not really, I would say, a complete democracy anymore, but a hybrid regime, a ‘spin’ dictatorship,” Tompos told VOA.

In 2022, the European Parliament passed a resolution decrying the state of democracy in Hungary, stating that it had become a “hybrid regime of electoral autocracy.”

Orban amended the Hungarian constitution in 2011 and has since changed hundreds of laws critics say favor his party by means that include the redrawing of electoral districts. Fidesz loyalists are also in charge of key institutions, among them the chief prosecutor and the head of the media authority.

Press freedom

Recent estimates suggest Orban and his Fidesz party own or control up to 90% of Hungarian media.

One of the few remaining independent news outlets is Direkt36, co-founded by Andras Petho after his previous employer, Origo, was bought by Fidesz loyalists in 2015.

“I had to quit that job because of political pressure. And we faced the choice, with my colleagues, that if you want to do independent journalism, then we have to set up our own organization,” Petho told VOA.

“It’s increasingly more difficult to get information from official sources. We also face a lot of mostly propagandistic attacks from certain mostly pro-government propaganda machineries.” Petho said two journalists working for Direkt36 were put under government surveillance using the Israeli-made “Pegasus” spy software on their mobile phones.

Soon after Orban came to power in 2010, publicly owned media channels were put under government control.

“They became like a mouthpiece for the government,” Petho said. “And now what they broadcast is almost purely propaganda, pro-government propaganda – often pro-Russian narratives, pro-Russian propaganda. And once they were done with that takeover, they moved onto private media companies.”

“This is not about having a few newspapers or TV stations or radio channels that are kind of sympathetic to the government. We are talking about hundreds of outlets — digital, print, TV, radio, local, national. Everything. They cover the whole spectrum. It’s a whole media ecosystem that serves only one purpose, which is to spread the government’s messages. It’s not journalism. They spread lies intentionally,” Petho said.

Anti-EU campaign

Those messages are increasingly targeted at the European Union. The bloc accuses Hungary of breaching the fundamental rule of law and has frozen billions of dollars in EU funds. In return, Orban has launched a propaganda campaign against the EU, with billboards across the country denouncing European policies and declaring that Hungary “won’t dance to Brussels’ tune.”

The Fidesz rhetoric employs familiar slogans that feed an intensifying culture war in the country, said Peter Kreko, executive director of the Political Capital research group in Budapest.

“It’s about immigration, it’s about anti-LBGTQ, it’s about anti-woke, anti-gender. It’s about ‘Make the country great again.’ It’s about our country first, other countries are second. And it’s increasingly about a notion that the Western liberal democratic order is about to collapse.”


Polish loss

Orban lost a key ally in his fight with Brussels in October. Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice party, a close former ally of Fidesz, was voted out of office in national elections, to be replaced by a coalition led by Donald Tusk, a former president of the European Council.

The same fate is unlikely to befall Orban, said Barbara Grabowska-Moroz, director of the Rule of Law Clinic at the Central European University’s Democracy Institute in Budapest.

“Comparing with Hungary, there are still quite a lot of independent media outlets in Poland,” she said. “So, there were still sources of information about what is happening with public spending by the government. People were able [to know] what were the wrongdoings of the government.

“That source of information is an absolutely crucial element here. So, I guess this kind of depth of process of changing the state and capturing it, is just way more advanced here in Hungary” compared to Poland, Grabowska-Moroz told VOA.

Despite the loss of his Polish ally, Orban’s position is secure, said journalist Andras Petho of Direkt36.

“Orban has a much tighter control over the country. He’s been working to achieve this for three decades. He had a lot of time. That’s one thing,” Petho said. “And the other thing is that the opposition is in a really bad shape in Hungary. You just have to look at the polls. Even after years of really high inflation and all kinds of economic troubles, they just couldn’t take advantage of that.”

Government response

Orban’s official spokesperson, along with Hungarian government ministries and the Fidesz party, did not respond to repeated VOA requests for comment. The prime minister has previously denied that democracy and press freedom are under threat in Hungary and denied putting journalists under surveillance.

Despite the growing chorus of criticism from Hungary’s Western allies over the state of democracy in the country, Orban shows no intention of changing course.


Trump hopes

European Parliamentary elections in June look set to deliver strong results for right-wing populist parties across the bloc, potentially bolstering Hungary’s position within the EU.

Meanwhile, November’s presidential election in the United States looks like it will be a tight race between incumbent Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

Orban believes political momentum is on his side. “There are great opportunities ahead of us. The world political scene at the end of the year will have a completely different picture than it is at the beginning of the year,” Orban predicted in his annual televised address February 17.

“We can’t get involved in another country’s elections, but we would really like President Donald Trump to return to the presidency and make peace here in the eastern half of Europe,” Orban said.