Illiberalism Unmasked? Covid Crisis, Economic Relief and Viktor Orbán’s Ideology

Von Gábor Egry

It is not individual merit that counts in Orbán’s world, but how much one is considered to fulfill duty for the nation, like the new elite.

It was only on April 29, 2020, more than three weeks after it was first announced when the final, adjusted version of the Hungarian “Kurzarbeit” program, an essential institution for saving as many jobs as possible all over Europe, started to accept applications. A more restricted version of the scheme was in place for two weeks now, but its scope was so narrow that only 5,000 workers were involved so far. Even the new version – implemented after an unusual uproar from all business organizations and trade unions about the bureaucratic nature and narrow scope of the first one – remained constrained if compared to such support schemes in other European countries. It supports only slightly more than 50% of the costs of keeping a worker on a company’s payroll and attaches unusual strings, like an obligation to use some of the idle time for his/her training.

While some of the missteps around this crucial element of the economic crisis measures was certainly the result of a dysfunctional and conceited over-politicized administration, and of the internal struggles and the patrimonial form of rule that elevates a few individuals in the role of the favorites of the ruler regardless of their real capacities, the economic package of prime minister Viktor Orbán’s government arguably reveals something more that many observers had considered a lacking: a vague and superficial, but still important ideology that serves as a guidance for policy decisions.

Just a Pragmatic Populist?

For most analysts and observers, Orbán is the par excellence pragmatist populist, whose sole aim is power for the sake of power itself. Even his nationalism is often taken as a pragmatic choice that he would abandon at any moment if so doing would serve better his goals; or as a thin ideology the main purpose of which is to facilitate the creation of ever new enemies. It was rarely looked at or contended whether the symbolic gestures of building a new political system since 2010 hide more than just grandstanding. And even if ideologies are searched in Orbán’s deeds, the answer more often than not was neoliberalism, or as it is understood on the new left: undue preference given to capital over labour, the willingness to cater to the needs of German carmakers and to introduce a perverted, bottom-up redistribution with a flat-tax without exemptions, a welfare system based on tax rebates and a regressive tax system centered around the highest VAT within the EU, and workfare instead of social assistance.

However, looked from a more historical perspective, and noting how much the post-1989 Hungarian right showed continuities with the rightist social reform ideas of interwar Hungary, Orbán’s rule seemed to be more purposeful and truly aimed at reconstructing the national community along the lines of a clear, ideological vision, based on nationalism, an anti-liberal and anti-communist Christian-Socialism with its ideas of merit (individual as represented by success and based on commitment for the community) and corporatism embraced by subsequent governments while rebuilding the economic and welfare system.

Therefore, as Orbán was preparing his announcement of economic crisis measures, most observers thought he, the pragmatist, would follow the examples set by all other EU countries, and finance generous and relatively simple efforts through deficit spending. There were even calls from all corners of the economy – not to mention the opposition parties – for raising child benefits (not even indexed to inflation since 2010) and enlengthen unemployment benefits (they only cover three months). Thus, not only the botched and protracted preparation and announcement process (unexpected from someone, who is considered to be a master of decisive action and making the bureaucracy work quickly) raised eyebrows but also the content of the crisis-response package: no deficit spending (austerity instead, at the amount of around 1,000 billion HUF), no extended unemployment benefits, no unconditional Kurzarbeit. Instead, it was announced that Hungary will use the opportunity to fast-track into the digital age economy (that’s the reason for the training obligation), and no one will get benefits without working. Instead, work will be provided for everyone, and recent unemployed workers can get a free vocational education course. In terms of targeted aid, huge state financed support packages were announced for certain sectors, most notably tourism, already very infiltrated by Orbán’s family and his cronies.

Crucial Elements of Orbán’s Ideology

While some elements of the package were obviously inserted by technocrats around the government, on the whole it reflected very well two crucial elements of Orbán’s ideology: nationalism understood as an almost social-Darwinist competition, and a view of society in which everyone had to earn merits for being entitled for solidarity, and as such everyone has a duty towards the community that precedes individual rights. As for the first aspect, the idea to keep the deficit under 3% of GDP despite the obvious contractionary effects of austerity is justified by referring to the potential loss of sovereignty if Hungary would rely on external loans, showing an obsession of Orbán, but one that is typical of nationalism. (Even though only one week later the country issued bonds worth 2 billion euros.) Furthermore, the attempt to fast-track the transition from being at the lower segment of supply chains of industrial corporations to the knowledge-based and digital economy is also part of an unceasing desire to present Hungary and its alleged unique economic model as the future of the EU, and as an uncontested success.

But again, this choice was presented also with a moral-ethical overtone: indebtedness was portrayed as a vice that should be avoided, speaking to the second aspect of Orbán’s ideology. However, in this regard it is even more important what did not happen with social assistance and benefits, and why. The way the government sticks to its own idea of workfare even in the face of a crisis in which one can hardly claim that newly unemployed were lazy and deferring more active help threatens to aggravate the economic downturn, betrays how important this idea of individual merit as the basis of solidarity is for shaping the social system. It goes back to the 1930s, when Catholic and Calvinist social reformers introduced an extended workfare system (in Hungarian called “produktív szociálpolitika”), which was to socialize people for hard work and teach them its ethical aspects: their national duty. That is how tax rebates that from an accounting perspective are just the same as direct payments from the government, are portrayed as more ethical, leaving with people the deserved fruits of their labour, freed from the greedy hands of government. But it is not simply individual merit that counts in Orbán’s world, as if he would be the neoliberal he is considered on the left. It is how much one fulfills duty for the nation, like the new elite, whose business should be salvaged at any price because they have a different destiny than the ordinary people have.


Gábor Egry, PhD, is Chief Director of the Institute of Political History in Budapest and leads the ERC funded project “Negotiating post-imperial transitions: from remobilization to nation-state consolidation” (NEPOSTRANS).

Featured image: European People’s Party via Flickr/ CC BY 2.0


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