BERLIN — For the first time since his momentous victory six years ago, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has tasted a political defeat. The failure of the referendum that aimed to block required European Union allocations of refugees fell short of the necessary 50% turnout at the polls. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to make too much of the political consequences for Orban of this setback.
Lightening fast and powerfully eloquent, he has turned the fiasco into a "tremendous political success," noting that 98% of those who did vote were opposed to the EU refugee policy, and vowing to block any future decisions from Brussels regarding the refugees question.
Orban has repeatedly proven that he is, above all, a determined and tactical fighter, capable of drawing intelligent conclusions even out of his defeats. European upheaval over the refugee crisis opened the door for him to boldly challenge the EU, which a recent poll says has helped pushed 80% of Hungarian citizens to support his course of total bans on asylum seekers.
"Before the refugees crisis he was an outcast in Europe," says János Kis, a Hungarian philosopher and professor of political center at the Central European University "Now he has become the leading figure of the anti-refugee coalition." According to Kis, Orban is the only head of government within the EU who has actually benefited politically from the refugees crisis.
All the way back on Sept. 5, 2015, Orban had already made it very clear about his attitude concerning the situation: "The crisis is a chance for the national-Christian ideology to regain dominance, in Hungary, but also in the rest of Europe. This situation will result in the definitive end of liberal empty talk. This is the end of an era."
Comparing his words to German Chancellor Angela Merkel is particularly revealing. Orban has proven over the last 18 months in Hungary — a critical country in the heart of the EU — that he knows perfectly how to work with political tools that are both nationalistic and yet very personal.
Orban is the "most dangerous man in the EU," says Gerald Knaus, head of the think tank European Stability Initiative. Kraus believes the the Hungarian prime minister is plotting against Angela Merkel behind the scenes, without ever mentioning her name. After the Brexit vote and the rejection of Merkel's refugees policy by governments in Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, Orban now sees victory at hand.
Facing the liberal critics in Germany and the U.S., he rightly pleads that even center-left politicians from countries like Slovakia and the Czech Republic see him as pioneer and role model. Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev had said that the Bulgarians "entirely identify with Orban's perception of the refugees crisis."
In the numerous explanations, speeches and interviews, the Hungarian prime minister, at the age of 53, gives a healthy hint of his irrepressible ambition and his — secret — pursuit of replacing Angela Merkel as Europe's leader.
"The left-wing parties have held the monopoly over how Europe gets interpreted. If we're discussing values, we need a strong rear cover," he said. "Not many politicians have electoral support like I do. It has never been my childhood dream to become Europe's enfant terrible."
Angela Merkel with Viktor Orban in Berlin — Photo: Hannibal Hanschke/DPA/ZUMA
The Hungarian government take in major EU subsidies even as they pursue their campaign against the supposed "terrorist threat" posed by refugees and declare the "Christian and national identity." They even took down the European Union flag from above the Hungarian parliament in Budapest.
Mária Schmid, an Orban advisor and director of the House of Terror museum that recounts the horrors of fascism and communism, has recently addressed a frontal assault against Merkel, accusing her of "sacrificing Christianity and the German national interests."
Further afield, who else is close to Orban? Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been a "personal friend" for a long time, the relationship with Turkey "close and deserving," he calls Azerbaijan strongman Ilham Heydar Aliyev a "role model." In the U.S., he has backed Donald Trump, citing his hardline stance against immigration.
Inside of Hungary, Orban's power seems to be increasingly unchallenged. Reports this week accused the state of forcing the closure of leading opposition newspaper, Nepszabadsag.
András Bozóki, a former Hungarian culture minister and a political science professor at the Central European University, says the prime minister has a competitive advantage. "Orban has always been driven by an astonishing will to win. He's not a statesman, but he's a good politician in terms of techniques and the capacity to stay in power for a long time."
But Bozóki says Orban's grip on power requires him to "break the rules and disrespect the democratic order. In reality there were only three things Viktor Orban has always been interested in: power, money and soccer. In that order. There is not substance. The goal is to remain in power, and he's doing pretty well for himself."
In the face of the man many consider the most clever authoritarian politician in Europe, the opposition has been split. Meanwhile, in economic terms, Hungary has slipped on the World Economic Forum's competitiveness ratings from 29th in 2001 to 69th today.
Tamás Mellár, an economist and president of the Central Statistical Office during Orban's first term, says the country is sliding into a semi-feudal regime, with an unequaled concentrated land ownership in Europe.
Poverty and hopelessness among the lower third of society are reaching new extremes, as corruption expands. Another political researcher, András Kürüsénvi, sees "no Orban system, but an Orban regime," because a system is measurable, stable and durable.
"The Orban-regime's most important move is the unprecedented concentration of power. The enforcement of his political will and interests takes priority over the constitutional state," Kürüsénvi says. "The new regime that has existed since 2010 is trying to legitimate its power with Orban. And that's why he is portrayed as a leader with extraordinary capacities."