Viktor Orbán’s victory in Hungary brings important lessons to us here at home

In 2015, I penned an editorial in The New York Times warning against the growing influence in Europe of Hungary’s right wing prime minister, Viktor Orbán. Last Sunday Orbán was re-elected for a third consecutive term. His hold on power is more entrenched than ever, and his xenophobic, nationalist platform continues to spread beyond Hungarian borders.

As U.S. Ambassador to Hungary under President Obama from 2010 to 2013, I witnessed the rise of Orbán and the weakening of Hungarian democracy over just a few short years. Armed with a two-thirds supermajority in parliament, Orbán led the passage of 800 new laws and the adoption of a new constitution. His reforms dramatically reduced checks and balances. He weakened democratic institutions by reducing the independence of the media and by asserting political influence over the judiciary, academic institutions, and even religious institutions.

Under my leadership, the U.S. Embassy expressed our concerns over these actions — both publicly and in private conversations with Orbán himself. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sounded an alarm in 2012, and accused the government of ushering in an era of “democratic backsliding” in Hungary. Soon after, Orbán declared that Hungary would no longer look to the West as a model for its political system, but would look to China, Turkey, and Russia instead.

Eleni Kounalakis as ambassador, appearing with Viktor Orbán in 2010.

In 2015, when I published my memoir, Madam Ambassador, Three Years of Diplomacy, Dinner Parties and Democracy in Budapest, most realized that Europe and the West were facing a challenge with this EU member state and NATO ally. But few predicted that Orbán’s nationalistic message would spread beyond Hungary. Sadly, it has. In Poland, The Czech Republic, and Austria, right-wing leaders have all stolen chapters out of Viktor Orbán’s playbook, buoying their own political fortunes and consolidating power with their own strong-man strategies.

And then of course, there is the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States.

Trump never really acknowledged the fact that Orbán was the only European leader to endorse him during the 2016 presidential campaign, much to Orbán’s disappointment. But that hasn’t stopped Orbán from reveling in the election of an American leader whose political philosophy so closely tracks his own.

Fueling hatred toward immigrants? Check.

Threatening the free press? Check.

Intimidating the judiciary? Check.

Picking winners and losers among businesses? Check.

Calling for the jailing of opposition leaders? Actually, Orbán hasn’t gone as far as Donald Trump on this one.

Trump’s 2016 victory has been a boon for autocratic leaders everywhere. Both as a validator of their own heavy-handed approach to governance, and a symbol that winner-take-all leadership is back in fashion. Around the world, would-be autocrats are seizing the opportunity created by the election of Donald Trump to consolidate power as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Professional diplomats in U.S. Embassies do what they can to push back, and attempt to continue our long-held practice of advocating for democratic norms. But with an American president exhibiting historic disdain for these norms, the once-respected views of U.S. diplomats abroad are easily, often conveniently, brushed aside.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright lamented in a recent op-ed in The New York Times that the ugly face of fascism and autocracy is more present across the globe today than at any time since the end of World War II.

Last week’s overwhelming re-election of Viktor Orbán is one of the more troubling portraits in Europe in the past decade. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) declared Sunday’s election free, but not entirely fair. Orbán’s stranglehold on the country’s institutions made it all but impossible for the opposition to compete.

I heard Secretary Albright speak at a conference recently. She noted that checks and balances in our own democratic system should, theoretically, be strong enough to contain actions by any president who seeks to undermine our system, consolidate undue power, and weaken our democracy.

The world is holding its breath to see what happens when a would-be autocrat — Donald Trump — meets the world’s oldest and strongest democracy. I have faith that our system will prevail. But not without the active engagement of our citizenry. Democracy, at its root, is self-government: government of the people, by the people, for the people. And people around the world are paying attention.

Eleni Kounalakis


Eleni Kounalakis was U.S. Ambassador to Hungary under President Obama from 2010 to 2013 and is currently running for Lieutenant Governor in California.

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