On Sunday, Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party will likely cruise to another victory in Hungary’s general election, giving Mr. Orban, the reigning champion of “illiberal democracy” — a term he proudly embraces — a fourth term to pursue his assault on democratic institutions, immigrants, the European Union and anything smacking of social change. The campaign has been surprisingly tough, but then Fidesz designed the voting system and controls much of the media.
A victory will no doubt hearten the ranks of the nativist populists who, despite their avowed aversion to international organizations, take pride in being in the vanguard of an international reactionary movement. It is telling that after his ouster from the White House, Stephen Bannon went on a tour of European soul mates, during which he hailed Mr. Orban as his hero and “the most significant guy on the scene right now.”
A report by The Times’s Patrick Kingsley on how Mr. Orban reached that august status offers a chilling look at the breadth of the populist assault not only on the “hardware” of democracy — constitution, judiciary, the electoral system — but also the software: the culture, civil society, education system and religious organizations. Fidesz (founded in 1988 as the Hungarian Alliance of Young Democrats) has actively pushed a narrative of Hungarian victimhood and ethnocentrism in schools, theaters and universities while vilifying any opposing viewpoint, and especially pro-democracy organizations funded by George Soros, the Hungarian-American billionaire who has become something of a whipping boy for the far right throughout Central Europe.
Mr. Orban’s defenders say people support him not for his populism but for his handling of the economy. Government debt and the budget deficit are down, the country’s credit rating is up, growth has almost quadrupled since 2010. What these figures do not show, though, is that many of these improvements have come through membership in the European Union, which Mr. Orban assails at every opportunity. At the same time, according to the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators, corruption has risen significantly under Mr. Orban.
With national variations, Mr. Orban’s Hungary has been the template for the “authoritarianization” — the term some experts use — in Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Poland, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, Vladimir Putin’s Russia and in other democracies where populism has made headway. The United States may not fit into the same pattern, but like the others, President Trump came to power by playing on the resentments of a deeply divided nation. The populists, no matter how narrowly elected, assume that electoral victory was the will of the people and, in a terrible irony, a license to trample on the same democracy that raised them to power. They feel empowered to muzzle the press, crush the opposition, manipulate the courts and vilify whoever disagrees with them.
The process requires constantly feeding followers what they want to hear. Mr. Orban has been all over billboards, TV and radio in the run-up to the election. Mr. Trump tweets obsessively; Mr. Erdogan issues a constant torrent of aggressive speeches; Russia’s state-run media lionizes Mr. Putin and assails the United States full time.
That illiberal democracy might find fertile ground in societies in profound transition, like those of Central Europe, is not so surprising. That a populist — or a populist cause like Brexit in Britain — can succeed in countries that are wealthy and seemingly stable suggests that deeply polarized societies are also vulnerable to extreme partisanship, and so to populist bombast. The great challenge for liberal democracy is to counter the populists without resorting to their tactics.
In the end, the legitimacy accorded by the vote is both the autocrat’s entree to power and potentially his (they are all men) downfall. Autocracy breeds corruption and cronyism, and leaders who wallow in the swamp they pledged to drain cannot forever fool their base. For all his evident popularity, Mr. Putin still felt compelled to block any effective opposition to his recent re-election; Mr. Erdogan’s speeches are beginning to bore some people; and however strong Mr. Orban’s chances appear, he has campaigned with an intensity that betrays a touch of insecurity.