Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party is often said to have won Hungarians’ support by offering them government largesse. But the benefits it offers are hardly universal, and they’re helping parts of the middle classes more than working people or the rural poor.

Workers remove Szikra Movement protest stickers on the road leading to the Várkert Bazaar where cordons protect the venue of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban’s annual assessment speech on February 17, 2024 in Budapest, Hungary. (Janos Kummer / Getty Images)

Viktor Orbán’s fourteen-year reign as Hungarian prime minister has seen him take many steps to entrench his power — but recent months have been some of the most difficult of his rule. In February, President Katalin Novák, a close Orbán ally, had to resign after it emerged that she had pardoned a convicted pedophile-enabler. Meanwhile, former justice minister Judit Varga — another close ally of the prime minister — announced that she was leaving public life, having countersigned the pardon.

Capitalizing on the large-scale dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of these events, as well as broader economic ills, Péter Magyar emerged as an unlikely opponent of Orbán’s rule. Himself formerly an insider in the ruling Fidesz party, Magyar’s rallies against Orbán have drawn large crowds nationwide. With European and local elections scheduled for June 9, and large chunks of EU funds for Hungary still frozen, the country may be at a turning point. Yet Magyar’s own record poses questions of what kind of change is even hoped for by members of the opposition.

András Jámbor is the founder and former chief editor of online left-wing new platform Mérce. In spring 2022, Jámbor was elected MP against all odds for Budapest’s eighth and ninth districts, representing green-left movement Szikra (Spark). In the last two years, he has emerged as one of Orbán’s most visible and consistent critics, playing an important role in the revitalization of the Hungarian left. He sat down with Jacobin to discuss the events of recent months and the social changes taking place in today’s Hungary.

Áron Rossman-Kiss

In recent months, Viktor Orbán’s government has faced one of its most significant crises after it emerged that President Katalin Novák had pardoned a man convicted of covering up child abuse. She eventually had to resign, and former justice minister Judit Varga announced she was also withdrawing from public life. What’s the significance of these events — does it reveal something deeper about the nature of Orbán’s rule?

András Jámbor

The “pardon scandal” exposed the hypocrisy of the Fidesz party’s child-protection policy. It has opened society’s eyes to the contradictions that the government’s actions have been building up for years. Its policies have spread nationalist propaganda in the name of “child protection” but they also gave public funding to social groups that were already prosperous. Those truly in need do not receive support from the current child-protection system and are left to fend for themselves.

For years, the government has refused to allocate new resources for children in the social-care system or to increase the wages of the professionals who look after them. When I questioned Orbán in parliament about this, he responded with astonishing cynicism: he claimed that the salaries of child-protection social workers had nothing to do with how children were treated and what kind of people chose this profession.

For years, the government has refused to allocate new resources for children in the social-care system or to increase the wages of the professionals who look after them.

The events that led to the departures of Novák and Varga have allowed problems that have existed for a long time in the welfare system to come to the surface. Another related issue I’ve been very much involved in during the past years is the debt-collection system, which is also managed by the Justice Ministry headed by Varga. It is an extremely exploitative, cruel system that preys on those in need.

Áron Rossman-Kiss

Orbán and his right-wing Fidesz party have built much of their legitimacy around their “pro-family” policies. While these mainly take the form of tax breaks favoring the middle and upper classes, they have also proved popular domestically and attracted much attention worldwide. As minister of families and later president, Novák was the face of these policies and did much to promote them internationally. How might her departure affect them?

András Jámbor

Fidesz’s family policies are about much more than family-protection measures. Orbán’s recently deceased theorist, Gyula Tellér, divided society into three parts: the poor, civil servants, and the independent middle class. The struggle between the latter two, he argued, is a struggle between Left and Right, with the Left’s base being the civil servants and the Right’s the middle class.

This has guided the Right’s political strategy: if civil servants are given a hard time and are unable to organize, then no strong left can emerge. As for the poor — they must either be excluded from politics or directly ordered around. This is the dual aim of the Fidesz family policy. It strengthens the middle classes and weakens everyone below them.

In this context, the middle class does not refer to the liberal or left-leaning metropolitan middle classes that find themselves on globalization’s fault lines worldwide. Instead, they refer to the rural middle classes, which have been closely tied to the Orbán government through economic interests and subsidies. Enabled by the systematic transfer of funds from poorer rural populations to the rural middle classes, this has a created strong, vertically organized power relations across the country.

Áron Rossman-Kiss

The pardon appears to have been largely orchestrated by Zoltán Balog, a bishop in the Hungarian Reformed Church who was previously the minister of Orbán’s church and later a minister in his government. What does this say about the relation between church and state in a country that often presents itself as a “bastion of Christianity”? What role do religious institutions play in Hungary today?

András Jámbor

In recent years, Balog’s importance was less linked to ideology and more to the control he exercised over the Reformed Church — a significant organization, especially in eastern Hungary. In rural parts of the country, churches have become dominant players, increasingly taking over state functions such as social services and education. This has also meant that churches have been receiving and accessing more and more funds. Balog’s role in this process — ensuring the flow of influence and connections — has been really crucial. Although he had to give up a few positions since the scandal broke, he remains an important player in the system.

Áron Rossman-Kiss

As a reaction to the resignations, the government went on a media offensive against “the Left” and gay people. For the past year, you have also been the continuous target of such attacks. What form do these take, and how do you respond?

András Jámbor

One of the fundamental characteristics of Fidesz’s politics is its refusal of political debate. It focuses instead on the destruction of its opponents, regularly attacking its critics with trumped-up accusations and smear campaigns. This is particularly true for genuine left-wing organizations such as the Szikra Movement, which is increasingly able to funnel the discontent of people struggling with everyday livelihood issues into institutional politics.

Fidesz focuses on the destruction of its opponents, regularly attacking its critics with trumped-up accusations and smear campaigns.

Over the years, my political community and I have been on the receiving end of some absolutely outlandish allegations. Such attacks clearly have an impact on both a personal and organizational level. But online campaigns, leaflets full of smears, and lies told at government press conferences don’t really work because of the close personal relationships that have been built between the movement and its supporters, and myself and my constituents.

When I walk in the streets of Budapest, people constantly stop me to share their personal questions and problems, without repeating Orbán’s propaganda. Over time, so many people and organizations have been smeared as dangerous or violent that these methods have simply become less effective. They can’t influence voters as much as they once did.

Áron Rossman-Kiss

The fact that the child abuse happened in a state-run institution also points to the structural underfunding of the social sector under Orbán. You are yourself the child of a social worker and have followed this issue closely. How has the regime’s social policy reconfigured Hungarian society in the past decade?

András Jámbor

In the past years, state institutions have been continuously downgraded, childcare has been outsourced to foster parenting, and the role of the church has grown. Similar trends can be observed in the field of education, where churches are taking over more and more institutions, at the expense of the state. The private sector’s share in the field of health care has also grown dramatically over the last decade.

Those who cannot afford care at market rates or for whom even access to public services is out of reach are particularly affected by this process. This has led to an overall social transformation, with an emphasis on individual responsibility rather than collective, community solutions.

Áron Rossman-Kiss

While the scandal was ongoing, Orbán was engaged in a tense standoff with EU leaders over aid for Ukraine and frozen European Commission funds earmarked for Hungary. He has now sought to sell his stand as a victory to the Hungarian public, even if he was seen as losing the standoff in the eyes of most international observers. What role does “Europe” play in maintaining his power more generally? Are European threats against him to be taken seriously, or is it just for show?

András Jámbor

Some aspects have serious repercussions; for instance, a sizeable share of EU funds is simply not flowing into Hungary at the moment. Even if much of that means funds usually not allocated to appropriate areas, and there is widespread corruption, this does represent a challenge for Hungarian society. This inflow is crucial for the Hungarian economy: if fewer European funds come in, it will have negative effects on everything from monetary policy to the state of public finances. Politically, however, the issue is recast as a symbolic rather than economic issue. It is framed as a battle between Budapest and Brussels elites.

Áron Rossman-Kiss

A few days after the scandal erupted, a group of internet personalities convened a demonstration in Budapest, which eventually became the biggest anti-government rally of the past decade. In the same week, Péter Magyar, a Fidesz cadre, publicly denounced the handling of the scandal, eventually announced his own political formation, and has dominated much of the public discourse ever since. In the meanwhile, opposition parties have largely failed to capitalize on the moment, with their own events only attended by a few thousand supporters. What does this say about the state of the opposition as a whole?

András Jámbor

In a semiauthoritarian party-state system — such as the one in Hungary today — people understandably lose faith and trust, since politics are so rarely about concrete issues or constructive debate. This is of course part of a larger global phenomenon that has been fueled by the rise of social media.

In a semiauthoritarian party-state system — such as the one in Hungary today — people understandably lose faith and trust, since politics are so rarely about concrete issues or constructive debate.

As the options tied to the “mainstream” opposition have dwindled year by year, something of an “expectation in a messiah” may have developed: a hope for quick fixes and a leader single-handedly bringing the desired change instead of a structured process of building something else. One person is expected to fill the void that traditional parties have been unable to.

Áron Rossman-Kiss

Orbán and his allies have won nearly every election since 2010. With local and European elections both scheduled for early June, do you see any chance for a change in the opposition’s electoral fortunes?

András Jámbor

There may be good results in Budapest and other big cities, but this alone would not be enough to break the state-party’s power, since the Hungarian political system does not allow for local powers to counterbalance national processes. I do not expect the kind of sweeping opposition breakthrough that could turn rural Hungary around these elections. Any additional local positions that might be gained will not have a significant impact on the 2026 parliamentary elections.

An interesting situation could however emerge if Fidesz falls below 40 percent in the purely list-based European Parliament elections. The decline of Fidesz could mark a turning point in the public perception, making it look vulnerable; in itself, this may not be sufficient given its structural strength, but it could be an important moment.

Áron Rossman-Kiss

You became an MP for the Szikra Movement after defeating the Fidesz candidate in the 2022 general elections, making you one of very few left-wing MPs Hungary. What can you do with a government-controlled parliament and a deadlocked opposition?

András Jámbor

We have a responsibility to represent the people, even if we do not have decision-making power. We have achieved success on a number of local issues raised by my constituents. In some cases, these successes have gone beyond the district itself: for example, we have fought for people using prepaid electricity contracts that were initially excluded from the government subsidies. These are usually poorer citizens, and I’m proud that we managed to get them included in the new measures.

One-third of my salary goes to local NGOs. Additionally, we also directly support several direct assistance programs. We have managed to provide energy-efficiency support to dozens of residents in the district and legal aid for some residents who have fallen into debt and are threatened with foreclosure. Since I joined the parliament, we have prevented a number of evictions, together with members of Szikra and other civil rights activists. I believe that an MP standing up for those in need still carries weight; I will continue doing this as long as my community gives me the mandate to do so.

Áron Rossman-Kiss

Szikra is still a young organization and has sought to tread a fine line between gaining a foothold in institutional politics and forging its own distinct path. How do you see a left-wing political project taking root in Hungary in the long term? How can the organization avoid becoming irrelevant in the way previous left-wing parties have?

András Jámbor

Szikra is not a party. We are taking a different path from traditional right or left parties. Our theory of change is fundamentally different from theirs, because we are not satisfied with the existing system and structures. For us, institutional politics is not the ultimate goal but merely a means toward ensuring broader social representation and participation.

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