BUDAPEST -- Peter Molnar recalls the time he first suspected that Viktor Orbán might possess an authoritarian personality.
It was the spring of 1990, shortly after the country's first free election after the collapse of communism a year before. Molnar was one of the youthful founders of a political party called Fidesz (the Alliance of Young Democrats), and he had been a dorm-mate of Orbán at law school. It was there that a group of young revolutionaries held secret seminars to educate each other about Western liberal democratic capitalism, the system slandered by their communist instructors as "imperialist," yet which they hoped to emulate, as the country's future leaders. "On one of the first days when we gathered for a break in the office of our parliamentary group, I put my leg up on the edge of the table," Molnar recalled for me recently over lunch at a fashionable Budapest restaurant. "And I'm not proud of that. I mean I don't think I put it up in a bad way or something like that, people do that, it's just an easygoing way of sitting."
Orbán didn't agree. "He told me to take it off," Molnar says with a smile. "It would have been different if he had told me ‘Peter, I'm sorry, I don't want to teach you things or something but I don't find it nice,' or ‘I'm asking you to take it off.' But he didn't do it that way. He was basically giving an order."
These days Viktor Orbán -- nicknamed "Viktator" by his opponents -- is being accused of far worse things than imperiousness at meetings. In 2010, after years in the opposition, he swept back into office as Hungary's prime minister with an election result that gave him and his political allies an unprecedented 68 percent of the seats in parliament -- a majority that allowed his government to revamp the Hungarian constitution without consulting the electorate or the opposition. His critics accuse him of dismantling Hungary's hard-won democracy by drastically weakening checks and balances, eroding judicial independence, imposing a draconian media law, and jiggering the electoral system so that Fidesz can cement its massive majority for the foreseeable future.
Orbán likes to portray his opponents as disgruntled ex-communists who ran the country into the ground when they ruled from 2002 to 2010, and who still haven't come to terms with the crushing defeat they suffered as a result. His supporters contend that, rather than overreaching, Orbán is merely avoiding the mistakes he made during his first stint in power, from 1998 to 2002, when he erred by failing to embark on root-and-branch reform. This lack of zeal on Fidesz's part a decade ago prevented the country from becoming a true, Western democracy. What's happening now, Orbán's defenders say, is nothing less than a long-postponed "ballot box revolution" that will finally make good on the promise of the early 1990s. Endre Bojtár, editor of the liberal weekly Magyar Narancs, speaks derisively of Orbán's "rhetoric of crisis and failure." The prime minister, he says, essentially denounces the last 20 years as a bust. The message: "everything is fucked up, nothing works in the country, everything is bad."
It is this dismal view of the country's recent history that provides Fidesz its transformative raison d'être, and which justified the introduction of the new constitution on January 1. The revolutionaries of 1989 opted to revise the Stalin-era constitution rather than rewrite it completely -- which is why Orbán and his colleagues took to denouncing it as "communist." Yet this wasn't always so. The same constitution was good enough for Orbán when he first joined the parliament in 1990, and good enough for the European Union when Hungary became a member in 2004. "He voted for this constitution, he swore an oath on this constitution," Mátyás Eörsi, a former member of parliament (from a now-defunct liberal party) told me. Nevertheless, portraying Hungary's contemporary political battles as a continuation of the anti-communist struggle helps justify behavior and actions that would otherwise be deemed beyond the pale. "They seem to think that their sacred goal -- fight the anti-communist fight 22 years after the first free election -- justifies almost everything," Molnar complains.