The record flooding on the Danube River over the past few days has brought out the best—or worst—in Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. He has been scurrying about the levees in his Wellingtons and civilian clothing, consulting with flood-defense workers, wading through the high water, poring over maps of water levels on the river at all times of day and night, providing the media with continuous, on-the-ground updates. At last count, he has had ten videos of his flood-response activity published on the official Viktor Orbán Facebook site. As the leader of Hungary, directing the response to a natural disaster in the country is, of course, his job. Showing his supreme concern for the plight of the nation is a political imperative, especially after George Bush’s Hurricane Katrina debacle in 2005.
Yet Prime Minister Orbán’s non-stop direct participation in the planning and implementation of flood-defense measures has been excessive, a reflection of his charismatic-authoritarian leadership style and his overwhelming desire to exercise the greatest possible control over the running of the country. The same ambition that drives the prime minister to the flood embankments, that impels him to oversee the building of sandbag barriers and investigate inundated land in a motor boat drives him to use his two-thirds majority in the National Assembly and unchallenged authority within his government and party to remove all checks and balances to his political power and to use every means at his disposal in order to neutralize his political opponents and influence people to follow him.
This is not politics as usual. It is something much more. Orbán’s systematic dismantling of the liberal democracy established in Hungary following the fall of communism in order to build a semi-authoritarian state over which he exercises autocratic authority is unprecedented in the history of unified Europe. The prime minister quite correctly declared a State of Emergency as rising waters of the Danube surged toward Hungary from Austria. He was wise to mobilize 7,000 soldiers and 1,500 police to help with flood defense and to establish a National Humanitarian Coordination Council to assist those displaced as a result of the inundation. He was right to visit the site of flooding along the Danube—once, perhaps twice. Maybe even to pick up a spade for a PR photo.
However, Orbán’s manifest endeavor to direct and control almost every aspect of the flood response and to portray himself as the savior of the nation does not bode well for the political future of Hungary.