The Russian invasion of Ukraine put Europe’s populists and Putin apologists in a difficult position.
Italian Matteo Salvini famously faced embarrassment in the Polish border town of Przemysl over his sympathies for Putin. France’s Marine Le Pen also had some awkward moments ahead of the French presidential election because of her ties to Russia and loans from Russian and Hungarian banks.
In Germany, former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s reluctance to step down from his post at Russia’s oil company Rosneft led to calls for his exit from the Social Democratic Party (SPD).
However, Hungary’s Orban did not fit that pattern and he easily secured his fourth term in government earlier this month after another landslide victory.
Despite opposition efforts to emphasize the ruling party’s dubious ties to Russia and controversial announcements about the war in Hungarian state media, the stigma attached to Putin did not stick. In a country where memories of Soviet occupation and the failed 1956 uprising are still alive, close ties with Russia no longer seem to be a determining factor in elections. One way to explain this is the increasing personalization of politics in Hungary and the growing cult of leaders.
The cult of the leader was one of the pillars of the Putin regime in Russia and has grown rapidly in Orban’s Hungary in recent years. It has become a key feature of Recep Erdogan’s rule in Turkey for over a decade and a prominent aspect of Narendra Modi’s leadership style in India.
In Hungary, the undisputed leader of the ruling party Fidesz is increasingly charismatic and represented by iconic images drawing on Hungarian traditions of cult formation and international models of strongman portrayal, including Putin, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and others donald trump.
Confidence and belief in his leadership qualities override rational political considerations, reconcile conflicting images and smooth out ideological anomalies. It is possible to portray him as “the leader of Europe” and the champion of national sovereignty, aiming to “stop Brussels” and save Europe from itself.
But the personalization of politics and the Orban cult did not start with the recent election campaign. The image of the Hungarian politician has been carefully constructed, sculpted and adjusted over the past decade and has taken on a cult following since the proclamation of “illiberal democracy” in 2014.
His cult was built along with his illiberal regime. In critical situations such as floods, snow, the 2015 refugee crisis or the war in Ukraine, he is most often portrayed as a stable, balanced and competent leader – “the man in charge”.
He is also portrayed as a competent statesman, defender of traditional values, protector of national interests, approachable, down-to-earth person – “the man of the people”.
Videos and photos posted to his Facebook page show him casually chatting with ordinary people — older women, children in kindergartens, and garbage collectors — or engaging in mundane things like singing folk songs, taking downing shots, pickling cucumbers, or butchering a pig.
Such depictions show strong parallels to images of Putin. In Russia and Hungary, cultic images draw on both communist and pre-communist legacies. In Orban’s case, the image of the ‘ordinary’ man is reminiscent of images of the communist politician Janos Kadar, who is often credited with creating ‘goulash communism’ in Hungary after the failed 1956 revolution.
In the case of Putin, his paintings took up traditions of depicting communist leaders, but they also recycled themes from depictions of Russian tsars. His cult includes elements of the Stalinist myth of the Great Patriotic War (fighting Nazis everywhere), the Soviet Cold War myth that the Russians are against the West (represented by NATO), but also Russophile, Pan-Slavist, and Eurasian ideological currents of the Late 19th and early 20th century, which reaffirmed Russia’s self-image as a great power with a civilizational mission in its – freely definable – area of interest.
In both cases, cultic images are supported by a centralized media empire, state institutions, pro-government NGOs, influencers and celebrities. In both cases, narratives of self-sacrifice also play a role in enhancing the image of the cult leader. Orban is portrayed as the leader of a country under constant attack from EU bureaucrats, while Putin has been portrayed as the leader “cornered” by the West and Nato who had no choice but to invade Ukraine. The absurdity of the image of the strong leader constantly portrayed as a victim should not be overlooked.
Over-reliance on cult leaders could make authoritarian political systems unstable. Such leaders can become isolated if they surround themselves with toady lickers who, out of fear or incompetence, provide them with inaccurate information. But charisma also tends to lead to a belief in one’s own importance.
The spectacular failure of Russia’s military plans in Ukraine has exposed incompetence and hubris in the Russian leadership, pointing to their vulnerability. It would be too early to predict the future trajectory of Orban’s illiberal regime, but his increasing international isolation after the war in Ukraine could potentially undermine his image as a “man of the people” capable of outsmarting the world.
Balázs Apor is Associate Professor of European Studies at Trinity College Dublin
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/cult-like-status-of-self-important-strongmen-may-finally-be-waning-as-war-takes-toll-41601879.html The cult-like status of autocratic strongmen may finally wane as war takes its toll