Meet the 'Charm Cannon' for Hungary's Regime

Meet the 'Charm Cannon' for Hungary's Regime

By Pallabi Munsi

Judit Varga, Hungary's justice minister, is the telegenic face of Viktor Orbán's government as it clashes with Europe.
SourceAlvaro Tapia Hidalgo for OZY


Because she's giving authoritarianism a new face.

By Pallabi Munsi

  • Judit Varga, Hungary’s justice minister, is the telegenic face of Viktor Orbán’s government as it clashes with Europe.
  • Her stalwart advocacy is upending gender politics in Hungary.

In April, Judit Varga uploaded a video on Facebook in which she plays the violin to a new rendition of “Gloomy Sunday” — which some call the Hungarian suicide anthem — with young singer Tandi Flora. Her hair tightly tied and her focused eyes radiating passion, the Hungarian minister of justice looks and plays like a professional. In fact, pop music radio channel Petőfi soon started playing it on air.

But it isn’t the first time the tall, slender Fidesz politician — with a fashion sense that reeks of confidence and a personality that oozes charm — has broadcast her many talents to the world. In 2018, when she was still a minister of state, Varga uploaded a video on social networking platforms wherein she was juggling a soccer ball an impressive 37 consecutive times. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that she’s athletic: Varga was captain of the basketball team at the University of Miskolc. Later, when she lived in Brussels while working as a political adviser, she took up soccer and played for the professional team Saint Michel.

And the 40-year-old mother of three boys also knows when exactly to tell the world how much she cares for her family.

It’s all part of the package for the woman Hungarian President Viktor Orbán has called his “Charm Cannon.” Varga relishes her role as the chief global defender of Orbán’s authoritarian approach to the rule of law that has Europe worried. You might not be convinced by her insistence that a recent law giving Orbán the power to effectively rule by decree to fight the coronavirus isn’t a power grab, and such criticism is a “witch hunt due to Hungary’s take on the refugee crisis,” but she’ll keep at it. 

Popular Dutch weekly Elsevier Weekblad ranked Varga among the 20 most influential female politicians this year alongside the likes of New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern and Finnish prime minister Sanna Marin. But Andrea Peto, professor of gender studies at the Central European University, Vienna, who describes the Hungarian state as essentially an idea-less parasite, says, “Varga is successfully capitalizing whatever has a value in the market of illiberal politics.”

Varga’s meteoric rise in the global political arena can be understood through her upbringing. Born into a middle-class family in Miskolc — a city that suffered massively after the collapse of the one-party Communist system — Varga was always closely attached to her hometown and lived there until she got her law degree. While in high school, she was nicknamed “the scholar,” and it’s evident from her oratorial command. She is able to negotiate in at least three foreign languages — English, German and French.

Some Western European thinkers believe it is their raison d’être to discredit the Hungarian government at every opportunity — a government whose ‘sin’ is that it pursues a coherent, Christian-Conservative policy.

Judit Varga

In fact, says Daniel Hegedüs, Central European Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, Varga’s father was an agent of the Communist secret service in Hungary and her mother has been a part of the judiciary, so the family had elite connections. “The fact that she plays music and knows basketball and soccer also point to the fact that she comes from an elite background,” Hegedüs says. In addition, her husband, Péter Magyar, is childhood friends with a top Orbán government official, Gergely Gulyás, according to the Hungarian Spectrum blog. 

It’s rare for someone who served in the European Parliament, as Varga did for nine years, to attain a high executive position in Hungary. But after she was a low-key firebrand promoting Fidesz’s “Christian conservative” approach in the parliament, she was elevated to an unusual government role — where she’s often at the EU clashing with other nations. “Of course, she is the minister of justice, but what is happening in her case is that the judiciary and legislature is taking a backseat as she is focusing on protecting the Hungarian ruling party’s position in the EU regarding the rule of law, etc.,” Hegedüs says.

In March, Varga blasted the EU for its “double standard,” in an opinion piece for Politico on the criticism of Hungary’s new emergency powers. “These attacks are, once again, evidence that some Western European thinkers believe it is their raison d’être to discredit the Hungarian government at every opportunity — a government whose ‘sin’ is that it pursues a coherent, Christian-Conservative policy,” Varga wrote. When Hungary lifted the emergency powers in June, she said it was proof that the criticism was off base. “An apology would be appropriate,” she said, adding: “But I’m not so naive to expect an apology.”

Hegedus says Varga comes off like a preprogrammed parrot for Orbán, dispensing the same legal rationales over and over again. But she’s also a more effective, telegenic communicator than the prime minister, as she leads efforts to bring about a “Conservative Green Policy,” arguing that environmentalism has been monopolized by the left.

While she’s proven her loyalty to Orbán, Hungary’s mercurial leader is known for reshuffling and throwing out politicians at his convenience. And last week Varga was sidelined — at least for now — after testing positive for COVID-19.

But in the long run, Peto says, she could upend gender politics in Hungary. Already, Varga’s appointment has stumped the opposition and forced them to stop their criticism of gender inequalities in the Orbán government. In the coming years, Peto says, “it may lead to meaningful and long-overdue inclusion of gender equality in the politics of the Hungarian opposition too.”