BY ISHAAN THAROOR* – The Washington Post
Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban seeks to win reelection for a third consecutive term this Sunday. His ruling Fidesz party is widely expected to secure enough seats to give Orban a fresh mandate, although a fragmented vote could deprive him of a decisive majority.
In power since 2010, Orban is Europe’s second-longest-ruling leader after Germany’s Angela Merkel — and he’s become just as influential.
A liberal who drifted right in the decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, Orban, 54, now styles himself an “illiberal democrat,” a majoritarian populist who stands up for his nation’s interests, traditions and culture. Since 2015, no European leader has been more vehement in opposition to migrants and refugees than Orban, whose scaremongering over Islam and the threats to Europe’s Christian identity found loud echoes among the continent’s far right and prefigured the arrival of a divisive demagogue in the White House.
Austria’s new prime minister, Sebastian Kurz, who came to power in alliance with the far right, praised Orban’s tough stance on immigration. President Trump seemed to take a page from Orban’s book when he delivered a thundering blood-and-soil speech last year in Poland. On a trip to Europe this year, Stephen K. Bannon, far-right ideologue and former Trump adviser, hailed Orban as a “real hero” and the “most significant guy in the European scene.”
“Orban’s defiance presents the E.U. with a far different threat than the one it faced in 2016, when Britain voted to exit and speculation swirled over who might go next,” my colleagues Griff Witte and Michael Birnbaum wrote. “It may be more serious than that — a challenge that endangers the character of the union.”
Orban’s critics see him as a soft autocrat. Hungary under his rule is far from a jackbooted dictatorship, but its democracy is diverging markedly from that of many of its partners in the European Union. Opponents point to a new class of crony capitalists establishing fiefdoms with the prime minister’s blessing. Orban’s government exercises subtle yet domineering control over the judiciary and the media. It has reworked the country’s electoral system to its benefitpartly through gerrymandering and giving citizenship to ethnic Hungarians abroad, the vast majority of whom opt for Fidesz. And it is squeezing the space for civil society, stepping up efforts to target NGOs and other institutions whose politics or work do not align with the ruling party’s interest.
Politico’s Lili Bayer likened Orban’s tenure to an earlier era of Communist apparatchiks. “When it comes to the practicalities of governing and securing support, both Orban and his Polish counterparts have deployed an approach that — in its paternalism, heavy-handedness, obsession with external enemies and even class-based rhetoric — is reminiscent of their despised predecessors,” she wrote.
But at least for now, it seems to be a winning strategy. Orban beats the drum of a far-right populist, albeit one who has a seat at the table in Brussels andpowerful allies across Europe. His signature tactic is a weaponized culture war, anchored in an emotional narrative of Hungarian victimhood and redemption. He wants to make the nation great again after centuries of subjugation andhumiliation at the hands of the Ottomans, the victors of World War I, the Soviet Union and now menacing globalists to the west.
“We sent home the sultan with his army, the Habs¬burg kaiser with his raiders and the Soviets with their comrades,” Orban said at rally to more than 100,000 people in central Budapest last month. “Now we will send home Uncle George.” That was a reference to Jewish American financier George Soros, who Orban cast as a central villain in the country’s politics, the shadowy hand pulling the strings in the background, funding enemies who are somehow eager to flood the nation with migrants and otherwise betray the people.
“Our opponents are fighting, kicking, biting,” Orban said, darkly warning of a purge to come. “But, of course, after the elections we will take revenge — moral, political and legal revenge.”
It’s particularly galling to some observers in Brussels that Orban can conduct such a campaign while drinking deeply from the economic well of the European Union. Generous E.U. aid and subsidies — in 2016, Hungaryreceived $5.5 billion in E.U. funds, while contributing only around $1.2 billion — have helped the leader bankroll giant public works programs and bring down unemployment. “Orban is waging his freedom fight against the E.U. with huge amounts of E.U. money,” Peter Kreko, executive director of the Budapest-based policy research firm Political Capital, told my colleagues. “Lenin said ‘Capitalists will sell the rope to us with which we’ll hang them.’ Well, the E.U. is not selling. It’s giving it to Orban for free.”
Meanwhile, Fidesz’s place inside the European People’s Party, a powerful center-right alliance in the European Parliament, gives it a degree of political cover. Orban can call on the support of prominent Western European politicians, including leading figures in Merkel’s Bavarian sister party, who share Orban’s antipathy toward migrants. This institutional backing, critics say, has prevented the European Union from taking a tougher line with Hungary.
“Orban’s success over the years does not demonstrate that right-wing populism is an unstoppable force,” Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Muller wrote in an essay for the New York Review of Books. “Rather, his victories have been enabled by the cynicism of center-right politicians in Europe who refuse to distance themselves from what is in fact a white nationalist government.”
Orban’s detractors warn that the siren song of his populism is sending his country on a perilous course. “It seems that Orban’s model is Miklos Horthy’s antediluvian regime in interwar Hungary, a soft dictatorship that defied the country’s real and imagined foreign enemies and initially appealed to Hungarian pride,” wrote Charles Gati, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “But it left humiliation and destruction in its wake at the end of World War II.”
Muller, in a separate op-ed for the New York Times, feared that Sunday’s ballot marked a moment of reckoning for Europe.
“This election is probably the last before Hungary shifts from what is already a deeply damaged democracy to what political scientists would call a full-blown electoral autocracy,” he wrote. “Elections would still be held in the future, but a real turnover of power would be impossible. Thus the weekend’s ballot is also a test as to whether there can be an autocracy inside the European Union, a self-declared club of democracies.”
*Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York. Follow @ishaantharoor
Far-Right Nationalism in Hungary
Some 10,000 Hungarians protested in Budapest on Dec. 2 against anti-Semitic comments made recently by a member of the far-right opposition Jobbik party at Hungary’s parliament. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban condemned the comments the following day. The far-right movement has deep roots in Hungary and does not appear to be abating — the recent show of opposition to it notwithstanding.
Jobbik, the far right’s most prominent political faction, regularly criticizes the country’s ethnic and religious minorities. But in recent years, the far right has also produced several vigilante groups that engage frequently in more serious harassment, especially of Roma, the ethnic group known commonly as Gypsies. The right wing draws much of its support from those wary of Hungary’s traditional political parties, and it has become especially popular among those suffering the most from Europe’s ongoing economic woes. The movement currently cannot threaten Hungary’s established political order, but it could strengthen further if the Hungarian economy continues to struggle.
Nationalism in Hungary can be traced back to the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, which involved a romantic vision of nationalism found in many European states. After the Austro-Hungarian Empire was destroyed in World War I, a new form of nationalism that mixed irredentist ideas with racial principles emerged, linking the philosophy to authoritarian and extreme right-wing political positions.
The new doctrine included three core tenets. The first involved the defense of “Greater Hungary,” including regions that formerly belonged to the Kingdom of Hungary, and the rejection of the Treaty of Trianon — the peace agreement signed at the end of World War I that redefined Hungary’s borders and shrunk the country by two-thirds. The second tenet was anti-Semitism, an ideology that was manifest most fully under Hungary’s pro-Nazi government during World War II and also rejected other Hungarian minorities, most notably the Roma. Third, the extreme right was stridently anti-communist, similar to other far-right movements in Europe at the time.
After the fall of communism in Hungary in 1989, the country’s far right was represented most prominently by the Hungarian Justice and Life Party, which revolved mainly around Istvan Csurka, a writer and politician. The party lost relevance as its leader aged and was essentially replaced in the mid-2000s by Jobbik.
Anti-Roma rhetoric is central to Jobbik. Statistics vary, but an estimated 700,000 Gypsies live in Hungary, making them the country’s largest minority group. Most Gypsies live in poverty, with roughly a third unemployed, and far-right politicians often blame them for many of Hungary’s problems. To a large extent, Jobbik has emerged as a single-issue party, with the “Roma question” at the core of its platform.
For example, Jobbik is constantly denouncing “Gypsy crime” and organizing protests against the ethnic group. In 2007, the party created the Hungarian Guard, a vigilante organization that claimed to be restoring order in the country. Bands from the group, usually small but occasionally numbering in the hundreds, would patrol small towns in Hungary, especially rural villages, and threaten and intimidate local Gypsy populations.
The Hungarian Guard was banned in 2009, but several similar groups still exist, including the New Hungarian Guard, the Civil Guard Association for a Better Future, the Hungarian National Front, the Sixty-Four Counties Youth Movement, the Defense Force, the Guard Motorcyclists and the Outlaw Army. These groups often work together and hold meetings and rallies — usually involving between 1,000 and 2,000 members — to organize protests and attacks against the Roma in reaction to crimes blamed on Gypsies. Between March and April 2011, several such vigilante groups patrolled the streets of Gyongyospata, a small village 85 kilometers (53 miles) northeast of Budapest, and harassed the local Gypsies for weeks. The Hungarian Red Cross intervened, moving Roma families to other villages to prevent the situation from escalating.
In response to the events in Gyongyospata, the Hungarian parliament outlawed vigilante patrols in May 2011, ruling that maintaining law and order was the sole jurisdiction of the state. Still, residual vigilante activism continued. In August 2012, the Outlaw Army led a protest of some 1,000 people in the town of Devecser, roughly 165 kilometers southeast of Budapest, during which protesters threatened local Gypsies and threw bricks at Roma homes.
Why the Far Right Has Succeeded
Jobbik’s growth can be attributed to several factors. First, the party has attracted young people disillusioned by the political system in Hungary. The party emerged in 2002 as a student organization that criticized the disconnect between the country’s leadership and Hungarian youth. In recent years, Jobbik has begun incorporating anti-globalization rhetoric into its platform, criticizing, for example, the presence of foreign investors in the country. This sentiment has proved attractive to Hungarians whose jobs or livelihoods have been threatened by the slowdown of the economy.
The party’s rise in the late-2000s coincided with the decline of the socialist government of former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, who resigned in March 2009 after a series of scandals and protests sparked by the European economic crisis. This led to the return to power of Fidesz — Hungary’s ruling center-right party — while also affording Jobbik new levels of electoral success. Jobbik won 14.7 percent of the vote in European parliamentary elections in 2009 and 16.6 percent of the vote in general elections in 2010 (compared to 2.2 percent in 2006).
Jobbik is now the third-largest party in Hungary and among the most electorally successful right-wing parties in Europe. The party is the first in Hungary since the fall of communism to center its campaign rhetoric on the Roma, and it has been particularly successful in influencing Hungarian political discussion and agendas. Statistics show that many Fidesz voters sympathize with Jobbik, leading Fidesz to adopt some of Jobbik’s issues — especially issues related to crime or the defense of ethnic Hungarians living abroad.
Possibilities for Additional Growth
Far-right groups and parties do not pose immediate threats to the political stability of Hungary. Jobbik has chosen to work within the country’s political system, just as the Hungarian Justice and Life Party did in the 1990s, and thus faces the same social and political constraints as any other. Jobbik is simply not strong enough to threaten the political order.
The presence of vigilante groups — especially in rural areas — is alarming for the Hungarian government, and such groups’ activities do not seem to have significantly decreased despite the passage of legislation against them. Moreover, they pose real and present threats to minorities. However, such groups are relatively small, and they too lack the political influence to threaten Hungary’s political stability — at least in their current form.
Still, Jobbik is now far more popular than the Hungarian Justice and Life Party ever was; that its popularity has grown in relation to the severity of the European crisis means the party could strengthen further if the economic situation continues to deteriorate. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Hungarian economy is expected to contract by 1.6 percent this year and by 0.1 percent in 2013 (although unemployment has remained relatively stable — dropping slightly to 10.7 percent in the third quarter of 2012 from 11 percent a year earlier).
In short, Hungary’s traditional parties must overcome a crisis of representation that favors extremist parties. The far right has deep roots in the Hungarian political landscape that have strengthened in times of economic crisis. To the extent that Hungary’s mainstream parties fail to respond to social demands — especially if Europe’s economic crisis deepens — Jobbik (or its heirs) could find still more room to grow.