Hungary’s liberals brace for a torrid four years after Orbán’s landslide


Shaun Walker* – The Guardian

Crushing victory means PM now has power to remould Hungary and possibly even the entire EU

Budapest. Viktor Orbán embarks on another four years in power newly emboldened, after winning a crushing victory in a parliamentary vote on Sunday that will give him the power to remould Hungary.

With most of the votes counted by Monday morning, a two-thirds majority looks likely for Orbán’s Fidesz party, which will allow the government to pass constitutional changes. The party won 49% of the vote in the national list and took the majority of constituency mandates, a far better performance than even Fidesz insiders were expecting.

For Hungary’s beleaguered liberals, who were unable to overcome internal divisions to unite against Fidesz and were trounced at the polls, a torrid four years are in store.

“This is the absolute worst-case scenario,” said Zsuzsanna Szelényi, a former independent MP. “This new majority coupled with the high turnout will mean Fidesz feels more legitimate, and Orbán will be able to use this new strength in its dealings with Brussels.”

Over the past eight years, Orbán has been accused of backsliding on democratic norms, appointing loyalists to head previously independent institutions, and taking indirect control of much of the media market. With Fidesz extremely strong in parliament, this is likely to continue. After a speech in March in which Orbán promised to seek “moral, political and legal amends” against his enemies after the election, nobody can say they were not warned.

“Orbán does not like to have islands of autonomy around him, and so in this new term we can see further moves against those that are remaining, including NGOs and the judiciary, which is still fairly independent,” said Szelényi.

Orbán will see the result as a resounding endorsement of the single-issue campaign he ran on immigration, using far-right rhetoric to claim the opposition would allow mass migration, and that this would bring more terrorism, rape and other crime to Hungary. The message was disseminated relentlessly by the state media and government-funded billboards. Now that he has won, it is unlikely that the rhetoric will be toned down.

First on the agenda could be the controversial “stop Soros” set of laws. Meant to combat the supposed nefarious plots of the Hungarian-American financier George Soros to undermine Hungary, they could be put before parliament in the coming weeks. The bill would subject all foreign funding for immigration-related advocacy or support to a 25% tax, and would also give the interior ministry the right to close down organisations it believed were a national security risk.

“Many of those organisations who camouflage themselves as human rights groups that are trying to help people to get rid of their misery are actually helping to foster illegal migration,” said Orbán’s spokesman, Zoltán Kovács, before the vote.

Civil society representatives have said the bill is fundamentally different from previous pieces of legislation aimed at the sector, which were stigmatising but could be sidestepped.

Even before the official results were announced on Sunday night, Kovács told the Hungarian website Index that “organisations interfering with politics need to be shut down”. On Monday morning, a Fidesz spokesman said on state television that parliament would pass the law in May. At risk are the few remaining NGOs who offer legal or humanitarian assistance for migrants and refugees.

Ákos Hadházy, co-chair of the liberal LMP party, said he was stepping down after the vote, and refused to congratulate Fidesz or Orbán, saying the election was neither fair nor honest. “There will be grave political and economic consequences to follow, and Hungary is close to no longer being part of the EU,” he said.

Many observers believe that rather than the EU changing Hungary, there is more chance of a newly emboldened Orbán winning ground in his battle to reshape the EU. Although Orbán’s political language is of the far right, his Fidesz party is part of the European People’s party bloc in Brussels, a centre-right grouping that includes Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party.

Orbán’s new mandate will make it more unlikely that Brussels will be able to hold him to account over democratic backsliding. András Tóth-Czifra of the European Stability Initiative thinktank said European leaders will now feel there is no alternative to Orbán, which will make it harder to apply pressure and will give him more leeway to brush off criticism.

“This in turn will encourage parties like the Front National, Dutch Freedom party, Austrian Freedom party and the AfD [Alternative for Germany] to call for policies like Orban’s, and cow more and more EPP politicians into adopting these policies themselves,” said Tóth-Czifra.

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*Shaun Walker is the Guardian’s central and eastern Europe correspondent. Previously, he spent more than a decade in Moscow. His book, The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past is published by Oxford University Press.

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Annex:

Hungary votes to keep prime minister and right wing in power

By James McAuley* – The Washington Post

BUDAPEST —Viktor Orban, Hungary’s staunchly anti-migrant prime minister, was reelected Sunday after his right-wing Fidesz party was projected to win a supermajority of seats in parliament. The resounding victory will probably permit Orban’s government to continue with democratic backsliding.

Orban’s ruling coalition was expected to win 133 of 199 seats in parliament, according to the first results from Hungary’s national election website, with more than 90 percent of votes tallied. That barely gives him the two-thirds majority he needs to rewrite the constitution as he sees fit. The largest opposition group was projected to be the far-right Jobbik party, which shares much of Fidesz’s anti-immigrant platform and was expected to claim 26 seats.

The vote — easily the most consequential since Hungary’s post-communist transition — was widely seen as a reflection on the state of democracy and the rule of law in a European Union member state that in recent years has been sliding toward autocracy. The result — coming in an election with high turnout — quashed any hopes of an opposition presence in a country that has essentially been a one-party state for nearly a decade.

In the past eight years in power, Orban — in two consecutive terms as prime minister — has enacted drastic changes to Hungary’s constitution, attempted to dismantle its system of checks and balances, and sought to silence his critics, notably in the Hungarian media.

On Sunday night, Orban appeared in Budapest to declare victory. “There is a big battle behind us,” he said, speaking at the Fidesz campaign headquarters. “We have won. Today Hungary had a decisive victory. We have the chance to defend Hungary.”

Hungary is in the midst of a divisive election that will decide if the country’s anti-immigrant prime minister gets a third straight term in office. (Griff Witte, Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

The election was a crushing defeat for left-leaning opposition leaders, who had rallied in recent weeks to try to curb Orban’s power in what polls had long predicted would be a win for a third consecutive term in power. They had hoped for a larger presence in parliament, which might then halt Orban’s aim of transforming Hungary into what he has called an “illiberal democracy.”

“We are very happy for the high turnout. We hoped that it would help those citizens who want change, but looking at the final results, it has become clear they are below our expectations,” said Gergely Karacsony, the Socialist Party’s candidate for prime minister. “There is no defeat, no slap in the face, from which we cannot recover.”

As he cast his ballot, Orban couched the election in existential terms: “What’s at stake is Hungary’s future,” he said.

Orban’s reelection represented a victory for the European far right. Since the terrorist attacks of 2015, his central message has been the demonization of migrants. But his 2018 campaign also resonated on a more historical level: it was the first time since World War II that a European head of state ran — and won — on a platform that held a Jewish financier responsible for a nation’s perceived ills.

The central figure in Orban’s anti-migrant tirades has been George Soros, the Hungarian-born American billionaire and liberal philanthropist who has funded Budapest’s Central European University and many of the nongovernmental organizations the current prime minister seeks to close. A caricature of Soros’s face adorns negative campaign posters across the country, and Orban likened a legislative promise to crack down on the types of organizations the billionaire funds as the “Stop Soros” bill.

But the language Orban has used throughout this year’s campaign has gone far beyond the specific influence of Soros. His rhetoric has repeated word-for-word the anti-Jewish cliches that were once a mainstay of European political life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“We are fighting an enemy that is different from us,” he said in a March campaign speech in Budapest. “Not open but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world.”

Hungary is a society where the conspiracy theory remains a powerful concept, and Orban’s choice of Soros tapped into a deep reservoir of underlying suspicions, political analysts said.

“Hungarians are used to thinking that there are dark figures pulling the strings behind historical process,” said Kristóf Szombati, a political scientist and the author of a forthcoming book on contemporary right-wing politics in Hungary. During 50 years of communist rule, he noted, neither what was visible nor what was said could ever be believed, a memory that has lingered in the collective understanding.

“What’s going on is behind the curtains, and that’s what we have to be thinking about to understand our politics,” he said. “Orban plays into this with all his talk about Brussels, and the figure of Soros serves the same role, of bringing this kind of conspiracy back to life.”

Almost immediately after the results were announced, a climate of fear descended on Hungarian nongovernmental organizations and liberal actors—the same type of people against whom Orban had vowed during the campaign to “seek amends” if reelected.

On Sunday, government representative Zoltán Kovács told Index, a leading Hungarian news outlet, when asked about whether Fidesz would pass the “Stop-Soros” law package if it wins the majority: “Those organizations that want to influence Hungarian politics unlawfully need to be closed down.”

Following the results, Júlia Iván, director of Amnesty International Hungary, issued a statement of concern on the organization’s website.

“In recent years, the government has tried to pull back civil rights organizations as much as it could,” she wrote.

“However hostile the government propaganda is, whatever legislation they pass, we will keep fighting for a Hungary where everybody is entitled to the same respect and rights. We will continue to be loud critics of the government. .?.?. We won’t let anybody who raises his voice to be intimidated.”

Throughout the day on Sunday, voters waited in long lines to cast their ballots.

For some voters — even those who saw no viable alternative — the point was to limit the party’s power by any available means. To that end, this election — compared with Orban’s victories in 2010 and 2014 — was widely seen as a battle over the country’s democratic future.

“What they are doing with the rule of law, with democratic institutions, they’re taking everything away from the people,” said Frazsina Nagy, 28, a lawyer in Budapest, after she cast her ballot.

“The situation is terrifying,” said Lilla Szalay, 37, a psychologist, who stood with her young daughter after voting in a Budapest school. “Everybody wants to go abroad. If things stay this way, we will have to go abroad, too — and I don’t want to.”

But for many others, Orban’s reelection was a necessary sacrifice to protect a country — and a society — they see as under siege, even if they do not always approve of Orban’s bluster.

Gabor Csorba, 48, a church finance officer, said that he did not approve of certain aspects of Orban’s personality and rhetoric but that he voted for the incumbent anyway.

“It’s better this kind of society will continue or else there will be instability ahead,” he said after casting his ballot at the same polling place as Orban, a precinct on the “Buda” side of the Danube River.

“I don’t see any program from the opposition,” he added, noting that he has been a Fidesz voter since the 1990s, after Hungary’s post-communist transition.

For others, there is the enduring appeal of Orban’s strongman personality. “He is the only one who has some spirit,” said Zsuzsa Dessewffy, 68, a producer with Echo television, a channel owned by Lorinc Meszaros, an oligarch with ties to Fidesz.

“The other side has had eight years to find someone with that kind of spirit.”

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*James McAuley is Paris correspondent for The Washington Post. He holds a PhD in French history from the University of Oxford,where he was a Marshall Scholar. Andras Petho and Blanka Zoldi in Budapest contributed to this report.

 

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