BY ISHAAN THAROOR* – The Washington Post
Earlier this week, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban delivered an annual speech to ethnic Hungarians at a summer camp in Romania. He largely echoed the remarks he made last year, when he bemoaned European liberalism and championed the continent’s Christian identity. But what seemed like boilerplate nationalist rhetoric then has more force now.
Backed by a hefty new electoral mandate, Orban has broader mission in mind. He urged his right-wing comrades across Europe to “concentrate all our strength” on “important and decisive” 2019 elections for the European Parliament. He framed the challenge in grand historic terms, summoning his allies to cast out those in power still motivated by the values of “1968” — shorthand in Europe for liberal politics based on human rights, the rule of law and open, inclusive societies. “Next May we can wave goodbye not only to liberal democracy … but also to the entire elite of ’68,” Orban said.
The Hungarian leader emphatically drew the battle lines. “Let us confidently declare that Christian democracy is not liberal,” he said. “Liberal democracy is liberal, while Christian democracy is, by definition, not liberal: it is, if you like, illiberal.”
In this goal, he joins former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon, who recently launched a Brussels-based initiative to boost the role of nationalists across the continent within the European Union. Bannon has hailed Orban in the past as a European counterpart to President Trump, seeing the Hungarian leader’s strident anti-immigrant and ultranationalist politics as “Trump before Trump.”
The similarities are obvious. Orban built a fortified barrier along his country’s southern border to keep out Syrian refugees and other migrants. Like Trump, he extols blood-and-soil nationalism over democratic values. He and his allies growl about critical media coverage as “fake news” and indulge in tirades against “globalist” elites — attacks that can easily be, and often are, interpreted as anti-Semitic.
Unlike Trump, though, Orban has had more concrete success in advancing his illiberal agenda. There has been a steady erosion of checks on his rule since he took office in 2010 (he also served as prime minister from 1998 to 2002 in his former guise as a liberal). After his April reelection, his government pushed through a law criminalizing any individual or organization that aided undocumented migrants — with cruel irony, it passed on World Refugee Day. There are now growing questions about the autonomy of Hungary’s judiciary, while the country’s media is disproportionately in Orban’s camp.
On Wednesday, an Orban loyalist completed a takeover of a prominent independent TV channel that had been run by the prime minister’s opponents — a phenomenon familiar to anyone who has watched Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ruthlessly consolidate power and subdue Turkey’s independent media over the past decade.
For Europe, Orban is setting a new precedent. “Although Orban governs a small country, the movement he represents is of global importance,” wrote Bulgarian political philosopher Ivan Krastev earlier this year. “In the West, where the will of the people remains the main source of political legitimacy, his style of illiberal democracy is likely to be the major alternative to liberalism in the coming decades.”
Unlike populists further to the west, Orban does not seek the European Union’s dissolution. Indeed, the Hungarian economy has grown under his watch thanks in part to funds and assistance from Brussels. But he imagines co-opting the bloc and moving it closer in line with his and Trump’s right-wing nationalism.
“He has successfully positioned himself within the European center-right,” wrote Bloomberg View’s Leonid Bershidsky, referring to the continued membership of Fidesz, Orban’s party, in the prominent European People’s Party faction in the European Parliament. That bloc includes the parties of prominent conservative leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
While some moderates have called on the EPP to expel Fidesz, Orban remains in a comfortable position. “Better to keep them in so we can talk to them directly,” said German conservative politician Manfred Weber, head of the EPP, to Politico last month. “He always listens at a certain point. He runs off and has to be told to stop, but he usually does.”
But that condescending view belies Orban’s growing clout, especially among the continent’s mainstream right-wing parties. “When Orban rails against the liberal EU elite,” wrote Bershidsky, “he does that on behalf of the right-wingers in traditional parties … To see if Europe goes in this direction, it’s worth listening for echoes of Orban in the speeches of mainstream conservatives and watching the party platforms for the 2019 European Parliament election. The shift to the right, if it continues, will not be as one-dimensional as a shift in support to the protest parties. It’ll happen from the inside of the conservative flank.”
It’s alarming to contemplate what such a shift represents. “If the liberals who dominated in the 1990s were preoccupied with the rights of ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities, this new consensus is about the rights of the majority,” wrote Krastev. Orban, meanwhile, is among a number of outspoken right-wing nationalists in Europe who support easing tensions with the Kremlin and dropping E.U. sanctions on Russia.
And while Trump may be the source of widespread derision among the European establishment, Orban expresses his admiration for the U.S. president. In his speech, Orban celebrated how Trump has “made good on his promises.” He praised Trump’s attacks on the multilateral international order, largely built through decades of U.S. cooperation with blocs like the European Union and the Group of Seven. While Trump’s critics cast his actions as those of an impetuous and impatient demagogue, Orban said Trump was “making systematic progress with the precision of an engineer.”
The truth, though, may be closer to home: As Orban marshals the resurgent nationalist right, it’s his project that is steadily coming into focus.
“Why has democracy declared war on liberalism most openly in eastern Europe? The answer lies in the peculiar nature of the revolutions of 1989, when the states of eastern Europe freed themselves from the Soviet empire. Unlike previous revolutions, the ones in 1989 were concerned not with utopia but with the idea of normality—that is, the revolutionaries expressed a desire to lead the type of normal life already available to people in western Europe. Once the Berlin Wall fell, the most educated and liberal eastern Europeans became the first to leave their countries, provoking major demographic and identity crises in the region. And as the domestic constituencies for liberal democracy immigrated to the West, international actors such as the EU and the United States became the face of liberalism in eastern Europe, just as their own influence was waning. This set the stage for the nationalist revolt against liberalism seizing the region today…
“Hungary lost nearly three percent of its population in just the last ten years. And in 2016, around one million Poles were living in the United Kingdom alone. This emigration of the young and talented was occurring in countries that already had aging populations and low birthrates. Together, these trends set the stage for a demographic panic.
“It is thus both emigration and the fear of immigration that best explain the rise of populism in eastern Europe. The success of nationalist populism, which feeds off a sense that a country’s identity is under threat, is the outcome of the mass exodus of young people from the region combined with the prospect of large-scale immigration, which together set demographic alarm bells ringing.”
*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.