European Politics

Viktor Orbán’s illiberal democracy is a warning to Europe

Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party has received another four years to create his 'illiberal democracy'. Is this an omen of things to come in Western Europe?

IT IS somewhat ironic that Hungarian nationalism has so cheerfully embraced anti-immigrant politics, given how it celebrates a romanticised past of roving steppe nomads swarming into the Pannonian basin and brining the powers of Europe to heel. Indeed, Jobbik – as of this weekend Hungary’s second largest political party – follows a Turanist tradition, in which Hungarians are seen as inheritors of a diverse Central Asian nomadic heritage. This is best emphasised by the lasting popularity of the name ‘Attila’, a throwback to the Huns who helped bring down the Western Roman Empire, and have entered popular consciousness as warlike, nomadic raiders. As with many nationalist narratives, there is no demonstrable link between the Huns and the Magyars.

Despite drawing so much of their identity from outside Europe, Hungarians have become fierce defenders of European, Christian ‘civilisation’. This has been fed and exploited by Viktor Orbán, whose successful campaign for a fourth term as prime minister was dominated by Islamophobic and antisemitic imagery, the latter eerily reminiscent of 1930s Germany.

Orbán’s Emmanuel Goldstein is George Soros, a Budapest-born Jewish billionaire whose well-documented support for liberal causes has made him enemies all over the Western world. His laughing face adorns billboards and posters across Hungary, portraying him as a sinister fifth columnist, seeking to undermine and destroy European civilisation by flooding the country with hordes of Muslim migrants. On 15 March – a national holiday celebrating the 1848 revolution – Orbán blamed a wave of mass migration on a network of ‘NGOs paid by international speculators’, a not-so-coded reference to George Soros.

It should be a cause for concern that this sort of rhetoric has entered the discourse across Europe. Jeremy Corbyn frequently blames immigrants for driving down wages, and Theresa May famously made a speech – written by her now-disgraced adviser Nick Timothy – criticising ‘citizens of nowhere’, a rhetorical turn too reminiscent of traditional antisemitic tropes, such as ‘rootless cosmopolitans’. It surprised nobody, then, when Nick Timothy reappeared to bring Soros-bashing into the British mainstream, with a horrifying antisemitic story in The Daily Telegraph. Meanwhile, in France, centrist saviour Emmanuel Macron has spoken of the need to reduce immigration, while in Germany, the new Heimat ministry given to Angela Merkel’s Bavarian sister party evokes historic German nationalism.

Orbán’s eight years in power have seen a steady centralisation of political and economic power. This has been part of Orbán’s open desire – and popular campaign promise – to turn Hungary into an ‘illiberal democracy’. Rather than eliminate democratic processes, he has made them weak and subordinate to he and his Fidesz party. The electoral system has been rewritten, judicial independence has been undermined, the state media channels have become the party’s de facto propaganda arm, and huge European subsidies have been greedily pocketed by the prime minister and his cronies. Rather than arrest opposition leaders on trumped-up charges, he has simply allowed the myriad liberal parties to bicker among themselves, while flooding elections with paper parties to confuse voters.

Hungary’s descent into kleptocracy and authoritarianism has been helped in no small measure by the European Union.

Hungary’s descent into kleptocracy and authoritarianism has been helped in no small measure by the European Union.

The enormous subsidies Hungary receives from the EU – sometimes equivalent to 6% of the country’s own GDP – have been siphoned off to Orbán’s friends and allies, usually via procurement contracts. A striking example of graft under Fidesz is the Panco Aréna, an ultra-modern, 3,800-seater football stadium built in the prime minister’s hometown of Felcsút, which was chiefly funded by companies who had received several valuable procurement contracts from the government. The stadium, although rather beautiful, is entirely superfluous: the population of Felcsút is around 1,700.

OLAF, the wonderfully-named European fraud watchdog, has raised concerns about numerous cases of graft involving EU funds. Unfortunately, any investigation must be carried out by the national prosecutors, rendering OLAF impotent in a country in which corruption is effectively state-sponsored, and the legal system is skewed in favour of the ruling party.

Fidesz also receives an additional safety net from their membership of the European People’s Party, the main centre-right grouping in the European Parliament. This has given them the tacit support and respect from the likes of Angela Merkel’s CDU, as well as Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, both of whom align with this party. Watching EPP leaders shower Orbán with praise and congratulations for his victory is a shameful spectacle.

If Viktor Orbán’s racism is seeping into the European mainstream, should we expect his cronyism, corruption, undermining of democracy and political control over media and institutions to follow?

Writing on his Politics.co.uk website, Ian Dunt warned that the political conversation in Britain is increasingly being led in a Fidesz-esque direction: strengthening national borders, undermining the media and the independent judiciary (see ‘Enemies of the People’) a ‘relentless focus on immigration’, and a rejection of international institutions are hallmarks of the Brexit ideology. Even the political left has taken on a distinctly authoritarian tone: last week, Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire narrowly avoided deselection by her local party for attending a protest against antisemitism that was seen to have undermined Jeremy Corbyn.

But we shouldn’t be so quick to draw comparisons between Hungary’s turn to authoritarianism and the populist wave currently sweeping across Europe. Cas Mudde, a researcher specialising in populism and extremism, highlighted not only the contradictions in the Fidesz ideology, but also the unique set of circumstances faced by Hungary that make an Orbán-style illiberal democracy incompatible with the rest of Europe.

For instance, the aggressive nativism pushed by Fidesz only masks a rapid and terrifying population decline, the second-worst in the European Union. Under Viktor Orbán’s rule, hefty financial rewards for large families have failed to arrest the plummeting, ageing population, and things will only get worse as the brain drain of talented youngsters continues apace. Despite healthy economic growth and falling unemployment, the self-described defenders of European civilisation are overseeing a terrible decline in Hungarian society; the nationalism is merely the reaction of a country in decline, frightened, ageing, and wary of internationalism. With healthcare suffering, civil and political life deteriorating, and education standards stifled by regressive syllabuses, Hungarians may quickly realise just how hollow Orbán’s platform really is.

Furthermore, Hungary might soon see the stream of European money reduce to a trickle: EU leaders have started to push for the Union’s next multi-year budget to put more pressure on awkward partners like Hungary and Jarosław Kaczyński’s Poland. If the subsidies dry up, Hungarians will realise that the thing keeping their country afloat is the very internationalism their leaders malign.

Picture credit: EPP Summit, Brussels, March 2016 – image by European People’s Party via Flickr (CC BY-2.0)

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