Hungary: ‘Sorry About Our Prime Minister’

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Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Budapest, Hungary, March 2014

Visitors to Budapest this past July were greeted by large billboards, sponsored by an opposition group, saying: “Sorry about our prime minister.” A few weeks later, ugly images from Hungary began circulating around the world: Hungarian prison laborers, soldiers, and jobless men in workfare programs all mobilized to build a razor-wire fence at the border with Serbia in record time; Syrian families prevented from boarding carriages at Budapest train stations; police firing tear gas on refugees trying to cross the border from Serbia; government leaders warning of a “United European Caliphate” if the Muslim masses aren’t stopped in time. Yet the prime minister, Viktor Orbán, clearly thinks there’s no reason for him to be sorry, let alone for Hungarians to feel ashamed of him. He gleefully points out that he is merely applying European rules that require him to secure the EU’s external borders. And in Brussels and at the UN, he has been shopping around his proposal to close Europe and send refugees elsewhere—what he calls a system of “global quotas.”

Many Europeans don’t like what Orbán says, but concede that he seems the only politician who knows what he wants; others, especially on the center-right, don’t yet dare to admit that they find some of his ideas congenial. What none of them seem to understand is that Orbán’s policies are driven by competition with the far-right inside Hungary: Orbán’s Fidesz party has been vying for support with Jobbik (“Movement for a Better Hungary”), an openly anti-Semitic and anti-Roma party aligning itself with Iran and Russia. While Fidesz is officially a member of the “European People’s Party,” the supranational association of Christian Democrats and moderate conservatives, the Orbán administration constitutes in fact—if not in name—the first far-right government in post-war European history. Now, as Orbán explained in a speech to party faithful last month, the refugee crisis has given him a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to destroy Europe’s “liberal identity” and replace it with his preferred “Christian, national” one. This is a project that should disturb anyone who cares about the future of democracy in the European Union.

Hungary’s successful self-portrayal in recent weeks as the “last defender of Europe” constitutes an extraordinary reversal of fortune for Orbán. Earlier this year, he looked vulnerable for the first time since 2010, when his Fidesz party crushed a scandal-ridden left-wing government and secured two thirds of the seats in parliament, a supermajority allowing him to push through sweeping laws to perpetuate his power. Orbán weakened independent courts, clamped down on media pluralism, and, under the pretext of fighting evil European multinationals, handed much of the economy over to cronies. He introduced a new (Christian and national) constitution, before re-engineering election rules so that, in the April 2014 parliamentary poll, Fidesz again secured a supermajority in parliament, despite a dramatic decline in its share of the vote. At the time, Orbán felt confident enough to trumpet his plan to create what he called an “illiberal new state based on national foundations”—citing Russia, Turkey, and China as examples to follow.

Orbán’s concept of the illiberal state has remained somewhat mysterious. Alluding to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous remark, Orbán once compared it to pornography: he could not explain what an illiberal state was, but he knew it when he saw one. As he came under attack from the West—US foreign policy thinkers in particular—for officially abandoning liberal democracy, Fidesz intellectuals rushed to clarify that Orbán was merely against a state making economic freedom sacrosanct. Economic freedom, according to Orbán, results in the law of the jungle (so that European multinationals can crush small Hungarian businesses). Instead, he wants a more nationalized economy and a “workfare state” that requires people to join the labor force in order to receive benefits, and that is predicated on a strong national, family- and faith-based community (the result being that prisoners and many Roma can end up in workfare programs). One other consequence of Orbán’s efforts to promote a new nationalist ideology—reminiscent of Vichy France’s motto of “Work, Family, Fatherland”—was a reorientation of Hungary towards Russia, which extended a huge loan to Budapest last year. Orbán, faithful to a classic literary image of Hungary as a “ferry-boat” between East and West, was cleverly able to play—and get cash from—both sides (Hungary remains one of the largest net beneficiaries of EU subsidies).

But then things began to go wrong for the seemingly invincible “Viktator.” The country’s most important oligarch, Lajos Simicska, a lifelong friend and more than once a financial savior for Fidesz, was apparently unhappy with the “opening to the East.” He also felt that the government had been increasingly freezing him out since Orbán’s re-election in April 2014: his media companies were being deprived of state advertising and his huge construction company cut off from the enormous EU funds earmarked for improving infrastructure. Like Putin, Orbán seemed to fear being dependent on oligarchs. In response, Simicska declared “total war” on the prime minister, calling him names in public and threatening to reveal unpleasant truths about his former college roommate’s past. From one day to the next, Simicska’s media empire turned against Orbán, who was now accused by Simicska of building a dictatorship. Meanwhile, new scandals engulfed leading Fidesz politicians, some of whom appeared to be enriching themselves by selling off state property and taking a cut in the largely secret deals with Russia.

Partly as a result, some disenchanted Fidesz supporters shifted their allegiance to the xenophobic Jobbik party, which had actually toned down some its extremist rhetoric precisely to appeal to such voters. Jobbik is now the strongest opposition force and the only major party never to have been in government. (Fidesz rejected coalitions with them, but, in any case, had no need for Jobbik, as long as it enjoyed a supermajority in parliament.) The fact that the party remains untainted by corruption makes it attractive in the eyes of some voters who might not share the party’s prejudices but wish to register protest. By April, when Jobbik won its first direct district in a by-election in Western Hungary (which is generally more affluent than Jobbik’s stronghold, the Northeast), Fidesz had lost its two-thirds majority. Orbán needed to act.

In a 2014 survey, only 3 percent of Hungarians identified immigration as among the two most important issues facing the country (unemployment and the general economic situation were seen as the real problems). In early 2015, Orbán set out to change this perception. While other leaders, after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, linked arms in the streets of Paris and called for tolerance, Orbán used his stage in France to tell Hungarian state television that “recent events” should lead Europe to restrict immigration, especially of those with “different cultural characteristics.” In May, the government mailed out questionnaires to 8 million citizens for a “national consultation” on what it called “Immigration and Terrorism.” The survey contained questions such as “Did you know that economic migrants cross the Hungarian border illegally, and that recently the number of immigrants in Hungary has increased twentyfold?” It also encouraged citizens to agree with the opinion that “mismanagement of the immigration question by Brussels may have something to do with increased terrorism.”

A month later, billboards with stern warnings went up: “If you come to Hungary, don’t take Hungarians’ jobs!” or “If you come to Hungary, you have to obey our laws!” These government-sponsored ads were all in Hungarian and thus obviously aimed at a domestic audience—it is unlikely that migrants had picked up one of the world’s most notoriously difficult languages en route. In any case, there were no foreigners eager to snatch jobs from Hungarians; those coming on the now famous “Western Balkans route” were desperate to go further west to Austria and Germany as fast as possible. The same has in fact been true of numerous Hungarians: at least 500,000 citizens have left the country since 2010, seeking work in London, Berlin, Vienna, and elsewhere. Many find the political climate at home unbearable, or have realized that Hungarian jobs are not in fact for Hungarians in general, but for those with proven friendliness towards Fidesz. (One of the unintended side effects of freedom of movement courtesy of European integration and the Schengen system has been that, unlike during the Cold War, oppressive governments can easily get rid of domestic discontent.)

By summer, it was far from obvious that Orbán’s anti-immigrant campaign was having any of the intended effects. The response rate to the questionnaire was low; another survey done around the same time showed that a clear majority thought that emigration, not immigration, was the problem, in view of the country’s declining population. While opposition parties on the left remained weak and divided, creative minds from within civil society got busy. The leaders of the satirical “Two-tailed Dog Party” crowdsourced a campaign with billboards looking exactly like official government ones. These were the posters that said, “Sorry about our prime minister,” and featured announcements such as “If you are the prime minister of Hungary, you have to obey our laws!” or “Come to Hungary, we’ve got jobs in London!”

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Stringer Shanghai/Reuters/Corbis
Riot police in front of a holding area for refugees in Röszke, Hungary, September 4, 2015

Meanwhile, the decision in mid-June—even before the “national consultation” officially closed— to build the fence along the border with Serbia was beginning to have an effect: it increased the number of refugees rushing to Hungary, as complete closure of the Balkans route now appeared to be only a matter of time. Refugees became much more visible around the main train stations in Budapest and elsewhere. Rather than letting them pass through, the government started to enforce EU law and insist that refugees register in the country of first arrival in the EU. Whoever might not have agreed with the views propounded in “Immigration and Terrorism” now got the message: “economic migrants” brought with them chaos and possibly violence—even if the dramatic scenes in Budapest and elsewhere were actually caused by government incompetence or, for that matter, by what appeared to be an effort to make being in Hungary as unpleasant as possible (the government refused help from the UNHCR).

By contrast—as in other European countries—thousands of private citizens in Hungary have on their own tried to help refugees, in what may well be the greatest volunteer effort in modern Hungarian history. But it seems unlikely that anything like a political movement will emerge from this, as every attempt over the last five years to translate civil society activism into effective opposition to Fidesz has failed (like Putin, the government has repeatedly harassed civil society organizations and accused them of being “foreign agents”). In recent weeks, Orbán has deployed not only the police, but also the army and an elite anti-terror unit to confront what he describes as “young men from the Arab world who look like warriors.” Immigration and terrorism—there it is, finally plain for all to see. The legal changes required to use the army had to be approved by a two-thirds majority in parliament. Jobbik gladly supplied the necessary votes in late September, but overall it was Orbán’s Fidesz that benefited. Polls now show Fidesz up and Jobbik down.

For years, Orbán had been trying to convince conservatives elsewhere in Europe that his administration was the real thing: a Christian government devoted to traditional morality and a strong nation-state (never mind that even the most superficial understanding of Christianity would point to universalism—Christ, or at least the Good Samaritan, somehow seemed to have stopped in Serbia). Orbán was counting on there being many right-wingers disaffected by Christian Democrats’ willingness to surrender national sovereignty to the EU and throw in traditional marriage in favor of gay marriage for good measure. But other than at the fringes of a Spanish right, nostalgic for Franco, he found few takers.

In this respect as well, the refugee crisis proved a godsend. Take the German Christian Social Union (CSU)—the dominant party in Bavaria that is in permanent alliance with Merkel’s Christian Democrats, but whose own leader is also competing with the Chancellor for power within the German government. Seizing the opportunity to score points against a supposedly sentimental “Mama Merkel”—who had opened the borders for the refugees walking on the highway from Budapest to Vienna—the CSU invited Orbán to a high-profile meeting in a Bavarian monastery. While they celebrated the Hungarian leader as “Europe’s border guard captain,” Orbán took the occasion to accuse Merkel’s government of “moral imperialism.” He also charged Merkel with indirect responsibility for the death of refugees, as she had encouraged them to take the risky journey to Europe; and while Orbán initially appeared to be an outlier on this issue, it is now Merkel who is increasingly under attack in Germany for having gone too far in accommodating refugees. (Last week, in an internal meeting of the European People’s Party, Merkel shot back that she had saved Europe’s dignity by letting in the refugees and that as an “Eastern European” who had “lived behind a fence for long enough,” she knows that turning Europe into a fortress won’t work.)

Orbán, a man who thrives on confrontation, has made it clear that he wants to start a pan-European culture war. In the speech to his party last month, he announced that the refugee issue had created an “identity crisis” for “hypocritical” liberals—“the first good identity crisis” he had ever seen and the beginning of the end for “liberal babble.” He explained that “after having proclaimed… universal human rights, having forced our ideology on them…, having sent our celebrities into their homes, now we are surprised that they are knocking on our door.” Since liberals would also soon shut the door and thus be seen to abandon their principles, “national-Christian ideology” could regain dominance in Europe.

It’s been said many times: the refugee crisis is a major challenge to the EU and its declared “fundamental values,” human dignity and the rule of law. But so is a government that spends millions of dollars of taxpayer money on hate campaigns and mistreats the most vulnerable. (Hungarian state TV is not supposed to show women and children among the refugees; police have to wear masks, since the refugees are said to carry diseases—though officers often remove the masks as soon as cameras are gone.) Until the refugee crisis, leading European politicians had largely turned a blind eye to Orbán’s illiberalism, mostly out of cowardice, but also because they’ve been so absorbed by the EU economic crisis. The EU, according to a common perception, is already under attack for dictating to Eurozone members what their national budgets have to look like; it cannot possibly be seen as hectoring them on democracy as well.

All along, Orbán has been selling outsiders the story that it’s either him or the neo-Nazis—the Jobbik party. One result of Orbán’s militancy in the refugee crisis may be that, at last, other European leaders are beginning to see that in many ways there is now little difference between Fidesz and Jobbik (the fence had been the idea of a mayor with close ties to Jobbik, for instance). The EU, which Orbán variously accuses of colonialism or derides as “rich, but weak,” has the means to ostracize a country no longer observing its values: the other EU Member States can suspend the voting rights of an offending government, and Brussels can also cut off funds that at the moment perversely benefit Fidesz, an anti-European party (legally, a country cannot be kicked out of the EU as such; but members can leave the club voluntarily). If the Union fails to act now, its credibility will be permanently damaged. Orbán’s challenge goes to the moral core of the European project.