This Sunday Hungarians were asked to vote in the parliamentary elections, which the national-conservative Fidesz party won with a larger majority, thus retaining their two-thirds constitutional majority. The ruling prime minister, Viktor Orban, had done so much to consolidate his power and shut out and weaken the power of unfavorable institutions or fill them with his associates. The seeming invincibility of Fidesz has resulted in a strange electoral coalition among all the opposition parties (Jobbik, the socialists or MSZP and Green LMP) in the mayoral election of the southern town of Hodmezovasarhely, which led to the victory of Peter Marik-Zay, who led the grass-roots Country for All movement (Witte 2018). Such electoral coalition is unlikely to be repeated at the national level, where Orban’s Fidesz had controlled the levers of government since 2010.
What explains Orban’s political power? The first reason, as indicated above, is the fracturing of the political opposition. There are two smaller parties (the Greens and the Christian KDNP, the latter of which sits as junior partner in the coalition), and two larger opposition parties, including the socialist MSZP and the right-wing, anti-immigrant Jobbik. It is rather unlikely for the MSZP and Jobbik to enter a broad electoral coalition given their philosophical disagreements. The second reason is that the credible alternative to Fidesz, the MSZP had itself been discredited by corruption and bad economic management during the 2008 economic crisis, which happened during its rule from 2002 to 2010. Jobbik, which contested its first election in 2006, may be considered a credible right-wing challenger, running on a platform of ethnic nationalism, and gaining 20% of the vote in 2014. But even here, Orban outgunned the anti-immigrant platform of Jobbik by harping on law and order, such that Jobbik has to shift to left-wing economic policies to get popular attention.
The third reason is the somewhat successful economic record of the Fidesz-led administration, which feeds its job growth primarily from subsidies in the EU budget for economically weak regions in the EU (from which poorer countries like Hungary benefit disproportionately). This is all the more ironic given that his declared enemies are an all-powerful Brussels and the liberal cabal financed by George Soros, a Hungarian-American investor and philanthropist. That is perhaps the fourth reason for Orban’s political power: he permanently agitates against some external enemies, whether it is the liberal establishment elite, the European bureaucrats or the refugees that “invaded” Hungary via the Balkan route in 2015 and 2016. Among a frightened and angry electorate that feels left behind by economic globalization and the rapid pace of change in a neo-capitalist society, which was communist for two generations, this agitation seems to work quite well. The fifth reason is that Orban’s pan-Hungarianism, which resulted in the handing out of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian citizenships to ethnic Hungarians in neighboring countries boosted the electoral fortunes of Fidesz, which receives almost all the overseas votes (95%).
I want to explore a sixth reason, which is related to the charisma and dogged determination for power of Viktor Orban. He has been the face of Fidesz since it fought its first election in the post-communist era in 1990. It was not clear initially that Orban would become a power-hungry politician. During his university days he wanted to be an academic intellectual. He was born into a rural lower middle class family in 1963 and was interested in communism, but his military service had disillusioned him from communism. In 1988, at the age of 24 he became one of the founding members of Fidesz, the Alliance of Young Democrats, which initially only admitted people below the age of 35. The vision was clear: usher in liberal democracy into the decaying communist structures.
There were two factors that favored the end of Hungarian communism: first, Mikhail Gorbachev’s takeover of power in the Soviet Union in 1985 displaced the old generation that had grown up under the yoke of Stalin and initiated liberal reforms in the economy and the polity, which was a signal to the other Warsaw Pact countries that the Soviet Union, which still had hundreds of thousands of military troops stationed in Eastern Europe, would not use violence to suppress communist regime critics. That was a huge blow to all communist leaders from Honecker in Germany to Ceausescu in Romania. Orban himself became emboldened enough during a speech in the reburial of Imre Nagy on June 16, 1989, the tragic Hungarian leader, who was felled in 1956 by invading Soviet tanks which crushed the Hungarian uprising, to demand free elections and the removal of Soviet troops from Hungary. That speech brought Orban much fame in the country and perhaps made him the undisputed leader of Fidesz. In fact, Orban has been the only Hungarian party leader, who has consistently fought every single election since 1990.
The second reason was that Hungary became known for its goulash-communism approach, especially during the long rule of Janos Kadar, who was supposed to be a Soviet henchman after crushing the Hungarian uprising. The essence of goulash communism is to retain broad state ownership over the economy, but relax some central controls by allowing individuals to trade in the market, which resulted in a somewhat consumer-oriented marketplace. In the political sphere this meant that there was some freedom of speech (as long as critique was not directly addressed at the ruling government) and even freedom of travel. As such, it was not too far fetched for Hungary to transition into a capitalist democracy once Soviet control relaxed.
In the fall of 1989, Orban had accepted a Soros-funded scholarship to study politics in Pembroke College, Oxford. It is all the more ironic that Orban would turn so drastically against his funder in order to score political points. But only four months into the course (which really means after 8 weeks of courses, or one trimester- Michaelmas), Orban disrupted his studies to contest as leader of Fidesz in the first parliamentary elections scheduled in 1990. With only 9%, Fidesz only became the fifth-largest party, and Orban became opposition leader. In the following elections in 1994, Fidesz only received 7% of the vote. Orban realized that he had to change his strategy.
Instead of promoting liberal democracy (which had de-facto been achieved with the introduction of elections), Orban shifted to a more right-wing nationalist platform, which fellow party leaders Peter Molnar, Gabor Fodor and Zsuzsanna Szelenyi disagreed with. These more liberal leaders then left the party, leaving the party to Orban. Was Orban a plain racist, who was using his early support for liberalism as an excuse to become elected to power and then promote an anti-immigrant, anti-foreign agenda? I have not found any evidence in favor of this reasoning, but we can state that the rightward shift of Fidesz came from Orban’s belief that political power can only be attained when voters can agitate against an external enemy. Carl Schmitt would have been proud of Orban.
The following exchange that is quoted in BBC (2018) is quite instructive
“We were sitting in the Angelika cafe, across the Danube from parliament,” economist Peter Rona remembers. Orban was describing how he wanted to turn Fidesz into a modern conservative party, but Rona warned of the danger of abandoning the “modern” at the first sign of electoral trouble.
“‘I will not fall into that trap, but if necessary, so be it,’ replied Orban, to my surprise. What mattered to him was to win power, and keep it, at any cost.”
Orban’s electoral strategy to channel the mass resentment against foreign investors, who were not interested in the unproductive socialist-era factories, resulting in a rise in unemployment, and gained sufficient electoral support in the 1998 elections to win power despite fewer electoral votes (because of winning more constituencies, especially the rural ones). Upon election, Orban pushed for lower taxes and lower social insurance contributions. He abolished university tuition fees and reintroduced universal maternity benefits. However, the Fidesz government also continued budget consolidation from the previous administration and did not reverse the privatization begun under the previous administration, which is in line with the liberal economic policy preferred by the EU (which Hungary was about to join) and the IMF.
Orban promptly lost the next elections in 2002 and was pushed into opposition (Fidesz got the most seats, but the socialists formed a coalition with the Free Democrats). This had enraged Orban so much that he vowed not only to return to power later on but also to change the institutions to make it difficult for the other opposition parties to defeat him again. So much for his avid demand for democracy from his student days in the 1980s! Orban doubled down on the national identity agenda, hired a communications guru to talk like the common man and received generous funding from his former schoolfriend Lajos Simicska to finance the next elections (Simicska’s companies were then handsomely rewarded with generous government contracts once Fidesz returned to power). Fidesz was defeated again in 2006. The next opportunity for power came with the 2010 elections after the poor handling of the financial crisis in 2008 of the socialist government (unemployment increased, while corruption charges against high administration officials blew up).
Once back in power, Orban went to the EU and demanded more time to tackle the budget deficit, but was rejected by Brussels, which fueled his rage against the EU. To plug the budget hole, Orban increased taxes on foreign companies, a bank transaction tax and mobile phone charges. He also forced a conversion of private pensions into public pensions, which immediately made funds available for the administration. A 5.5% of GDP budget deficit in 2011 was lowered to 1.6% in 2015. His economic agenda was to reduce unemployment with the help of public works schemes financed by the EU. The emigration of unemployed workers also helped reduce tensions in the domestic labor market, though it created a brain drain of higher skilled talent. Employment was further boosted by slashing welfare for the long-term unemployed, though family benefits continued to increase in the hope of countering the low birth rate (which increased from 1.34 to 1.44 from 2010 to 2015). The government implemented a flat tax and a very high VAT, following in line with liberal policy prescriptions. What endeared voters to Fidesz was that the majority of the tax increases (with the exception of VAT, which is a consumption tax) were focused on foreign banks and commercial chain stores rather than the general population (Financial Observer).
To realize his power consolidation, Orban instituted a new constitution, which stressed nation state and family. The Constitutional court was weakened, the TV and radio news media were put under direct state control, and ethnic Hungarians in neighboring countries were given citizenship. Orban also purged opponents and critics in the civil service, state companies, schools and hospitals. NGOs were put under tight supervision, and the Soros-funded flagship university Central European University is threatened with outright expulsion, which motivates the university officials to open up a branch in Vienna. Finally, electoral reform reduced the parliamentary seats from 386 to 199 and abolished second-round runoff elections, which has so far favored Fidesz.
In a mature and consolidated democracy one would think that rabid nationalism won’t work, but even this cozy assumption has been shattered by Brexit and the Trump elections. Western capitalist countries seem to have a problem to deliver a basic standard of living for the masses. In the Hungarian case, it might be true that greater western corporate investments have created growth and needed jobs (especially from Austrian and German firms), but a more market-driven labor market also means more uncertainty relative to the experience of communism. To some extent, Hungarian nationalism provided the same mantle of rhetorical protection to the population that state socialism used to provide, even as the nationalist mantle claims to fundamentally oppose state socialism. But this similarity is not so surprising insofar as both ideologies deny the premise of liberalism and the primacy of individual rights.
Orban’s electoral strategy worked and his coalition government retained a two-thirds majority in the 2014 elections. The opposition worked together to field single candidates against Fidesz as opposed to split the opposition vote, which benefits Fidesz. Even though there was an electoral coalition between the socialists, the Together Party, the Democratic Coalition, the Dialogue for Hungary and the Liberal Party, it wasn’t enough to break the electoral control of Fidesz. The center-left bloc also did not include a coalition with the right-wing Jobbik, which had received 23 seats on its own right (primarily via the proportional party list rather than first-past-the-post constituency).
The next test to the Hungarian government was the influx of refugees over the course of 2015, which escalated in the fall of that year. Orban announced in June 2015 that it would construct a border fence with Serbia, where most of the Iraqi and Syrian refugees on the West Balkan route were trying to head toward western Europe (i.e. Austria, Germany and Sweden). The EU had criticized that step, but Hungary claimed that Serbia was not part of the EU and also not part of Schengen. The flow had intensified going into the fall, reaching 30,000 a week in September (compared to 2-3,000 in May), and refugees were forcibly trying to cross the border, which induced Hungarian police to use teargas and batons to halt the flows. In October, Orban announced the closure of the border with Croatia, an EU member, but not part of Schengen.
But it just wasn’t physically possible to halt the strong flows, which resulted in people flooding the train stations in Budapest. Hoping to remove these refugees, the government encouraged the refugees to move onto Austria. Fortunately for Orban, the widely publicized photos of an infant death in Syria and the suffocation of dozens of refugees on the back of an unventilated truck in Austria had convinced both the Austrian and the German chancellor to temporarily open up the borders and admit a large number of refugees.
In December 2015, Hungary challenged EU plans to distribute the asylum seekers across Europe, which would have provided relief to the main refugee-takers in the EU. In March 2016, the government declared a state of emergency, which has been extended to today. 60 refugees per day were permitted in 2016. In February 2018, the government announced to only take in 2 refugees per day, while deporting most of the rest of the refugees. In the mean time, the border fence kept on being reinforced with barbed wire, heat sensors, video cameras and armed police patrol (Nelson 2018). There are many refugees who are trapped in the Serbian-Hungarian border, receiving poor supplies of food in camps without much protection from the winds during the winter season.
From an electoral standpoint, will Hungarians punish their ruling government for the handling of the refugee crisis? This is the first election since the refugee crisis, and the polls have not suggested any dips for Fidesz, which means that the tough anti-refugee position paid off for Orban. In contrast, Austrian chancellor Faymann’s party lost the first round of the presidential elections, which had increased the pressure against him to resign, which he promptly did in May 2016. Chancellor Merkel’s CDU and the SPD coalition partner in Germany dramatically lost voter support in the fall 2017 elections, which explains in part why it took so long for them to form another new government. The right-wing parties (FPO and AfD) gained a lot of electoral support, though in Austria, the FPO was surpassed by the conservative OVP, which ran an anti-refugee, anti-immigrant campaign, thus resulting in an “Orbanization” of the political process in Austria.
The 2018 electoral campaign in Hungary continues on the anti-refugee sentiment, which is driven by both Fidesz and Jobbik, but given that those themes don’t differ, I doubt that Jobbik can substantially gain in the vote share. Jobbik is somewhat more progressive in social policy, demanding much higher minimum wages, full pensions after 40 years of work for everyone (only for women in the Fidesz program), and the modernization of the education and health systems. Fidesz pushes for higher pensions, family tax allowances and a modern village program to boost the rural vote.
The socialist party does not mention the refugees at all and focuses on bread and butter issues, i.e. higher wages, tax credits for low-income households, inflation indexation for pensions, higher family allowance and gas/ electricity subsidies for poor households. If refugees are a main driver for electoral shifts, we can’t find that they would work to the detriment for Orban. The major weakness in the Orban strategy, which the opposition is hammering him on, is political corruption, which results in the loss of national funds to Orban’s political cronies. But such corruption is not out of line with other eastern European countries or his socialist predecessors.
It may be stated that the electoral success for Orban lies in his ability to manipulate the electorate with a strong anti-immigrant and national identity platform, which is additionally bolstered by his hardline stance during the refugee wave, his persistent verbal attacks against the liberal elites abroad (especially the EU, that finance most of the country’s infrastructure projects, and George Soros, who had financed his Oxford studies), economic policies that favor families and the lower middle class, especially in rural areas, the weakness/ internal division of the political opposition, and making the democratic control institutions (primarily the media and the supreme court) compliant to the government.
For the immediate future we cannot realistically expect a democratic awakening for Hungary nor for any other Eastern European country, which had suffered from various national trauma (from Austria, Germany or the Soviet Union), and recently escaped the comforts of state socialism to be plunged into what Francis Fukuyama alleged to be the end of history, i.e. the triumph of liberal democracy (or neoliberal capitalism for people on the political left). Nationalism is cleverly combined with selective liberalization and a family-oriented welfare state, while the socialist opposition is discredited in part by the state socialist past and the lack of credibility for implementing neoliberal reforms of privatization and deregulation.
But how sustainable is Orban’s strategy? There is a certain economic contradiction in the Fidesz project, which is chiefly related to demographics. Over the short-term, Hungary and other post-socialist states have benefited from western corporate investments into a cheap but (thanks to state socialism) highly educated population/ labor force, but any long-term economic gains are dependent on a population growth strategy, which is not compatible with the anti-immigrant policies of the government. The pro-natalist policies have slightly increased the birth rate but insufficient to halt population decline. In addition, as long as there is a wage and living standard gap between the rich west and the poor east, eastern Europe will continue to lose workers, which in some cases is permanent. To the extent that it is the young and educated people, who prefer to work in Germany than in their native Hungary, population decline is compounded by labor force decline. The implication is that once the easy avenues for growth disappear, then population decline will be felt in the form of economic decline, in which case the argument for limiting foreign migration become even more acute, though there won’t be many scapegoats left to blame.
For arrogant western liberal elites lecturing down on the democratic deficiencies of Hungary and their political cousins in Poland (which are undoubtedly concerning and ought to be criticized), they should be reminded not only of the specific historical context of eastern European, but also the electoral upheaval in their own country, which delegitimate democratic political and social institutions. Donald Trump wants a giant military parade. Donald Trump wants to build a giant border wall to keep out immigrants (even as their numbers are pretty stagnant and in some cases declining). Donald Trump congratulates Vladimir Putin on his re-election (without any credible alternative candidate) and Xi Jinping on ending his term limit in power, and maybe the US should do something like that too.
Thus, Orban and other more authoritarian leaders, who prefer not to surrender their power are vindicated in their strategy, as the liberal political order continues to crumble. Though to be clear, I still find it unlikely that Orban will push for a complete abolition of democracy, so long as curtailments of democratic institutions to retain his power monopoly are sufficient and as long as the EU continues to act as external constraint. Though the paradox in the latter is that the harsher the EU cracks down on the Hungarian government, the more the EU will be delegitimated in the eyes of the electorate that feel closer to Budapest than to Brussels.
In other words, Hungary and the “Orbanization” of politics in the absence of progressive alternatives is the new normal.