This is our second article concerning last week’s election in Hungary. In the first article by Zoltán Pogátsa, “Hungary’s Crisis is of the Left, not the Right“, the author analysed the domestic political situation in Hungary, which led to Viktor Orbán’s landslide victory. In this article Guido Franzinetti examines internal and external elements that contributed to Orbán’s continued political success.
Guido Franzinetti has carried out research and worked in Poland, Hungary, Uzbekistan and Kosovo. He teaches European Contemporary History at the University of Eastern Piedmont, Vercelli, Italy. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
- Viktor Orbán’s electoral victory has produced the predictable responses from mainstream media: ‘unfair elections’, ‘illiberal democracy’, etc.
Of course the elections have been unfair; of course Orbán has muzzled or quite simply bought most of the Hungarian media. It is also likely that there have been cases of electoral fraud. In many respects, it can be argued that Hungarian elections closely resemble those in Putin’s Russia.
But none of this alters the fact that Orbán has won decisively, and almost certainly will have the 2/3 majority required for constitutional changes. (Final results have not yet been announced, so detailed analyses are not yet available.)
This would not be the first authoritarian government elected with a genuine popular mandate. So it might be a good idea to attempt to understand the actual roots of Orbán’s victory (especially if one ever wants to change the situation).
- For a start, the economy is doing reasonably well. (Hoping for an economic crash is never a good starting-point for an opposition.) This was certainly facilitated by EU funds (during the 2007-2013 EU budgetary period Hungary received HUF 14 trillion USD 53.2 billion) . There have been also serious misgivings concerning the use of these funds.
Secondly, the immigration issue appears to have played a big role in shaping voters’ attitudes. State media certainly amplified and hammered constantly the prospect of a Muslim migratory invasion of Europe.
The fact remains that Angela Merkel –through policy decided and announced on the hoof- offered this topic on a silver plate to Orbán. She could have announced a specific policy to airlift Syrian refugees to Germany. Or she could have convened urgently an EU meeting to swiftly decide clear guidelines. More to the point, she could have worked out deals such as the deal which was eventually reached with Turkey (and which has now ensured better conditions than those provided by Greece, according to eyewitness testimonies).
Merkel instead made an impromptu announcement, which left countries in between Germany and Syria in a limbo, with quite confused and contradictory rules to follow. This led, among other things, to the scenes of hundreds of refugees boarding trains at Keleti station in Budapest (and to brutal scenes at the Hungarian border) in the summer of 2015. East -European governments had a legitimate fear that the Germans and Austrians would close their borders, stranding the refugees in Eastern Europe, leaving them to deal alone with the refugees, as had already occurred with Greece and Italy
Of course, something needed to be done for the waves of refugees coming from Syria. (Current developments in Syria will also require further action.) Of course, the behaviour of Hungarian border police was brutal. But if Angela Merkel wanted to hand over electoral victory to Orbán on a plate, she succeeded brilliantly.
Commentators often underline the fact, despite all the public misgivings expressed about the policies of the Orbán government, Fidesz remains a member of the European People’s Party, together with Merkel’s CDU. This probably reflects the fact that factions of the CDU and CSU are quite happy to use Fidesz as a proxy for expressing positions which they privately share. But other factors may be at play, such as the fact that German companies invest in Hungary, courtesy of the Orbán government’s provision of low-paid workers.
The countries of East-Central Europe are mostly small, insecure, and have been in demographic decline for decades, even before it began in Western Europe. As it happens, Hungary experienced an exceptionally precocious demographic transition (decline beginning in 1910) and has never picked up demographically. None of this justifies brutality towards immigrants, but it should be taken into account before demonising the Hungarian public. (For that matter, similar care should be exercised in judging the Baltic states.)
When France receives ‘posted workers’ coming from Eastern Europe (at pay rates significantly lower than those of French workers) it cries ‘social dumping!’, and pushes through in Brussels a new regulation to curtail this trend. Hungarians witnessing all kinds of contradictory migration rules hurled at them might well feel they are also victims of ‘social dumping’. For that matter, many Italian voters -left and right, northerners and southerners- share the same feeling.
Of course, with time and money solutions can be devised. Simon Kuper (https://www.ft.com/content/17665404-3d12-11e8-b9f9-de94fa33a81e) has illustrated the case of Oude Pekela, one of the poorest villages of the Netherlands, in dealing with refugees. But that requires bringing back the state (and money) into the picture. Which is exactly what villagers in Eastern Hungary have not benefited from.
So if we really think that Orbán’s victory is due entirely to his manipulation of the Muslim immigration issue, the blame rests with Merkel’s gross mishandling of the issue. (Incidentally, Hungary has, in fact, fulfilled a quota of approximately 1200 immigrants to be settled. Orbán knows when and how to toe the line.)
- Another issue which is usually side-lined is that of the political alignment of political parties in Hungary. We all know about Orbán’s Soros scholarship for Oxford in 1989. Less attention is paid to the fact that his party, Fidesz, was born as a relatively left-wing liberal party. Orbán swiftly shifted to the right, since the centre-left ground was already taken. But in Hungary (as elsewhere in the region) the entire political spectrum was involved in a game of musical chairs: post-communists took up the place of social democrats, social democrats took the place of Liberals, etc. Finally, from the comfort of his position in power, Orbán has now filled up the space Jobbik had occupied, before it tried to re-position itself as a centre-right party.
To some extent, musical chairs is a game played everywhere. The problem in Eastern Europe is that this kind of political game has affected not only political positioning, but it has led to a shortage of political options on offer. Was there in 1990 really no space for some kind of social democratic alternative in Hungary (and elsewhere in the region)? The same applies, in fact, also to the lack of genuine conservative alternatives (unless we want to take Jobbik as one). This dearth of political alternatives was probably inevitable in the circumstances of rapid political and economic transition. But if that was so, the consequences were also inevitable. This is the brave new world we have to confront in Eastern Europe.
- Finally, it might be useful to dispel the perception of Eastern European states joining the EU and misbehaving, once they were in. Public opinion in Eastern Europe was never too enthusiastic about joining the EU (the elites were, of course). Way back in 1996 Tony Judt pointed out that “the countries of former Communist Europe will never join the rest of the European Union on an equal footing”. Judt proved absolutely correct in this forecast.
To some extent, the short-changing of Eastern Europeans was inevitable for a variety of reasons (the presence of formerly collectivized agriculture, for a start). There was also a shortage of acceptable alternatives on offer for Eastern Europeans (joining a Russian-dominated Eurasian Union, for example, would not have been appealing). But the fact remains that joining the EU has not proved such an unqualified blessing for Eastern European voters. Perhaps we should think twice before sticking labels on Eastern Europeans. Perhaps we should instead think of working out solutions.