Last month, Viktor Orbán gave the most significant radical right speech in Europe of the past decades.
To those unfamiliar with European politics, this statement may not mean much, while those more or less familiar with European politics may be confused by it. After all, Orbán is the prime minister of Hungary and the leader of the Hungarian Civic Party, or Fidesz, a party considered “conservative” rather than “radical right” by the vast majority of academics and pundits. In fact, the latter label is almost exclusively used for another party in the country, the Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik).
But Orbán’s speech raises two important questions about our understanding of radical right politics. First, what makes a political party radical right? Second, are radical right politics limited to radical right parties?
Is Hungary ruled by a radical right party?
Over the past few years, Orbán has made many high-profile statements that go well beyond contemporary European conservatism. For example, earlier this year he called for the reintroduction of the death penalty and for the building of “work camps” for immigrants. And his words are often followed by equally controversial actions. For instance, Hungary has started building a fence with Serbia to keep immigrants out.
On top of that, he declared last summer that “liberal democratic states can’t remain globally competitive” and acknowledged that he wants to transform Hungary into an “illiberal democracy.” The tail was wagging the dog here, as Orbán and his party have been undermining liberal democracy in Hungary ever since coming back to power in 2010. Strengthened by a supermajority in the mono-cameral legislature, Fidesz pushed through a controversial new constitution a year later, which has introduced religious discrimination, undermined judicial independence and, in the words of critics, “permits the governing party to lodge its loyalists in crucial long-term positions with veto power over what future governments might do.”
And then there was the speech at the 26th Bálványos Summer Open University and Student Camp last month, in which Orbán said:
The question now is not merely what kind of Europe we Hungarians would like to live in, but whether Europe as we now know it will survive at all. Our answer is clear: we would like Europe to remain the continent of Europeans. … We can say we want it, because it depends only on us: We want to preserve Hungary as a Hungarian country.
Despite all this, the vast majority of experts and journalists nevertheless continue to classify Fidesz as a conservative rather than a radical-right party. That’s undoubtedly influenced by where the party is grouped among “party families,” or cross-national groups of “similar” political parties.
Fidesz originated from within the democratic mainstream, has a liberal-conservative party name, and is firmly entrenched in center-right transnational party federations such as the European People’s Party (EPP). Its electorate is more similar to center-right than it is to that of radical right parties: The former normally attract more highly educated and well-to-do voters while the latter attract a more male, old and working-class electorate. Finally, in its official election manifestos, Fidesz largely steers clear of openly radical right policies and statements.
But to understand Fidesz’s actual ideology, we must look not just at its statements and supporters, but also at its actions.
Many commentators argue that Orbán uses radical right statements for electoral purposes — first to occupy the space left by the implosion of the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) in the 1990s and to fight off competition from the radical right Jobbik today.
But can a party really take radical positions that are “just strategic” for most of its existence? And does it still matter whether Fidesz is a radical right party or a party that uses radical right policies and rhetoric? The answer: yes and no.
Which is a bigger threat: a radical right party on the fringe, or a mainstream party that enacts radical right policies?
The difference between the radical right as an ideology, on the one hand, and as a strategy, on the other, can be exposed with a simple question: Would Hungary change fundamentally if Jobbik rather than Fidesz was in power?
The answer is yes. Although Jobbik is campaigning with a more moderate image than Fidesz, there is no doubt that Jobbik would implement some fundamentally different policies in key areas. Jobbik would almost certainly make Hungary leave, rather than just criticize the European Union, and would align the country more openly with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. It also would seriously undermine the rights of minorities in Hungary, most notably Jews and Roma.
Still, despite the fact that Jobbik is a radical right party and Fidesz is possibly not, Fidesz is a bigger radical right threat, for three reasons.
First, radical right “politics” are not limited to radical right “parties.” Just as (nominally) social democratic parties and politicians (such as Tony Blair in the United Kingdom) can implement neoliberal policies, conservative (and other) parties can propose and even introduce (populist) radical right policies — policies informed by nativism, authoritarianism and populism.
Second, although Jobbik is more ideologically radical right, it is in opposition and Fidesz is in power. Few governments in Western democracies include radical right parties; in most that do, the radical right party is almost always a junior party. Academic research has shown that radical right parties tend to be relatively ineffective in government — although that could change in time as they gain more experience in government.
Finally, mainstream parties such as Fidesz may be more harmful for liberal democracy than radical right parties such as Jobbik because they often have the experience, power and skills to implement illiberal policies. What’s more, mainstream parties tend to have supporters in important political positions both within their own countries, such as within the bureaucracy and judiciary, and beyond.
Orbán can get away with his illiberal policies because internal divisions have rendered his domestic opponents impotent while he is sheltered from international pressure by friends in powerful places. Orban’s most powerful set of friends are undoubtedly in the European People’s Party, the dominant political group in the European Union, of which Orbán was one of the vice presidents from 2002 until 2012.
Despite all his controversial policies and statements of the past years, EPP President Joseph Daul recently said, “Orbán is the ‘enfant terrible’ of the EPP family, but I like him.” And so the EPP frustrates E.U. attempts to sanction Hungary, even though Hungry is in flagrant violation of several E.U. regulations. For instance, last year the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Hungary’s Church Act of 2012 breached freedom of religion.
What Hungary tells us about liberal democracy in the rest of Europe, and the world
The situation of Fidesz and Hungary is extreme and unique, at least for the moment. But anyone academically or politically concerned with liberal democracy can draw broader lessons from this example. Most important, liberal democracies are threatened not just by illiberal parties but also by mainstream parties implementing illiberal policies and by the domestic and foreign actors that enable them. Fidesz would be doing far less damage to liberal democracy in Hungary if the EPP were not shielding the Orbán government from E.U. sanctions.
It’s certainly true that people committed to liberal democracy should remain vigilant about the radical right and the more violent extreme right (such as Golden Dawn in Greece or neo-Nazi groups such as the National Socialist Underground). However, the vast majority of these groups have at best indirect power, which makes them dependent upon mainstream political actors to implement their policies. And so those who study liberal democracy need to look further.
Mainstream parties are responsible for almost all of the illiberal policies that actually get implemented. Even if they do this to ward off a real or perceived radical right challenger such as Jobbik, the mainstream party is still the one that decides to implement illiberal policies rather than fend off the electoral challenge with liberal policies.
Cas Mudde is associate professor in the School for Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. He is author of “Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe” (Cambridge University Press, 2007), for which he won the Stein Rokkan Prize, and (with Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser) “Populism in Europe and the Americas: Threat or Corrective for Democracy?” (Cambridge University Press, 2012) and “Populism: A Very Short Introduction” (Oxford University Press, 2016). He tweets at @casmudde.