Charles Gati, a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins’s Foreign Policy Institute, is the editor of “Zbig: The Strategy and Statecraft of Zbigniew Brzezinski.”
On Sunday, the Hungarian people reelected Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his nationalist, right-wing political party Fidesz for another four-year term. Although it received only 44 percent of the popular vote, Fidesz has nonetheless secured 66 percent, or possibly 67 percent, of the seats in the Hungarian parliament. By contrast, the allied opposition of socialists, social democrats and liberals, with 26 percent of the vote, will take 19 percent of the seats, while the far-right Jobbik that gained 20 percent of the vote will get 10 percent of the seats. Such a disproportionate outcome is made possible by the mandate-enhancing, self-serving feature of the electoral law passed by Fidesz in 2011.
With one seat undecided, it is unclear if Orbán will now end up with a simple majority or will once again have a two-third supermajority lined up behind him in the new parliament. What is clear is that he has received almost 700,000 fewer votes – eight percent less — than he did in 2010 when he was swept into office. The erosion of his popular support notwithstanding, his hold on every aspect of Hungary’s political and economic life remains unchanged.
In the past four years, Orbán has turned this once-promising democracy into a personally managed, semi-authoritarian political order. He has initiated an “opening to the East” that entails good relations with such countries as Russia, China, and Azerbaijan. Orbán claims that Brussels and Washington conspire against his nation, though he keeps Hungary in NATO and the European Union. He doesn’t support Western sanctions against Russia.
Untrusted and unpopular as Orbán is in Western chancelleries, he is a much-admired, even revered, hero to many Hungarians, especially outside the country’s larger cities. One secret of his success is his nationalist rhetoric; he understands his countrymen’s need to overcome their perceived sense of victimization and humiliation at the hands of foreigners. Even though Hungary depends on the E.U. for infrastructure investments, he has campaigned vigorously against the E.U.’s “colonial” mentality.
The voters don’t seem to remember his past — or if they remember they don’t care. Though he’s now a right-wing conservative, he used to be the deputy head of the Liberal International. Once an anti-Communist and an anti-Russian, he has lately befriended Russia’s Vladimir Putin. A former advocate of European integration, Orbán has become a defender of the sanctity of sovereignty. He once favored the free market; in power, he has nationalized private pension funds and turned against Western banks. Once an atheist, he now upholds religion as the nation’s backbone. No European leader since Napoleon may have changed his spots more.
In his campaign for reelection, Orbán offered no new programs for the next four years. He refused to engage in a public debate, claiming that Attila Mesterházy, the allied opposition’s candidate, was unqualified to lead the country and therefore an unworthy opponent. Moreover, regulations he pushed through in recent years did not allow major commercial stations to air political ads unless they did so for free, an option they declined; however, some of the pro-Fidesz stations got around the regulations by airing programs called reports on government activities (and therefore “non-political”) rather than pro-Fidesz. Worse yet, ATV, a cable television station with limited reach, was actually fined last week for its live coverage of the opposition’s major campaign event in Budapest — authorities said the coverage was “unacceptable” political advertising.
No one knows, of course, what results a fair campaign would have produced. It is clear, however, that despite received wisdom in the West that voters care only about their living standards, the public’s pride in Orbán’s so-called “freedom fight” against Western conspiracies trumped economic backsliding and mismanagement.
It is, indeed, hard to find evidence in the economy for the government’s campaign slogan, “Hungary is performing better.” On the contrary, Hungary, once a leader among its peers, now lags behind the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland. Only the export sector has grown in the past four years, due largely to artificially low wages the government has promoted. A new flat tax rate of 16 percent on personal income benefits individuals with above-average incomes. The value of the forint, the Hungarian currency, has dropped 15 percent in the past four years. According to the Economist, the Hungarian stock market index is the second worst-performing index this year in the world (after Russia’s); since 2010, it has lost more than 40 percent of its value.
It seems, then, that the majority of the voters on Sunday rejected the old Hungarian proverb that says you can’t sing the national anthem on an empty stomach. They paid little or no attention to the fact that about one-third of the population lives in poverty; that some 30 percent of children go to bed hungry at night; and that 500,000 Hungarians have left the country for temporary or permanent jobs abroad.
Almost as puzzling is popular support both for the European Union and for Orbán’s rants against the European Union. Support for the E.U. is understandable: There are signs everywhere of the use of its generous funding for infrastructure projects. By contrast, sentiment against the E.U. is largely rooted in the platform of Jobbik, the far-right political party that demands Hungary’s withdrawal from the European Union.
Not coincidentally, Jobbik also advocates harsh measures against “Roma criminals” and the expulsion to Israel of Hungary’s relatively large Jewish population. Also not coincidentally, Orbán plays on widespread fear of Jobbik’s far-right extremists by presenting himself as the only politically viable right-wing bulwark against them.
In the next four years, Orbán will try to consolidate his power by rooting out challenges and challengers to his authority. Having lost faith in the value of Western-style democracy, he’ll deprive the country’s Constitutional Court of its residual authority and he’ll stamp out what remains of the small Budapest-based free press. Although he has so far accepted NATO’s security umbrella and the E.U.’s financial benefits, he’ll continue to ignore Western advice and warnings about his policies.
Preoccupied with more pressing problems, Western governments will grudgingly tolerate him. They don’t seem to see the need to revive and, indeed, deepen the post-World War II integrationist momentum that has brought peace, prosperity and democratic values to Europe, including Central Europe. Yet if they pay no attention to anti-Western trends in Hungary, Turkey, Greece, and elsewhere in Europe and its periphery — a trend some fear might soon spread to Poland — they, and the United States, will find themselves isolated from a growing number of their allies in an increasingly hostile world.
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