Even though Hungarians vote this Sunday, April 8th, this piece is not on the Hungarian parliamentary elections per se. Whilst the initial idea was to write a short summary of the state of the opposition to prime minister Viktor Orbán, I had to quickly realize that the average Western news consumer hardly knew anything about Hungary. Hence presupposing very little knowledge about the ins and outs of Hungarian politics, I will try to challenge some of the assumptions and myths extolled in recent news articles on the Hungarian elections by giving you some additional, contextual information.
Myth #1: Hungary is an outright illiberal state
Despite their thoroughly liberal roots, Fidesz – the larger party in the current government coalition in Hungary – has not been ‘liberal’ since the early ‘90s. It is not just critics who claim this, but the party’s leaders and supporters themselves tend to embrace this notion as well. There are, in a nutshell, two reasons for not wanting to appear liberal in Hungarian politics. First, the term acquired distinct meaning in the late ‘90s domestic political discourse of Hungary and is specifically used to describe thinking and politics associated with neoliberal economic policies and a set of progressive social and cultural ideas. Second, there was another party – SzDSz – which was not only strongly associated with this specific reading of liberalism, but also a reliable governing partner to the country’s post-communist successor party, MSzP. Hence liberalism continues to carry a distinctively urban, socially progressive, economically neoliberal, and otherwise cosmopolitan flavour in Hungary to this day.
With the arguable failure of those policies in the economic domain, the brand eventually lost its value in the public eye. Correspondingly, being liberal in the Hungarian domestic context is no longer compatible with so-called conservative and traditional values. Moreover, the Hungarian right tends to view the original roots of the EU as those of an attempt to recover certain aspects of lost Christendom. In fact, a shared identity was one of the selling points for EU-integration. Thus, being illiberal in the Hungarian sense can peacefully co-exist with being otherwise pro-EU and pro-trade with the rest of the West. Foreign investors tend to positively notice that the Orbán government pursues neoliberal economic policies and espouses respect for international institutions, as long as they do not interfere too much domestically. When it comes to cutting taxes, US Republicans would probably applaud them as well.
Myth #2: Orbán is ‘populist’ for no apparent reason
Populism is a highly-contested concept. Most commentators tend to apply this term to politics which are associated with the direct mobilization of public sentiments as opposed to relying on elected authorities. For others, populism seems to be a catch-all term for anti-establishment politics. Viktor Orbán’s government has been accused of both. The current Hungarian government coalition truly enjoys engaging in exercises of mass politics, organizing demonstrations of power, or using pretexts of widespread popular support to legitimize controversial decisions. However, they can only do so as long as the government is popular enough. As a matter of fact, the Orbán administration has had all the votes they need.
However, the reasons for relying on populist tactics seem to escape even some of the most knowledgeable and weathered foreign correspondents, many of whom simply describe Mr Orbán as offensively pursuing ‘populist projects’ without really exploring or engaging the logic behind it. In a nutshell, Fidesz is reacting to a not so distant past, when the socialist and liberal dominated domestic press, the mostly foreign-owned private TV stations, and a handful of high-profile international pressure groups have played outsized roles in the surprising electoral defeats of the Hungarian centre-right. In many ways, populism was Orbán’s only way to gain and secure power. As an experienced career politician, he should not be blamed for exploiting such tactics. Hence, his government might be very well thought of as using such tactics defensively in the past. However, whether influencing public sentiment so directly today is the only – or even best – way forward is a very different discussion.
Myth #3: There was no foreign involvement in Hungarian domestic politics
Many Hungarians like to believe that their nation is and has always been sovereign apart from a few exceptional periods in history (e.g. Soviet and Nazi occupation, Habsburg absolutism, Ottoman yoke, Mongol invasion). However, most of our modern elections have been marked by substantial foreign involvement. Business, state, and civil actors from various parts of the world – including high profile investors like George Soros – have spent lavishly on events, scholarships, summer schools, training programmes, and media while campaigning to secure specific political outcomes. Hungarian elites have rarely been truly self-reliant in terms of election finances or intellectual ammunition, but competent at employing external means to their own ends. Indeed, having been on the semi-periphery of the old West for so long, such linkages to international actors and institutions are prevalent across the entire political spectrum in Hungary.
What is different now is the way some actors have begun to politicize the issue of foreign influence. Mr Orbán himself relied very heavily on formal and informal allies across Europe and continues to do so. In fact, between 2002 and 2010 he had rarely shied away from exporting domestic conflicts to the wider European scene via Brussels or to call for measures against the then-Socialist led government of Hungary. More recently, he relied heavily on the firm support of Bavaria’s CSU. However, his own supporters are very quick to denounce similar practices by other parties. Given a long history of foreign influence, it is safe to surmise that outside involvement – both in the positive and the negative sense – is more a rule of Hungarian politics than exception. Nevertheless, most Hungarians either categorically ignore or vehemently resent foreign presence in their domestic politics. This leads, on the one hand, to the opposition underplaying the impact of foreign actors, and, on the other hand, to the incumbent government blaming unfriendly international actors for unduly influencing internal affairs.
Myth #4: The West did nothing to earn the mistrust of Orbán’s government
The Hungarian government is often criticized for demonizing Brussels en générale. However, it is not exactly true that the reason for the complicated relationship with Western Europe is based solely on a need for simplistic rhetoric for domestic consumption. Neither is this conflict truly or completely ideological. Mr Orbán and his immediate circles are simply too versatile and practical for that.
The main source of Orbán’s conflict with Western elites is rather economic in nature. Orbán has made numerous attempts to secure support and goodwill for Hungary after the 2008 crisis, but was largely ignored. When he decided to take certain sensitive decisions in his own hands, he made many new enemies among the same circles. For instance, his second term (2010-2014) saw the Hungarian government enact additional taxes on banks (mostly foreign owned) and some parts of the energy and utilities sector as well (again, affecting substantial foreign interests). He also forced internationally owned financial institutions to shift much of the country’s external private debt from CHF and EUR to Hungarian Forints. Thus, Orbán has upset many stakeholders and made his vision of sovereign Hungary rather unpopular abroad. Through his actions, East Central European countries were seen as departing from a role of obedient students in economic matters. While several voices emerged calling for keeping him in line, others recognized him as the torch bearer of a viable alternative future.
Unfortunately, much of the Western press continues to repeat the same misleading myths about Hungary and East Central Europe; not to mention, it relies on old Cold War era stereotypes. Nevertheless, despite the most recent – largely negative – wave of articles about Orbán and Hungary, he is forging ahead on his path. More importantly, regardless of personal preferences, it cannot be ignored that the Hungarian electorate – as well as those in Poland, Czechia, and Slovakia – have democratically elected and supported their leaders.
Lastly, we need to recall that the same voters were once promised full membership in a series of prestigious clubs (e.g. OECD, EU)—not the role of a pupil or indentured servant. At least on paper, they have every right to demand that their leaders act accordingly on their behalf and democratically stated demands. Thus, it is important to question why some of the democratic leaders of Central Europe are repeatedly labelled as ‘tyrants’, ‘dictators’, ‘strongmen’, ‘demagogues’, or ‘Putin’s puppets’ by the Western Press. Is this constructive? Is this their true nature? Or, are they merely pursuing policies that offend predominant political sensibilities?