Wednesday

7th Jun 2023

Analysis

Orban, the 'anti-Merkel', emboldens European right

  • Brothers-in-arms: Viktor Orban (r) with Poland's premier Mateusz Morawiecki at the most recent EU summit (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

When in 2010 Viktor Orban returned to power in Hungary with a landslide two-thirds majority he promised a revolution.

He delivered: his government rewrote economic rules, challenging foreign banks, imposing special taxes, he rolled back the rule of law, cracked down on a free press, changed election laws.

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Back then he was not taken seriously in Brussels. Officials expected this to be a glitch, and waited for Orban to fall back in line.

Orban successfully exploited the disillusionment with the democratic transition in Hungary, he turned to Russia for backup against Brussels, and aimed to present an alternative to Western liberal democracies.

In a speech in 2014 , he outlined what he defined as 'illiberal democracy.'

Orban's rhetoric against migrants and the liberal elite have appealed to far-right leaders all across Europe.

His illiberal model, to be tested at general elections on Sunday (8 April), has inspired some in central Europe - with Poland's nationalist government challenging European rules and breaking down the rule of law, and has become a symbol for western European far-right politicians.

"There is already a contagion effect," argues Csaba Toth, analyist with the Republican Institute in Budapest.

"Right wing populist politicians can look at his system and see that it works being populist in government and cynical in politics. If Fidesz wins big, it will encourage politicians, especially in the region or with less strong democratic traditions to try to emulate what Orban is doing," Toth added.

Visegrad Four

Orban has also successfully used the Visegrad Four group of the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary to promote his politics within the EU.

Peter Kreko, analyst with Political Capital think tank points out that western European populist tendencies already exist without Orban, but he has come to symbolise the fight against globalism, multiculturalism, immigration and for taking back national sovereignty.

"The populist right wing in western Europe deems Orban as a hero, he represents an alternative model for Europe," Kreko said, pointing to Austria's governing coalition party, the far-right Freedom Party, Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy's powerful far right party, the League, France's National Front and the Dutch Geert Wilders as Orban's fan base.

"He is the 'anti-Merkel' and that makes him popular with many," Kreko added.

Despite constant criticism, Orban feels vindicated.

With the migration crisis hit in 2015, he took centre stage in European politics. The fences his government built on Hungary's southern border to stop migrants was at first harshly criticised, then later praised.

His call to secure the EU's external borders rather than focus on migration distribution quotas has been taken aboard by most EU leaders.

EPP backing

The EU's inability to make Orban fall back into line only embolden him and his admirers.

He enjoys the support of his European political family, the European People's Party, the largest party in the European Parliament, which has repeatedly backed him during his controversial moves to undermine the rule of law in Hungary, and his anti-EU campaigns.

"There is a spillover effect. Poland's government can do what it does, because Orban could get away with almost anything, and still be a member of the European People's Party," Kreko said.

EPP's political cover has proved to be crucial for Orban in maintaining his political standing in Europe and avoiding effective political pressure to change course. Many in the EPP are unnerved by the populist leader , but argue that it would not improve the situation for Hungarian citizens if the party would kick Orban's Fidesz out, adding that the EPP can still hold Orban at bay.

The EPP's group leader Manfred Weber recently went to Budapest to show support for Orban.

He this week tweeted that "if we want to defend our way of life we must know what determines us. Europe needs a debate on identity and dominant culture" - a concept straight out of Orban's playbook.

Weber hails from the German Bavarian party, CSU, whose party congress invited Orban as a star guest in January and whose leader and current German interior minister Horst Seehofer said last month that Islam doesn't belong in Germany. 

EPP president Joseph Daul, who four years ago campaigned with the Hungarian premier in Budapest, has amicably called Orban the party's "enfant terrible".

He recently tweeted good wishes to Fidesz for the election despite the party's anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic and anti-EU campaigns.

The EU Commission has launched several investigation into Orban's moves against democracy, but rarely achieved more than cosmetic changes to legislation that challenged EU rules.

Orban has maintained dialogue with the commission to allay criticism. The EU executive now says that while there is a systematic threat to the rule of law in Poland, there is no such threat in Hungary.

Fanatic vs Pragmatic

"This is what makes Orban more dangerous. While Poland's de facto leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski is a fanatic, Orban is pragmatic. While Kaczynski truly believes in transforming Poland, in Hungary the engine of the system is nepotistic corruption," Kreko warned.

Orban boasted during the campaign about "winning" in Europe.

"The V4 is firm, Croatia has come around, Austria has turned in the patriotic direction, and in Bavaria the CSU has created a resistance," he said in a speech in February, arguing that Europe's Christian identity is threatened by Muslim immigrants because mainstream European leaders fail to act.

He also welcomed the return of Italian former premier, Silvio Berlusconi, to politics.

Orban's expected re-election on Sunday will further consolidate his grip on the direction of the European political right.

Tactical voting stands in way of Orban's majority

Hungarians head to the polls on Sunday but high voter turnout and tactical voting could make it difficult for Viktor Orban's nationalist Fidesz to acquire an absolute majority or get a two-thirds majority it once held in parliament.

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