Hungary is a beacon to Europe's populist strongmen

There was more at stake in ...

Posted: Apr 9, 2018 2:49 PM
Updated: Apr 9, 2018 2:50 PM

There was more at stake in Hungary's election Sunday than the domestic politics of a diminutive Central European state.

The anticipated landslide victory of strongman Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his right-wing Fidesz party has national populists across Europe uncorking champagne bottles.

France's far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, cheered the result as a rejection of the inversion of values and mass immigration promoted by the EU.

Germany's like-minded Alternative for Germany (AfD) tweeted its congratulations to Orban, saying that this was a bad day for the EU, but a good day for Europe.

They believe that Orban's triumph, his third since 2010, will blow wind into their sails at a time when insurgent nationalists are vying for power in every EU country. And they'll have an opportunity to prove it in EU parliament elections next year.

Indeed, Orban's Hungary is a model for Europe's hardline rightists, one much more relevant than non-EU countries such as Vladimir Putin's Russia or Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Turkey -- although their systems share much with Orban's.

Far-right parties such as Le Pen's National Front, the AfD, Poland's ruling Law and Justice party and Italy's League, among many others, seek to emulate Orban. They view the strongman as Europe's most accomplished progenitor of the type of illiberal democracy to which they aspire.

More unnerving, conservatives too -- the kind that, in post-war Europe, had functioned as a firewall between the far right and liberal democracy -- borrow from Orban's playbook.

Germany's Christian Social Union (CSU), for example, a governing coalition partner and sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, invites Orban to its congresses and lauds his crass anti-immigration and hardnosed security policies, as does Austria's conservative Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz, also a Christian Democrat. Forza Italia's leader Silvio Berlusconi calls Orban a friend.

In their eyes, his commanding victories are testimony that Europe's citizenry desire nativist, law-and-order societies. And Orban's extended rule underscores not only that their triumph via the ballot box is plausible, but that they too can fabricate a nationally minded, de-facto single-party states in the EU -- and not just as a one-off, but for the long term.

Today's Hungary brandishes all of the essentials of rightists' authoritarian nation state, the type that proliferated in Europe between the world wars, and indeed fanned the flames that culminated in World War II. It's the kind of state that the EU was meant to sideline.

Orban is a classic no-nonsense strongman, just the kind of muscular leader that rightists from the Balkans to Scandinavia believe best serve proud, decisive nations.

Like Orban, they aspire to rule without hesitation or undue concern for the painstaking procedures of parliamentary governance. Orban's fans admire the way he waged war on Hungary's constitution to defang the court system and rewrite laws to empower his office and favor his party.

His defiance of the EU and Europe's heaviest-hitting politicos -- especially on migration -- illustrate an unwavering will to rule that, in the eyes of extremists, distinguishes the uncompromising nationalist from submissive liberals, those who voluntarily hand over hard-won national power to foreign authorities.

In Orban-era Hungary, everything revolves around the principle of the ethnically-determined nation: from family and media policy to foreign policy, it's Hungary and Hungarians first.

All of Europe's far rightists pay homage to the idea of a folkish, seamless nation that supposedly binds their countrymen regardless of class and other differences.

Hungary's goal should be ethnic homogeneity, says Orban, not western Europe's false multiculturalism that extols diversity at the expense of natives. According to Orban, Hungary belongs to the Christian, white, Magyar nation, which implicitly turns the likes of national minorities, Roma and Jews into second-class citizens.

The nation does, however, include 5 million diaspora Hungarians around the world, about one million of whom have become Hungarian citizens since a 2010 Fidesz law made it possible. They voted in Hungarian elections this year and overwhelmingly supported Fidesz.

In the election campaign, Orban drove home the far right's xenophobic, anti-immigration pledges about protecting natives from an onslaught of dangerous and impure outsiders, especially Muslims. Hungary's adamant refusal to accept immigrants or refugees is popular in Hungary, where these election results show that the government bombast, echoed in the state-loyal media, finds resonance. It's not surprising since it has dominated the airwaves for eight years and opposition voices in the media are so marginal that they are almost irrelevant.

Orban's vision of a Europe of Fatherlands, as he calls it, is exactly what the far rightists have been calling for over decades: a conglomeration of loosely bound independent, security-minded, ethnically homogeneous countries in a zero-sum EU.

The adulation of his peers has obviously swollen Orban's ego. He even sees himself as leader of something greater than Hungary, calling for a global alliance against migration, and speaks on behalf of "Europe" and the West. "Christianity is Europe's last hope," he told supporters along the banks of the Danube on February 18.

Perhaps even more impressive, in the eyes of say Marine Le Pen, is that a bloc of European fatherland proponents has converged in the highest offices of Central Europe. Austria's Freedom Party, which governs together with conservatives, praises just such an EU, as does Poland's governing Law and Justice Party and the Czech Republic's president, Milos Zeman.

In Croatia and Slovakia, major parties are also on board.

A large part of Orban's appeal beyond Hungary's borders is that he gets away with it. Hungary remains a EU member in good standing, even if it's been rapped on the knuckles a few times. Fidesz remains in the European People's Party in the EU, which includes Germany's Christian Democrats and several dozen other reputable conservative parties.

In light of the way Fidesz has reorganized Hungary's courts, media, and electoral system, Orban's victory probably won't be his last.

This the ultimate objective of every one of Europe's illiberal democrats.

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