The Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, has recently taken his vision of ‘illiberal democracy’ to a new level, passing legislation aimed at driving the American-Hungarian Central European University (CEU) out of the country, as well as launching systematic attacks against the university’s founder George Soros. But with the Hungarian parliamentary elections scheduled for 2018, have recent events – including the successful derailing of Budapest’s Olympic bid, and mass protests against the treatment of CEU – exposed weaknesses in the armoury of Orbán and his right-wing political party, Fidesz?
Viktor Orbán on March 14, 2013. Picture by David Plas © European People’s Party.
In July 2014, Viktor Orbán delivered a speech in the Transylvanian town of Tusnadfurdo, during which he announced his vision to make Hungary an “illiberal state.” This “non-liberal state”, Orbán proclaimed, “does not deny foundational values of liberalism, [of] freedom…but does not make this ideology a central element of state organisation.”
The now-famous ‘end of liberal democracy speech’ was bold, brash and above all, a broadside against Europe’s ruling establishment. It earmarked the political transformation of Orbán and his political party Fidesz (Alliance of Young Democrats). Together, they have morphed from pro-Western (conservative) liberals – fighting to oversee Hungary’s successful transition from communism to democracy – to unapologetic advocates of a populist and illiberal style of politics.
Since sweeping to power with a super-majority in the 2010 elections, Orbán has shifted the political parameters, not only in Hungary, but also on the continent. Domestically, the measures implemented by his increasingly right-wing and nationalistic government have led critics to accuse Orbán of removing democratic checks and balances, allowing Fidesz to kneecap the opposition and monopolise key institutions such as Hungary’s media outlets.
Exploiting his party’s parliamentary majority, the Hungarian Premier has passed a new constitution and shackled the power of the Constitutional Court; introduced an electoral law that heavily favours the majority party and Fidesz (regardless of having the majority or not); fostered a culture of patronage and nepotism in which party loyalists and oligarchs occupy important positions in state bodies (including the Central Bank, the Prosecutor General, State Audit Office and Constitutional Court); and most recently, waged a legislative and propaganda war against Non-Governmental Organisations, Central European University and its founder; the Hungarian-American philanthropist, George Soros.
All the above, combined with Orbán’s uncompromising stance on immigration, has made him a thorn in the side of Bureaucrats in Brussels. He has become a prominent voice amongst a wave of nationalist movements in Europe, who seek to establish a new political order. So much so, that the Hungarian PM has been labelled the ‘autocrat’ inside the EU; a sentiment sardonically voiced by the president of the European Commission, Claude Juncker, during a summit in Latvia in 2015.
Pragmatist first, populist second.
Before addressing the significance of recent political events in Hungary, a number of important caveats, crucial to understanding the politics of Orbán, must be raised. The first being that, unlike many of the populist and/or nationalist movements gaining traction across Europe – think here of France’s Front National, the Dutch Freedom Party and Britain’s UKIP – Orbán does not wish to disintegrate the EU, but rather influence its agenda from within.
His response to the migrant crisis – building razor wire fencing and placing water cannons on Hungary’s borders – was an act of defiance against Germany’s open border policy, which Orbán labelled “moral imperialism”. Not only did Hungary’s Visegrád partners (Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland) rally behind this restrictive migration policy, but as Orbán himself was quick to point out, by refusing to wave migrants across their external Schengen borders, Hungary respected the law of the Union where other member states (such as Italy, France and Greece) had failed. Orbán put the EU’s decision makers on the spot, and by doing so, shifted the goalposts in his favour.
However, while Orbán has been one of the EU’s fiercest critics, he and his party are loyal members of the European People’s Party (EPP) – one of the most influential in the European Parliament and by far the largest in the European Commision. Besides, Orbán is acutely aware of the economic benefits Hungary’s EU membership brings. In fact, research by the German-based Centre for European Policy (CEP) showed that between 2008 and 2015, Hungary was the third-highest recipient of EU money in the 28-member bloc, receiving an average of more than €4 billion from the EU budget.
Moreover, it is important to recognise the idiosyncrasies of Orbán’s political style, which might be described as a form of pragmatic Machiavellianism. His ideology is mutable and his rhetoric regularly overlaps with Hungary’s far-right nationalist party, Jobbik – especially on issues such as immigration. In fact, he blurs the political lines to such a degree that it can often be very hard to ascertain who has influence who. At the same time, however, Orbán has also implemented economic policies with unmistakably leftist, even socialist, elements. Take for example, his decision to nationalise private pension funds and provide public works for the unemployed.
Therefore, Orbán appears less concerned with implementing a coherent ideological vision, and more preoccupied with keeping a stranglehold over power; an equally dangerous raison d’etre. According to Dániel Róna, a Political Scientist at Budapest’s Corvinus University, Orbán has been able to achieve this by constructing a narrative of struggle, in which a perpetual sense of threat looms over the Hungarian nation, its people and identity. (For a theoretical discussion, read Jaakko Salonen’s article on populism, democracy and the liberal struggle.)
Orbán’s handling of the refugee crisis provides an example par excellence. He consolidated his popular appeal by placing himself at the vanguard of this issue – refusing to yield to the EU’s demands about migrant quotas and rekindling nationalist myths about Hungary being a bulwark of Christendom, fighting to stave back the expansion of the Ottoman Empire and the ‘age-old’ threat of Islam. Orbán’s transparent distrust of Europe’s ruling establishments – all buttressed by a media saturated with pro-government propaganda – allowed Fidesz to successfully depict themselves as the only force capable of defending the titular nation and its ‘sovereignty’.
Recently, however, there have been signs that the Hungarian electorate are growing tired of this heavy-handed, politics of fear. Two political events in particular may suggest that Orbán’s position is not as impregnable as it once seemed. The first being the successful campaign against Budapest’s 2024 Olympic bid, which resulted in the withdrawal of their candidate status; and the second being the domestic and international backlash caused by Orbán’s highly controversial and scathing attacks on George Soros and CEU.
‘Murdering’ Orbán’s Olympic dream
Under the Fidesz government, sport has become an inescapable part of Hungarian political discourse. For Orbán – himself a fiercely passionate football fan – sport constitutes a strategic policy sector and matter of national priority. This dynamic is reflected in his public statements. Last year, at the inauguration of a new football training centre, he proclaimed:
“Sport will restore Hungary’s self-respect. If we unite our efforts, […] we can take on any nation of the world, including those bigger than us, be it in the field of science, culture or sport.”
At a similar event just days before, he warned: “If we want our country to have strong young people with strong characters, we must spend on sport.” Unsurprisingly, Orbán has done just that, investing billions of Hungarian Forints on the construction of football stadiums, youth development and mass participation programmes, as well as other areas of sport infrastructure. Indeed, the level of Orbán’s obsession is such that he has even constructed an opulent stadium (The Pancho Arena) in his childhood village of Felcsút. Funded at a cost of 3.5 billion forints (£9 million), both by state monies and donations from private investors cosy with the Prime Minister, this story becomes all the more absurd when one discovers that the population of Felcsút, roughly 1,500 people, is half the number of the stadium’s seats.
Pancho Aréna, the home ground of the football team Puskás Akadémia, has a capacity of 3,816 and is located in Viktor Orban’s home village, Felcsút, with a population of only 1,800. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Suffice it to say, Orbán’s dream to host an Olympics in Budapest was another strand of this grandiose strategy. From a diplomatic perspective, the benefits of hosting Sports Mega Events (SMEs) are well documented. As scholars like Jonathan Grix and Paul Brannagan have argued, nation-states have long used the global attraction of SMEs to project and generate ‘soft power’. Nonetheless, for a nation still recovering from a double-dip recession (caused by the financial crisis of the late 2000s), the economic extravagance of hosting the Olympics was apparent. Furthermore, there were genuine fears that hosting the Games would only provide more opportunities for systemic corruption, with public funds flowing into the pockets of business interests and oligarchs aligned with the government, an accusation also levelled at Orbán’s dealings in football.
In January 2017, a new political movement called Momentum (formed of Hungarians in their twenties and thirties) tabled a proposed referendum to withdraw the Hungarian bid to host the 2024 Olympics. Their movement, named ‘No to the Olympics, Yes to our Future!’, was a resounding success.
Tasked with collecting 138,000 signatures in Budapest within 30 days, Momentum were able to galvanise widespread discontent surrounding the government’s profligate expenditure on the Olympic bid, and amassed more than 260,000 signatures. Their argument that the funds allocated to preparing Budapest for the games would be better spent on public education, healthcare and affordable housing struck a chord, with a national Medián poll suggesting that 68% of Hungarians did not support holding the Olympics in Budapest. Meanwhile, only 26% believed that, “regardless of the cost”, the Olympic Games would have strengthened “the bond that connects members of the nation and national pride.”
Momentum not only mobilised the electorate, but also managed to enlist the support of parties on the left of the political spectrum, including members of the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) and the Greens (LMP). In truth, this union was solely a marriage of convenience, with Momentum’s ambitious and somewhat brazen leadership categorically announcing they would refuse to cooperate with the ‘political elite’ in the upcoming 2018 elections. However, their effective opposition to Orbán’s Olympic project demonstrated that Momentum are capable of tapping into the electorate’s popular discontent with elements of Orbán’s regime.
Orbán and his colleagues were forced to begrudgingly accept defeat, withdrawing Budapest’s Olympic bid while chastising Momentum’s “unpatriotic” leaders for ‘murdering’ Orbán’s Olympic dream for their own political gain. In characteristically stubborn fashion, the Hungarian PM is already said to be planning Budapest’s candidacy for the 2028 Olympics. Nevertheless, is If only momentarily, Fidesz’ position had been made to look vulnerable.
Soros: The Enemy Within
Though Orbán’s sport policies have always polarised the Hungarian populace, his policies on immigration have garnered widespread approval. And with the 2018 parliamentary elections on the horizon, Orbán and his advisors have adopted a strategy underpinned by a familiar anti-migrant theme. This was undoubtedly the rationale behind their latest campaign drive, titled “Let’s Stop Brussels.” As János Halász, spokesman for Fidesz’s parliamentary delegation, summarised, “Brussels” wants to make executive decisions without any consultation with the ‘people,’ and when “Brussels makes a decision, the Hungarians always lose.” After all, if it was up to Brussels, Hungary would be exposed to an influx of migrants.
But with Hungary’s borders secure, the government’s ire has shifted in the direction of the so called ‘enemy within’; George Soros. As one of the wealthiest philanthropists in the world, and founder of the Open Society Foundations (an international umbrella network that supports democracy and human rights in over 100 countries), Soros is the perfect scapegoat for Orbán’s political narrative.
To this end, Soros has been accused of bankrolling and coordinating anti-government protests and media campaigns in Hungary, as well as ‘fuelling’ the refugee crisis. During a scathing interview with Radio Kossuth in 2015, Orbán qualified this assertion, claiming that Soros was a leading member in a circle of “activists” trying to undermine European nations by supporting refugees heading to the continent from the Middle East and beyond. “His [Soros’] name is perhaps the strongest example of those who support anything that weakens nation states,” the Hungarian PM opined, “they support everything that changes the traditional European lifestyle.” This is a powerful and dangerous discourse which resonates with both historic anti-Semitic tropes about multi-national conspiracies and more generally, global elites working to undermine ‘the people’.
The CEU Controversy
At this point, the history and symbolic importance of Central European University becomes of paramount importance. After the collapse of communist regimes in Europe, George Soros founded the university in 1991 in the hope that it could help promote civil society, intellectual freedom and democracy. Thanks to Soros’ endowments, the American-styled university has become one of the wealthiest and most prestigious in the Central European region. Today, it continues to champion free-speech, defend open society and stimulate intellectual debate on divisive issues such as immigration, xenophobia, populism, nationalism and globalisation.
Unsurprisingly, the university’s ties with Soros have dragged it into the government’s line of fire, with prominent Fidesz officials often referring to CEU as “the Soros University”. As the academic and founder of Hungarian Spectrum, Eva Balogh, comprehensively explains:
“By accusing Soros of evil designs against Hungary and, in fact, against the whole of Europe, Orbán can move against both the bothersome NGOs [‘bankrolled’ by Soros] and Central European University. CEU may not interfere with his policies as some of the NGOs do, but an independent university over which he has no jurisdiction remains an irritant.”
This has prompted Orbán’s government to initiate what many consider their most flagrant attack on liberalism yet. In addition to introducing legislation designed to limit the influence of foreign funded NGOs, the Hungarian parliament also passed a bill in April 2017 stipulating that foreign universities must have a campus both in the capital and their host nation. Of course, CEU’s only campus is located in Budapest, and thus its very existence is threatened.
But, despite the government’s best efforts to demonise Soros and CEU, the outpouring of support for their plight has put Orbán on the back foot. And the backlash has not just come from ‘faceless bureaucrats in Brussels’, or liberal elites sitting in their ‘western’ Ivory towers. Instead, some of the fiercest critics of Fidesz have come from within.
Demonstration in Budapest against the legislation threatening to close the Central European University, April 9, 2017.
In Budapest, tens of thousands of people have staged mass protests in publicly significant spaces such as Heroes Square (where Fidesz headquarters are located), Liberty Square and the Houses of Parliament. Meanwhile, politicians, journalists and academics from across the political spectrum have denounced Orbán’s treatment of CEU. Even former and current Fidesz loyalists have publicly expressed dissatisfaction with the government’s latest salvo.
And there are already signs that Orbán’s miscalculations have been counterproductive. In the Hungarian weekly magazine HVG, the latest findings of a Medián poll (conducted between 21-26 April 2017) were outlined under the title ‘Universal Decline’. According to the pollsters, Fidesz’ approval ratings have fallen from 37% (recorded in January) to 31%, while 46% of respondents claimed that they would in no circumstances vote for the government party, an increase of nearly 10% compared to the January figure. As the rubric of the HVG article suggests, this damaging drop in popularity can largely be attributed to Orbán’s policies against CEU.
While the latest polls are tangible signs that Orbán’s position has been weakened, the long-term implications of both the CEU case and the Budapest Olympic bid may prove more significant.
In fact, one of the most interesting developments during the CEU controversy has been the willingness of the opposition, both on the right and the left, to cooperate. Orbán’s supremacy has to a large extent relied on his ability to occupy the centre ground while dividing and conquering the opposition, relying on their stark ideological differences to keep them from undermining Fidesz’ three-pronged parliamentary system.
However, when Fidesz signed the anti-CEU legislation, the opposition parties of LMP, MSZP and Jobbik rallied and demanded a review of the legislation by the Constitutional Court. By uniting, they were able to pass the 25% parliamentary threshold required to trigger a Court review of the anti-CEU law. Such alliances have hitherto been extremely rare during Orbán’s tenure. Thus, as with Momentum’s movement against the Budapest Olympics, the government were isolated. For the second time in a matter of months, opposition parties found common ground, mobilised support from the electorate and fuelled criticism and debate on both sides of the political spectrum.
Orbán is consequently under severe pressure, both at home and abroad. In April, the European Commission threatened legal action should Fidesz fail to respect the academic freedom and autonomy of CEU. The European People’s Party adopted a similar stance, warning Orbán that the anti-CEU legislation and blatant anti-EU rhetoric of the ‘Let’s Stop Brussels’ campaign cannot be tolerated. The Hungarian PM has been issued with a time frame of 30-days to meet these demands, and it has been mooted that Fidesz’ membership in the EPP could even be at stake.
For now, Orbán has committed himself to following and implementing these demands. But, the Hungarian leader has hoodwinked the EU’s politicians before, and there is time yet for Orbán and his spin doctors to try and turn events back in their favour. For example, the lambasting of the Hungarian PM in front of the European parliament is already being used to feed Orbán’s narrative that Brussels, Soros and CEU are the ‘real enemies’ of Hungary.
Arguably, however, some seeds of doubt have already been sown. Domestically it has been shown that civil society actors and the significant political and cultural capital of institutions such as sport, can be used to challenge the hegemony of Fidesz. The polls suggest Orbán’s popularity is not unshakeable. But only time will tell if the chinks in Orbán’s armour are damaging enough to change the course of the 2018 Hungarian elections.
With thanks to Dr. Dániel Róna for his help and expertise. You can find his work on Hungarian politics and the forthcoming elections on his blog.