Viktor Orban bringing illiberalism back to Europe

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Viktor Orban bringing illiberalism back to Europe

Sunday, 17 April 2022 | Makhan Saikia

Orban’s flirtation with Putin is sending uneasy signals to many Hungarians. It is surprising that the man who launched his political career with anti-Russian slogans has metamorphosed into a primary ally of Putin. It proves only one thing: Orban is an apt manipulator and survivor in central European politics, signalling a growing resistance against the EU and the NATO

The fourth consecutive victory of Viktor Orban is signalling the sustenance of “illiberalism” both in Hungary and in Europe. He has quelled liberalism in Hungary in the last 12 years of his reign. Now this historic win has further corroborated theories that Orban’s Fidesz party is to become the centrist party of a new era.

The Fidesz won a landslide victory in the parliamentary election on April 3. In Hungary, its National Assembly has 199 seats (93 Party List seats and 106, Constituency Seats). On record, the Fidesz has been winning two-thirds majority in the Assembly. But this time with 135 seats, Orban will have a supermajority in the new Assembly. It all proves that he has been able to consolidate his power against all odds within the country and in Europe. In November 2020, Orban broke a 130-year-old record to become the longest serving Prime Minister in the country’s history, which includes his first prime ministerial tenure from 1998 to 2002.

The Fidesz got 54 per cent of the votes for the Party Lists, while the United Opposition, the joint list of six biggest opposition parties of the country, won only 34 per cent of the votes.

Why did the combined opposition fail to prevent Orban’s victory again? First of all, the Opposition launched an entirely inexperienced candidate against Orban, a veteran in Hungarian politics by now. Today, instead of highlighting the rise of illiberalism in Europe, the Opposition should have gone for a detailed analysis of “Orbanomics” — his so-called unorthodox policies, the combination of his pro-market and low-taxation programmes, sometimes bold reforms, price regulations, state ownership, etc.

Second, the Opposition coalition candidate, Peter Marki-Zay, delivered long speeches and posted equally tiring videos on Facebook, making a series of scandalous comments against some sections of society. Basically, he failed to address the voters in Hungary.

However, just a month ahead of the election, Orban changed his political narrative in such a manner that it could rightly serve the long-term interests of the authoritarian rulers like him and also the ongoing war in Ukraine. He brought forward the electoral battle to his countrymen as a clear choice between peace and stability that his regime provided so far and the war and chaos that the Opposition was pushing the nation into.

After winning the parliamentary election, Orban said, “Maybe we never looked as good as we did tonight. We have achieved a victory that can be seen even from the moon and even more so from Brussels”. Thus many say that his re-election is too dangerous for the European Union (EU), but is equally helpful for Putin. In the last 12 years, what he openly propounded is no other than what we call, ‘Illiberal Democracy’. In all these years, he cleverly amended the Constitution of Hungary to serve his interests and that of his right-wing Fidesz party. Further, he tightened his grip on the country’s two most important organs: judiciary and media.

Orban projected himself as the true defender of the Hungarian nation against the Left and the EU. Finally, he also openly employed his statecraft against George Soros, a Hungarian-born Jewish philanthropist, who he accused has a grand hidden strategy for bringing Muslim migrants to the country.

What has compelled Orban to support Putin in his recent war campaign in Ukraine? He himself has become a symbol of charisma today. Orban navigates very cunningly in the faultlines of Hungarian politics. Being a brand ambassador of his populism, he has been maintaining safe distances from Brussels bureaucracy and diktats of the West for long. In such a situation, it is very natural that he goes along with Putin.

It can very well be gauged that after his grand victory, Orban is going to continue his diatribe against the EU. And this will certainly add fuel to the fire in the Ukraine war background. Immediately after winning the election, Orban called Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy an “opponent”. In fact, he touted his electoral victory as a direct rebuke to “liberalism, EU and Zelenskyy”. Orban’s flirtation with Putin is sending uneasy signals to many Hungarians today. It is surprising that the man who launched his political career with anti-Russian slogans has metamorphosed into a primary ally of Putin in the EU.

When we look back at the recent developments in the West, we observe that the global mainstream media failed to do away with the all-encompassing liberal cliches that they want to blame for the new continental right wing movements from the rise of Trump to Brexit. Many of us are rightly ignoring the fact that Orban became Prime Minister between 1998 and 2002 barely at the age of 35. And he has been at the frontline politics for the last 34 years in Hungary. Therefore, to denounce him as an under-informed and inexperienced populist would be a big mistake both for the EU and the US. After the exit of Angela Merkel in Germany, Orban is regarded as the longest serving head of state in the EU nations.

In the past, Orban has literally launched a long war on intellect in the country. He targeted almost all the government funded universities and other educational institutions that are supposed to be against the Fidesz. One glaring example was the closure of the Central European University in Budapest. In 2018, Orban forced this university out of the country.

The saddest part is that it was a university founded by George Soros, his nemesis, to promote an open society. This university was once widely considered as the most prestigious graduate school in Hungary. In fact, it offered in the past excellent training for presidents, prime ministers, diplomats and even the core members of the inner circle of the Orban administration. Sadly, this inner circle only hit back against the university. Hungary, once used to be the centre of best universities in Eastern Europe, but today most of them have come under severe control of the government, reducing qualities, research parameters and crushing an emerging democratic dialogue on campuses. The Atlantic writer Franklin Foer wrote: “Like Pol Pot or Joseph Stalin, Orban dreams of liquidating intelligentsia, draining the public of education and moulding a more pliant nation. But he is a state-of-the-art autocrat; he understands that he need not resort to the truncheon or the midnight knock at the door. His assault on civil society arrives in the guise of legalisms subverting the institutions that might challenge his authority.”

Orban will be there in power for another four years. It is a long time for him to consolidate his base further. Such rulers are primarily a threat to the very ideas and practices of liberal ethos. The reason behind this is that they win open elections, but disregard most of the democratic credentials. And mostly, they pound on liberal institutions and legal mechanisms so as to promote their own brand of populism. Ironically, they find a large chunk of the population to back them to power against the liberal opposition that tries to promote universal values, reasserting their faith on democratic ideals. Further, the Orban kind of electoral victories indicate that many people like to continue their support for so-called nationalistic brand of politics and for strong leaders like him in Hungary. At any rate, he is a threat to European unity and also for the declining global liberal order. At this point, strengthening Putin and Xi Jinping would be equally dangerous for the liberal narrative. Hence, Orban’s new term in Budapest would be closely watched both from Brussels and from Washington.

It’s time for the liberal pundits to analyse how Orban has changed his political viewpoints from the beginning of his career. By the middle of June 1989, barely a 26-year-old law graduate, Orban gave a historic speech at the country’s Heroes Square in Budapest, demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops from Hungary. At that critical juncture, when his motherland was trying hard to come out of the shadow of Soviet dominance, he became a symbol of power and freedom for many. So, he exploited the political transition masterfully after the withdrawal of the Russian troops. And this later catapulted him to power. At the same Heroes Square, when Putin lambasted the NATO for its continued eastward expansion this February, Orban offered his full support to the former. Thus, Orban has proved himself to be an apt manipulator and survivor in central European politics, signalling a growing resistance against the EU and NATO.

(Dr Makhan Saikia has taught political science and international relations for over a decade in institutions of national and international repute after specialisation in globalisation and governance from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. He is the chief editor of the Journal of Global Studies, an international research journal)

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