Viktor Orbán’s Pyrrhic Victory

An interview with
Adam Fabry

This month's referendum on immigration showed that Viktor Orbán's xenophobic agenda is challenged more by an apathetic electorate than any real opposition.

Viktor Orbán in 2011. European People's Party / Flickr

On October 2, Hungary held a referendum on European migrant quotas, asking whether its citizens agreed or not “that the EU decides to allocate quotas of migrants among its member states, without first consulting national governments and parliaments?” Though an overwhelming majority of the voters (98 percent), rejected EU-imposed migrant quotas, the turnout (44 percent) was too low to make the referendum valid, thus pointing to a potential crack in Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s authoritarian and xenophobic government, which has led the country since 2010.

In order to better understand what happened in Hungary, Mattia Gallo from Global Project spoke with Adam Fabry, a historian, political economist, and activist with Hungarian origins. Currently, Adam lives in Argentina, where he holds a postdoctoral fellowship at the National University of Córdoba (CIECS-CONICET), researching the political economy of neoliberalism in Latin America and Eastern Europe and the history and politics of the far right in Hungary.


MG

The referendum on European migrant quotas failed to reach the quorum, despite the xenophobic politics of Prime Minister Orbán. How was this result possible?

AF

Let’s be clear about this, the results are a huge defeat for the Orbán regime, especially given the incredible amount of time and money that they have spent on promoting their racist agenda in Hungary and abroad (according to some news reports the referendum cost more than the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom!).

Of course, Orbán and his supporters are still arguing that the result was an “outstanding victory” for “Hungarians,” but everyone is just laughing at such absurd claims. But all this does not seem to hold Orbán back from pushing ahead with modifying the constitution. However, the reasons why Orbán lost the referendum are arguably complex and part of a lengthier process of crisis and decay.

Indeed, in a paradoxical way, the Orbán regime has been shaken by the referendum, although the position of most Hungarian citizens with regard to the refugee crisis has remained largely the same. Therefore, I think that the reasons why the Orbán regime lost the referendum have to be found elsewhere. The truth is that Hungary has been declining in a socio-economic, cultural, and moral sense ever since the “transition” in 1989.

Similar to elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc, neoliberal restructuring led to the entrenchment of mass unemployment, declining living standards, and the formation of a vast new “underclass,” comprised of permanently unemployed people lacking any access to health care, education, or social security.

The “novelty” of the Orbán regime, compared to previous governments in Budapest, was that it was merely shifting the blame for the disastrous results of the “transition” onto “foreigners” – a strange mixture of “meddling” EU bureaucrats, corrupt communists and liberals, the “lazy and undeserving” poor (i.e. the Roma), and, more recently, “illegal” Middle Eastern and North African migrants. For a long time, this strategy seemed to be working very well, but this weekend’s referendum showed that the Orbán regime’s authoritarian policies and racist rhetoric are no longer enough to mobilize the voters of the Hungarian right.

Today, it is becoming clear to everyone — even loyal supporters of the regime, as well as the supporters of the official far right (represented by the nationalist party, Jobbik) — that the resources of the Orbán regime are dwindling; that public hospitals and schools are on the verge of collapse, while tens of thousands of Hungarians are leaving the country each year in search for a better life in the West.

Against this background, many Hungarians were rightly outraged by the government’s nauseating propaganda campaign, its scornful arrogance, and simply chose to stay at home on the day of the referendum. In the light of all this, Orbán’s triumphalist post-referendum speeches are even more comical.

This does not mean that Orbán’s political career is finished (in fact, the first signs after the referendum are that he is not going to surrender easily), but he has lost his charismatic power. As G.M. Tamás has argued in the wake of the referendum, “He is just another lying, incomprehensibly rich politician among many others; perhaps he is still the most skilled of them all — but all this is of little value.”

MG

What was the role of the media during the referendum campaign? What was the position of the main opposition parties in the referendum?

AF

Already before the referendum, the Hungarian media landscape was skewed heavily in favor of the Orbán regime, but still the level of racist propaganda in recent months has been incredible. It was simply everywhere: from gigantic billboards spread out in every Hungarian town and village, through campaigns on television channels and the Internet, to letters from prime minister Orbán or phone calls from Fidesz [Orbán’s national-conservative party] politicians to mobilize people for the “no” vote.

The state propaganda machine was spreading all sorts of conspiracy theories, racial stereotypes, and invented stories in the run up to the elections. For example, on the day of referendum, the state television was running a story of “hordes of immigrants” waiting on Hungary’s borders, preparing themselves to “overrun” the country in the case that the referendum was invalid.

Against this deafening racist propaganda, there was very little that the opposition parties in parliament could have done (if they wanted to). So some of the opposition parties remained silent, while agreeing with Orbán on the question that the so-called “immigration quotas” dictated by the European Union were an issue of national sovereignty, to be decided by the Hungarian parliament. The Democratic Coalition (DK), led by ex-prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, called for people to abstain from the referendum, but given his widespread unpopularity among the Hungarian electorate, I doubt that this had any significant impact on the results.

Actually, the only party that openly questioned — albeit in a mocking way — the Orbán regime’s anti-immigrant propaganda was the Hungarian Two-tailed Dog Party (MKKP), which only became an official political party in 2014. With very meager means it ran a campaign with satirical slogans, like “Did you know there is a war in Syria?,” “Did you know one million Hungarians want to emigrate to Europe?,” or “Did you know that since the migration crisis, there are more blue billboards [official anti-immigrant billboards] than immigrants?,” and asked their supporters to invalidate their votes. In the end, 6 percent of the votes were invalid, so you could say that they were rather successful.

MG

Was there any antiracist opposition against the referendum? Do you see the possibility of any progressive, left-wing political force emerging after the referendum?

AF

There were small demonstrations against the Orbán regime’s racist policies prior to the referendum, but it is difficult to see a new, progressive political party or social movement developing out of these protests. Apart from some small, courageous human rights groups, most civil society organizations have been accommodating themselves to the dominant right-wing discourse in the country. Similarly, some opposition parties seem to be adopting themselves to the new modus vivendi under the Orbán regime, with ex-Socialist and Liberal politicians recently accepting prestigious diplomatic posts for the government.

Even renowned liberal intellectuals, such as György Konrád, have recently come out in support for the Orbán regime’s razor-wire fence around Hungary’s southern borders, repeating the official standpoint in Budapest that most people were “economic migrants,” rather than refugees fleeing imperialist war and violence, and that they would eventually out-reproduce and subordinate Europeans to their culture, and the “flood is growing like an epidemic.”

And Konrád is not alone, of course. There are many people like him, former social-liberal voters, who are convinced that the Orbán regime is essentially right when it comes to the “migrant crisis.” One part of this is can be explained as pure conformism: a lot of people like to be part of with what they perceive as their “community,” no matter how irrational these constructions are. Here the role of the media, official churches, and the education system are enormous, as Antonio Gramsci already recognized in the early twentieth century.

The other part is a genuine fear of the unknown “other.” In contemporary Hungary, as well as elsewhere in the West, this is personalized by the Muslim migrant (although there are virtually no Muslims in the country!); the terrorist menace, who, drawing on old European fears of the Orient, allegedly threatens “our culture” and “traditional values.”

Against these pressures, I think that the prospects of a genuine, antiracist left emerging are rather bleak. (The truth is no political left worth mentioning has emerged in Hungary since the regime change in 1989 — in this regard, the country is lagging significantly behind other neighboring countries in the region.)

MG

Before the referendum in Hungary, the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, claimed, “If there would be a referendum on every decision taken by the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, then the authority of the law would be in danger.”

For neoliberal technocrats, the main preoccupation seems to be the “excesses of democracy,” rather than the increase of xenophobia in Hungary. In the meantime, Orbán goes ahead implementing neoliberal policies, which suits the European establishment perfectly well. What do you think of this?

AF

Well, the fact that the European Union, and the ruling classes in Europe more generally, do not hold democracy (the right of “common people” to exercise power) in high regard should be well known to most people by now. One only has to look at the treatment of Greece in recent years to be reminded of this!

However, when it comes to the relationship between the European Union and the Orbán regime, it is striking to see how tolerant Brussels has remained with the Hungarian state’s slide to the far right in recent years. Sure, the European Union has criticized the Orbán regime for its dismantlement of liberal democratic institutions or state-sponsored corruption on numerous occasions, but it has continued to provide much-needed financial assistance to Budapest in the form of EU cohesion funds.

Also, much has been said in the media about Chancellor Angela Merkel supposedly losing patience with Orbán’s authoritarian policies or his attempts to stoke up a rift between the German Christian Democrats (CDU) and its coalition partner, the Christian Social Union (CSU) in Bavaria, by openly criticizing the German government’s “open-door” refugee policy, but until now, she has continued to support Fidesz in the European Parliament (where the latter sits together with the CDU-CSU in the European People’s Party, EPP).

According to liberal commentators, the reason why the European Union has proven to be unable to impose heavier sanctions on the Orbán regime is due to a lack of “effective tools” with which to “discipline” rebellious member states or a fear of the “geopolitical consequences” of doing so (i.e. Hungary might move closer to Putin’s Russia, potentially encouraging other EU member states to do so as well). However, personally, I think that the reasons for why EU leaders have remained so tolerant with the Orbán regime are more pragmatic.

For in many regards, the Orbán government is a “model state” of neoliberal austerity. It has reduced the government debt (from 80.8 percent of GDP in 2011 to 75.3 percent in 2015), cut inflation to zero percent (the lowest level since 1974!), and, perhaps most importantly, from the viewpoint of the troika and credit rating agencies, maintained the budget deficit below 3 percent of GDP (as stipulated by the Maastricht criteria).

Similarly, the Hungarian state’s racist policies towards migrants and the Roma are actually not that different from those practiced by other European states. So, I think it is illusory to believe that the European Union will “force” the Orbán regime change to change course (in fact, EU leaders have openly stated that they consider the referendum to be Hungary’s “internal affairs” and will not react to its outcomes). Any progressive change of the current state of affairs under the Orbán regime will have to come from within Hungarian society.