Thursday 26 April 2018

Orban victory spreads message of 'illiberal democracy' for Austria, Poland and Italy to follow his lead

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Photo: Darko Vojinovic/AP
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Photo: Darko Vojinovic/AP

Analysis: Mary Fitzgerald

What will Hungary under a Viktor Orban riding high on his fourth term as prime minister look like? An assessment of the campaign that led to his far-right Fidesz party and its allies garnering more than 49pc of the votes cast in last weekend's election offers some clues.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which deployed observers to the poll, described the run-up as marked by "intimidating and xenophobic rhetoric, media bias and opaque campaign financing", with Hungary's public TV channel "clearly favouring the ruling coalition".

I observed the hollowing out of Hungarian media during Orban's three consecutive terms in office (he also held the post from 1998 to 2002 and now holds the record for the country's longest serving prime minister since the end of communism) through the stories of friends who worked as journalists there. Several have now changed careers, unwilling to participate any longer in what they see as an ugly charade.

And it's not just the media. As the 'New York Times' recently reported, schoolbooks have also been infused with Orban's own particular brand of xenophobia. In the latest edition of a history book compiled for 13-year-olds, refugees are presented as a threat to Hungary. "It can be problematic for different cultures to co-exist," the school text reads.

Orban's version of "illiberal democracy" has not just delivered him a landslide victory at home, it has made him a totemic figure for the far-right elsewhere in Europe and beyond.

Steve Bannon, Donald Trump's former strategist, described Orban as a hero during a recent tour of Europe. Bannon hailed Orban as "the most significant guy on the scene right now".

Last Sunday's election gave Orban and his allies a two-thirds majority in parliament, giving Orban an even stronger mandate to tweak Hungary's constitution to suit his authoritarian agenda, undermine the independence of the judiciary and further restrict the media.

His party could also push through what is known as the "stop Soros" law - a reference to George Soros, the Hungarian-American billionaire and philanthropist - which could effectively ban non-governmental organisations without government approval, particularly those that work on migration issues or are deemed a "national security risk".

Orban has been clamouring to shut down the Central European University - founded by Soros - which has become a hub of anti-Orban activism.

The Orban campaign against Soros has been criticised by human rights groups for its anti-Semitic messaging.

It was in Hungary's small towns and their rural hinterlands that Orban's party polled best last weekend and where the central theme of his campaign - a shrill call against immigration which Orban describes as "infiltration by Islamic invaders" - seems to have resonated most, despite the fact that less than 6pc of the country's population is foreign-born.

It's not just rhetoric. In pledging to "keep Hungary as Hungary" as he puts it, Orban has refused to participate in the EU's 2015 quota plan which aimed to resettle migrants across the bloc to help ease the burden on member states like Italy and Greece.

During his election campaign, Orban indicated he would attempt to amend Hungary's constitution in order to side-step this quota system.

He also built a barrier along Hungary's border with Croatia and Serbia to keep migrants out, a move that appalled many inside and out of the country but which appealed to his base.

Orban - buoyed by his resounding electoral victory - is likely to adopt an even more confrontational approach when it comes to dealing with Brussels this time round.

He has already declared since Sunday's election he intends to further undermine the EU and oppose what he calls attempts to develop a "United States of Europe".

Not everyone is anxious about what Orban's Hungary means for the EU. His fellow travellers in the European far-right applauded his win. And his anti-immigration stance is shared with those currently governing Poland and Austria and is also likely to chime with whatever coalition might emerge in Italy after its recent elections.

How much such elements - with their varying hues of Euroscepticism - can forge common purpose beyond shared rhetoric remains to be seen but taken together they are a reminder that while Emmanuel Macron's election in France last year was a reality check for what appeared to be a wave of ultra-nationalism, such sentiment still exists and is strengthening in certain corners of the continent.

Irish Independent

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