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A Slow Poison for Europe

While predictable, Fidesz’s massive victory in Hungary still inspires awe about the trajectory of once one of the EU’s most promising new member states.

by Martin Ehl 10 April 2018

Prime Minister Viktor Orban will continue to govern Hungary for the next four years with a strong majority in parliament. This is not exactly news, but a description of a toxic poison that is likely to spread beyond the country’s borders – if it hasn’t already.

 

Orban’s authoritarian style and methods of suppression of the opposition, of an independent judiciary, and of free media are admired and seen as inspiring in other countries in the region, mainly in Poland, but also in Slovakia and Austria.

 

Despite the many corruption scandals of the ruling Fidesz party, its third consecutive electoral victory should serve as a warning sign for the entire European Union. Hungarian analysts like to describe such graft, based on the misuse of EU funds, as a “slow-working poison” that could eventually lead to Fidesz’s downfall. Last week before the elections, some of them had hoped that such a scenario was about to play out, thinking that even the loss of a constitutional majority would be something of a defeat for Orban.

 

What followed did not match such wishful thinking. Fidesz achieved a big majority and can now change the constitution as it wishes – similar to the success the party gained the last time around, in 2010.

 

Instead, what we could call “Orbanism” has turned into poison for the rest of Europe. Despite his anti-democratic credentials, the Hungarian prime minister still has the support of the German conservatives, and his party belongs to the family of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament. He is definitely not under the same pressure as his Polish ally Jaroslaw Kaczynski, whose governing Law and Justice party often gets into European fights with no plan B. That is unlike the crafty Orban, who always takes some kind of step back to avoid provoking too harsh a reaction from Brussels – the reason, too, why his first moves toward autocracy after the 2010 triumph were not curbed on an EU level.

 

So the Europe-wide tolerated Orban has all he needs to crack down even more furiously on the remaining independent media, the judiciary, and unfriendly NGOs – only now he might not stop at only those financed by the “official enemy,” the Hungarian-born billionaire and philanthropist George Soros. The brain drain will likely continue and perhaps accelerate: more than half a million Hungarians – from a population of around 10 million – are already living and working elsewhere in the EU because of the harsh political and economic environment back home.

 

Orban’s practices will seem tempting for all EU wannabe autocrats, mostly coming from right-wing populist circles like those in Poland or in Austria, where the Freedom Party, which governs in a coalition with the Christian Democrats, openly admires Orban’s politics. And it’s not a coincidence that Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French nationalistic right, was the first one to congratulate the prime minister on his victory.

 

To get this far, Orban has used simple rhetoric that incites fear of (possible) migrants and Islam, talk that has found fertile ground especially in the countryside where people are used to consuming only state-controlled media, nowadays completely in the hands of the governing party.

 

There was no other program on the table from the opposition, which merely relied on simplistic criticism of all the corruption without offering any alternative vision. It is telling that the second biggest party in the new parliament will be Jobbik, composed of extreme-right nationalists (lately positioning themselves as a conservative European party).

 

Hungary is proof that euroskeptic nationalism and populism is alive and kicking in the European Union, in spite of some who thought otherwise after Emmanuel Macron’s victory last year in France. A once promising role model among the EU member states is on its way to electoral autocracy, and inspiring others to do the same. That’s a sad result of almost 30 years of transition from socialism to democracy in Central Europe.
Martin Ehl 
is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.
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