Since 2010, the Orbán government has conceded to external pressure only twice: in October of 2014, when a proposed telecommunications tax prompted thousands of demonstrators to take to the streets of Budapest and in April of 2016 when the Sunday closing of large stores and supermarkets turned out to be politically too costly for the Hungarian government in the long run.
During his time in office, Orbán has been persistently accused by the opposition of centralizing his power. However, with time progressing, this political hum-drum approach by his political opponents has become increasingly inconsequential. Orbán’s response was that the policy steps his government has taken have only served to complete a transition of power first from the Kádár era to the post-communist period and now to the free and independent, democratic Hungary. His followers, indeed the majority of the voters, so far have concurred with this assessment. Approaching next year’s national elections, his approval rating is consistently the highest among all political contenders. Moreover, Fidesz continues to lead all parties in national polls.
No wonder that liberal European leaders have become increasingly concerned about the Orbán government’s growing influence not only in Hungarian domestic affairs, but also in foreign affairs. The European Commission has launched several procedures during the past 7 years to intervene in Hungarian domestic affairs claiming that Hungarian policies have breached EU „rules”. So far, this hostile tactic has proven to be largely „ineffective” in trying to discipline the Hungarian government.
Even in the context of Brexit, the recent French elections and the upcoming German elections in September, Orbán’s legitimacy seems to be stabilizing. Macron’s victory was a setback to the center-right governments in eastern Europe, but not a strong enough setback to impede or reverse Hungarian policies. Orbán’s greatest political assets seem to be culminating in his appealing personality. “He’s like a rock star,” analysts claim. In person, Orbán seems casual and friendly, and comes across as accessible. And his take-no-prisoners style, free of any political correctness, is alluring. “He makes people smile and relax. He’s also a freedom fighter, a quintessential Hungarian mythical figure, who is not afraid to take on big powers, for instance, international banks or the EU.” analysts contend.*
Indeed, by any measure, Orbán’s politics seems to be shaped along the politics of dissent. His David and Goliath battle against major western powers continue to be popular with Hungarian voters. His foreign minister Péter Szijjártó has also proven to be effective and appealing to many foreign political leaders in trying to appease them and legitimize Hungarian policy directions.
On the other hand, Orbán’s intuition has enabled him to set his political agenda far beyond Hungary. His ambition carried him as far as taking positions in U.S. presidential elections, as well as influencing the Brussels agenda. He also made deals with the Putin government in Moscow and had successful negotiations with the Chinese to encourage investment in Hungary.
But nothing has been so explosive and controversial in the international policy arena as European immigration policies, which has become Orbán’s prime political priority as well. And rightly so. Many in Hungarian society think his concerns are legitimate. Even opposition forces have been forced to change their positions a dozen times vis-a-vis this issue, while Orbán has remained steadily opposed to irrational open-arm immigration policies from the beginning. Meanwhile, both Brussels and the Hungarian opposition are at a loss trying to figure out how to tackle this exigency.
Despite being bombarded by immense liberal media pressure from Washington, Brussels, New York, Paris, London and Berlin, Orbán’s conservative policies seem to be gaining legitimacy across national boundaries. By endorsing Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton at Tusványos last Summer, Orbán signaled to the world that the rise of nationalist policies are no longer the exception, but rather the rule in foreign affairs. According to the Orbánian reasoning, liberalism and liberal economic policies have failed miserably and caused global recessions around the world in 2008, therefore should be dismissed as illegitimate. Orbán has launched a conservative movement that has spread beyond Hungary’s borders. Recently, Poland, the Czech Republic, Croatia and even Slovakia have followed suit in opposing Brussels’ dominance and authoritarian approaches.
In sum, all the talk about demolishing or dismantling democratic institutions in Hungary and its neighboring countries have proven to be nothing more than political hogwash stirred by socialist and liberal political constituencies.
Even the only remaining superpower in the world, the United States, is now more lenient when it comes to Hungarian policies. While the Brussels elite, Monsieur Macron and Madame Merkel continue to be huffing and puffing over sovereign eastern European policies, President Trump’s hands-off foreign policy only seems to encourage national conservative forces in eastern Europe.
In sum, Orbán has become stronger and his policies are now frequently regarded as a yardstick rather than the earlier image of the rebellious kid of eastern Europe that he was accused of by his political opponents in Budapest, Brussels and Washington. Overall, national sovereignty and national conservatism seem to be taking hold and liberal policies have been faltering around the globe. It will be interesting to see how Asia will stack up in this political battle. That could ultimately be the difference in tipping the scale in terms of establishing enduring political principles.
*Hungary Is Too Small for Viktor Orban, Foreign Affairs, October 1, 2016.
cover photo: cultura.hu