Viktor Orbán has posed critical challenges to concepts of human rights and democracy in Europe since his election in 2010. But there is every sign that, rather than managing and curtailing the influence of Hungary’s far-right government, other European democracies are icreasingly susceptible to comparable social and cultural pressures.
Over the last five years, Orbán’s government has provided an autocratic, plutocratic model of governing. The recent success of Jarolaw Kaczynki’s Law and Justice Party (PiS) in Poland, and subsequent attempts to mirror the capture of the Hungarian state, are an obvious homage to the ruthless centralisation pursued by Orban’s Fidesz. Yet it is also fair to say that the politics of Robert Fico in Slovakia, across a range of issues, has become increasingly ugly. On the question of refugees, Slovakia, in theory governed by ‘social democrats’, has exceeded Hungary in its racism, refusing to offer sanctuary to non-Christians.
Therefore, whilst Europe could provide the only possible effective solution to the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis, no mechanism can be agreed to deliver this. Orbán’s heavy-handed policy of fence-building and antagonism towards outsiders, preying on domestic insecurities, has become the default model for countries from Bulgaria to Croatia and the Czech Republic. Europe’s identity crisis, exposed since the end of the Cold War with the expansion of a thinly-conceived European Union into eastern Europe, appears to be entering a more dangerously acute period.
In reality, there is a complex set of balances within the new wave of authoritarian governments between the national bourgeoisie and the crucial foreign investment which cements the procurement capabilities of the captured state. Analysis of both the circumstances surrounding the internal balances of social forces, and these states’ engagements with the ‘core’ European countries, is crucial to understanding the momentum towards authoritarianism.
States in western Europe have set little by way of a positive democratic example. Possibly the one person whom Orbán most fears, Angela Merkel, has refused to strongly condemn in public Orbán’s government for its many abuses of the democratic process. This silence is echoed by a majority of other EU countries. This is despite the fact that the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) described Hungary’s 2014 elections as ‘free but not fair.‘ The silence amounts, in fact, to an endorsement. Orbán has proved that an authoritarian right-wing government can co-exist with European obligations and institutions.
The decayed institutional setting of democracy in some of Europe’s largest countries plays its part, albeit limited, in the handicapping of the development of newer democracies. Always good students of international comparative politics, Fidesz have repeatedly cited the UK as a model for Hungary’s constitutional reforms. With the Conservative Party in the UK having created a wave of new unelected Lords, bringing the number up to 821, the example of the haphazard UK constitution provides justification for Hungary’s untrammelled centralisation of executive power.
There have been many analyses looking at the internal situation of Hungary and how a right-wing dynamic has developed over the last ten years. Perhaps one of the best explanations was written in 2011, by the sociologist Erzsebet Szalai. In her piece ‘The indiscreet charm of dictatorship,’ Szalai identified the emergence of the Hungarian bourgeoisie during the transition period as crucial. This nascent bourgeoisie was nurtured by a thin layer of liberal intellectuals and the technocracy of the late-communist, Kadar era. According to Szalai, at some point, the major national capitalists became frustrated with their rather unhip parents, and realigned with the neo-conservative Right.
As Szalai argues, this process is compromised by the loss of more than 1.5m jobs in Hungary in the 20 years following the political transition. The combined efforts of both the multinational companies adding their inward investment and the Hungarian bourgeoisie, have been unable to retrieve these jobs. Despite his nationalist rhetoric, Viktor Orbán and his team understand that Hungarian big capital is unable to set the wheels of the domestic economy in motion on its own. If the government wants to be successful, they must inevitably gratify foreign investors – by helping to establish car plants, for example.
There are limits to the concept of a national politics and there are overlaps between Orban’s policies and the mainstream, post-1980s political settlement in most European countries. Defining an alternative national economic strategy is practically impossible when a country only has foreign clients – a car company here, or a call centre there. With no vertical cohesion, there is no opportunity to undertake economic planning in a traditional sense. Neo-conservatives are attempting to reconcile national capitalism with elements of neo-liberalism, whilst adhering to a model of political economy which punishes the disadvantaged and erodes the provision of health and education.
The role of foreign capital is critical, not only to the continued maintenance of the Orbán government, but also to the emergence of the mode of political operation pioneered by the Fidesz leader and now duplicated by others. Over the years, Orbán has drawn funding and advice from George Soros, liberal foundations in the United States and a variety of NGOs. Disgraced former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, until his stroke in 2008, played a central role in Viktor Orbán’s seemingly inexorable drift towards the right, as a trusted political adviser. The Christian Social Union, a large, mainstream centre-right political party in Bavaria, has been almost entirely supportive of Orbán’s takeover and domination of Hungary’s state institutions.
This, we should remember, is a government which has used prison labour to erect the fences on Hungary’s border to deter war refugees. Just recently, a new factory, dedicated to producing fences, has opened in Hungary – also largely dependent upon a prisoner workforce. Orbán’s dream of a workfare state is increasingly a reality. The fences both demarcate a ‘surplus population’ at the border, whilst providing the internal ‘surplus populace’ with a function in this workfare state.
And yet there is no evidence that most Hungarians would like to see the Hungarian Republic following such a model. Politics fails to reflect the democratic concerns of citizens across central eastern Europe. A swathe of issues and crises surrounding employment, education, health and social insurance systems continue to be unaddressed, and occasionally flare up into outright frustration (as reflected by the teachers’ strike in Slovakia). The low turnouts – 61% in Hungary in 2014, falling to 50% in Poland in 2015 – reflect choices that have largely been reduced to neo-liberalism or neo-conservatism, with a discourse that excludes most other political perspectives.
Behind this disillusionment, the main opposition to the new authoritarianism is often discredited, possibly beyond repair. It is seen as corrupt, despite the evident cronyism of many right-wing parties.The experiences of the 1990s and 2000s in the region, with the abandonment of welfarism by centre-left parties, appears to have convinced the electorates that laissez-faire economics, associated with liberalism of all kinds, results in the subjugation of the most vulnerable.
The longing for a leader able to restore power and security arguably arises not only from the prejudices which have been inflamed by the Right’s exclusive definition of nation, but also arise from the despair of being left behind. The leader does not only promise the restoration of the People’s financial security but also their self-image and identity.
With the transition after 1990, the elementary security of wide social groups faded away, and their identities were torn to pieces. The new generation of populist leaders, epitomised by Viktor Orbán, connect succinctly to these feelings in their electoral propaganda: they promise order, discipline and safety. Right-wing authoritarians promise a big, united and victorious nation.
At the same time, the neo-conservatives depend upon disengagement with political issues, and apathy regarding the potential for positive change through the ballot box. Arguably it is only a new conception of a post-austerity Europe, with the rise of entirely new social movements, that can interrupt the growing hegemony of the authoritarian Right in the region. It maybe that sanctions will help curb the level of authoritarianism in the short-term, but it is only the emergence of a more vital form of indigenous democracy which will revive the prospects for the region – and this itself arguably depends on a ground-level shift in perspective and an improved dialogue based upon respect and social consciousness. Such a change may be a long time coming.