Our Man in Budapest
- January 12, 2019
As a general rule, whenever politicians tell you that they want to protect your culture or your civilisation with walls and fences, it’s a good idea to pat your wallet and check that it’s still there.
One minute you’re staring into their eyes and nodding approvingly as they tell you that your heritage and your identity are in grave danger from immigrants and ‘aliens’, and then you realise that you and your country have got poorer while your would-be saviours have mysteriously got a lot richer.
Take Hungary’s Victor Orbán. In the panoply of sleazy demagogues, charlatans, populists, white supremacists and outright fascists who have become paladins of the people these last few years, Orbán has acquired a special place in the far-right imagination.
Orbán’s Fidesz party has been in power since 2010, but he first established his international reputation as a defender of ‘Christian Europe’ in 2015, when Hungary began trapping migrants within its borders even though most of them didn’t even want to stay there, and were trying to get to Germany.
After allowing his police to attack migrants with tear gas and water cannons, Orbán went on to build a border fence along Hungary’s borders with Serbia and Croatia.
When the EU asked Hungary to accept quotas of refugees, Orbán refused, declaring that Muslim immigrants were incompatible with Hungary’s Christian culture. Such defiance led Marine le Pen to describe him gushingly as ‘the only one protecting the external borders.’
This was how Orbán appeared to his foreign admirers and perhaps to himself: a modern incarnation of the Magyar soldiers who once patroll the perimeter of the Hapsburg-Ottoman militargrenze (military frontier), now defending Hungary and ‘Christian Europe’ from the refugee hordes.
In the face of the ‘globalists’ and ‘liberal elites’ intent on promoting Muslim immigration, Orbán proudly proclaimed Hungary to be an ‘illiberal democracy’ and a ‘Christian democracy’. He identified the far-right’s bete noir George Soros as the enemy of Christian Hungary and Europe, passing a ‘Stop Soros’ law enabling the government to fine and imprison NGOs who helped refugees.
Orbán also closed down the Soros-funded Central European University, in order to defend Hungary against political enemies he described as ‘ not national, but international. They do not believe in work, but speculate with money. They have no homeland, but feel that the whole world is theirs.’
No prizes for guessing who those enemies might be. But Orbán’s many fans, from Nigel Farage to Steve Bannon, didn’t ask. Orbán also acquired a fan in Vladimir Putin, giving Russia a 12 million euro contract to build Hungary’s only nuclear plant.
All this has transformed Orbán into a key player for the European far-right; the mitteleuropean strong man who is now supporting the Salvini-Polish proposal to remodel the European Union on far-right, anti-immigrant lines in the forthcoming EU parliamentary elections.
Until recently Orbán was rarely questioned inside Hungary itself, even when his party gerrymandered electoral boundaries to keep itself in power, and set out to control the media and judiciary. Orbán also cultivated an oligarchical political network based on gross levels of corruption and nepotism, handing out jobs and contracts to his friends and family, and enriching himself in the process.
Most Hungarians didn’t know about this, because Fidesz controls ninety percent of Hungary’s newspapers, television and radio stations. That’s what ‘illiberal democracy’ means. It’s a new kind of fascism that acquires power not through streetfighting and military coups, but through stealth and a veneer of legality – culminating in a reconfiguration of norms in favour of a particular party or leader.
Orbán has played this game well, but too much power can go to anyone’s head.
This month he installed himself in Budapest’s Buda Palace complex – the former seat of the Hungarian government more than four centuries ago – which Orbán is having expensively refurbished. No one knows how much this restoration has cost, but estimates reach as high as $92m. He has even got a luxury restaurant to provide the food for its canteen.
But then last December Orbán’s government passed a law raising the overtime cap from 250 hours 400 hours, and giving companies three years to pay workers for it instead of one. 400 hours is a lot of unpaid overtime, in a country where forty-two percent of the population earn the minimum wage and have no choice but to work extra hours.
The government justified this measure because of Hungary’s labour shortage – a shortage caused partly by high rates of Hungarian emigration – some 350,000 people, and also – who would have thought it? – a lack of immigration.
For the first time since coming to power, Orbán found himself under serious pressure, as tens of thousands of people took to the streets and rejected the government’s ‘slave law.’ These demonstrations are still ongoing. Hungarian trade unions are now threatening a general strike on January 19, unless Orbán concedes a series of demands including the abrogation of the ‘slave law’ and a public sector pay rise.
Suddenly, it seems, the saviour of Christian Europe may no longer be impregnable. And that is good news, not only for Hungary but in the other ‘illiberal democracies’ that have sprung up in Eastern Europe in Slovakia, Serbia and Poland, where civil society has begun to mobilise against their own authoritarian governments
But Orbán is one leader who needs to be weakened. And better still he needs to go. Because Hungary doesn’t need politicians like this. And Europe doesn’t need them either.
And instead of looking to men like this to save us, we would do better to look more closely at how we can save ourselves from them.