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Viktor Orbán sets his sights on building a populist radical right from within Europe

Trump’s victory and Brexit have emboldened Hungary’s prime minister to lead a populist revolt in Europe

Emboldened by his close ties to Russia and the surprise election of Donald Trump, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has ratcheted up his antagonistic approach to the EU in recent weeks. It was on full display during his “State of the Nation” address on Feb. 10 in Budapest, which he delivered as if it were a right-wing populist manifesto.

“Money, the media, global governance, and an open global society – in 2016 people in many places around the world had had enough of all this,” Orbán said. “There was Brexit, the U.S. presidential election, the ejection of the Italian government, the Hungarian migrant referendum – and perhaps there is still more to come.”

For years, Orbán seemed content just to transform his country into an illiberal democracy and showed little interest in challenging the European status quo. But that all changed in 2015, with the terrorist attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris and the refugee crisis that overwhelmed Europe. Since then, Orbán has become the most prominent populist radical right-wing voice in Europe, taking on the so-called “Willkommenskultur” (welcome culture) of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and openly calling for “Hungary for the Hungarians, Europe for the Europeans.” 

For Orbán, 2016 was the year that proved him right and got the world turning to follow in his ideological and political footsteps. Or, in his own, more colorful language:

“Yes, leaders in opposition and government alike — citizens of the world who until now have been urbane, nuanced, and cultured — are today talking about their homelands’ survival, the horrors of globalism, the wave of fundamentalist migrants assaulting their national identities, and an endless digestive tract of financial capital that has swollen to global proportions.”

His State of the Nation address earlier this month was one long populist tract in which he held himself up as the voice of “those who are not usually asked, whose voices are not usually heard.” But the speech was also deeply nativist, presenting an ideal where “Central Europe” leads the rest of the West in their fight against a whole host of foreign threats, from “Brussels bureaucrats” to “globalists;” from “millions of immigrants” to “the threat of terrorism.”

To applause, Orbán celebrated his country’s hard line on immigration and Europe’s refugee crisis:

“The government of the United States at the time, Brussels and even Berlin declared that the migrants must not — or at least cannot — be stopped. We resisted, we drew a line, built a fence, recruited border hunters and stopped them. We defended Hungary — and with it, incidentally, Europe.”

This month Orbán announced that Hungary will detain asylum seekers in centers for the duration of their application process — a move that he admitted puts him in “open conflict” with EU law. 

In part of his Feb. 10 address, Orban offered up a sort-of metaphorical refugee that bolstered his hardening worldview: “We will of course be letting in genuine refugees: Germans, Dutch, French and Italians, terrified politicians and journalists, Christians who have been forced to leave their homes and who here in Hungary want to find the Europe they have lost in their homelands.”

In the embattled world Orbán describes, “the people” are left wondering: “Can they continue the way of life they inherited from their parents, or will something change forever without their consent – and indeed against their will?” The culprit of this dystopian future? “The new political system known as the ‘open society’ did away with all this. Democracy based on argument was replaced by democracy based on correctness.”

But Orbán wasn’t always a right-wing hard-liner. As a young politician, he came to prominence in 1988 as the leader of the Fidesz party. At that time Fidesz was liberal, pro-Western, and youthful – it didn’t allow anyone over 35 to be a member, and Orbán was the darling of the West. But, when the first years of his post-communism politics didn’t bring the expected electoral success, Orbán soon moved his party decisively to the right, combining the conservatism and nationalism that is now on bullish display in Hungary and elsewhere throughout Europe.

With his State of the Nation address, Orbán again unmistakably positioned himself as the central opposition to the fundamental values of the current European status quo.

The European Union and other Western powers were rather relieved when Orbán regained power in 2010, replacing a scandal-ridden social democratic government. But that changed quickly, after the new Fidesz government used its constitutional majority to steamroll through a new constitution and a flurry of constitutional amendments. As EU and U.S. pressure mounted, Orbán defended the changes as necessary to “decommunize” the country, and used the international pressure at home to strengthen an increasingly nationalist and populist discourse.

It’s no coincidence that Orbán rails against the ideas of an “open society,” as this is the key term of the liberal Hungarian-American-Jewish philanthropist George Soros, who was once Orban’s benefactor. Today, Orbán describes Soros as one of the worst “lords of globalist politics,” accusing him of trying to influence Hungary’s elections. (Attacking Soros  is a trope Orbán shares with other populist right-wing leaders throughout the West.)

His feverish radical-right conspiracy theories not only target “globalists” like Soros and act as dog-whistle to anti-Semites, but also implicate “the swarm of media locusts and their owners” and “the world’s most bizarre coalition of people smugglers, human rights activists, and leading European politicians was created, with the aim of systematically bringing millions of migrants into Europe.”

With his State of the Nation address, Orbán again unmistakably positioned himself as the central opposition to the fundamental values of the current European status quo – European integration, liberal democracy, and “multicultural” societies.

Despite all this, the European establishment still treats him as “one of us” – Fidesz is a member of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), the most influential political group in the EU.

While they will be rooting for their centrist colleagues in the upcoming elections, Orbán will likely be rooting for their chief antagonists. The populist radical right might not be his official political friends right now, but they sure are his ideological allies. With many critical elections throughout Western Europe fast approaching, Orbán will soon gauge the strength of his worldview.  
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Cas Mudde is an associate professor at the School of Public and International Affairs of the University of Georgia and researcher in the Center for Research on Extremism (C-REX) at the University of Oslo. His most recent books include “On Extremism and Democracy in Europe” (2016), “SYRIZA: The Failure of the Populist Promise” (2017), “The Populist Radical Right: A Reader” (2017) and “Populism: A Very Short Introduction” (2017).

 

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