“Hungary won a big victory,” Prime Minister Viktor Orbán exclaimed in his victory speech yesterday after Sunday’s national election. Indeed, while it is questionable whether Hungary itself won a big victory, it is incontestable that Mr. Orbán and his party, Fidesz, are the overwhelming victors, winning a two-thirds majority for the third consecutive time since 2010.
In a European landscape which has recently been characterised by volatile governments, Orbán’s enduring popularity is something of a rarity in the political scene. Mr. Orbán himself is a perennial figure in Hungarian politics, coming into power for the first time in 1998. After losing the election in 2002, he staged an astounding comeback in 2010, successfully managing to rebrand himself as a Eurosceptic politician who favours hard borders – a far cry from his pro-EU approach during his first tenure. Unfortunately, it is for this reason that Orbán’s remarkable success will have mainstream European politicians shifting uncomfortably in their seats, trying to predict whatever Orbán will say or do next to chip away at the European status quo of liberal and democratic policies.
The two-thirds majority garnered in this election by Fidesz will once again allow Orbán to amend the constitution as he wishes, continuing the process first started in 2010. This saw him increasing controls on the country’s media and judiciary, reducing the country’s checks and balances, and also reshaping the electoral system. However, critics have asserted that these amendments, including the redrawing of the electoral map, are efforts at gerrymandering and securing elections with fewer votes.
One of Mr. Orbán’s electoral promises was to enact legislation to introduce financial penalties on civil society groups that aid migrants. He also introduced a discriminatory measure, nearly solely based on opposing migration and related EU policies, so as to safeguard the country from becoming a “land of foreigners”, that would threaten the religion, culture, and way of life of ordinary Hungarians. With promises of “moral, political and legal revenge” for those who oppose him, it is unlikely that he will find any widespread outcry and opposition to his policies in Hungary, for fear of reprisals.
Orbán’s anti-Western sentiments and his resentment of the EU might initially puzzle any outsider who examines the Hungarian context. This is especially true when one bears in mind the Hungarian government’s great reliance on EU funds which contribute towards Hungary’s persistent economic growth. It is precisely this which allows the government to keep most of its population employed, and spend money on popular, but highly unethical measures such as a one-off, pre-election, gas bill reduction as well as an election season giveaway, announced on Orbán’s Facebook page.
One could therefore cynically argue that it is actually the EU that helps keep Orbán popular as it is EU funds which finance Orbán’s populist measures. This seeming ‘best of both worlds’ situation has not gone unnoticed and with Orbán’s increasingly Eurosceptic and xenophobic rhetoric, as well as the mounting investigations of his allies by the EU’s anti-fraud agency, Fidesz’s European mother party, the EPP, as well as EU politicians, have mounting pressure to speak out.
Although Mr. Orbán has won the election by a huge majority and thus has a strong mandate, the EU should not remain complacent and expect the problem in Hungary to disappear by itself. It must rise above such rhetoric and insist that minority rights are to be protected; after all, democracy is not just about majority rule. If nothing is done, Poland, Austria and other countries might be encouraged to follow suit, therefore it is vital that the EU sets a precedent.
The phase of appeasing Orbán has to end. Not only has he not moderated his views but he has been emboldened by his victories and inspired others to create similar movements, making a mockery of the founding values of the EU. Although Hungary might seem like a far-away problem, Europe should not take this situation for granted and learn the lesson before it is too late.