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“Do you agree?” Orbán’s dangerous waltz with the radical right

A sentiment shared by many Hungarians worried about the government’s xenophobic campaign is summarized by the poster that says,  “Sorry about our Prime Minister.”    

"Shame on you Orban" rally in Budapest,September 2015. Demoted/ Martin Juen. All rights reserved.In Hungary, the radical right spearheaded by Fidesz is exploiting the refugee crisis for political gain. Through a politics of fear, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is fashioning himself as the defender of the nation and European Christian civilization. While Orbán’s xenophobic campaign is nurturing Islamophobia, concerned citizens are resisting the government’s illiberal turn.

The illiberal turn

Since Viktor Orbán’s return to power in 2010, his party Fidesz (Alliance of Young Democrats) has drawn Hungary in the direction of an illiberal state, imposing an intensely nationalistic style of politics. To bolster popular support, Orbán has used his party's two-thirds majority in parliament to pass policies traditionally associated with the country’s second largest party, the right-wing radical party Jobbik (Movement for a better Hungary).

In July 2010, days into office, Orbán passed a law declaring June 4 an official day of commemoration for the Treaty of Trianon, the 1920 peace agreement resulting in Hungary losing two-thirds of its former territory. In a similar move appropriating popular nostalgia for Greater Hungary, Orbán passed a law making it easier for Hungarian minorities in neighbouring countries to obtain citizenship.

Other controversial Jobbik-supported measures include the erection of a statue commemorating the Hitler-allied Miklós Horthy, and a memorial monument diminishing the Hungarian state’s responsibility for the systematic deportation and genocide of nearly 440,000 Hungarian Jews. These symbol-laden actions are symptomatic of how Orbán paves the way for radical Hungarian nationalism to move from the margins to the mainstream.

Islamophobia without Muslims

While flirting with similar irredentist impulses, Orbán is keen to distance his party from Jobbik, known for its openly antisemitic and anti-Roma rhetoric. The worst refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War has brought the migrant as a convenient stranger at hand into Fidesz’ grammar of exclusion.

Eight months before the suffering of refugees from war-torn countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq was broadcast to a global audience, Orbán launched a massive “awareness campaign” on the alleged threats posed by economic migrants.

In January 2015, shortly after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the government displayed anti-immigration billboards across Hungary reading, “We shall not allow economic migrants to jeopardize the jobs and livelihoods of Hungarians” and “If you come to Hungary, respect our culture”.

Continuing his scaremongering efforts, in May, Orbán conducted a “public consultation on immigration and terrorism”, sending out a 12-question survey to 8 million citizens over 18 year of age (the total population of Hungary is 10 million). Among them were leading questions such as: “We hear different views on increasing levels of terrorism. How relevant do you think the spread of terrorism (the bloodshed in France, the shocking acts of ISIS) is to your own life? “Do you agree that economic migrants jeopardize the jobs and livelihoods of Hungarians?

The questions framed the migrants from Muslim countries as an imagined collective with certain inherent features held to be alien to Hungary’s way of life. Migrants were associated with terrorism and seen as posing a threat to Hungarian security, jobs and welfare. Other questions blamed Brussels for their “lenient policy” and “mismanagement of the immigration question”, implying that the refugee crisis could not be solved within existing European legal frameworks.

The warning of a “Muslim threat” to the Hungarian nation is paradoxical in light of the absence of any sizeable Muslim population in Hungary. The vast majority of migrants only want to travel through Hungary. Orban is thus hyping up his role as the defender of European civilization.

In a parliamentary speech on September 21, 2015, Orbán stated that it is Hungary´s historic and moral obligation to protect the borders of Hungary that in turn is also protecting Europe. Summarizing his position on the refugee crisis to enthusiastic applause, Orbán said that migrants “are now not just knocking on our door, but breaking it down. Our borders are in danger, our way of life based on respect of law is in danger, and Hungary and the whole of Europe is in danger.”

Defending European civilization

The anti-immigration billboards, questionnaire and political speech show how Orbán exploits the refugee crisis to his own political gain. Shifting public attention from Hungary´s economic difficulties and scandals of corruption, he has turned to the safer ground of immigration and national security.

Presenting himself as the authentic voice of the people, Orbán has with the support of Jobbik passed anti-immigration measures and policies, including the construction of an $80 million razor wire along the country´s border with Serbia. The introduction of a state of emergency allows the army to use rubber bullets and tear gas against refugees, criminalizing border crossing with potentially several years in prison.

The anti-immigration actions enjoy public support. A poll released on October 8 by Median Public opinion and market research on Hungarian attitudes to the refugee crisis, shows that 79 percent of the 1200 respondents would like to introduce even harder measures against the migrants.

In contrast to other western European countries such as Norway and Finland where the right-wing populist Progress Party and True Finns opposition to Syrian immigration have put them out of step with many voters, Orbán’s popularity is increasing. Fidesz rose in polls to 24 percent by mid-September from 20 percent in June. 

Jobbiks’s ambivalence

In contrast to far-right parties in western Europe such as the French National Front and the Dutch Party for Freedom that largely support Israel and focus on the Muslim threat, Jobbik politicians frequently deploy anti-Israeli, pro-Palestinian and pro-Iran rhetoric.

The party leader Gabor Vona’s traditional praise of Islam contradicts the anti-immigration scaremongering posted daily on the party’s social media platforms and in recent issues of its party magazine Barikád where migrants from Muslim lands are associated with pollution, disease and terrorism.

Echoing the Fidesz populist position that links migrants with security threats, Gábor Vona recently posted on his Facebook page that: “We must prevent the imposition of the quota because we can´t decide who are refugees, who are immigrants and who are terrorists.”

A recent poll by Median shows that 54 percent of Hungarians are fearful of the alleged Islamification of Europe, with 70 percent of Fidesz voters and 63 percent of Jobbik voters believing that sooner or later the Muslims will become a majority in Europe. An emerging Islamophobia without Muslims coupled with Jobbik’s ongoing effort to “de-demonize” the party have, at least on the surface, brought Fidesz and Jobbik closer.

“The campaign of hatred loved you”

Not all Hungarians are passive consumers of right-wing nationalism and xenophobic campaigns by any means. “The real danger in Hungary is Orbán’s propaganda”, Maria Kovacks, a historian at Budapest’s Central European University, says over coffee. “The Orbán government wants to rewrite the nation’s history, rather than confronting it like other European states have done.” Together with other historians she has initiated an action against the falsification of history.

At Szabadság Square (Freedom Square), an alternative Holocaust memorial consisting of personal items, family photos, books and documents built by children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors provides a powerful act o resistance against the government monument. Since the erection of the statue in July 2014 there have been daily protests gathering intellectuals, pensioners, members of the Jewish communities and other concerned citizens. The protest I observe on Monday October 12 is the 553th in line.

Orban’s xenophobic anti-immigration campaign has prompted similar civic engagement. Like in other European countries where state responses to the refugees have been slow, hostile or absent, thousands of Hungarians express their compassion in various ways. When the refugee crisis unfolded at the Kilati railway station, ordinary Hungarians arranged emergency relief.

On a larger scale, grassroots activists raised 33.3 million forints ($115,000, euro105,000) from over 7,000 people to launch a protest against Orbán’s xenophobic campaign. Hundreds of billboards mocking the state’s scaremongering were set up with messages like “the campaign of hatred loves you”. Others posters carried statements in English such as “Welcome to Hungary” and “I have survived the Hungarian anti-immigration campaign”.

These examples of civic engagement reflect the ongoing struggle over values and identity in post-socialist Hungary, between a vision of inclusionary, open society and that of exclusionary ethno-nationalism.

A sentiment shared by many Hungarians worried about the government’s xenophobic campaign is summarized by the poster that says  “Sorry about our Prime Minister.”    

But an apologetic message alone cannot curb the worrying waltz that Orbán and Jobbik have embarked on, embracing a politics of fear that seeds cultural racism and intolerance. 

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About the author

Cathrine Thorleifsson holds a PhD in anthropology from the London School of Economics and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo, Norway. ​She is the author of  Nationalism and the Politics of Fear: race and identity on the border with Lebanon (I.B.Tauris 2015). Her second book Nationalist responses to the crisis in Europe: old and new hatreds is forthcoming in 2017.


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