Can Europe Make It?

Viktor Orban and the rise of the populist right...right?

Viktor Orban, like European populists in general, is neither of the right nor the left. He is a child of both.

Joseph Larsen
3 December 2014


Demotix/Mark Kerrison. All rights reserved.

Viktor Orban is a man who refuses to be ignored, whether one thinks him contemptible, incomprehensible, inspiring or visionary. The Hungarian Prime Minister is arguably Europe’s most charismatic head of government, the leader of a small nation which has, for better or worse, earned a place on the world stage.

Orban’s greatest achievement is his attaining status as a figure emblematic of contemporary European populism. Defined by the political theorist Margaret Canovan as involving “exaltation and appeal to the ‘people'” and by definition “anti-elitist,” populist movements are usually put into neatly self-contained boxes labeled “right-wing” (xenophobic, anti-intellectual elite) and “left-wing” (anti-market, anti-economic elite). But like European populists in general, Orban is neither of the right nor the left. He is the child of both.

Journalists and pundits, especially those on the left, have a tendency to label Orban as “right-wing” due to his open disavowal of liberalism and embrace of a vaguely-defined program he calls “illiberal democracy.” But characterizing Orban as a creature of the right obscures the fact that his rejection of liberalism is as much anti-market as it is nationalistic and socially conservative.

Orban and his Fidesz party fly the flag of the Right in proud colors, but since winning a parliamentary majority by a landslide in 2010 they have implemented a slew of statist economic policies: instituting one-off “crisis” levies on energy, telecommunications and banks (the last containing a nationalist component: three of the four largest banks operating in Hungary are foreign-owned), a tax on financial transactions, strict price controls on electricity, partial nationalizations of private companies such as MOL and Rába Automotive Holding, and the creation of a cartel with the exclusive right to sell tobacco products.

In 2011 Orban rejected the conditions of an IMF standby agreement, opting instead to employ “unorthodox economic policy” to raise the revenue necessary for meeting the state’s debt obligations. Not that there’s any inherent problem with snubbing the IMF, but such behavior certainly seems unbecoming of a “right-wing” leader. In a strange paradox, Fidesz and its Prime Minister are in reality farther to the left than the Hungarian Socialist Party. One can’t help but think that if Orban were the head of a post-colonial rather than European country, much of the Left would admire him for standing up to powerful business interests.

While Orban practices leftism in both word and deed, he has earned a label as a rightist due to his bellicose nationalist rhetoric; alienating the mainstream Left with his cautious flirtation with the Jobbik Party (a group called everything from “neo-fascist” to “anti-Semitic” to “xenophobic”), framing of himself as the protector of the ethnic Hungarian minority in Romania, and manipulation of national narratives for political ends.

The most visible example of the last is his vocal defense of a recently erected monument to commemorate victims of the German occupation of 1944-45. Orban called the monument “morally exact and immaculate,” but opposition leader Gordon Bajnai struck a more somber tone when he said that “the planned statue’s aim is not to face up to ourselves but to cover up the Hungarian state’s role in the Shoah.” Eager to construct a victim’s narrative of noble national sacrifice, Orban has never admitted that the Hungarian government forged an alliance with Nazi Germany in 1933. In short, Orban and Fidesz push the boundaries of both right and left, as do many populist politicians and parties in Europe.

Viewed through a simple left-right prism, Orban’s messy hodgepodge of contradictory positions and policies makes him an enigma. But when analyzed in the distinctly European context in which his politics are embedded, he makes a lot of sense. By definition ideal types don’t exist in reality, and political systems, parties and persons characterized as right- or left-wing are always in fact located somewhere on a continuum.

European nationalist parties are generally labeled as “right-wing,” but in many cases that designation should be qualified by admitting the presence of a strong but unacknowledged leftist bent in both rhetoric and policy. The majority of European populist parties are simultaneously right- and left-wing, rejecting both social and economic liberalism. The social and cultural stances of such parties as Marine Le Pen’s National Front, Gábor Vona’s Jobbik, and Geert Van Wilder’s Party of Freedom are right-wing, but each of these groups promotes an unequivocal, albeit unacknowledged, leftist economic program. It can be caricatured this way: socialism, but only for real Frenchmen, real Hungarians, and real Dutchmen. While the ostensible Left has performed poorly at the polls in both national and EU-level elections, leftismpermeates the populism of parties even on the Right.

To speak bluntly but not hyperbolically, Europe’s right-wing populism smacks of a softened form of midcentury Fascism: intense nationalism wedded with a populist economic program. The moniker National Socialism thus remains a useful analytical tool for viewing European populism, not to equate contemporary populist parties with the German Nazi party, but to illuminate the significance of this very European melding of left and right.

Most populist parties view both social liberalism and free markets as grave threats to the security, unity and sanctity of the nation-state. Such a left-right ideological alliance had near-apocalyptic consequences during the first half of the 20th Century, but today its greatest threat lies in its capacity to undermine the process of European integration. Again, to highlight the fading relevance of the left-right spectrum, many of the “left-wing” parties which once posed the staunchest opposition to integration are now fighting the hardest to sustain it.

Analyzing populism in Europe can tell us much about respective social cleavages on either continent. Europeans are deeply divided on social issues, with the current political discourse dominated by tension between the modernistic vision of the European Union and the traditionalism of the nation-state. But Europeans of all political leanings and social strata tend to be distrustful of the free market. In America social cleavages are deeper, because they more neatly divide society into two camps; socially conservative nativists hostile to any real or perceived encroachment on the sanctity of the market, and social liberals clamoring for an American welfare state.

While European populism is pugnacious and occasionally violent, the political discourse somewhat ironically apportions a surprising amount of space for common ground. Only such an environment could have produced Viktor Orban, a man defined by right-wing tendencies but whose policies are irreconcilable with the theory and practice of the free market.

In a 21 August article in Foreign Policy, Amy Brouillette described Orban as having a “unique ability to read and respond to the public’s mood and political culture.” This statement could be expanded to characterize European populists in general. Whichever label they are given by journalists and intellectuals, populist parties prove that a bird flies best when able to flap with both wings.

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