World

Hungary Embraces National Conservatism

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban (Eric Vidal/Reuters)
Viktor Orban’s victory is a serious challenge for the Eurocracy.

Well, I was wrong in predicting that Viktor Orban’s victory in yesterday’s Hungarian elections would fall short of a landslide. For it was a landslide by the most exacting standards — which more or less destroys the arguments of his opponents and critics that his governing Fidesz party could win only through authoritarianism, gerrymandering, and the dominance of the media by Fidesz and its business allies. What made this landslide still more unexpected, even shocking, was that throughout yesterday the opposition parties had been growing more optimistic about their prospects of scoring an upset victory. The visiting media — to be on the safe side — were hesitating between the headlines “Opposition Wins” and “Democracy Dies.”

Yet when the smoke of battle was clearing last night, with 80 percent of the vote counted, Orban’s governing party had won 49 percent of the popular vote and 134 seats in the 199-seat parliament. It had an almost clean sweep of the single-member constituencies outside Budapest. And it seems likely to obtain a two-thirds parliamentary majority again and thus the continued right to amend the Hungarian constitution. (All the results cited here might change marginally when the final votes have been counted.) This is as clear an endorsement as any government has received from an electorate — and it was given in the teeth of disapproval from the dominant political and cultural elites in Europe.

That’s significant. It can no longer be plausibly argued that Orban is pushing through his “revolution” either by stealth or undemocratically. Voters knew exactly what both Orban and his opponents stood for, and they plumped strongly for him. Certain conclusions flow from that.

The first is that democracy is vital and active in Hungary. Turnout was the largest since 1998 (coincidentally the election that first brought Orban to power). There were long queues outside the polling booths, which in some cases stayed open to ensure that no one who joined the line by the official closing time was denied the chance to vote. And the result — one party winning half of the vote — was conclusive. It simply cannot be explained away as the result of gerrymandering, since a 49 percent share of the total vote would mean a landslide in seats under almost any multi-party electoral system.

Nor can it be attributed to the Right’s dominance of the media, which was anyway exaggerated — there were newspapers, magazines, television stations, websites, and hoardings putting across the slogans and arguments of both Left and Right opposition parties, and they were every bit as brutal as the Fidesz propaganda machine. They were not as numerous as those making Orban’s case, but enough to get the message through to the voters. It was simply that the voters preferred Orban’s message to that of his opponents.

The second is that though Orban’s campaign was very negative, it contained some important positive messages. Yesterday I gave four reasons why he would almost certainly win here: the broad economic success of the government, agreement with Orban’s opposition to mass migration, admiration for his personal leadership qualities, and a badly divided opposition. The results bear out that analysis, to which I would add one further point: a significant number of voters agree with Orban’s criticism of the European Union as an undemocratic and overly bureaucratic body and support his broad strategy of trying to return powers from Brussels to national capitals. A defense of democracy and the demand for more of it came from the Hungarian Right as well as from its opponents. So one significance of the landslide is that it marks a positive democratic shift among voters to the kind of “national conservatism” that Orban advocates.

Of course, that shift wasn’t universal. Opposition parties of the Left won two-thirds of the seats in Budapest, probably for the reasons that I previously gave for thinking Orban might lose and, more realistically, why his victory would fall short of a majority: Namely, he’d overplayed the migration issue by employing harsh rhetoric, underplayed the government’s economic success, misdirected spending on prestige but unpopular sports projects, and failed to tackle corruption effectively. Those failings were not enough to deny him a landslide, but they alienated some high-minded moderate conservative and center-right voters — Mugwumps in an older American language — who had previously been part of the Fidesz coalition. That was not a numerically important group, but its members are intellectually talented and socially important. If Orban does not win them back, they might in time splinter the Right as the Left has now splintered.

That brings me to my third point. As in other recent elections across Europe, the Left has suffered major losses and is now on the verge of ceasing to function as a standalone political force. Only eight years ago the Hungarian Socialists, supported by a left-liberal coalition partner, were the main governing party. On this occasion the Socialists won 12 percent of the popular vote and 20 seats, and the Democratic Coalition (an imperfect successor to the left-liberal party that has since disbanded) won less than 5 per cent and nine seats. Neither party has much of a presence outside the capital. They won only three of the single-member constituencies outside Budapest. (Fidesz won 81.)

It’s starting to look as if socialist and social-democratic parties in Europe — and not only Central Europe — seem to be confined to about 20 percent of the popular vote. In pursuing progressive cultural politics, including European integration, to win middle-class support, they have alienated their much larger traditional working-class constituency, which showed it had somewhere else to go. It proved to be a poor exchange numerically.

Many blue-collar workers went to the populist Jobbik party, which as a result won 20 percent of the popular vote, 28 seats in parliament, and the status of main opposition party. Now usually described as “the formerly far-right party,” Jobbik has made energetic attempts to rebrand itself as a modern populist body by, in particular, abandoning the anti-Semitism that it had once frankly advocated. As other such parties have found, however, it is hard to escape from this taint. Enough voters remember. The parties may improve their reputation and gain more support, but they also bump up against a ceiling of about 20 percent of the popular vote. And that is where Jobbik ended up.

Hungary as a result seems to be groping its way towards a new political spectrum — one in which a broad-based national conservative party, Fidesz, dominates the center ground of politics with a middle-class progressive party to its left and a working-class populist party to its right. It’s possible to see similar (though not exactly the same) patterns emerging in other recent European elections — notably, the Italian, Polish, Czech, Spanish, and German elections, where populisms emerged at very different points along the conventional left-right spectrum.

In almost all cases, however, the new patterns have not “set.” They are still fluid. They take different forms in different countries. And it is simplistic to describe them under the one umbrella term of “populism.” Populism itself is protean. It can be a phenomenon of either the right or the left depending on circumstances. It seems comfortable in alliance with nationalism, but also with the fiscal solidarity of welfare and workfare. In Greece populism has been captured by the Left; in Italy by both a nationalist Right and a fun-anarchist Left; in Hungary by a conservative Right — and in France it was even conscripted by the center (at least for the moment).

Orban’s victory demonstrates that the populist upsurge is a permanent part of Europe’s politics.

A gifted political entrepreneur, France’s Emmanuel Macron, facing the dissolution of socialism, showed that he could reshape these trends, putting together a new majority from the fragments of broken parties by populist techniques — his creation of a personalist movement blending left- and right-wing policies against the established parties — aimed at the managerial middle class. Orban has done the same thing with different materials and appeals to different groups over the last decade in Hungary. Which will prove the more stable coalition?

Orban and his European allies in Poland and elsewhere seemingly have the easier task, because their “national conservatism” seems a better fit with most populisms than does Macron’s blend of Europeanism and economic efficiency. For populism cannot be comfortable — must indeed be hostile — to a rule-making bureaucracy like the European Union. One definition of populism, indeed, is that it is the democratic response to bureaucratic rules (and rule). And though Macron successfully exploited the populist mood to launch En Marche, the inner logic of his enterprise seems to be that the established parties of right and left should unify to fight the challenges of the populist extremes — thus leading to what Pierre Manent has described as the coming political conflict between “populist demagogy” and the “fanaticism of the Centre.”

That is why Orban’s victory is such a serious challenge for the Eurocracy. As Jean-Claude Junker conceded, Macron’s victory seemed to be the desirable slaying of populism and the restoration of normality. Orban’s victory is the precise opposite. It is the demonstration that the populist upsurge is a permanent part of Europe’s politics. Orban himself is determined not to leave Europe like Nigel Farage, but to change Europe like De Gaulle and Thatcher.

With this election landslide under his belt, Orban can now claim to have the moral and democratic authority of the Hungarian people and others behind his quest. Germany’s Interior Minister, Horst Seehofer, has just said that the EU should drop its “arrogance and condescension” in its dealings with Hungary. Europe is beginning to realize that — and that, accordingly, the EU’s status quo is no longer quite as static as it was.

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