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What Should the EU Learn from the Last Hungarian Parliamentary Elections?

What Should the EU Learn from the Last Hungarian Parliamentary Elections?
 Institut Montaigne
Institut Montaigne

On 8 April 2018, in the context of Hungarian parliamentary elections, the right-wing Fidesz party secured a third straight election victory and cemented Viktor Orbán’s position in power for another four years. Zsuzsanna Szelényi, member of the Hungarian Parliament until 2018, answers our questions on these results and what they mean for Europe. 

How can we explain the landslide victory of Viktor Orbán’s national conservative party, the Fidesz? 

The election outcome was not a real surprise, because Fidesz, Viktor Orbán’s party, had an enormous advantage in the electoral competition. Nevertheless, the final result – namely Viktor Orbán’s success in mobilizing hundreds of thousands of new voters, is unprecedented and astonishing. Three main reasons can explain why Hungarians voted in large numbers (48%) in favour of Viktor Orbán’s political vision. 

  • First of all, it has been more than three years since the tremendous anti-immigration campaign has started to permeate the Hungarian political landscape, and even received robust funding from government sources. The anti-migrants rhetoric and its omnipresence in the governmental narrative dominated the political agenda and debate, and left very little space to address other issues, such as corruption.
  • Secondly, the election process itself raises questions. According to the OSCE, these elections “were characterized by a pervasive overlap between state and ruling party resources”. Media biases are also mentioned, in a country where independent media are regularly threatened. More broadly, the political opposition in Hungary has been very restricted, struggled to make its voice  heard and had limited financial resources. The campaign thus occurred amidst a context of rampant corruption in a country increasingly dominated by a powerful oligarchy. 
  • Viktor Orbán also managed to divide the political opposition by positioning his party at the center of the political spectrum. Opposition parties have been  weakened and are now unable to join forces. Given the context, the elections can thus be perceived as the defeat of the opposition more than as Viktor Orbán’s victory. 

What is Viktor Orbán’s position regarding the construction of the EU?

It is worth noting that Viktor Orbán is one of the very few political figures in the EU to be able to pitch a plausible counter-narrative and a counter-vision for the European future. His rhetoric - especially regarding anti-immigration - is heard, understood and appreciated for the simple reason that no pro-EU narrative is able to compete with it. 

Viktor Orbán develops the idea of a“strong Europe based on strong Nation States” (to use the words of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the Law and Justice party, currently in power). This sovereignist concept relies on the three following pillars:

  • Criticizing current EU institutions, considered too weak and inefficient 
  • Criticizing the EU elite, considered as detached from people’s preoccupations
  • Telling stories undermining immigrants, considered as an “existential threat” 

Viktor Orbán does not want Hungary to leave the EU. He has good knowledge of EU personalities, its challenges and the way it functions, and  wants to change its very institutions in order to steer it towards a direction corresponding to his own political ambitions. His ability to build alliances with other EU countries, especially from Central and Eastern Europe, is a strong asset in the pursuit of this goal.

What should the EU do in response to Viktor Orbán’s European strategy?

First of all, we must try to understand why Hungarians are so sensitive to Viktor Orbán’s anti-immigration narrative instead of “condemning” it. In fact, Viktor Orbán started building this rhetoric way before the migrants even arrived in Hungary. On 12 January 2015, just after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, he told the Hungarian public TV that “while [he is] PM, Hungary will definitely not become an immigration destination. We don't want to see significantly sized minorities with different cultural characteristics and backgrounds among us. We want to keep Hungary as Hungary". 

We should not forget that historically, Hungarians (and Central Europeans in general) have barely lived with people from different cultures, mainly because these countries were very closed during the communist era. This clearly impacts the way Hungarians interact with migrants from other continents. 

Moreover, it is true that Western countries have often been patronizing with Central Europeans, which has fueled the latter’s disappointment, when they used to be so keen on the prospect of joining the EU. While Hungarians remain more Europhile than most Western countries, they still feel frustrated and misled - yet another opportunity to seize for Viktor Orbán. 

The EU should not humiliate Hungarians by placing their country under European trusteeship. A good alternative could be to render the allocation of European funding conditional upon the compliance with certain rules and principles. Incentive measure, taken in the prospect of Hungary’s integration of the Eurozone, are also important tools to influence the country’s government.

Finally, at the EU level, a new power balance must be established. The European Union’s ‘Renaissance’ will only occur thanks to a positive narrative for the European Union, issued from a broad consensus and adapted to the new geopolitical realities.

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