Hungary, Fidesz, and the EU: The Elections and After

What the country needs is a constructive opposition, one to which the government could listen rather than ignore.

At the time of writing this text, it is too early to say anything definitive about the strategies of the new Fidesz government. Still, one can be reasonably sure of a good deal of continuity in foreign policy— building on the Visegrad 4 (V4), trying to balance the energy dependence on Russia, and maintaining a not-too-quarrelsome relationship with the EU.

There is near-constant comment from the Left that tries to signal the death of the V4. One can see why. From the perspective of the universalist Left, a coherent V4 is more than an obstacle, it is a pain in the neck, above all because there is some justice in the V4 complaints of being treated as secondary members of the EU, who must simply accept what the EU-14 tell them, notably in the Left’s favorite areas of human rights and civil society.

The proposition that there are viable alternatives to arranging the power relationship between elected governments and unelected sources of power (NGOs, judiciary, lobbies, etc.) is not just offensive in the eyes of the Left but positively sacrilegious. Can there be more than one model of democracy in Europe? No, say the liberals (or hyper-liberals as John Gray has called them); yes, says Fidesz and much of the rest of the V4 (and whisper some other member states). The success of Fidesz in the April 8 elections proves the point that this model of democracy works.

Mass Immigration Triggered a Trauma

A few words here as to why it has worked. There were a number of issues on which the two Fidesz governments’ record was less than perfect—health- care, education, the weakness of SMEs are among them. Yet the Left never made any attempt to campaign in these bread-and-butter issues. Instead, it walked right into the trap that Fidesz set for it. It made no attempt to shift the election campaign from immigration, on which it would always be weak, as the opposition knew full well.

Mass immigration—the arrival of over 200,000 migrants and refugees in 2015 on Hungarian territory—triggered a trauma that the Hungarian state was unable to provide the security that society wanted. In a real way, the uncontrolled march of the migrants questioned the very existence of the Hungarian state, a deeply neuralgic thought in the light of history, and constituted a form of structural violence.

Can there be more than one model of democracy in Europe? No, say the liberals, yes, says Fidesz and much of the rest of the V4.

The opposition, captives of human rights normativity as they are, could never see it in this way, which was, presumably, why they walked into the Soros trap. Many observers, both abroad and in Hungary, were perplexed by the Sorosisation of the campaign. This has to be seen at the symbolic level. In effect, by focusing so strongly on Soros, the Fidesz campaign made him the symbolic leader of the opposition, the opposite polarity to Orbán.

In this contest, Orbán would always have a solid majority. Soros, the alien outsider—his Jewishness was completely irrelevant in this connection—could never be a rallying point for a mass of the voters. The only way for the Left to escape this trap would have been to distance itself from Soros and cut itself o from the heavily Soros-dependent NGO ecosystem, it was unable to do so, hence the Left’s message to the electors was always overshadowed by the Soros issue.

Hopes of Orbán Disappearing Have Been Dashed

In the short term, the left-wing opposition is distraught, traumatized, and at a loss. Each and every one of its tactics failed: a half-hearted wooing of Jobbik, reliance on the moral support of their Western counterparts, the constant stories of the opposition being able to unite behind a single anti-Orbán candidate. Jobbik, which sought to displace Fidesz as a center-right ruling party, also failed, above all for reasons of their lack of credibility; still, it emerged as the largest opposition party with a million votes.

In the short term, the opposition’s response to its electoral defeat is to rely on the street. This is a perfectly acceptable instrument in a democracy, but it will work only if the ruler’s self-legitimation is already eroded. This can hardly be true of Fidesz after its election victory. And the fear is that by launching street demos—there were perhaps 100,000 demonstrators in Budapest on the April 14—the opposition will not begin to reappraise its concept of opposition.

The opposition’s response to its electoral defeat is to rely on the street. This is a perfectly acceptable instrument in a democracy, but it will work only if the ruler’s self-legitimation is already eroded.

Here the legacy of the late communist period and the way in which that legacy was transferred by the former democratic opposition to a multi-party system has been thoroughly negative. Under communism, the opposition could afford to be destructive and to try to eliminate one-party rule. But once it succeeded with the collapse of communism, the destructive model of opposition became counter-productive because it led to a zero-sum concept of politics, effectively excluding democratic compromise and promoting a winner-take-all mindset.

This polarization is so far-reaching in Hungary (and Poland) that it has come close to bringing a segmented society into being, but one which cannot nd a way out of this cul-de-sac. What Hungary needs, therefore, is a constructive opposition, one to which the government could listen rather than ignore.

The nature of the Hungarian domestic scene is inherently interesting, but has implications for the country’s relationship with Brussels too. If there were hopes in the EU that Orbán and Fidesz would disappear, these have been thoroughly dashed. The Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, Frans Timmermans, et al. will have to come to terms with another four years of Fidesz and maybe are ready to do so. The European Parliament’s report demanding the launching of an Article 7 procedure will certainly go ahead, it is likely to be voted on in the autumn, but will then probably run into sands.

What Hungary needs, therefore, is a constructive opposition, one to which the government could listen rather than ignore.

It is up to Council to act, but it is unlikely that either the Austrian or the Romanian presidencies will be particularly eager to pursue Hungary. And then, in May 2019, the European Parliamentary elections will very likely produce a legislature in which there will be a blocking minority of Euroskeptics, or near enough. Hungary (and Poland) will then move down the agenda, much to the sorrow of the left-liberal hegemony.

György Schöpflin

is a Hungarian politician, Member of the European Parliament for Fidesz. He sits on the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs. Schöpflin is a substitute member of the Committee on Constitutional Affairs, and a member of the Reconciliation of European Histories Group. Formerly Jean Monnet Professor of Politics at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, he has published extensively on questions of nationhood, identity and political power.

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