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Viktor Orbán

Viktor Orbán. Photo: European People's Party / Flickr / CC BY 2.0, license linked below article

Anita Zsurzsán explains how far-right Viktor Orbán cynically tapped into opposition to war to keep his regime afloat

Hungarian voters cast their ballots in the general election on Sunday 3 April with a turnout of 69% - lower than in 2018. The country’s far-right premier Viktor Orbán has been in power since 2010, and he will be returning for a fourth consecutive term with another super majority winning 53.1% of votes. His challenger, Christian-conservative Péter Márki-Zay, was the joint prime-ministerial candidate of six western-supported opposition parties, spanning the political spectrum from the far-right (Jobbik party) to the pro-EU centre-right (Momentum Mozgalom). The united opposition was only able to get 35% of votes despite pollsters suggesting they would perform better.

Although these parties are motivated by different agendas, they joined forces to unseat Orbán. Apart from desperately wanting to oust Orbán, the united opposition failed to offer much else. With pro-worker left-wing politics barely even represented in the unusual coalition, it was unlikely that a change of government would break ties with the toxic legacies of Orbán’s repressive neoliberal system.

For ordinary working-class Hungarians, there wasn’t as much at stake as for Western leaders hoping to get rid of Orbán because of his embarrassing ties with Putin. Even so, in the past twelve years, the EU did nothing to combat growing far-right authoritarianism in Hungary, simply because it would hurt Western capitalist interests heavily invested in the country. Once the crisis hit Europe, both parties had to rapidly alter their messaging and Orbán was winning the culture war.

Before the Kremlin-ordered invasion of Ukraine, the election was dominated by general issues such as LGBT legislation, corruption, the response to the pandemic, the economy, and immigration. However, after the unexpected military invasion of Ukraine, the ruling party’s past foreign policy became the dominant discourse offering new stakes on the ballot. The united opposition believed, and hoped, that Orbán’s warm relationship with Putin would threaten his re-election chances, but now it’s certain that the war next-door has worked in his favour.

Hypocrisy and opportunism

Sparking controversy in Europe, Orbán chose a radically different approach to the conflict, hoping to win voters over with unorthodox counter-narratives on Ukraine. ‘Neither Russia nor Ukraine’, Orbán declared, emphasising the importance of keeping Hungary out of the war and not taking sides for the sake of the nation’s peace and security. His government has also rejected the calls for a ’no-fly zone’ over Ukraine because it would risk World War III and a direct confrontation between nuclear powers.

While Orbán cast himself as the last pragmatic European leader, his hollow neutral position is hypocritical and opportunistic: despite his ‘anti-war’ rhetoric, he went along with EU-imposed sanctions against Russia and voted for additional military equipment for Ukraine. Despite that, Hungary has ruled out supplying arms itself or sending its own troops to Ukraine. On the other hand, in early March, Orbán signed a decree allowing Nato troops to be deployed in Hungary and weapons shipments to cross its territory. Orbán has airbrushed his pro-Nato and militarist politics only to reassure Hungarians that he would protect them from the looming war.

There are major contradictions in Orbán’s foreign policy because he’s more than willing to cooperate with the EU and Nato, yet still refrains from condemning Putin’s aggression and avoids direct confrontation with Moscow. His main reason to maintain a good relationship with the Kremlin is the country’s dependence on Russian energy imports, given that his bid to stay in power was to protect Hungarian families from EU austerity.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy slammed Orbán for his lack of support and cowardice over standing up to Moscow, but his harsh tone totally backfired and alienated ordinary Hungarians, offended by his patronising attitude. Ukraine’s Ambassador to Hungary, Ljubov Nepop had told voters: ‘I’m sure every Hungarian would choose to pay more for gas to save lives.’ But for millions of Hungarians living on the brink of poverty, this is a choice they cannot make, and working-class people across Europe shouldn’t pay the price for the economic war on Russia, a sentiment clearly expressed on the ballot.

Pro-Fidesz influencers falsely accused the united opposition of ‘collaborating’ with the Ukrainian premier to escalate the war. ‘Only Fidesz can create peace in Hungary!’ became the main slogan of the ruling party and, according to polls, it worked. It is important to understand that, in the past, Orbán systemically denounced peace movements and demonised the anti-imperialist left both at home and globally.

His party criminalised human-rights groups providing aid to refugees, accusing them of ‘encouraging terrorism’. The Hungarian government was heavily criticised back in 2015 for creating a humanitarian crisis at its southern border by violently kicking out Muslim asylum seekers who had fled the wars in Syria and Afghanistan. The ruling party’s abusive response to the ‘refugee crisis’ made headlines all over the world, underlining the blatant racism of Orbán’s immigration-related domestic policies.

Opposition failures

In contrast, the pro-western opposition expressed unconditional support for Ukraine and its Western allies, but their messaging was rather framed as ‘identity-formation’ or ‘clash of civilisations’ – a struggle between East and West. The liberal camp has a troubling history of expressing ‘orientalist’ ideas and cultural racism. Days before the election, an opposition mayor of Budapest shared racist posters portraying Fidesz party candidates as Asians, with messages saying, 'we are not the East’. This is a truly terrible take, as English readers already know from the pages of the Wall Street Journal claiming that Russia under Putin is returning to its ‘Asian past’.

Orbán’s and Putin’s anti-democratic ways have nothing to do with Asia, instead these political developments should be paralleled with rising fascism in the USA or France. ‘Orbán and Putin or the West and Europe – these are the stakes’ said Márki-Zay in his campaign messages, but in light of the election results, Hungarians are not particularly fond of the ‘West’ either. The xenophobic ‘clash-of-civilisations’ thesis should have died a long time ago but its recent resurrection in American newspapers and political campaigns is a worrying sign.

On the other hand, the opposition has also distanced itself from anti-imperialist politics and denounced all forms of legitimate criticism of Euro-Atlantic imperialism, Nato expansion, and militarism. They have never condemned any form of Western military aggression or wars outside of Europe: not in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, or Palestine. This comes from their radically submissive pro-western stance, which defines the entirety of opposition politics. That’s also why they fail to do anything about the over-exploitative practices of Western companies (for example the German car industry) that leave Hungarian workers economically vulnerable.

Hungarian liberal media outlets often frame critical discourse on the shameful legacy of Western-led invasions, imperialism, and settler colonialism as ‘fake news’ and ‘conspiracy theories’, making the intellectual debate on such issues almost impossible and subjects to be ridiculed. In such times of crises, this gleeful ignorance only leaves more room for toxic right-wing ideas that thus appear to be trying to make sense of the world. Illustrative of this phenomenon is that the neo-Nazi Mi Hazánk party was able to win seats in the Parliament with 6.3% of votes – a shock to many.

This election was never about East and West, and it never should have been. Instead, we could have had meaningful conversations about expanding workers’ rights, defending democratic rights, tackling energy and food shortages, and minimising the risk of war in Eastern Europe by encouraging peace talks and diplomatic solutions. The Fidesz party’s ‘anti-war’ rhetoric was a scam and misled voters, but it was proven to be successful. Orbán said he would keep Hungarians out of the war and that was a credible message to people, who thus kept his regime afloat.

This leaves us with an important lesson: ordinary people love the idea of peace more than warmongering elites in Moscow, Brussels, and Washington would assume, and there is a real need for genuine anti-war politics despite the smears against the anti-imperialist left.

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