Right-Winging It: Populism, the Constitution, and Orbán’s Hungary

Following its 2014 elections, Hungary now has the dubious claim to fame of hosting the largest far-right presence in a European legislature. The Jobbik party, known for its nationalist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Roma views, has emerged as the third largest bloc in Hungary’s unicameral Országgyűlés[i]. While Jobbik has increased its share of the vote to 20.54 percent, the April 6th elections speak to much larger trends in Hungarian politics. A strong far-right presence is only one concern. Substantial reworking of the Hungarian constitution, with fewer checks and balances on the government, and a weakened left-wing have led to the creation of a distinct political climate.

Image courtesy of Ivanhoe, © 2009 some rights reserved
Image courtesy of Ivanhoe, © 2009 some rights reserved

The ruling Fidesz party had a constitutional majority following the 2010 elections, winning sixty-seven percent of votes. In 2014 the total share of the vote won by Fidesz and their KDNP allies was roughly sixty-six percent. The party led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has retained its constitutional majority. A clear mandate perhaps, but several questions have been raised by electoral monitors working for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Despite concerns about the number of pro-Fidesz media outlets as well as the “dizzying” pace of lawmaking under Orbán’s 2010 administration, he has remained defiant in the face of criticism[ii].

This is by no means the first time that Fidesz has been subject to outside criticism. The Council of Europe and the European Parliament have both voiced concerns about changes to the country’s constitution. Among the issues of concern are the number of pro-government appointments to the Constitutional Court (and reducing the remit of the Court), gerrymandering of districts to favour Fidesz, and a media board headed by a pro-Orbán appointee (which has implemented partisan media rules)[iii]. Indeed, two days after the election results were announced, Hungary lost a court case brought to the European Court of Justice by the European Commission regarding the independence of data protection offices in Hungary. Nevertheless, as noted by Professor Kim Lane Scheppele, director of the Princeton University programme in Law and Public Affairs, Europe has had relatively little impact on preventing the dismemberment of Hungary’s constitution, particularly checks and balances[iv].

Besides redistricting and new media laws, many have seen the 2014 results as the direct product of Orbán and his allies reducing the number of parliamentary seats and granting citizenship to Hungarian outside of the country (mainly in neighbouring states). The number of seats in parliament is much smaller. Only 199 seats were contested compared to 386 in 2010, but Fidesz retained its constitutional majority by winning almost ninety-five percent of all 125,000 ‘non-resident Hungarian’ votes[v].

While it would be tempting to pin the victory of Fidesz on its popularity or the way it has used the power of its constitutional majority since 2010, this would ignore the additional factor of the state of centre-left and left-wing parties in the country. A coalition led by the Socialist party was in power for eight years from 2002 onwards, but their time in office produced a tainted legacy for the left in the eyes of many Hungarians.

The two Socialist Party governments saw numerous corruption-related scandals and two Prime Ministers ousted by members of their own party for various minor scandals, mishandling the economy, and, in the case of Peter Medgyessy, revelations of spying for the old Communist regime. In an attempt to counter gerrymandering, left-leaning parties including the Socialist Party, Együtt (Together) Party, the Democratic Coalition, the Dialogue for Hungary Party, and the Liberal Party formed an electoral coalition. Despite their coordinated (but by no means smooth) efforts, this electoral alliance only managed to garner nineteen percent of the vote and thirty-eight seats. The Hungarian left now faces a much harder time improving its image in the face of a pro-Fidesz media commission and national media that has become much less critical.

It appears that the real task for Viktor Orbán and Fidesz has been dealing with the rise of Jobbik, as a previous article in the Review noted that Fidesz has been steadily adopting many of the policies of the far-right party[vi]. To stoke popular appeal, Fidesz has sought to cut taxes and has adopted a more belligerent stance towards the EU, a move no doubt made much easier by criticism from the latter. While it has criticised Jobbik’s anti-Semitism on several occasions, Fidesz has come under fire for a perceived ‘whitewashing’ of the country’s fascist past in its attempts at building a ‘strong’ national identity. By far the most high profile critic of anti-Semitism in Hungary has been the writer and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel. He has protested attempts at rehabilitating Hungarian figures connected to the Holocaust, namely the World War II Head of State Miklos Horthy, and has also questioned the attendance of two government officials at a ceremony in Romania honouring the fascist sympathiser Jozef Nyiro in 2012. As a result Wiesel returned the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit awarded to him in 2004[vii].

As Wiesel has claimed, the political climate in Hungary is not a positive one. Dr Jeffrey Murer, lecturer on collective violence at the School of International Relations in St Andrews has done extensive research on far-right politics in Hungary. In the course of much of this work he has noted the worrying increase in the anti-Roma and anti-Semitic views held by many of those on the right– pointing out that past narratives of hatred are still being repeated today. When it comes to curbing the excesses of the far-right Fidesz is found wanting, but Orbán and his allies may be reluctant to act due to the fact that Jobbik was in second place behind Fidesz (particularly in the North of Hungary).

While the gains made by Jobbik in Hungary should be a major cause for concern, it is not the only development in Hungarian politics that should raise the hackles of others in Europe. The problem for Europe goes much deeper than far-right hate speech. Issues like media freedom and repeated partisan changes to the Hungarian constitution are a direct challenge to the principles by which the modern European Union members are expected to live by.

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