A xenophobic ad campaign funded by the government, wire fences lining the borders with Serbia and Croatia, a referendum that massively flopped but is still championed by the leading political party, a prime minister resisting the European Union’s (EU) liberal human rights policies. How did Hungary (and Europe, for that matter) end up here?

Much of Hungary’s international media attention surrounds its prime minister, Viktor Orbán, who is currently in the news for challenging Brussels, the human rights policies of the EU, and the refugee resettlement plan supported by Germany and the Netherlands.

Orbán actually began his political career in the 1990s supporting western democracy and the free market. At 24, he co-founded the Federation of Young Democrats (Fidesz), and played a ‘prominent role in killing communism in Europe’. However, Orbán has since transformed, and his stances have become intolerant. Part of this is due to the 1994 elections, in which Fidesz lost badly. Orbán responded by switching his party’s focus from urban cities to rural areas, supporting platforms that appealed to conservative demographics. His reinvented party managed to win the elections in 1998, making him the youngest Hungarian prime minister in the 20th century. Then from roughly 2002 to 2010 Orbán remained absent from the political forefront while the Socialists ran the Hungarian government and struggled to deal with the 2008 financial crisis, among other issues.

Orbán re-emerged and won the 2010 election on a platform that highlighted Hungarian frustrations with the elite in Budapest and the economic collapse, which was blamed on bankers, who he called a ‘threat to civilization.’ Since the European migrant crisis developed in 2015, Orbán has shifted to labelling Muslims as the new threat. His comments about the dangers of Muslims and the threats they pose to Hungary’s identity are seen by some as a strategy to deflect attention from Hungary’s internal problems and capitalising on the growing anti-migrant populism. Orban’s vocal posturing and confrontational style have been compared to mild forms of Putinism in Russia and Erdoganism in Turkey.

European People's Party

Image courtesy of European People’s Party, © 2011, some rights reserved.

The influx of refugees from places like Syria supposedly threatens Hungary’s (and Europe’s) ‘Christian’ identity. Recently, Orbán was quoted saying, ‘we lose our European values and identity the way frogs are cooked slowly in boiling water. Quite simply, slowly there will be more and more Muslims, and we will no longer recognize Europe’. It seems he envisions a traditional Europe, with a distinct Christian identity and where states have autonomy over decisions within their borders. Going even further, Orbán would prefer the EU to merely be a trading bloc of sovereign countries with no shared human rights policies.

The Economist does not consider Orbán a serious threat, just a ‘cartoonish leader’ receiving more media attention because of Europe’s initial fumbles in handling the migrant crisis. However, there is still something troubling about Orbán’s attitude toward migrants, and the public platform he has to share xenophobic messages.

There is widespread outcry and negative campaigning against migrants from multiple groups around the world – the UK Independence Party in Britain, the National Front in France, the Northern League in Italy, and even presidential candidate Donald Trump with his rhetoric about Mexican immigrants in the United States. While some European countries, led by Germany’s Angela Merkel, favour liberal policies that are implemented collectively to handle the migrant crisis, an alternative camp would rather keep out asylum seekers by building fences on Greece’s borders. One of the most vocal members of the illiberal camp has been Orbán. He hopes to bring about a ‘cultural counter-revolution’ in Europe. It would replace liberal ideas like helping refugees with ‘identity-based notions’ of family, community and Christianity and prevent the EU from forcing asylum seekers onto unwilling countries.

So how does one bring about ‘cultural counter-revolution’ these days? In Europe, one holds a referendum.

On 2 October, that is exactly what happened. The question ‘Do you want the European Union to be entitled to prescribe the mandatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without the consent of parliament?’ was put to the people. The government hoped for a resounding ‘no’ vote to challenge the EU’s migrant redistribution plan adopted in September 2015, which hopes to place 160,000 asylum seekers throughout Europe using quotas. The plan, put forward by Dutch Labour Party leader Diedrik Samson, passed in the EU’s Council of Ministers by a majority vote. Slovakia and Hungary, however, are challenging the quota plan through the European Court of Justice, calling the quotas ‘unlawful, unworkable, and dangerous’. The Netherlands, Germany, and other countries hope mass resettlement will better manage the long-term impacts of the large numbers of asylum seekers, restore integrity to EU borders and help refugees reach Europe in a more formal way. Under this plan, Hungary’s quota is only 1,294 refugees. And yet Orbán would prefer the EU did not force quotas onto unwilling countries. He hoped the Hungarian referendum would send a powerful message to Brussels that showed how many people believed in strong nation states instead of the EU’s liberal authority.

However, the referendum did not quite go as the Hungarian government planned. Despite spending over 50 million euros on a government-funded media campaign demonising asylum seekers (that was met by no significant counter campaign), voter turnout was under the required 50 per cent needed for any legal action. There were efforts made by Socialists and some smaller political parties to convince voters to abstain, so the referendum results would not count.

Although of those who voted, 98 per cent were against admitting refugees into the country. Most of Orbán’s voter base for the referendum was his conservative Fidesz party and the far-right Jobbiks.

The referendum outcome has been interpreted a number of ways. The general western European consensus seems to be that the low turnout demonstrates that the migrant issue is not the most important to the Hungarian people. But the Hungarian government considers the referendum, in the words of Fidesz party Vice Chairman Gergly Gulyas, ‘a sweeping victory for all those who reject the EU’s mandatory, unlimited quotas. It is a sweeping victory for all those who believe that the foundations of a strong European Union can only be the strong nation states’. Fidesz wants this to be the beginning of a larger movement of resisting the liberal European Union, while the general consensus appears to be that the referendum will not prompt much change. And while it is unlikely Hungary will successfully overturn the EU’s refugee resettlement plan, it is still disturbing to notice the recurring trends of xenophobia and nationalism across Europe and the United States. Even though liberal EU politicians like Angela Merkel and Diederick Samson, who suggested the resettlement plan, seem to have the dominant influence right now, this undercurrent of hatred, demonization, and blaming the ‘other’ is a concerning trend as we move forward, especially as big figures like Orbán and Trump continue to vocalise those sentiments on a higher political level.