by Thorsten Benner Die Welt
Die Welt: What does Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s decisive victory mean for Hungary?
Thorsten Benner: For Orbán, the direction for the coming four years is crystal clear: deepening his project of an “illiberal state” at the heart of the European Union (EU). In a speech from March 15 that should be mandatory reading for all European policymakers, he described his agenda in language straight out of the 1930s. In a thinly veiled threat, he announced his intention to get even with his opponents after the elections — “morally, politically, [and] legally.” He argued that his opponents were an “international network which is organized into an empire: we are up against media outlets maintained by foreign concerns and domestic oligarchs, professional hired activists, troublemaking protest organizers, and a chain of NGOs financed by an international speculator, summed up by and embodied in the name George Soros. This is the world we must fight.” On the night of the election, the government spokesperson Zoltán Kovács already announced a “need to shut down NGOs engaging in politics.” On Monday, the governing Fidesz party vowed to pass the anti-civil society legislation package ‘Stop Soros’ as early as May. If that happens, and if NGOs get shut down, this will be Orbán’s most severe challenge to the rule of law in the EU to date.
DW: Why did the opposition not achieve its goals?
Benner: In addition to favorable economic data, Orbán was able to score with a nationalist campaign that played on fears of foreigners and Muslims, and railed against the diktat by Brussels as well as the “NGO army” commanded by Orbán’s arch-enemy George Soros. Orbán succeeded in both polarizing and mobilizing: some of his voters felt that only a vote for Orbán could save the Hungarian nation and Christian civilization. Despite the many recent revelations of widespread corruption, opposition forces did not sufficiently get through to voters with their criticism of the Orbán kleptocracy. Despite limited agreements of cooperation, the opposition was still too divided and not able to agree on a single opposition candidate in most constituencies. And the largest opposition party, the formerly extreme right-wing Jobbik party, tried to refashion itself as a more centrist, anti-corruption force. Not enough voters were persuaded by that. The Socialists further lost ground and had zero appeal in the countryside outside of Budapest. Momentum, the new centrist movement party of the younger Budapest generation that is inspired by Macron’s En Marche movement, was also unable to break through. There was a lack of a charismatic centrist candidate with appeal in both Budapest and the countryside who could have successfully challenged Orbán.
DW: What consequences will Orbán’s continued reign have for Europe?
Benner: First of all, Orbán’s victory means that the stress test for the rule of law in the EU will intensify. So far, the EU has not found a successful way to deal with Orbán’s “illiberal state” project. Orbán is the lone star for right-wing authoritarian forces in Europe: Le Pen, Wilders and others were the first to congratulate him. A number of misguided policymakers from Germany’s Bavarian Christian Socialist Union (CSU) will continue to cozy up to him. While his illiberal-authoritarian nationalism corrodes the values of the EU, we should not overestimate his influence on EU foreign policy. He doesn’t even have the Visegrad grouping behind him in a consistent manner. And in terms of foreign policy, Orbán is often less radical than in his domestic policy. For example, he recently decided to expel a Russian diplomat from Hungary as a reaction to the Skripal attack, acting in concert with the big EU powers. He may even be able to pull off a surprise application for membership of the Eurozone in the coming years.
DW: Which implications do you see for German-Hungarian relations?
Benner: Germany will be decisive in terms of dealing with Orbán. Dialogue guided by clear principles is what should inform the German approach. Germany is Hungary’s most important trade and investment partner. With German Chancellor Angela Merkel and parliamentary group leader Manfred Weber, the two most important European People’s Party politicians are Germans. Merkel and her fellow travelers need to finally get serious about defending liberal democratic principles. Orbán’s Fidesz is still a member of the EPP. A Christian Democratic grouping should not accommodate an authoritarian who operates with dog-whistle anti-Semitic rhetoric. Foreign investors in Hungary, chiefly Audi and Daimler, finally need to distance themselves from Orbán’s policies. Foundations and media organizations need to step up their efforts to reconquer Hungary for liberal democracy. And Chancellor Merkel should have a word with Orbán on how it is all supposed to end. Both are in their fourth term in office now. Merkel should ask him what his endgame is, and if he wants to go down the path of Erdogan. The Turkish president has radicalized his rule to a degree that it is now practically inconceivable for him to leave office and retire in peace and security in his own country. Orbán, who despite a stint at Oxford funded by Soros has not shown much interest in life outside his native country, can still decide whether he wants to completely rule out that option for himself.
DW: What, if anything, can still constrain Orbán?
Benner: Only Hungarians will be able to put an end to the Orbán regime. This will take a while, not least because the opposition is in shambles. Most of its leaders resigned after the election disaster. But there are a few things outsiders can do. They can support fresh political faces with integrity and drive. They can provide funding to independent media organizations at all levels – to local journalism, national news as well as investigative journalism platforms. They can support embattled civil society organizations – financially, logistically, and politically. As a last resort, Germany and other EU countries can offer an alternative operating base for those civil society organizations harassed or shut down in Hungary by providing legal or tax accreditation so that they can continue their work in Hungary. Other EU-based NGOs can send their staff to work in Hungary alongside local NGOs to show solidarity. In other words, EU countries should take maximum advantage of the fact that Hungary is a member of the EU. This also means that Brussels should investigate the endemic corruption of the large EU funds that have been fueling Orbán’s cronyism much more forcefully. Another important factor will be the position of the US government. Although Orbán was one of two EU leaders who endorsed Donald Trump before the 2016 US presidential election, the Trump administration – and especially the State Department – has been remarkably critical of Orbán so far. The US is the country that is best informed about Hungary and has the most detailed information about the corrupt nature of the Orbán regime. It would be important if the US government – including Congress – adopted a critical attitude toward Orbán’s “illiberal state” project and made crucial information on his way of governing available to the broader public.
The interview was conducted by Silke Mülherr for Die Welt. A shorter German version was published on April 9, 2018.
by Thorsten Benner