The Dangerous Game of the Orbánversteher

Whitewashing the Challenges Posed by Viktor Orbán’s Authoritarian Populism

Orban Dangerous Game

Source: Európai Bizottság / Végel Dániel / Flickr

Germany is used to the fact that the musings and actions of some of its retired politicians often betray lack of good judgment. Former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt regularly defends Russian President Vladimir Putin and the heavy hand of China’s Communist Party. Schmidt’s successor, Helmut Kohl, has called Hungary’s authoritarian-populist prime minister Viktor Orbán “a great European who thinks European and acts European.” Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder tirelessly speaks out in favor of Putin. He’s on the payroll of the Russian gas empire, Gazprom. Schröder’s interior minister, Otto Schily, accepts six figure honoraria to lobby on behalf of Kazakhstan´s dictator. So last week when the 86-year-old Klaus von Dohnanyi, former Social Democratic mayor of Hamburg, defended Orbán in a lengthy interview with the German daily Die Welt, it would have been easy to dismiss this as just another geriatric aberration of political judgment.

But Dohnanyi´s intervention is different. In the interview, he speaks not just as a retired politician but as a “member of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) and chair of its working group on Hungary.” He is also a co-author of a recent 25-page study, published by DGAP, titled Hungary in the Media 2010-2014: Critical Reflections on Coverage in the Press and Media. For the working group on Hungary and the study, Dohnanyi brought on board Gereon Schuch, an historian and deputy director of DGAP´s research institute, where he heads the Robert Bosch Center for Central and Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia.

The point of departure for the study is that “no EU member state has faced as much criticism of its domestic and foreign policy as Hungary,” but that “the EU Commission, the European Council, the European Parliament, and the governments of individual EU member states should first carefully review criticism of another member state on the basis of the facts.” The study seeks to analyze whether EU critics in government and the media in fact have their facts right. For this, Dohnanyi explains, “we have consulted with experts from all sides and built on other studies. Members of Hungarian NGOs were involved as well as members of the Hungarian government and opposition.” What sounds like a perfectly impartial approach leads the authors to strikingly partial conclusions. While the study gets a lot of small things right in the detailed and often balanced discussion about the nine areas of international criticism, it gets all the big things wrong.

In fact, the study is a manifestation of the rise of the German Orbánversteher – those who, while seeking to understand the sources of Orbán‘s policies, whitewash the prime minister’s authoritarian-populism and his assault on the institutions, practices and spirit of liberal democracy. As is the case with the German Putinversteher, Verstehen (understanding how and why) seems to lead down a straight path to Verständnis (understanding for, justification and even sympathy).

The meta-narrative of the study is that international commentators accuse Orbán of being an anti-Semitic dictator. Orbán is of course neither a dictator nor an anti-Semite. The report therefore concludes that “many accusations are greatly exaggerated or even factually incorrect.” In the interview with Die Welt, Dohnanyi says that: “I personally no longer have any doubts about the continued existence of Hungarian democracy. And anyone who reads our report will discover: This is a free country with open borders, where you can say whatever you like.” But Dohnanyi and Schuch do not content themselves with issuing a clean bill of democratic health. They want a full “normalization” of relations with Orbán, even joint political initiatives:

    Orbán’s tense relationship with the European Commission should not be the basis for mutual accusations. Rather, it rather should be the starting point for a well-grounded debate on the future of the EU’s democratic system in a globalizing world. With a productive dialogue on questions of democratically stable structures, Hungary and Germany together could also move Europe forward.

The report even sees the prospect of a Hungarian-German relationship (with Orbán) that functions as a “motor for the democratic development of Europe.” No doubt, a good Hungarian-German relationship is desirable, and criticism of Orbán and his cronies should never be read as criticism of Hungary itself. But it is delusional to argue that the German government should seek out the Orbán government as a kindred spirit in a debate on the future of democracy in Europe. That Dohnanyi and Schuch make this kind of argument, right after Orbán over the past months has engaged in a debate on the reintroduction of the death penalty and is in the process of carrying out a xenophobic “popular consultation” on migration, shows their puzzling lack of political judgment.

It is important to get to the bottom of the key misconceptions of the Orbánversteher.

Misconception: The Politics of National Identity is a Unifying Tool

The report introduction spends one page on the “historical situation of Hungary.” It explains the particularities of Hungarian cultural and political history. It also points to the deep political divisions within Hungarian society as well as a revival of national identity and memory that “Hungarians feel is misunderstood by outsiders.” The report claims that “Many actions and statements become understandable against this background.” The authors offer a charitable view of the politics of national identity and memory in Hungary. They assert that Orbán intends to use nationalism and national identity as a unifiying tool “to achieve broad consensus in the population.” The report argues that “the government probably saw an opportunity to unite the politically divided country beyond party lines.” It seems to regard the politics of national identity in Hungary in this benign light – conveniently overlooking that a reversion to national identity leads to the exclusion of minorities and migrants in the nationalistic narratives.

The authors also pay little attention to the foreign policy costs. At times, Orbán’s rhetoric on Hungarian minorities in neighboring countries sounds dangerously close to to that which Putin uses when talking about Russian minorities in other sovereign countries. And the national sovereignty paranoia that Orbán adheres to is a bad fit for policymaking in the European Union. It is certainly not a basis for joint political initiatives between Germany and Hungary, as the report suggests.

Misconception: Orbán’s “Illiberal State” Seeks Only to Curb Ruthless Economic Liberalism

The report claims that Orbán´s intent, declared during a 2014 speech in Romania, to build an “illiberal state based on national foundations” within the European Union was solely motivated by his rejection of economic liberalism and a stronger role of the state in the economy. The authors claim the speech caused unjustified international criticism that could have been avoided by a closer reading of the text. After all, they say, in his speech Orbán “sought a path to guide his country from today’s ruthless economic liberalism to a stronger state following ideals beyond profit maximization, all within the framework of liberal democracy and respect for human rights.”

This is a dangerous mischaracterization of Orbán´s “illiberal state” speech. Indeed, it was also about a stronger economic role of the state. But at the core it was about much more. It rejects the record of liberal democracy in Hungary on nationalistic grounds:

    We will see that in the past twenty years the established Hungarian liberal democracy could not achieve a number of objectives. I made a short list of what it was not capable of. Liberal democracy was not capable of openly declaring, or even obliging, governments with constitutional power to declare that they should serve national interests. Moreover, it even questioned the existence of national interests. I did not oblige subsequent governments to recognize that Hungarian diaspora around the world belongs to our nation and to try and make this sense of belonging stronger with their work.

That Orbán goes beyond economic goals to target liberal democracy becomes even more evident later in the speech when he talks about civil society organization:

    If we look at civil organizations in Hungary, the ones in the public eye (debates concerning the Norwegian Fund have brought this to the surface), then what I will see is that we have to deal with paid political activists here. And these political activists are, moreover, political activists paid by foreigners. Activists paid by definite political circles of interest. It is hard to imagine that these circles have a social agenda. It is more likely that they would like to exercise influence through this system of instruments on Hungarian public life. It is vital, therefore, that if we would like to reorganize our nation state instead of the liberal state, that we should make it clear, that these are not civilians coming against us, opposing us, but political activists attempting to promote foreign interests. Therefore, it is very apt that a committee was being formed in the Hungarian parliament that deals with constant monitoring, recording and publishing foreign attempts to gain influence, so that all of us here, you as well, will know who the characters behind the masks are.

To get behind the masks, Orbán shortly thereafter unleashed the state apparatus (police and tax authorities) on several prominent NGOs funded by Norwegian grants. The reports buries the clampdown on NGOs in a section on “campaign advertisements: television and pollsters,” failing to connect this to the primary intent of the “illiberal state” speech.

The report also overlooks that Orbán defended a departure from “liberal democracy” – not just a liberal state – in a 2015 press conference with Chancellor Angela Merkel: “We do not believe that any democracy is inevitably and necessarily liberal.” This is a sweeping statement for a leader of a country that is a member of the European Union, whose concept of democracy is unambiguously liberal. But the report ignores this statement in order to peddle its interpretation of Orbán as motivated by concerns over economic nationalism – and therefore offers little cause for concern.

Misconception: Majoritarianism-cum-Populism Equals Democracy

The report’s authors argue that “Orbán’s administration clearly ascribes great importance to both stability in the democratic political system as well as efficiency of governmental action. In this sense, Orbán views his parliamentary majority as a democratic Ermächtigung (authorization) to make sweeping reforms.” That is clearly a euphemism for Orban´s crude majoritarianism-cum-populism. That the authors choose to use the loaded term Ermächtigung in the German version of the report seems almost like a Freudian slip of the tongue. It is small wonder then that they, with such a thin concept of democracy, do not see much at fault with Orban´s tactics, including “national consultations,” which he initiated on both the constitution and more recently on migration. Frans Timmermans, vice president of the EU Commission, in May characterized the public consultation on migration as one “based on bias, on leading and even misleading questions, on prejudice about immigrants (that) can hardly be considered a fair and objective basis for designing sound policies.” He added that “framing immigration in the context of terrorism, depicting migrants as a threat to jobs and the livelihood of people, is malicious and simply wrong – it will only feed misconceptions and prejudice.” The authors´ thin concept of democracy also leads them to berate the Hungarian opposition for not having engaged enough in the debate over sweeping constitutional changes that Orbán introduced with the help of his party´s two-thirds supermajority in parliament.

Misconception: Orbán is a Bastion Against Euroskeptics and the Extreme Right

The report highlights that “the Hungarian government delivered 51 percent of its 2014 EU Parliament votes to the conservative-centrist voting bloc – the European People’s Parties (EPP) – constituting the largest such electoral win in the entire EU. This runs counter to the tendency in the UK, for example, and other EU states to deliver increasing numbers of votes to euroskeptic parties.”

There are two grave problems with this statement. First, it characterizes Orbán as a “conservative-centrist” antidote to euroskeptic parties when Orbán falls squarely in the euroskeptic camp. Second, Orbán´s Fidesz party, with the kind of policies and methods it advocates, should not be part of the Christian Democrat EPP group in the European Parliament in the first place. In his interview, von Dohnanyi claims that the political climate in Hungary “is not contaminated by Orbán and Fidesz but by the extreme right Jobbik party.” He adds that “Orbán is more effective in fighting the extreme right than the opposition parties.” Without question, the weakness of Hungarian center-left opposition parties and the rise of Jobbik as (in the eyes of the electorate) the only credible alternative to Orbán is concerning. But seeing Orbán as a bastion against Jobbik misreads political developments in Hungary. Orbán’s Fidesz has taken to implementing a number of policies once only championed by Jobbik – arguably making Jobbik more palatable to the political mainstream. And the reaction to Orbán´s waning popularity (the party lost a by-election to Jobbik) has been to try to overtake Jobbik on the right by starting a debate on the reintroduction of the death penalty and a xenophobic popular consultation on migration. None of this is a concern for Dohnanyi. When asked about a “calculated flirt of Orbán with Jobbik voters,” Dohnanyi quipped: “Does David Cameron flirt with the euroskeptic UKIP”?

Based on these misconceptions, the DGAP report dangerously misreads the challenges posed by the Orbán government to both Hungary and the European Union. Orbán is a story of broader significance. It is not just the story of a party, Fidesz, and its once liberal head, Orbán, keen to clean up the morass that post-communist elites left behind in Hungary when they were voted out of office – only to end up replacing the old cast of cronies with a new one while leaving the corrupt political economy untouched. Orbán also presents a broader challenge to the normative framework of the European Union. He is just the most skillful and successful of the authoritarian populists hoping to gain political power in other EU countries.

The DGAP report is an all too convenient tool for those who want to ignore these challenges and instead go back to business as usual with Orbán: those German companies that do good business there without much concern for the political realities; the CDU/CSU and the EPP, which count on the Fidesz votes in the Christian democratic bloc of the European Parliament; those who confuse Hungarian-German friendship with unconditional support for whatever government is in power; and those nostalgic for a national awakening in the European Union.

That a widely respected Berlin think tank deems it appropriate to offer the Orbánversteher such a prominent platform, says a lot about the state of the debate on the challenges to democracy. That the Orbánversteher exhibit such a blatant lack of appreciation for liberal democracy, should give us even more pause. Rather than closing our eyes with the help of the Orbánversteher, it is high time to rediscover our compass in the debate on both Orbán’s authoritarian populism and the meaning and practice of liberal democracy. We should increase the scrutiny of those German companies investing in Hungary and engaging in photo opportunities with Orbán and his cronies while remaining silent on issues of economic, social and political governance. German foundations should increase the support of independent social, art, journalism, and other civic projects in Hungary. We should intensify debate with Hungarians and other Europeans on antidotes to authoritarian populism in Hungary and elsewhere. After all, Orbán is the most advanced and most sophisticated manifestation of a broader trend in Europe. We should learn from the (in)ability of EU partners to influence developments in Hungary that clearly go against common European values. And we should rediscover our enthusiasm for the true meaning and the practice of liberal democracy. If we succeed at this, then at last Orbán and the Orbánversteher will have produced one positive side-effect.