Thinking about Hungary in the time of Trump and Brexit

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Béla Greskovits is a visiting fellow at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies. He is University Professor at the Department of International Relations, and Department of Political Science, at Central European University, Budapest, Hungary.

Bela Greskovits

Bela Greskovits

At the current historical turning point of right-wing populism’s breakthrough in the USA and ascendance in Europe, Hungarian Premier Viktor Orbán’s illiberal state-building appears as less puzzling or extreme than earlier. Rather, it seems to have become part and parcel of a new normalcy heralded by the rise of Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, and other harbingers of anti-elite, xenophobic nationalist, and authoritarian politics. Yet, not denying the importance of commonalities among these leaders and visions, we can still spot a feature of the Hungarian regime that allows reflections on the prospects of similar Western agendas as well.

This feature is that unlike the new populist projects of the West, which are still in their infancy, the Orbán regime already has ample proof of its political viability. Since spring 2010 the Fidesz party has achieved six victories in a row (some landslide victories) in municipal, national, and EP elections. Moreover, in contrast to the hybrid regimes of Turkey or Russia, the Fidesz governments did not resort to open repression or large-scale electoral fraud. Instead, the regime evolved by subtle, gradual but steady efforts to extend its control over the media and the judiciary, manipulate the electoral law, and harass NGOs and social movements in the human rights, civil liberties, and anti-corruption sectors, viewed as hostile to the rulers. The visible success of this strategy might well inspire Western Right-wing populist politicians to fill their ‘to do list’ with similar measures and strategies.

In my view, the remarkable resilience of the Orbán regime is due mainly to earlier ‘tectonic’ shifts in civil society, which helped the right to accumulate social capital well before its political triumph. In brief, after the collapse of communism the development of Hungarian civil society has been characterized by asymmetric trends. Over time, left-liberal actors, which due to inherited strengths were initially better endowed with organizational and ideational resources, lost their dominance in civil society. Conversely, actors from the right set deeper roots in society, and eventually became able to set the terms of civil organization and social protest. Especially while as an opposition party from 2002-2010, the Fidesz worked hard to re-organize and extend the right’s grass-roots networks, associations, and media; rediscover and/or reinvent its everyday life-styles, holidays, symbols, and heroes; and mobilize in innovative ways for cultural, political, charity and leisure activities.

Strangely, this conquest of civil society occurred as it were under the radar of the ruling left-liberal coalition. The jury is still out to judge whether the weak response of the broadly defined Hungarian left was due to pure negligence or should rather be traced to some structural obstacles to reinvigorating its ‘own’ civic associational life. But whatever the correct answer, the main underlying question is similar to the one currently posed by Brexit, Trump’s victory, and other manifestations of ascending populism: do left and liberal actors in the West still have the skill, will, and the organizational and ideational resources of a vibrant civil society to resist the implementation of illiberal and anti-democratic political programs?

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