When a European society elects a government that uses the power of the state to control the media, rewrites electoral law to entrench its position and curbs the independence of the judiciary and the central bank, it might be dismissed as bad luck. But when the same cabinet is voted in for a second time, it begins to look like a model that works.
“We have scored such a comprehensive victory, the significance of which we cannot yet fully grasp,” Viktor Orban told a crowd of cheering supporters in Budapest on news of his renewed mandate as Hungary’s prime minister. His Fidesz party won 45 per cent of the vote and 133 out of 199 parliamentary seats in Sunday’s elections.
It is hardly an exaggeration to say that aside from Angela Merkel in Germany, Mr Orban is Europe’s most influential leader. He is admired by radical parties across the continent, and his policies are copied by mainstream politicians even as they lambast him. His influence is bound to strengthen in central Europe, where ordinary people are angry and politicians are cynical and desperate. “Today in Budapest, tomorrow in Warsaw” is the battle cry of the rightwing opposition in Poland.
Mr Orban thrives on political polarisation and nationalist rhetoric. He dances merrily over Brussels’ red lines. He is the antithesis to Ms Merkel, with her consensual approach, her liberal bent and her enthusiasm for EU institutions.
Mr Orban’s attack on (mostly foreign-owned) banks could easily make him a hero of Occupy Wall Street, while his success in pushing the budget deficit under 3 per cent is more apt to earn cheers from Wall Street itself. Many economists are doubtful that the government’s austerity programme will help the Hungarian economy in the long term. But for now it has worked wonders for the government’s fiscal credibility. The government has accomplished a surprising feat: it has kept the voters and the markets tolerably happy at the same time.
Mr Orban owes his success to a combination of opportunism and common sense. He embodies a series of contradictions: both a fiscal hawk and Keynesian interventionist; a sharp critic of the EU yet also the strongest bulwark against the far-right Jobbik party, which might well push Hungary out of the union if it ever had the chance. In 1989 he demanded that Soviet troops leave Hungary yet now he invites Russian capital to run the country.
Critics like to say that the authoritarian Viktor Orban of today is unrecognisable from the young liberal of the early 1990s. But in truth, he has not changed much. Here is a politician with a genuine talent for capturing the spirit of the time. He is ruthless, unsentimental – and effective.
It is rather the times that have changed. The post-Soviet liberal consensus that took hold in central Europe after 1989 is over. The transition was dealt a moral blow when the well-connected elite of the former nomenklatura emerged as the main winners. Majorities in countries such as Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia view that era as a failure and want someone to pay the price for destroyed lives and shattered hopes. Two-thirds of Hungarians have agreed to give Mr Orban sweeping powers in the hope he will right the injustice they suffered since 1989.
Hungary’s slide into illiberal majoritarianism destroys the illusion that EU membership is a guarantee of a stable democracy. Paradoxically, membership may in fact have made Hungarian voters less afraid to indulge their growing resentment against foreign investors by experimenting with extremist politics.
It also gives the lie to the notion that the European club is in a position to “discipline” its members. Experience shows that outside pressure works only when liberal forces in domestic politics are in a position to take advantage of it. That was the case in Poland in 2007, when voters chose the moderate Donald Tusk over the populist Jaroslaw Kaczynski. But the success of Fidesz – the butt of repeated criticism from the European Commission and the European parliament – shows that in the absence of credible domestic opposition, picking fights with Brussels is an easy way to win votes.
It was not always so. Before 2008 central Europeans’ trust in the EU mirrored their distrust in elites at home. Voters may not have known what the Brussels bigwigs did but they were sure it could not be any less salubrious than what their own leaders were up to. Now they see Brussels as a haven for the same fraudulent conduct.
Mr Orban was not the only unsavoury politician celebrating in Hungary last Sunday; Gabor Vona’s Jobbik party also improved on its showing in the 2010 elections, winning one in every five votes. In a democracy it is the voters who matter. Yet Hungary’s experience is a powerful reminder that voters are not always right – and that those who choose the lesser of two evils can easily find themselves having to live with both.