Viktor Orban’s third successive election victory has led to warnings that this self-styled ‘illiberal democrat’ will remove Hungary from the yoke of the European Union (EU) for good, upsetting the harmony of the regional bloc in the process.
Adding to his crackdown on the free press, the independence of the judiciary, and the NGOs and universities linked with George Soros, Orban has set his dictatorial course. He has even promised retribution on those who opposed and mocked him during his latest campaign.
The most notable facet of Orban’s recent rule has been his vehemently anti-migration stance, which have directly contravened the hopes of the EU in general, and Angela Merkel in particular. Border walls have sprung up and asylum seekers been turned away as Orban warns of a ‘Muslim invasion’. To him, Hungary is for Hungarians…that is, Christian Hungarians.
This stark message has seemingly engendered popular appeal, even more so than his Fidesz party’s efforts to boost growth and employment after years of economic stagnation. Perhaps the Hungarians remember their history. Orban is certainly doing his best to make sure that they do.
It was in the 16th century that the mighty Ottoman forces of Suleiman the Magnificent plundered into Medieval Hungary, capturing Buda in 1541 and establishing Turkish overlordship across much of the kingdom.
During their period of rule, the Ottomans committed the sorts of atrocities typical of distant sovereigns. Deportation and massacres significantly reduced the ethnic Hungarian population, whilst the economy of the territory was allowed to slump into ruin. Buda, a once magnificent medieval citadel, became an impoverished backwater.
Orban sees parallels between the vicious Ottoman conquest and the mass migration from the Middle East today:
We shouldn’t forget that the people who are coming here grew up in a different religion and represent a completely different culture. Most are not Christian, but Muslim…That is an important question, because Europe and European culture have Christian roots…I have to say that when it comes to living together with Muslim communities, we are the only ones who have experience because we had the possibility to go through that experience for 150 years. (Washington Post, 4th September 2015)
Likewise, Orban can see in himself, and the other members of his Visegrad Group, a Christian bulwark to Muslim invasion, comparable with the Holy Roman Empire. It was Habsburg forces, along with their Polish allies, that finally ran the Ottomans out of Hungary in the late 17th century. A victory for Christendom over the evil forces of Islam, invoking the spirit of the earlier Crusades.
Of course all of this is somewhat ridiculous. Hungary has a population in decline (30,000 a year), with many frustrated citizens emigrating in the hope of finding better life in other European states. What an influx of youthful labour could do for an economy reliant on state employment and a low-skilled workforce.
Orban, however, is both stubborn and resilient, not to mention manipulative and vindictive. Everything he does is geared towards maintaining power and moulding the Hungarian state into a compliant tool for exercising that power.
By defying his former self, and ignorantly casting Muslim migrants as bloodthirsty successors to the Ottoman Turks, Orban is threatening to isolate himself. The EU will not stand for continued disobedience – however ponderous and pithy its mechanisms for meting out punishment are – nor can Hungary live without its generous subsidies. Russia and its ailing economy can hardly be expected to fill the gap this leaves.
Populism, nationalism and authoritarianism can paper over the economic and political void for only so long. For Viktor Orban the test will be to come up with a new enemy when he seeks yet another re-election in 2022.