Nick Cohen

How much longer can Orbán’s apologists ignore what he’s doing to Hungary?

How much longer can Orbán's apologists ignore what he's doing to Hungary?
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Hungary is the Venezuela of the Western right. Just as radical leftists revealed the emptiness of their concern for the powerless by applauding as Chavez and Maduro’s gang of thieves reduced the poor to starvation, so conservatives’ admiration for Viktor Orbán shows the ephemerality of right-wing 'civilisation'.

Conservatives never fail to miss an opportunity to speak out against assaults on what one assumes are their basic principles when the assaults are committed by their own side. The rule of law? Orbán has stuffed the judiciary with his appointees for years, and is now establishing a system of courts that exempt his government from independent judicial review. The free market? The best way to make money in Hungary is not start a business but ingratiate yourself with the ruling clique and enjoy the largesse that follows. Press freedom and freedom of speech, so beloved in conservative circles when the Leveson inquiry or the woke threaten them? Orbán controls the state media and his oligarchical allies have bought up news sites and broadcasters and consolidated them into a cartel.

Conservatives and everyone else ought to look harder at Hungary. It was the first right-wing populist state – to use a vapid label that takes no account of populism’s assault on people’s basic liberties – and is experiencing the world’s first backlash from the populism’s 'left behinds'.

With nothing like the fuss devoted to the French demonstrators, there are signs that Orbánism may be cracking under the weight of popular protest. Dangerously, perhaps fatally, it has united liberal and economic grievances. Most people in most countries most of the time do not care overmuch for liberal freedoms. Orbán has maintained his power by turning George Soros and the human rights organisations the Jewish financier funds into a vast conspiracy that would flood Hungary with Muslim asylum seekers: a combination of antisemitism and Islamophobia that is by no means confined to the Hungarian far-right. Laws making the work of NGOs next to impossible, and hate campaigns against liberal dissidents are justified in the name of defending Christian Hungary against a diabolic conspiracy.

He was getting away with it until he made the connection between threats to liberal freedom and threats to economic wellbeing obvious to all. His 'slave law' exposes the populist state’s modus operandi better than the speeches of opposition politicians. It allows Hungary’s employees to request up to 400 hours more overtime from employers a year. The request is of the ‘offer you can’t refuse’ variety. Trade unions say that many employees are too weak to stand up to their managers. The ruling party, meanwhile, has said employers can delay payment for three years.

Demonstrations are erupting all over Hungary, not only in liberal Budapest. Freedom of the press no longer seems an abstract concept when the media is spewing out lies that the demonstrators are 'foreign mercenaries' paid for by the supernaturally powerful Jew, George Soros. Hungarian protestors are taking note and targeting the state propaganda station MTVA.

If you exploit fears of immigrants to win wealth and power, you must keep immigrants out. The closing of borders leads to labour shortages, as we may find out after Brexit. Meanwhile young Hungarians, like East Europeans from well governed countries, have taken advantage of freedom of movement to find work in Germany, Britain and France. But in Hungary’s case there is a political as well as an economic motivation. When I was last in Budapest, opposition activists lamented how their comrades were leaving because they did not want to waste their lives living under a corrupt government that thrived on the promotion of hatred and ignorance. Their departure appeared to suit the regime, which had every interest in seeing bright and committed people, who might lead a revolution, head for the exit. It did not notice that their departure only exacerbated the problem of who was going to do the work to keep the Hungarian economy functioning.

I don't want to get carried away. For all the gerrymandering, Orbán continues to enjoy popular support. I should add too that the protestors have been on the streets in their thousands rather than hundreds of thousands. But the demonstrations show no sign of abating – last night they targeted the president’s office. And their very existence reveals a truth about the new politics Brexit Britain may soon be learning.

The characteristic vice of left-wing populism is hyper-inflation. To pay for its social programmes, to finance the corruption of the elite, and to compensate for the destruction of efficient businesses, Chavez and Maduro printed money to such an extent Venezuelan inflation has topped one million per cent (I know, I can’t comprehend that figure either or imagine how Venezuelans live from one day to the next).

Hungary suggests that the characteristic vices of right-wing populism will be stagnation, labour shortages and the exploitation of workers.

Western leftists adored Chavez because he stroked their prejudices by shouting about his love of socialism and hatred of America. Hungary is popular on the right because Orbán is anti-EU. He talks with a frankness the worst of the right wishes it were safe to use in their own countries of defending Christian Europe from Islam. But most of all Orbán provides an argument the worst type of conservative repeats with absolute conviction every day here in Britain: Liberals just don’t get it. They don’t listen to ordinary people. Their dainty concerns and bleeding-heart causes insult the working class, and they are so stuck in their ivory towers they don’t even realise it. If this sounds like the apologias, for Trump and Brexit, then that is no accident. Orbán hoped to appeal to Trump’s prejudices by driving Central European University, funded by that target of Republican hatred, George Soros, out of the country. (And what kind of government, sane right wingers might ask themselves in their rare moments of sanity, closes universities?) He has been defended, not only by fellow far-right leaders, but by the 'respectable’ British Conservative party, and the 'moderate' Christian democrats in the European people’s party.

In Russia, Turkey and Gaza, we have seen dictators and dictatorial movements win elections and then proceed to dismantle any checks on their power. What sets Hungary apart is that the dismantling has occurred inside a European Union which says it protects the rule of law and human rights, and with the active support of British and European conservatives. Even now, Manfred Weber, the head of the EPP group in the European Parliament, equivocates while allowing Orbán's Fidesz party to remain a member of the EPP.

On the left and right, it is always worth watching how politicians excuse foreign dictators, for it tells you what they might do at home if they thought they could get away with it.

Written byNick Cohen

Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of What's Left and You Can't Read This Book.

Topics in this articlePolitics