This article was published in Vol. 3 No. 3 of the print edition.
The Centre-right Government of Viktor Orbán is the Nightmare of Left-wing Liberals and Greens throughout Europe, Including in Germany
The conservative Hungarian government of Viktor Orbán, in power in Hungary since 2010, represents for many green, left-wing, and left-liberal parties the antithesis of their own beliefs, a sort of nightmare and negative example. What is more, even many European parties with a Christian-democratic and conservative worldview have reservations about the specific, yet very successful and decisive policies Fidesz represents, and have gone as far as to force it out of the European People’s Party, the conservative grouping in the European Parliament.1 What explains this attitude? On closer inspection, the debates about Hungary reveal at least as much about today’s Germany and about Europe more broadly, together with all its alarming socio-political tendencies.
New Trends in Germany
In recent years, remarkable changes have taken place in Germany and in many parts of Europe. Thanks to the movements that flowed from the United States to Germany, public, scientific, journalistic, political, and social life have all changed rapidly and profoundly. These can generally be characterized in terms of Woke politics, gender ideology, anti-racism, cancel culture, identity politics, the narrowing of discourse, and exclusion. These trends justify behaviour that is based on the deconstruction, transformation,2 and rejection of the foundations of our value system, and are deeply ideological in nature.3 Meanwhile, other opinions are marginalized, stigmatized, condemned, and even violently suppressed. This is all done in the name of ‘liberalism’, which in reality can no longer be called liberalism, but rather bears all the hallmarks of authoritarian exclusion.
Thanks to the social debates that took place in post-war Germany, the country proved especially fertile ground for such ideas and approaches,4 espoused most vigorously by the deeply entrenched German Green Party. Driven by a passion for morality and moralism, they can however easily appear as arrogance and a know-it-all attitude elsewhere. The fact that these new beliefs are so strong in Germany5 says more about the general societal conditions than any perceived or real criticism of Hungary’s conservative government. In Germany, social or political beliefs are taken very seriously, and people actively stand up for their beliefs, often representing them with a mixture of a sense of justice, a sense of mission, and the moral exaltation of their own positions.
The Challenges for Conservatives in Germany
In this complex situation, it is particularly noticeable how strongly the Greens have taken over the power to shape opinions, and how they steer debates and define interpretative frameworks. As the driving force behind the trends, movements, and worldviews described above, the Greens can achieve the greatest resonance and support with the widest possible reach and are thus practically the embodiment of the new mainstream public opinion. The Greens and their voters are largely part of the social establishment, are professionally successful and have a secure financial background, and at the same time, they are the protectors of the ‘dominant opinion trends’. In contrast, the conservative side appears uninformed, and incapable of either words or deeds. To the outside observer it looks tired, as though together with the Social Democrats it had been emptied out during the Merkel years.6
First, the conservative side in Germany has few points of contact with the mainstream media space, since the majority of German journalists are unambiguously left-wing in terms of their political beliefs. In such an environment, the centre-right can hardly formulate its worldview because it is under constant surveillance and unilateral pressure. As a rule, the conservative side does not have access to effective media espousing its own values, and even if new initiatives start from within their circles, they face a continual danger of being easily stigmatized, dismissed as right-wing or, at best, ignored or forgotten. At the same time, ideological exclusion, as a predominating trend, also prevents the conservative side from finding, using, and effectively building platforms that reflect its own values, since the conservative segment of the public does not want to be stigmatized or marginalized. They are thus hopelessly at the mercy of the media and political mainstream. For this reason alone, it is currently unthinkable in Germany to have as strongly conservative policies as in Hungary. Even expressing sympathy for the Hungarian position would be considered taboo, and one would immediately be sanctioned by the mainstream media. Given all this, can we ever hope for a more balanced picture of Hungary from the German media?
Additionally, the union parties (CDU/CSU) are often criticized for ‘going social democrat’: that is, for pandering to perceived or real green social expectations, and for giving up their own beliefs, as a result of which their original conservative positions largely evaporate. Though these conservative positions are at best rather watered down, and even if they do survive, they are not clearly formulated or implemented with consistent determination. A markedly conservative policy direction of the sort followed in Hungary seems anachronistic in German eyes. Like the Germany of the 1980s. Indeed, Viktor Orbán himself recently said that ‘The Hungarian model is as if Helmut Kohl had had a two-thirds majority in Germany’. The CDU/CSU’s search for themselves thus continues, and there are few signs that a conservative turn or renewal is possible in an environment that has shifted to the left on a broad, societal level. It is much more likely that the union parties will merely continue to offer their own political themes in a slimmed-down, green-compatible, soft version.
Thirdly, due to the fragmentation of the political spectrum, the conservative parties have practically no chance of ever forming a majority in the Bundestag. It is much more likely for the foreseeable future that any CDU/CSU government will depend on the Greens or the Social Democrats to form a governing coalition. There are currently eight parties with seats in the Bundestag, and three-party coalitions are already in power not only at the federal level, but also in many states. The so-called ‘traffic light’ coalition (the Social Democrats, Free Democrats, and Greens) only holds a majority in Hamburg, Lower Saxony, Rhineland-Palatinate, and the Saarland, so it must cooperate with the CDU/CSU in the Federal Assembly (the Bundesrat, or upper house of the German federal parliament). In addition, the representation deficit,7 according to which 20–25 per cent of citizen voters have no political representation at all, causes a serious problem for the conservative side. In practice, these voters are divided between Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which has shifted to the right, and parties that sooner (CDU/CSU) or later (FDP) enter into coalition with left-wing parties. However, without the mobilization of these voter groups, a conservative majority in Germany is unthinkable.
In such a situation, it may appear the easiest course of action to acquiesce to the seemingly immutable and seek to work together, so to speak, with the SPD or at best the Greens. Still, many Hungarian observers could hardly believe their eyes when they saw situations in which a right-of-centre majority could have been created without the AfD, yet the CDU chose to form a government with the Greens rather than with the FDP. This happened, for example, in Schleswig-Holstein.8 In another federal state, the CDU even tolerates the left–social democrat–green coalition. In Hungary, on the other hand, the two conservative parties have a solid social base and broad support, which makes it easier for them to implement a liberal conservative programme.
The Role of European Party Politics
A similar development can be observed in the European Parliament, which is even more fragile than the German federal parliament, making it even more difficult for the conservative side to reach a majority and represent its own position. The lack of concepts and ideas from the representatives of the conservative side is even clearer at the European level. The European People’s Party cannot even hope to obtain a majority in the parliament, and what is more, apart from the legislative period between 1999 and 2004, it has never had a majority. Moreover, every social movement in Brussels is worth observing, so to speak, through a magnifying glass, since they are concentrated within a particularly narrow range. The European Parliament, as a forum for European political debates, hosts the most diverse political ideas; views clash sharply here, but in the end, everyone frequently has to compromise.
This phenomenon was particularly noticeable during the several occasions on which the Hungarian prime minister stood in the European Parliament and fielded questions from all sides. His forceful representation of his political views seemed for many members of the European Parliament to be incomprehensible or ungraspable, and far from the reality of their daily lives. European policy is defined, implemented, and expanded in this environment. Thus, judgements are very quickly made about a strange, conservative, East Central European country. It is therefore not surprising that in left-liberal and green circles, the scenario of a successful, popular, internationally recognized conservative political movement which opposes all kinds of identity politics is perceived as a threat and a real danger. This is the only way to explain the series of attacks directed at the policy of the Hungarian government and the person of Viktor Orbán, which are often extremely vitriolic.
What Is Meant by ‘Illiberal’?
The centre-right government of Viktor Orbán is implementing a classically liberal-conservative reform programme in Hungary, which actually is comparable to the policies of many European liberal, conservative, or Christian democratic parties. For the foreign observer, it can therefore be quite confusing that the Hungarian prime minister spoke of an ‘illiberal state’ in 2014,9 and later of ‘illiberal democracy’. On the one hand, this construct is premised on a basic assumption, very familiar in American political thinking, in which ‘liberal’ means left-wing liberals, US Democrats, or even the movements now called ‘Wokeism’. Secondly, the Hungarian left-liberals, who governed Hungary together with the post-communists between 1994 and 1998 and then between 2002 and 2008, truly did the perception of classical liberalism no favours. This period was dominated by intellectual bankruptcy on the socio-political level, and the selling out of the domestic economy. This policy led to a deep social, political, societal, and moral crisis between 2006 and 2010.
In addition, Viktor Orbán shares with many the belief that the term ‘democracy’ needs no modifiers; after all, ‘liberals’ do not possess exclusive rights to democracy: social democrats and Christian democrats are also democrats. Especially in Hungary, bad memories linger of a time when there was only one possible version of ‘democracy’. This is analogous to the slogan of Václav Klaus, calling for a ‘market economy without preconditions’. The understanding of Western European observers would therefore be helped if they paid attention not necessarily to labels and their domestic or foreign significance, but to the all-determining content.
The Balance between Individual Interests and the Common Good
The political direction of the Hungarian conservatives, who have been in power for thirteen years, should therefore be elucidated without unnecessary adjectives. For those coming from abroad, Hungary, with its foreign language, history-centredness, deep anti-communism, unfamiliar debates, and consistent conservative programme, can seem particularly incomprehensible and anachronistic. However, properly understood, the government of Viktor Orbán is implementing policies that seek broad consensus, have widespread social appeal, and, above all, amount to a serious success story. It is no coincidence that the long-serving prime minister has already been re-elected three times, each time with a two-thirds parliamentary majority, most recently in April 2022, with record-breaking numbers of votes cast, both in absolute and relative terms. This makes him the longest-serving head of government in the European Council. If you add the four years of his first term in office between 1998 and 2002, he can boast 17 years in power—more than either Angela Merkel or Helmut Kohl as chancellor.
‘Ideological exclusion, as a predominating trend, also prevents the conservative side from finding, using, and effectively building platforms that reflect its own values’
For Hungarians, it is a matter of a new social contract, a socially acceptable balance between individual interests and the common good, and a commitment to the values that form the basis of state, society, and community. The Hungarians are often seen as very individualistic people, with a fine, almost seismographic perception of threats to their freedom from outside or inside. Hungarians’ criticism of the negative consequences of radical liberalism is primarily based on their own painful experiences in the years after the fall of the communist state. The disadvantages of social individualization were manifested in competitive egoism, which, as experience shows, cuts off the connections between people, leading to rootlessness and a loss of identity. Furthermore, neoliberalism destroyed the middle class by heightening inequality. In opposition to this, Viktor Orbán endorses the concept of a community of interests and values as the subject of political thinking.
Society is therefore made up of a balance of individual freedom and community interest. Even in the Constitution, basic communal rights are assigned to the individual. In this way, the goal is to create a relationship between rights and duties that integrates the rights of the individual into community obligations without renouncing the fundamental idea of freedom. Orbán’s ‘illiberal democracy’ is a critique of individualism and the loose, unbridled, disorganized liberalism of the 1990s in its specifically Central and Eastern European form, but it does not reject classically liberal, pro-freedom principles. This is a lesson learned, a conclusion drawn from experience; namely that a person needs social and moral foundations for self-realization through cultural structures. The emphasis on family, homeland, and the Hungarian nation should be interpreted in this context. These are the cornerstones that transform Hungary from a collection of individuals into a responsible society, a community of communities. Bringing Hungarians’ sense of freedom into practical harmony with the public spirit and the common good is a sophisticated task requiring a high degree of political ability, which is the daily test of Hungarian politics.10 This can only be done very carefully and delicately.
The Conservative Reform Programme
The liberal-conservative reform programme encompasses all areas of public life and corrects the omissions of the years before 2010. In particular, the emphasis on state, nation, culture, and identity, the Western canon of values, Judeo-Christian foundations, and the state-sustaining role of Christianity, define the framework of modern Hungary. The conservative Hungarian agenda also involves striving to ensure that all Hungarians do well, regardless of which party they vote for: ‘No one is left on the side of the road’—this is the repeated slogan of the conservative government parties. In terms of concrete policymaking, these foundations can be derived from deep value orientation, the solid, internal self-determination of the country’s citizens, and, finally, the consciousness of being an integral part of Europe as a whole.
Social and family policy, for example, is just as central as economic and employment policy, kin-state and security policy, energy and climate policy, or even the interest-driven migration policy which is so well known across Europe. In many of these political domains, the steps taken by the conservative government are also supported and endorsed by opposition party voters. Hungary has made significant progress in these areas in recent years.
The current conservative social policy of the Hungarian government is almost diametrically opposed to the identity politics of the left in that it respects naturally formed communities, the thirteen recognized indigenous ethnic groups, as well as the country’s huge religious diversity, and does not seek to draw ideological or confessional boundaries. There is an interested, open, prejudice-free debating culture everywhere in Hungary. In terms of family policy, the birth rate has increased by 25 per cent in the last twelve years thanks to the conscious improvement of the situation of young working women from the middle class, and the number of abortions has decreased without any tightening of legal restrictions (which are very liberal in Hungary), but simply due to the many positive incentives. In addition, the number of marriages has reached a new high.
The backbone of the Hungarian government’s economic policy is work and employment, low taxes, and the strengthening of domestic small and medium-sized enterprises. In the years since 2010, tax cuts, a reduction of bureaucracy, and job creation programmes aimed at integration into the labour market, have created more than one million new jobs. Tax rates are at historic lows, tax revenues are increasing, and the shadow economy has been massively reduced thanks to digitalization and improved tax fairness. Hungary is also taking a new path in its kin-state policy, emphasizing trust, balance, and cooperation with its neighbours. Due to the historical trauma of the Trianon Peace Treaty of 1920—in which Hungary lost two thirds of its territory to its neighbours—these relationships were very tense for a long time, but now the task is to overcome the ‘hundred years of Hungarian loneliness’ in Central Europe and to become the centre of a new understanding.
Hungary’s fundamental conviction is that its security can only be guaranteed in cooperation with its neighbours. That is why Hungary participates intensively in joint security policy systems, for example in protecting the airspace of Slovakia or the Baltic states with Hungarian fighter jets. External security is based on a comprehensive security concept that also encompasses internal threats, with significant strengthening of the Schengen external borders, the arming of the police, and a remarkable reduction in crime rates. Hungary’s strict migration policy plays a key role in this. For many Hungarians, the huge migration movements that have been going on for some years now represent a new kind of migration that poses a critical threat to our community and European identity. In the course of their history, Hungarians have developed a keen awareness of threats and dangers. They do not want to give up either their European freedom or their Hungarian and European identity, and they are looking for national self-assertion in demographic, cultural, religious, but also political and social terms.
German Models or Hungarian Truths?
It is not at all surprising that in the German reality of media reports, political debates, and social processes, this Hungarian policymaking is shown as being completely outdated and hardly compatible with the realities of modern life in Germany. However, the German political and media majority also gives a false, distorted, and one-sided depiction of Hungary. This approach stems from the fundamental German belief that this time they are on the right side of history, can assume moral superiority, reifying and spreading an opinion that is believed to be the only possible ethical choice, while ignoring all views that differ from it.
Therefore, when a conservative government in Hungary implements a programme that is contrary to these expectations, the consumers of an outraged German media establishment feel obliged to take a moral hammer to everything Viktor Orbán, his government, Hungarian conservatives, and also the vast majority of the Hungarian population represent. From this point of view, it does not seem unreasonable to attribute the fierce German reactions to Hungary’s actions primarily to the German zeitgeist,11 and for now, we do not take it personally.
Exclusion and Stigma
In general, the negative image of Hungary currently prevailing in Germany and Europe provides a summary explanatory model for why German conservatives have such reservations about Hungarian politics.12 They do not want to get caught up in the media, social, and political vortex that Hungarians are able to resist due to internal cohesion and constitutionality. When supporting Hungarian positions, German conservatives not only have to make significant discursive efforts, but sometimes also see the foundations of their own political projects as thereby threatened. The risk thus often seems too great for many.
In contrast to Hungary, social debates are determined almost exclusively by the left, and they also have control over academic, scientific, and intellectual life. Thus, any perceived or real solidarity with the ‘Orbán regime’ already marginalized by these forces is unforgivable and can be met with condemnation. The fact that only a few people want or are able to accept this seems logical and humanly understandable.
Despite hints to the contrary and numerous misunderstandings, the conservative Hungarian government is in fact implementing a classic liberal-conservative political programme. This programme is supported by the majority of Hungarian voters, who approve of the government’s measures, especially in the domains of family, migration, and economic policy. Hungary is on the right track in terms of the desired European strategic sovereignty and self-assertion in a changing global environment. As such, in left-wing, internationalist circles, this policy programme appears as a foreign body, and something that must be fought against. Their criticism can draw on a broad base of media and political support in Germany and throughout Europe, as well as on the scientific, social, media, and political elites that dominate Germany. At the same time, these attitudes are not independent of domestic political debates in Germany, in which Hungary is often presented as a negative example. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that conservative Hungarian policymaking is attacked with all available means. However, this policy reveals more about today’s Germany, its debates, and processes than it does about today’s Hungary.
Translated by Thomas Sneddon
1 Milan Nić and András Rácz, ‘Point of No Return’, DGAP Policy Brief (21 May 2019), https://dgap.org/en/research/publications/point-no-return, accessed 6 June 2023.
2 Klaus-Rüdiger Mai, A jövőt mi alakítjuk (We Shape the Future) (Budapest: MCC Press, 2022).
3 James McAuley, ‘Europe’s War on Woke’, The Nation (29 November 2021), www.thenation.com/article/world/woke-europe-structural-racism/, accessed 6 June 2023.
4 Jörg Scheller, ‘Potenziale und Grenzen der Identitätspolitik’, Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (2 December 2022), www.bpb.de/themen/rassismus-diskriminierung/rassismus/515930/potenziale-und- grenzen-der-identitaetspolitik/, accessed 6 June 2023.
5 Andreas Rödder, ‘Nothing Guarantees that the EU Will Exist Forever’, Hungarian Conservative (9 January 2022), www.hungarianconservative.com/articles/opinion/nothing-guarantees-that-the-eu-will-exist-forever/, accessed 6 June 2023.
6 Andreas Rödder, Konzervatív 21.0. A polgári Németország programja (Conservative 21.0: Agenda for a Civic Germany) (Budapest: MCC Press, 2022).
7 Werner J. Patzelt, ‘Deutschlands Repräsentationslücke und die AfD’, Zeitschrift für Parlamentsfragen, 4 (2018), 885–895, www.nomos-elibrary.de/10.5771/0340-1758-2018-4-885.pdf?download_full_pdf=1, accessed 6 June 2023.
8 Tünde Darkó, ‘Hatalmasat nyert a CDU Schleswig- Holsteinban’ (Impressive Victory of CDU/CSU in Schleswig-Holstein), Mandiner (9 May 2022), https://mandiner.hu/cikk/20220509_hatalmasat_nyert_a_cdu_schleswig_holsteinben, accessed 6 June 2023.
9 Viktor Orbán’s Speech at 25th Bálványos Summer Free University and Student Camp, 26 July 2014, https://2015-2019.kormany.hu/en/the-prime-minister/the-prime-minister-s-speeches/prime-minister-viktor-orban-s-speech-at-the-25th-balvanyos-summer-free-university-and-student-camp, accessed 6 June 2023.
10 Bence Bauer, ‘Hungary’s Thirst for Freedom in Politics and Daily Life’, Hungarian Conservative (25 March 2023), www.hungarianconservative.com/articles/current/hungarian_freedom_loving_nation_sovereignty_reforms_individual_interest_public_ good/, accessed 6 June 2023.
11 Bence Bauer, ‘Understanding Hungary. Perspectives from Central and Eastern Europe’, Hungarian Conservative (27 October 2021), www.hungarianconservative.com/articles/current/understanding-hungary-perspectives-from-central-and-eastern-europe/, accessed 6 June 2023.
12 Bence Bauer, ‘Die Selbstbehauptung Ungarns’, Budapester Zeitung (12 November 2022), www.budapester.hu/meinung/die-selbstbehauptung-ungarns/, accessed 6 June 2023.