Hungary, Europe’s ‘illiberal’ pioneer

Budapest - Viktor Orban, standing for a third successive term as Hungary's prime minister, is best known outside the country for being at the forefront of the deepening division between the European Union's eastern and western members.

Orban made his name as a firebrand opponent of the Communist regime in the late 1980s. But these days, he is now regarded warily by western bloc members for his avowed "illiberalism".

Since coming to power in 2010 he has been joined by allies in his own region, and inspired right-wing populists in other parts of the continent.


- Dissident turned strongman -


Orban's Fidesz party was created in 1988 as a liberal movement, appealing to younger Hungarians and in favour of parliamentary democracy.

But in the late 1990s, Orban began to shift the party to exploit the gap that had opened up on the political right.

His first term as premier came at the age of 35 after winning elections in 1998. But he went on to lose in 2002, in a vote he described as having been "stolen" from him.

Orban blamed the Socialists, one of the successors of Hungary's communist party, and sharpened his rhetoric against them.

Political expert Jacques Rupnik said Orban developed a knack for addressing the "other Hungary" -- those who felt left behind by the transition to a market economy and who still smarted at some of the treatment Hungary had historically received at foreign hands.


- Cultural 'counter-revolution' -


The fact that Orban's nationalistic rhetoric found a willing audience reflects the fact that as of the late 2000s, "the post-1989 liberal cycle has been exhausted", according to Rupnik.

"In East–Central Europe, it meant a triple transition to democracy, to a market economy, and to Europe," he said.

Now these three Western markers are increasingly in disarray following the financial crisis, a record migration influx, terror attacks, and Brexit.

The outgoing Hungarian parliament

Hungary, along with allies including Poland, has its own answer to these challenges: a "cultural counter-revolution".

That entails a government which, while democratically elected, restricts freedom of action for media, civil rights groups and the courts, and rejects multiculturalism -- all in the name of defending national identity.


- Demographic panic -


The 2015 migration crisis clearly showed that eastern Europe sees the EU's founding cosmopolitan values as a threat, political expert Ivan Krastev wrote in his latest book "After Europe".

But instead of denouncing countries like Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic that refuse to welcome migrants, Krastev said more emphasis should be put on understanding their motivation.

After decades of isolation under communism, they have only recently experienced immigration, which they see as a threat.

National identity in these societies is still conceived of in terms of ethnicity, as well as linguistic and religious homogeneity, according to Krastev.

Caught between a falling birth rate and a huge wave of emigration, central Europe is gripped by the fear of its own disappearance and the loss of its traditional values.

Hungary perfectly illustrates the demographic trend - the population has shrunk by 850,000 over 35 years and is now under the symbolic 10 million mark.


- Obstacles in the way -


Crucially, the rejection of liberal "elites" and mistrust of EU institutions has also begun to infiltrate Western nations and boosted populist forces there.

Luminaries of Europe's far-right see Orban as an inspiration, including Italy's League Party, Germany's AfD, Austria's Freedom Party, France's Marine Le Pen and Britain's Nigel Farage.

However, the eastern "counter-revolution" has not been without challenges, with Orban having faced several waves of protest against his government, most notably in 2017.

Poland, meanwhile, sparked outcry over controversial judicial reforms, while Slovakia's government was toppled last month after widespread revulsion at the killing of a journalist investigating links between top politicians and the Italian mafia.

By Sophie Makris