In Defense of Orbán

An emotionally charged debate has resurfaced about the nature of Hungarian democracy in the wake of the ruling Fidesz party’s victory in parliamentary elections in April. While it is legitimate to have a well-reasoned and honest dialogue about Hungary’s current political landscape, a proper understanding of real-life events can only occur by sticking to the facts and avoiding sweeping statements informed by political bias.

Fundamental rights and freedoms were respected overall throughout the voting period; moreover, Hungary’s current legal framework for voting procedures also provides an adequate basis for democratic elections.

Against such a background, and with a seventy percent voter turnout, the incumbent governing coalition—the Fidesz-KDNP alliance, led by Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán—won by a landslide. The alliance achieved this feat for the third time in a row, which is a demonstration of its democratic legitimacy and the fact that its message and actions—emphasizing national sovereignty; clear vision on issues like migration; national values; public safety; creating jobs through economic growth, while supporting families, cutting taxes, keeping utility prices in check—resonated with voters.

Regarding the returning claim by critics of gerrymandered election districts: the governing coalition won in 2010 with the earlier legal framework in place. The National Assembly passed a new electoral law on January 1, 2012, giving political parties plenty of time to prepare for the enacted reforms necessitated mainly by the radical reduction of parliamentary seats. Seats were reduced from 386 to 199. In addition, outdated voting districts did not appropriately reflect the moves and shifts which have taken place in the Hungarian population since the 1990s. As a result of the reforms, votes are weighed equally, irrespective of whether they are cast in the capital or in a small town in eastern Hungary.

Of course, political campaigns are often heated, and others may have differing views on what lies in the best interest of a particular country, or that of Europe. However, such views should not lead outside observers to a discourse that seeks to delegitimize a NATO ally by using polarizing terms such as “authoritarian regime,” “far-right autocrat,” and “disseminating xenophobia.”

Such generalizations about Hungarian politics may prove not only deceptive, but dangerous. Upholding commonly agreed-upon European policies aimed at protecting Europe’s outer borders—thus maintaining the essential feature of the Schengen Agreement (open borders within Europe) and the common visa policy—has never before been so easily labelled far-right or xenophobic.

In 2015, Hungary faced an unprecedented migration challenge, posed by an influx of hundreds of thousands of people with diverse backgrounds. Besides those fleeing war zones in the Middle East, many migrants came in search of better socio-economic conditions provided by Western Europe. They were not running for their lives.

As the influx of migrants increased, more and more countries that previously held lenient migration policies (such as Austria, Sweden, Norway, and later Denmark) reverted to temporary border controls, as allowed under the Schengen Agreement. These governments were not labelled right-wing extremists.

The truth is that both in Europe and in the United States, heightened levels of migration pose a serious challenge in both a regulatory and socioeconomic sense. This is an issue that the political right in Hungary addressed with its border controls, and their policies gained society-wide support. Meanwhile, the leftist and liberal parties have mostly remained mute when actionable, real-life policy answers had to be given to the migration crisis.

This fact was borne out by the results of the April election. The results indicate that Hungarians want concrete action to control migration. Voters made it clear that they would rather support the current government and its border controls than turn to any of the opposition parties that present a different approach.

The Fidesz government made it clear that sovereign states in the European Union (EU) must be able to decide whom they let into their country. While the EU is still governed by commonly agreed-upon standards of sovereign nation states, if no joint decision is taken, one country’s preferences shall not be obligatory to others.

While maintaining a firm stance on border protection and national sovereignty, Hungary has continued to honor its international commitments to refugees. Hungary and the Visegrad Group pay several million euros toward the maintenance of refugee camps outside of the countries’ borders, and the Hungarian government alone invested millions of euros in international reconstruction efforts in Syria. Migration is best addressed by solving the local problems which are causing residents to leave their home countries in search of safety in Europe. Without a proper response to the root causes of migration, surface-level policies will remain insufficient to stem the flow of refugees.

Lastly, claims of Orbán’s purported affiliation with Russia remain unfounded. An objective assessment of Orbán’s foreign policy reveals that the principles of political realism guide Budapest’s international relations, which, in this case, are based on Hungary’s geopolitical location and also on the region’s energy dependency. Having said that, while Hungary is working diligently on source and route diversification projects, other European countries are trying to build Nord Stream 2, an offshore natural gas pipeline that would run from Russia to Europe.

Hungary also meets its NATO and EU commitments, deploys troops, and participates in the air defense of the Baltic States. Although sanctions against Russia seem to be ineffective, Hungary voted with its partners in the EU and the United States to uphold them again and again. More recently, Budapest expelled a Russian diplomat from Hungary as a response to the attempt on the lives of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury in March. These are hardly friendly moves toward Russia.

The success of populist parties in an array of European countries (Italy, the Czech Republic, and Austria) during free, democratic elections indicates that the citizens of these countries have a different view from commentators on the policies that they would like to see their governments enforce.

Whether we talk about international relations or domestic politics of a given country, it is rarely a game that could be easily simplified to competing binary oppositions, such as populists-globalists, good-bad, etc.

Zsigmond Perényi is a former visiting fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative. He is currently deputy state secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office in Budapest.

Image: Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán was re-elected with a strong mandate on April 8. (Reuters/Michaela Rehle)