Don’t Call Them Illiberal Democrats

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and Russian president Vladimir Putin answer questions from reporters in Moscow, February 17, 2016
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and Russian president Vladimir Putin answer questions from reporters in Moscow, February 17, 2016 (Facebook/Viktor Orbán)

Michael Meyer-Resende of Democracy Reporting International argues for Carnegie Europe that applying the term “illiberal democracy” or “majoritarianism” to the politics of Hungary and Poland is a misnomer. The ruling parties there are not undermining democracy — by taking control of the (state) media, stacking the courts and rewriting election laws — for the sake of the majority, but rather to maintain their own power. Read more

Orbán’s Rebellion, Liberal Democracy and Trump’s War in Syria

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and Russian president Vladimir Putin answer questions from reporters in Moscow, February 17, 2016
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and Russian president Vladimir Putin answer questions from reporters in Moscow, February 17, 2016 (Facebook/Viktor Orbán)

Hungary’s Viktor Orbán is likely to win reelection on Sunday. The Washington Post has a good story about the rebellion the EU faces in Central Europe. For more on the political trends Orbán embodies, read:

  • Jan-Werner Müller: We are doing Orbán a great favor by accepting him as any kind of democrat. It is democracy itself — and not just liberalism — that is under attack in his country.
  • Tom Nuttall: Orbán’s depiction of himself as an illiberal democrat is largely window-dressing. Were his pollsters to discover that voters were no longer animated by immigration, he would manufacture a different foe. Orbán’s ideologues assemble theoretical scaffolding to justify the channelling of state resources to favored businessmen under the rubric of “economic patriotism”. The EU harbors not an illiberal democracy, but a semi-autocratic kleptocracy in which loyalty offers the quickest route to riches.
  • Dani Rodrik: Liberal democracy is being undermined by a tendency to emphasize “liberal” at the expense of “democracy.” The European Union represents the apogee of this tendency: the delegation of policy to technocratic bodies.
  • Philip Stephens: The West misread the collapse of Soviet communism. It was not, after all, the end of history. Happy assumptions about the permanent hegemony of laissez-faire capitalism and the historical inevitability of liberal democracy were rooted in a hubris that invited nemesis. For all that, the end of the Cold War did produce a big idea. Now, as we are daily reminded by Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, it is being swapped for a very bad idea. Read more

Recalcitrant Hungary and Poland Exhaust Europe’s Patience

President Jean-Claude Juncker and other members of the European Commission listen to a debate in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, September 14, 2016
President Jean-Claude Juncker and other members of the European Commission listen to a debate in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, September 14, 2016 (European Parliament)

The European Parliament has opened an investigation into the state of democracy and rule of law in Hungary, which is ruled by the self-described illiberal democrat Viktor Orbán.

The resolution, introduced by liberal and left-wing groups, passed on Wednesday with the support of 68 members of the conservative European People’s Party, to which Orbán’s Fidesz belongs.

The mainstream right has long shielded Budapest from scrutiny, despite Orbán’s years of attacks on the courts, the central bank and the media, the removal of checks on his parliamentary majority and his pursuing of economic and migration policies that defy the European mainstream. Read more

Trump’s European Admirers Are Deluding Themselves

United Kingdom Independence Party leader Nigel Farage speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, February 26, 2015
United Kingdom Independence Party leader Nigel Farage speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, February 26, 2015 (Gage Skidmore)

Donald Trump’s unexpected presidential election in the United States has delighted his ideological counterparts in Europe. Brexiteers in the United Kingdom think he will give them a better deal than Hillary Clinton. Populists in France and the Netherlands responded to Trump’s victory with glee. So did ultraconservatives in Central Europe.

They should think again. Trump may be a kindred spirit and his triumph is a setback for the liberal consensus that nationalists across Europe and North America agitate against. But he is no friend of European nations. Read more

The Trouble with Electing an Outsider

Businessman Donald Trump appears at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, February 27, 2015
Businessman Donald Trump appears at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, February 27, 2015 (Gage Skidmore)

What made Donald Trump seek the presidency?

A bit of armchair psychology is required to answer that question. Based on the way way he conducts himself and the many profiles I’ve read about the man, I think it’s safe to say that a powerful motivator was his desire to prove himself. Read more

Comrades in Arms

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and Russian president Vladimir Putin answer questions from reporters in Moscow, February 17
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and Russian president Vladimir Putin answer questions from reporters in Moscow, February 17 (Facebook/Viktor Orbán)

Sometimes in politics everything is exactly what it looks like.

This was the case when the prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, visited Moscow last week, extended a gas contract with Russia and told the Russian president that the period when the EU automatically extended sanctions against Russia was “behind us.”

The moment of honesty came when Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán got to compliment each other on their Syria and refugee-related policies. “We value greatly the efforts made to resolve this problem [of Middle Eastern refugees],” said Orbán, adding, “We wish you great success in your international initiatives.” Putin then said, “Our people has sympathy for the position taken by the Hungarian government” on the refugee crisis.

And yes, in a perverse way, the two policies do indeed work very well together — that is, to suit the needs of the two leaders: Russia’s intervention in Syria aggravated the war and the refugee crisis. Which, in turn, strengthened Orbán’s position in Hungary and in Europe. Which, in turn, helped far-right parties and Putin allies and weakened the EU.

This unspoken but existing alliance, ultimately, against the EU and against the solution of a refugee crisis that benefits them both, was behind the chumminess that the Hungarian prime minister and the Russian president showed in Moscow.

The Russian pro-government press could hardly hide its joy over the visit. Izvestia wrote about a meeting of “not only partners, but friends on principles,” noting that Orbán was the first foreign leader whom Putin met in the new working building at his Novo-Ogaryovo residence. But calling Orbán and Putin friends is an exaggeration. Just as Orbán himself declared last year, Putin “is not a man who has a known personality,” which largely rules out making friends with fellow leaders. Even on principles. Read more

Hungary’s Nationalist Premier Shows Putin Not Isolated

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán (The Council of the European Union)

Russian president Vladimir Putin visited Budapest on Tuesday. The visit was largely devoid of substance but made clear the Russian leader was not as isolated in Europe as most Western governments would have liked.

Hungary’s nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orbán, said his ambitions for the summit with Putin were modest. He assured European ambassadors that he would not try to mediate between Russia and the West over the standoff in Ukraine where the former supports a separatist uprising against the Western-backed administration in Kiev.

Rather, Orbán said he planned to negotiate a new long-term gas supply contract that would allow him to reduce energy bills.

“There is no guaranteed gas supply to Hungarian households after 2015. I need to solve this issue,” he said in a radio interview earlier this month.

Hungary relies on its former Soviet master for most of its oil and natural gas. Russia also loaned the country almost $30 billion last year to shore up its public finances and help pay for the construction of a nuclear power plant.

The new plant should cover about 40 percent of Hungary’s electricity needs. Russia pledged to cover up to 80 percent of the construction costs, equivalent to 11.5 percent of Hungary’s annual economic output.

Before last year’s parliamentary election, in which Orbán’s support dropped 8 percent, the premier forced energy companies to cut their rates, driving up consumer confidence and his party’s popularity but causing business confidence to fade.

Orbán shares Putin’s disdain of Western liberalism and supported the ill-fated Russian South Stream pipeline that was canceled under European pressure last year. He has also expressed reservations about the economic sanctions European countries imposed after Russia occupied and annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. He might expect more favorable terms for oil and gas supplies in return even if falling petroleum prices worldwide should reduce Ukrainians’ utility bills anyway.

Hungarian living standards are a third lower than the European Union average. Since coming to power in 2010, Orbán has nationalized Hungary’s private pension scheme, introduced sectoral surtaxes on energy and telecommunications firms as well as supermarkets and weakened the independence of the judiciary. al reforms enacted in 2011 limited the supreme court’s powers and annulled all its previous rulings.

In a scathing 2013 report, the European Commission said Hungary’s business climate had “constantly deteriorated” since Orbán became prime minister, blaming his nationalist economic program and repeated changes in regulations. American rating agencies downgraded Hungary’s sovereign bonds to junk status, citing the Central European nation’s “erratic” and “unorthodox” economic program as well as concerns over the independence of the central bank. Orbán changed the rules so that he could personally appoint central bank board members.