VISEGRAD BLOG: Orban prepares to surf the populist wave again

VISEGRAD BLOG: Orban prepares to surf the populist wave again
Viktor Orban addresses the US Conservative Political Action Conference in Budapest in May 2022. / bne IntelliNews
By Robert Anderson in Prague September 25, 2022

Viktor Orban – the rather unlikely looking poster boy of Europe’s (and America’s) populist radical right – has appeared somewhat forlorn since his ally Vladimir Putin’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine.

By putting his personal ties to the Russian dictator ahead of his country’s commitments to the EU and Nato, the Hungarian premier has left his country isolated within those Western alliances, and even his populist Polish allies are shunning him. Consequently, the Visegrad Group (V4) of Central European states – which Orban had turned into his megaphone – has been silenced by these divisions over the war.

Orban used the war to help win re-election in April and despite daily revelations of new Russian atrocities, he still blocks direct military aid to Ukraine across the Hungarian border and he continues to criticise sanctions on Moscow, even if he eventually ends up going along with them.

While other countries are boycotting Russia and trying to reduce their dependence on its energy, Peter Szijjarto, Hungary’s foreign and trade minister, has flown to Moscow to beg Putin for more gas supplies, while also insisting that Russia’s Rosatom will soon begin work on building the country’s (much delayed) new nuclear power plant (NPP).

Orban’s isolation over Ukraine follows a series of electoral defeats for populist allies across Europe in the past year and a half, with the defeat of Bulgaria’s Boyko Borissov in May 2021, Czechia’s Andrej Babis in October 2021 and Slovenia’s Janez Jansa in April this year.

Within the Visegrad Four, Poland was his last dependable ally – at least until the outbreak of the Ukraine war in February. For Poland’s de facto leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Orban’s sycophancy to Putin rules out a swift return to their previous close alliance, but the two regimes will continue to rely on each other to protect their backs against the new offensive from Brussels over the rule of law.

Lacking strong allies in the European Council or the protection of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and without a European parliamentary group after quitting the European People’s Party (before he was thrown out), Orban was powerless to prevent the Commission blocking this year’s Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) grants and one third of the current budget period’s Cohesion Funds over his flagrant violations of the EU’s legal norms and his regime’s rampant corruption.

By threatening to hold up financial flows if the rule of law is breached and EU money put at risk, the European Commission finally seemed to have found a credible weapon to fight Orban’s populist contagion. Together the frozen money represents 9% of Hungarian GDP.

Populist tide turns

Putin’s war on Ukraine and Orban’s cleaving to the Russian dictator will continue to stain his reputation and stymie unity among the radical right-wing parties. But in recent weeks the Hungarian strongman has started to look a lot more confident, as the European radical right-wing tide begins to surge back amid the worsening cost of living crisis and growing fears that citizens are beginning to tire of the cost of sanctions.

At the same time, Hungary’s alliance with Poland could revive sooner rather than later, given that Poland’s RRF funds may also not be released this year. “They are now both outcasts,” says Milan Nic, senior fellow at the German Council of Foreign Relations (DGAP). “Each of them will want to disrupt things if they do not get EU funds.”

Moreover, some European Commissioners are now reportedly pushing for a compromise over EU funds to maintain the bloc’s unity against Putin.

Already, soon Orban can look forward to some new friends at European Council meetings. Earlier this month the radical right-wing Sweden Democrats party, with its roots in a post-war neo-Nazi movement, became the largest force on the country’s right and looks set to at least hold a veto over the policies of the incoming centre-right minority government. This would be the first time a far-right party has ever had this kind of influence in the traditionally Social Democrat country.

The post-fascist party has tried to whitewash its image but, like Dr Strangelove, its representatives keep getting caught making Nazi salutes, slogans or threats. During the campaign, Tobias Andersson, the party’s criminal justice affairs spokesman, posted a picture of a train accompanied by the message: “Welcome to the repatriation train. You have a one-way ticket. Next stop, Kabul.”

In Italy, exit polls after elections this weekend show that the Brothers of Italy, also with its roots in a post-war fascist party, looks set to come to power as head of the country’s most right-wing government since the fall of their idol Mussolini.

Next weekend Borissov could also return to power in Bulgaria, with a recent opinion poll giving his Gerb Party a clear five-point lead.

In both Sweden and Italy, centre-right parties from the EPP bloc have legitimised the fringe far-right parties and helped their rise by adopting many of their policies, notably on immigration, and by embracing them as potential partners. This is a different trend to that in Central Europe, where the radical right rose to power through the transformation of what were formerly seen as mainstream governing right-wing parties, such as Orban’s Fidesz.

In Italy, the far right is set to move from previously supporting governments to now seizing the prime minister’s post; while in Sweden the post-fascists will enjoy real power for the first time, though they are still probably seen as too controversial to hold ministerial portfolios.

Uniting the right

Both the Sweden Democrats and particularly Georgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy and their far-right partners, Matteo Salvini’s League, admire Orban, and he will rejoice in their success. However, it is far from clear how this will translate into concrete influence.

The new centre-right government in Sweden or the far-right one in Italy are unlikely to support Orban’s position on Putin. The Sweden Democrats will not be able to exert much influence on the Moderate-led government’s foreign policy, while in Italy Meloni has distanced her party from Putin (in contrast to Salvini and her other partner, Forza Italia's Silvio Berlusconi).

Meloni’s government is, however, likely to prove a welcome new ally for Orban against Brussels – “if I win, for Europe, the fun is over,” she has said – though he will still likely be short of a blocking minority in the European Council to prevent the loss of Hungary’s Cohesion Funds, for example.

Orban continues to talk up the chances of creating a strong radical right-wing bloc in the European Parliament that will challenge the duopoly of the EPP and the Socialists. So far his plans have run aground on the bad blood between the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group and the Identity and Democracy group (ID), symbolised by the rivalry between Meloni (the ECR president) and Salvini (of the ID).

Whether this split can be healed now that Meloni and Salvini will be in government together may in part depend on how salient the Ukraine war remains, given that one of the major differences between the two groups has been that the ID group has tended to be much more pro-Putin. Without a union of the two formations, the radical right is likely to remain only a bit player in the parliament.

East European Yellow Vests 

For Orban (and Putin), their best hope may instead be that the worsening cost of living crisis creates a groundswell of popular unrest that pushes governments to relax sanctions and bring pressure on Kyiv to sue for peace. This would end Orban’s isolation on the issue and allow the radical right to return to whipping up fears over immigrants, or racial or sexual minorities or whoever is the latest scapegoat for the economic ills of their voters.

However, so far there have been surprisingly few public protests over rising energy and food prices, and those that have taken place are often organised by fringe groups over social media, and lack a strong party or leader behind them.

A demonstration in Prague earlier this month attracted a much higher than expected 70,000 protesters but they were an oddball cocktail of anti-vaccine groups, Kremlin sympathisers and the far right. A second demonstration on September 28 will test whether this protest movement really has legs.

“We are seeing a different kind of populism, along the lines of what we saw in the Prague demonstration,” says Nic of the new protesters. “It was Yellow Vests [the French Gilets Jaunes protest movement] in Eastern European conditions.”

He warns that this new kind of Eastern European populism is being weaponised by the Kremlin. “This winter the Russians will try everything and they will activate all the weapons they have,” he says, though he admits there is not yet a widespread sense that Europeans are tiring of the cost of sanctions.

This cost of living crisis may not necessarily benefit the existing radical right-wing governments in Hungary and Poland, precisely because they are the ones that are struggling to cope with it. Radical right-wing governments such as Hungary's were among the worst performers in the COVID-19 pandemic, and they may also be found wanting by the current cost of living crisis.

Orban is now in a very weak position to protect Hungarians’ living standards because his pre-election spending spree had already blown out the budget deficit, making the forint one of the worst performers in Europe this year. Kaczynski’s Poland, which faces a tight election next year, and a future Borissov government in Bulgaria and Meloni’s in Italy, may also struggle, given their countries’ long-standing economic problems.

Populists out of power may fare better. Within Central Europe, however, it is more difficult to link the cost of living crisis to the impact of sanctions without being branded pro-Putin, something that is not usually a vote winner.

In Czechia, Babis’ party campaigned before the municipal elections this weekend with the message “it was better with ANO”. The billionaire has attacked the centre-right government for doing too little, too late to mitigate the cost of living crisis, while barely hinting that it was being too generous with Ukrainian refugees.

Babis is yet to come out strongly against sanctions and has been careful to keep his distance from the fringe groups, many of them pro-Putin, that organised the Prague demonstration.

In the municipal elections, ANO performed strongly, according to early results. However, general elections are still three years away and it is hard to see Babis making a breakthrough before then. He himself has indicated that he may not stand for president in January’s election, likely fearing that he would lose the run-off and tarnish his image as a winner.

Fico leads the insurgency

In Slovakia, former premier Robert Fico, a onetime left-wing populist whose views are now virtually indistinguishable from the radical right, has had no qualms about associating himself with fringe anti-vaccine and pro-Putin groups – in fact he has been their ringleader. Since he was put under investigation for allegedly organising a criminal group, he has even indicated that he could work with the country’s far-right Republic Party, which looks like taking over from the neo-Nazi LSNS.

“Fico has crossed the Rubicon. He is trying at all costs to stop the investigations,” says Nic. “Every month he is becoming more and more radical.”

Despite the allegations over his premiership, Fico could potentially provide the necessary leadership for a populist insurgency, in a country where the conditions look most propitious.

Since independence in 1993 Slovaks have never had much trust in their government and populists have dominated their politics. They have also been traditionally sympathetic to Russia – a recent opinion poll showed a majority favour a Russian victory over Ukraine.

With the centre-right government now in a slow-motion collapse, and the cost of living crisis worsening, Fico must feel there is a real chance that he could return to power.

He has organised a petition for a referendum on early elections, though the president has referred it to the constitutional court to test its legality. Whatever the court decides, few analysts now expect the government to last until the next scheduled general election in spring 2024. A red-brown-populist government would then be a real possibility, handing Orban another ally in the region and potentially reactivating the moribund Visegrad Group.

All in all, the longer the war in Ukraine drags out, the longer it will take Orban to rebuild his influence inside the V4, the European Parliament and the European Council. But a quick end to the war, even if it just freezes the conflict, could enable Orban to take advantage of the ongoing cost of living crisis and the recent political shifts in Western and Central Europe to quickly spread his influence.

Unfortunately, some European Commissioners appear keen to hand Orban victory now without waiting to see how this will play out, by allowing Hungary to receive soon either or both its currently frozen RRF and Cohesion Funds.

Abandoning its most effective lever on Orban during Hungary’s current economic problems would show that the EU has no real will to try to reverse Orban’s destruction of Hungary’s democracy, and would just embolden him to spread his illiberal contagion to the rest of the EU and the neighbouring Balkan states.