“What’s past is prologue.”
—Shakespeare, The Tempest
Situated between Austria and Rumania, Hungary has a rich history worthy of many books. And though this country of less than ten million people is the size of the state of Maine, her role on the world stage is only increasing. She has declared war on billionaire deconstructionist George Soros. She has curbed her migrant crisis when many other European countries have not. She has become an ally of the Trump administration. And she has unashamedly declared her people’s identification with Christianity and Christian morality. Much of this starts with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
It could be said that the history of modern Hungary began with a single speech on July 16, 1989, marking the entry of Viktor Orbán into the Hungarian consciousness. At the tender age of 25, Orbán addressed a crowd of thousands of patriotic mourners at the public funeral of Imre Nagy, a leader of the failed 1956 Hungarian Uprising that resulted in Nagy’s and many others’ executions by the communist government. Nagy’s body, so many years later, had been discovered in an unmarked grave earlier in 1989, and at the memorial, the crowd gathered under the banner “Never Forgotten.”
Orbán, a founding member of the newly formed Federation of Young Democrats (Fidesz), which began as an opposition party, delivered a provocative speech, denouncing the communist government, in power since 1945. He noted the enduring struggle for independence and sovereignty that Hungarians had fought. “Since the beginning of the Russian occupation and the communist dictatorship 40 years ago,” he began,
the Hungarian nation only had one opportunity, only once did it have the courage and the power to attempt its goals already laid out in 1848: national independence and political freedom. Our goals remain unchanged to this day.
The Uprising had failed more than 30 years earlier, but the spirit of the 56ers was alive and well:
If we do not forget the ideals of 56, we can elect a government that does not hesitate to begin to negotiate the terms of the immediate withdrawal of the Russian troops from Hungary. If we have enough courage to demand all this, then, and only then can we fulfill the spirit of our revolution.
The Hungarian people began to heed his call. Within a few short months, Hungary declared independence from the Soviet Union (only for the Soviet Union itself to fall two years later on December 26, 1991), held her first free election with multiparty candidates in over five decades, established new ties with the United States (for the first time, the president of Hungary met with the president of the United States), and revamped her economy.
Orbán was first elected to the unicameral Hungarian National Assembly in 1990, but Fidesz received only 8.95 percent of the vote; he was reelected in 1994, but his party’s percentage declined to 7.02 percent. Things changed four years later, after the failed “Bokros package” (the economic program of the governing Hungarian Socialist Party, MSZP) led to widespread disillusionment, and in April 1998 the parliamentary election resulted in what could be called a second revolution. Fidesz, led by Orbán, won the National Assembly by gaining over 120 seats, controlling 38 percent of the total 386 seats. It was a shift to the right, clearly owing to Orbán’s fiery rhetoric against the Socialist government. Upon hearing of his victory, he declared to supporters, “Voters have shown that for a new century the country needs a new government.”
Fidesz has since been reelected twice, with Orbán leading the country in 2010 and again in 2014. (Fidesz lost in the 2002 and 2006 parliamentary elections.) Over a combination of nearly 12 years in office, Prime Minister Orbán has established a solid patriotic and nationalistic policy in Hungary.
In a sense, Orbán’s political ethos and the policies derived from it could be described as “Hungary First.” In the mid-1990’s, the Hungarian economy had been weakened by the policies of the Socialists, making Orbán’s positions attractive to voters, much as, in the United States, the Bush and Obama economies led to the election of an “America First” president. Orbán emphasized the history, culture, and national pride of the Hungarians. He drove legislation that affirmed the importance of the thousand-year-old Holy Crown of Saint Stephen, the first king of Hungary. “The Holy Crown is a relic that in the Hungarian consciousness and legal tradition symbolizes the continuation and independence of the Hungarian state,” the bill said. The government has also helped subsidize small businesses, supported private Christian schools, and generally emphasized, as one Hungarian paper put it, “strengthening patriotism.”
In 2010, Orbán said his party
was born amid a revolution, amid the revolution of Hungarian hope and liberty. The party came into existence with a mission and an ideal, namely to create a strong and free Hungary and to feel good as Hungarians. Fidesz is the party of Hungary, freedom, and the people.
In 2014, Fidesz won over 67 percent of seats in the National Assembly and nearly 50 percent of the popular vote. This was a vote of confidence in Orbán’s policies. “We received a clear and unquestionable mandate to continue what we started,” he said. In September of that year, The Economist called him “unstoppable.”
Hungary joined the European Union in 2004; today, Orbán wants out. He compared the E.U. to the imperial Soviet Union, which held Hungary’s independence hostage for generations. “People who love their freedom must save Brussels from Sovietization, from people who want to tell us who we should live with in our countries,” he said in 2016. “We want to be a European nation, not a nationality within Europe.”
Orbán’s biggest point of contention with Brussels has been the migrant crisis, in which hundreds of thousands of people from the war-torn Middle East and Africa have come to Europe. Germany and France have famously welcomed the greatest numbers. Yet Hungary has particularly taken a beating by virtue of her location within a prime route between Turkey and prosperous Western Europe. The crisis reached its peak in 2015 when, according to data from the European Commission, over 177,000 migrants settled in Hungary; 100,000 of those were between the ages of 18 and 34. Nearly 80 percent of all migrants arriving in Hungary that year were male. In terms of the change in population that occurred within a single year, Hungary had 17.7 migrants per 1,000 inhabitants, the highest percentage among all of the E.U. member countries.
In light of this rapid demographic shift, Orbán decided that Hungary needed to build a wall. Construction began in July 2015; it consisted of a 109-mile-long, 13-foot-high wall along the Serbian border and a 216-mile-long wall along the Croatian border.
The result was astonishing: In September 2015 alone, when the wall was not yet completed, nearly 140,000 migrants illegally entered Hungary. Two months later, that number dropped to a mere 315. In all of 2016, only 29,000 migrants entered Hungary.
It should be noted that initially the stated aim of the construction of these border fences was not to cut off all migration, but only to slow the influx of illegal border crossers to a manageable number. Orbán reassured critics that his administration wanted “only to register them,” as the E.U. was too slow to provide assistance. Still, organizations like Amnesty International categorically condemned the wall.
Today, Orbán’s stated reason for the wall is a much more provocative one: to prevent the creation of a “new, mixed, Muslimized Europe.” He has virtually called for a crusade of self-defense, and is all the more determined in the face of left-liberal pressure: “As long as I remain the prime minister, the fence will stay in place. We will protect Hungary and Europe. . . . [T]he culture of migrants is opposed to European culture . . . ”
Orbán has provocatively declared that the E.U.’s demand that member-states accept the flood of migrants is the result of collusion between Brussels and Hungarian billionaire-leftist George Soros, whom he referred to as “Satan.” The two men certainly have a history together: In early 2017 Orbán threatened to close Central European University in Budapest, which was founded, and is primarily funded, by Soros. In response, Soros said Prime Minister Orbán has turned Hungary into a “mafia state.” Orbán replied (last June) that “this is a declaration of war. We are facing a financial speculator who has made a lot of money while . . . plunging many into poverty.” The mutual animosity is not exactly subtle.
In nearly every theme he has emphasized, Viktor Orbán could be called the Hungarian Donald Trump. Or, more accurately, Donald Trump could be called the American Viktor Orbán. A photo of the prime minister watching the results of the U.S. election in November 2016 was posted to Orbán’s official Facebook page. Captioned in English, it stated, “Congratulations. What a great news [sic]. Democracy is still alive.” The two see eye-to-eye on many things, and their provocative mannerisms are quite similar.
It is undeniable that Viktor Orbán has significantly changed Hungary. “We were black sheep, but now we’re a success story,” he proclaimed in his state of the nation address on February 10, 2017. Even critics must acknowledge this, he added, because “nothing succeeds like success.” From his entrance onto the political stage in July 1989 to the present, he has consistently put the Hungarians first, ahead of foreign powers and peoples.
Nonetheless, in that speech Orbán encouraged magnanimity with regard to Hungarian citizens who do not enthusiastically support his programs. “[O]ne must never be offended at the voices of dissatisfaction,” he said, because “offended prime ministers” are “not an inspiring sight.” Yet magnanimity does not mean “hesitancy” in leadership, let alone “self-pity.” The Hungarian people characteristically respond to strong leadership acting in their interests. Hungarian author
Sándor Márai taught us that we don’t know the meaning of mediocrity. This is also the cast-iron rule for Hungary’s political leadership. The Hungarians can never be satisfied with mediocre leadership and a mediocre government: we need more, and we deserve more.
Still, Orbán insisted that the Hungarian people are not interested in having a dear leader on whom they can pin their hopes and devotion, but rather in a government that allows them to live good and decent lives:
[W]hat makes a good administration and what makes a good leader? In my opinion, good administration takes people to the finish line so that when they get there, they feel that they hadn’t needed leaders at all.
The next parliamentary election will take place in April or May 2018. Polls put support for the ruling Fidesz party at just under 50 percent. If they are accurate, Orbán’s party will be reelected with a major dent in the opposition, giving it another four years to continue its Hungary First policies.
The future, after that, will be as unpredictable as the prime minister himself.
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