MOSCOW – After his party’s overwhelming victory in Sunday’s parliamentary election, Prime Minister Viktor Orban called Hungary “the most unified nation in Europe.” In fact, it may well be the European Union’s only dictatorship.
Orban has a lot in common with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He has pushed through constitutional changes outlawing gay marriage and proclaiming Christianity’s special role as a cornerstone of Hungarian statehood.
He fans the flames of Hungarian nationalism, issuing Hungarian passports to ethnic Hungarians living in neighboring countries and, in a recent speech, calling Serbian and Romanian towns by their Hungarian names. He is generous toward his businessmen friends (the Hungarian opposition loves to investigate them) and fond of big, weird infrastructure projects — such as a soccer stadium he is building near his summer home, with stands for twice the population of the nearby village.
An uncommonly talented public speaker, Orban inspires voters by making them feel his rule is having a positive effect on their daily lives. Not long before the election, he lowered utility rates and introduced a flat 16 percent income tax, one of the lowest in the EU. Budapest, where he is less well-liked than in the rest of the country (just as Moscow is ambiguous on Putin and Istanbul is always ready to march against Erdogan), got its fourth subway line on March 28, fewer than 10 days before the vote.
What sets Orban apart from Putin and Erdogan is that he works his brand of charismatic magic right under the noses of Brussels bureaucrats and uptight Old Europe politicians. He is living proof that EU membership is not an effective antidote to authoritarianism.
Last year, Peer Steinbrueck, the Social Democratic Party’s candidate for chancellor of Germany, suggested that Hungary be expelled from the EU because it was no longer a democratic nation. German Chancellor Angela Merkel replied that though Hungary should be steered back to the democratic path, there was no reason as yet to “send in the cavalry.”
Orban replied with a Nazi analogy sure to raise hackles in Berlin: “The Germans already sent the cavalry once, in the form of tanks.
Our request would be that they not send them again. It wasn’t a good idea back then and it didn’t work.”
Orban seems to delight in undermining the EU. When Brussels objected to constitutional changes that allowed electoral campaign ads only in government-owned media, he amended them to say private news outlets could run the ads — for free. When the EU protested against “crisis taxes” that Orban imposed in 2010 mainly on foreign-owned banks, telecom operators and retailers, Hungary abolished most of them — effective in 2013.
His approach to elections flies in the face of European ideals of fairness. Before Sunday’s election, the parliament, dominated by his Fidesz party, gerrymandered the constituencies to make sure its biggest rival, the Social Democrats, could not win. Fidesz also effectively controlled outdoor advertising, the only channel for campaign ads after the constitutional amendments.
The EU, however, will not protest because Orban is its shield from worse things in Hungary. In the election, the anti-Semitic, anti-EU party, Jobbik, increased its showing from 15.9 percent to 20.5 percent. With a right-wing tide rising before May’s European Parliament election, Brussels should be grateful to a charismatic moderate authoritarian like Orban for holding it back. Throughout Europe, the mood of voters is changing in sinister ways, making authoritarianism acceptable.
Leonid Bershidsky, a Moscow-based novelist, writes on Russia, Europe and technology for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter: @Bershidsky.