But there is much to admire about this Magyar maverick
On Sunday Hungarian voters elected those who would represent their nation in the neo-Gothic building that is one of the world’s most beautiful parliaments. And, much to the irritation of leftists in Washington and Brussels, Viktor Orbán’s conservative Fidesz party was re-elected, although it received about 8% fewer votes than in 2010, at a very high turnout rate (61.24%).
Clearly, there were some reasons why Hungarians voted to retain Orbán in power in such large numbers. While unimpressed with Orbán’s statist economic policies, this non-Hungarian sees much to admire in this Magyar maverick and congratulates the Hungarian people of boldly thinking for themselves, despite being deluged by an anti-Orbán hysteria from the West.
The Hungarians have a proud 1,000-year history and rich culture. Yet they often faced nearby powerful hegemons, be they the Ottomans, the Habsburgs, or the Soviets. And they always bravely stood up to their oppressors. In 1956, the whole world was inspired by Hungarians rising up against their Soviet oppressors (even if the West limited its support to sympathetic words), true Goliaths standing up against Bolshevik Leviathans. In 1848 the situation was similar, and there is a reason why the United States Congress hosts a bust of Hungarian revolutionary Lajos Kossuth.
To compare the European Union to the USSR or the Ottoman Empire would be silly. However, since the Maastricht Treaty came into life in 1993 the EU has strayed from the noble principles that led to the Treaty of Rome of 1957 and helped to rebuild a Europe torn apart by war and mutual distrust. Today, the EU has metamorphosed into a bureaucratic giant where members of the European Parliament receive 10,000 euros of taxpayers’ money each month in salaries and where Brussels creates more than two-thirds of member states’ legislation. The Hungarian spirit of a love of independence could again be seen in Viktor Orbán’s foreign policy.
At the same time, while the EU is flawed and in crisis, the community does foster economic cooperation and less prosperous members such as Hungary have much to benefit from it. Thus, while some media and politicians in the West portray Orbán as a type of Eurosceptic demagogue as Nigel Farage (or, increasingly, David Cameron or Václav Klaus), he is a Eurorealist. He does not question his nation’s membership in the EU, but he is wise enough to realize that Hungary cannot become a vassal state of inept Brussels bureaucrats. Few other leaders in today’s EU have such a sober and sane vision of the entity.
During his first term (1998-2002), Orbán fought for Hungary’s accession to the EU. However, during his second term (2010-2012), as Orbán’s nation was in the EU, he did not blindly imbue Euro-enthusiasm. He repeatedly did not allow the EU to meddle in his internal affairs; in particular, his defense of his 2011 constitution was strong. Orbán saw the EU more as a federation of independent states (as did the founders of the European Community more than five decades ago), rather than as a supranational oppressive force.
Evidence that Orbán is not a Eurosceptic can be found in the fact that his government is pursuing accession to the Eurozone (which, given the turbulence of the euro, is of questionable wisdom). Orbán’s finance minister is making concrete plans for entry into the currency union that Milton Friedman called a pleasant idea that is terrible in practice. This should calm down the EU bureaucrats who fear that the Hungarians are East-Central Europe’s Britons (the Czechs probably stand closer to this description).
In addition to a sane policy vis-à-vis the EU, Orbán’s policy towards the EU’s eastern neighborhood was also among the most moderate in Europe. The recent crisis in Ukraine brought about radical, and not necessarily balanced, reactions. On the one hand, the government of Poland (undoubtedly fighting for voters who support its Russophobic opposition) engaged in unwavering support for Maidan and the Yatsenyuk government, while vilifying Russia. While support for Ukraine is important, the Polish government completely ignored the fact that at Maidan there were, indeed, far-right nationalists from Pravy Sektor and Svoboda, compared to whom Marine Le Pen looks like a girl scout, and that support for Ukraine’s opposition should be more nuanced, while at the same time attacking Russia harshly. For instance, Poland’s prime minister Donald Tusk demagogically said recently that if his party is not re-elected there will be war and Polish children will not go to school in the autumn (a preposterous statement). If anything, by its anti-Russian foreign policy the Polish government has threatened its economic security, as in response to its one-sided anti-Kremlin policy Putin has placed embargoes on Polish pork.
At the same time, certain politicians in Western Europe – such as Britain’s Nigel Farage MEP and Germany’s former chancellor Helmut Schmidt – supported Putin, whose human rights record is dubious to say the least, and Russia’s attempt to annex Crimea, a breach of international law. This is also not a wise policy; moderation needs to be found in the Ukrainian crisis.
In other words, the Ukrainian conflict is complex and has led to quite a few outbursts of irrational foreign policy. Orbán, however, has been free of this. He decided to pursue a neutral policy regarding the conflict, proving that he does not have delusions of grandeur. He quite correctly noted that Hungarians – including Ukraine’s Hungarian minority – are safe, rather than scaring voters that the future of Hungarian schoolchildren is in doubt.
Also, Orbán has maintained not severed energy ties to Russia. Some may question this. Yes, Gazprom unfairly treats its clientele in East-Central Europe. Yes, alternatives to Russian gas and natural oil (such as shale gas exploitation) should be sought out. However, for the moment, Russia is still East-Central Europe’s biggest supplier of energy. Thus, the search for alternatives should not go hand-in-hand with completely ruining relations with Russia. Otherwise, the wrath of Gazprom will only hurt the region with even more expensive barrels.
Tackling the demographic slump
Perhaps the biggest threat to Hungary’s economic wellbeing is its demographic downturn. While under communism Hungary’s Total Fertility Rate (i.e., the predicted average number of children a woman will have in her childbearing years; in industrialized societies, the TFR required for a society to not depopulate is between 2 and 2.1) was at or near replacement level, it took a nosedive afterwards, reaching about 1.3 in recent years.
How can this be so? After all, the Hungarians are a very family-oriented people. Well, the costs of raising children have grown, and economic instability and insecurity are not the best conditions for raising children, as any psychologist will note.
While this problem had been swept under the rug for many years, Orbán finally came to tackle it. In 2011, he embarked on an ambitious policy to aid families with children financially. He introduced generous tax breaks for families with children (a family with three children pays almost no taxes), has introduced nationwide discounts on public services for families with children, and has increased state benefits for families. Now, Hungary is among the OECD states that spend the most on families; it is in the company of such pro-family states as Ireland, France, and the Scandinavian nations.
Of course, it is much too soon to see if these policies will have an effect, even if in their first year Hungary’s birth rate grew by 2.8 per cent. However, the examples other post-communist states that have embarked on similar policies – especially Russia and Estonia – show that success is highly to be likely.
It is worth emphasizing that Orbán’s opposition, especially the alliance of liberals and ex-communists, disagrees with him on everything except his pro-family policy. This shows that this policy is not worthless.
Another wise step in tackling the demographic crisis is Orbán’s migration policy. Of course, immigration is a potential solution to Hungary’s demographic woes (if an incomplete one). However, Hungary is less prosperous than the nations of Western Europe, and thus immigrants are more likely to choose London or Rotterdam over Budapest. Furthermore, large-scale immigration from radically different cultures can cause social tensions.
Viktor Orbán has created an interesting solution to this problem by making the immigration of ethnic Hungary’s living in his nation’s former dominions in Slovakia, Romania, and Serbia easier by allowing for dual citizenship, among other policies.
Hungary’s heritage, Europe’s heritage
Perhaps the biggest source of criticism of Orbán was his social conservatism. Yes, Orbán, the father of five, a devout Calvinist whose new 2011 Hungarian Constitution begins with the words “God bless the Hungarians” and enshrines traditional marriage and pro-life legislation, was unsurprisingly not well-seen by the salons of Paris, Washington, and London. The Huffington Post, for instance, wrote of Hungary as a non-democratic country and implicitly compared it to Nazi Germany (an absurd claim, especially given Orbán’s apologies for Hungary’s historical abuses of Roma and Jews, and his sensitivity towards both communities), specifically citing its anti-abortion constitution.
The purpose of this article is not to argue on a specific position regarding the morality of abortion or homosexuality. However, if one is a proponent of democracy than one must accept the right of sovereign states to decide about their internal affairs, and legislation on marriage or abortion is such. This is especially so as Hungary is not harassing the rights of its citizens with divergent opinions. The Hungarian government is not hanging homosexuals from the gallows or stoning them, as is the case in Iran, or sending them to prison camps, as in communist Cuba. Hungary has the right to ratify a socially conservative constitution, especially as the government that passed it has been elected with large margins twice in a row.
What is more important is that Viktor Orbán’s social conservatism has brought to attention an important matter. Namely, Orbán’s constitution explicitly references the role Christianity has played in the country’s heritage. This should be a lesson for Europe.
A decade ago, during the drafting of the now-defunct European Constitution there was something of a controversy as its drafters purposely omitted a reference to Christianity in referencing the sources of the continent’s culture, while it did mention the Greco-Roman period as well as the Enlightenment. Did truly nothing of significance happen in Europe between 300 and 1750 AD?
Europe is unimaginable without Christianity. This was seen by many non-Christians and even non-believers who criticized the lack of such a reference in the document. Professor Joseph Weiler, an Orthodox Jew of South African origin and one of the world’s foremost experts on constitutional law, eloquently defended Europe’s Christian heritage. So did the then-president of Italy’s senate, the brilliant philosopher Professor Marcello Pera, an atheist, as did Pera’s equally godless compatriot Oriana Fallaci.
Meanwhile, for instance, France’s Catholic president at the time, Jacques Chirac, opposed the reference to Christianity. Perhaps Chirac should read the works of his countryman Jacques Le Goff, an agnostic and leftist, one of the greatest historians of the Middle Ages, who died recently. Le Goff explained in detail how intertwined with European identity Christianity is, arguing that we must discover anew the period in European history from the birth of Christ to the French Revolution.
But if Chirac et consortes do not have time to study Le Goff, they should take an example from Orbán, who courageously defied the EU once again by reminding Europeans that Marcus Aurelius and Montesquieu, while invaluable, are not the only source of their civilization.
Center-right, but not on economic affairs
Of course, Orbán’s government is imperfect. In particular, its economic policy over the past four years warrants criticism. Anglo-American readers who associate center-right governments with the laissez-faire policies of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, or (closer to Hungary) Estonia’s Mart Laar, will be surprised that Orbán’s social conservatism, deference to his national heritage and realistic view of the EU do not amount to economic policies in line with the Chicago or Austrian Schools.
Orbán does deserve praise for lowering the personal income tax to 16% (and, as mentioned earlier, including generous tax breaks for Hungary). At least in terms of flat-rate personal income taxes Orbán joins the company of Slovakia (whose leftist-populist government of Robert Fico has recently eliminated the flat tax) and the Baltic states, which according to economists will boast the most generous GDP growth this year in the EU. Not only do simplified taxes stimulate growth, they also eliminate the problem of tax evasion. In the first year alone when Russia introduced the flat tax of 13%, the number of Russians actually paying their taxes jumped by 25%!
However, Orbán’s introduction of a flat-rate personal income tax is offset by statist economic policies that will undoubtedly stifle Hungary’s economic growth in the future. Orbán has increased the Value Added Tax from 25 to 27%. Even the European Commission, which to some is synonymous with bloated bureaucracy and statist economics, recommends that EU member states’ VAT not exceed 25%. Orbán also levied a “crisis tax” in 2010, when Hungary’s economy was hit by the global crisis, on big businesses. Such policies will undoubtedly scare away foreign investors, which for a small country with 10 million people could be economically devastating.
In addition, in order to balance Hungary’s budget, Orbán has set about nationalizing part of his citizens’ private pensions. There are numerous reasons why this is a poor economic policy. First and foremost, however, citizens in a free society should have the liberty to choose their type of retirement, especially as global population ageing makes state pensions insecure.
Nonetheless, while as an external observer I disagree with Viktor Orbán’s economic policies, I respect the man for maintaining a healthy stance towards the EU, for reminding the world of his country’s and, more broadly, Europe’s heritage, as well as his astute tackling of Hungary’s demographic crisis. To quote the last words of Jan Hus, the pre-Reformation Czech radical burned at the stake for heresy: “The truth will prevail.” Undoubtedly, history will judge Orbán’s government more favorably than The New York Times does.
However, if the past four are an indication, we should prepare for at least four more years of imagined hysteria about the collapse of democracy in Budapest in much of the media, as well as from the mouths of the likes of Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Hilary Clinton.
Filip Mazurczak studied history and Latin American literature at Creighton University and international relations at The George Washington University.