Authoritarian populists employ hatemongering not only against ethnic or national minorities but against agents that could somewhat restrict their executive power. Hence, the recent attempts of Fidesz to use xenophobic rhetoric against the Roma community in Hungary is not too dissimilar from the attack by PiS politicians on the independence of the Polish judiciary.
To understand the nature of authoritarian populism in Hungary and Poland, where the governments thrive on identifying enemies and the amplification of fears, one should remember the old joke about the optimist and the pessimist.
In this joke, the pessimist is stressed that the situation is so bad it cannot get worse. Then the optimist says: yes, it can get even worse.
Sense of justice
The Hungarian Prime Minister opened a new chapter at the beginning of the year. After a Hungarian Appeals Court ruled that, altogether, 100 million Hungarian forints shall be paid as compensation to the Roma students whose education suffered due to racial segregation, the leader of Fidesz claimed that the decision was a selfish, self-centred “fundraising mission” of George Soros.
Viktor Orbán stressed that the decision hurts society’s “sense of justice” since the people of Gyöngyöspata will see that the town’s Roma community gets a “significant sum without having to work for it in any way.” Orbán also claimed that “If I lived there (in Gyöngyöspata), I would wonder why the members of an ethnically dominant group living with me in one community, in one village, receive a large amount (of money) without working for it while I am struggling here all day”.
Now instead of awarding the compensation, the Hungarian government proposes to provide educational training and re-training to the plaintiffs.
The issue could release dangerous emotions in the Hungarian population 12 years after the height of anti-Roma sentiments which resulted in the murder of six Roma persons and left 55 injured in Tatárszentgyörgy.
Although right-wing militias marched across the country demanding a “solution to the Gypsy question”, now, many years later, the convicted killers are serving life sentences in prison. Violent attacks on the Roma community are much rarer – something that the Orbán regime considers as one of their greatest achievements.
Perception of order
Járóka Lívia, a Roma Fidesz elected Member of the European Parliament, believes that civil society organisations are using Roma minorities and Gyöngyöspata as a pretext to attack the government. However, anti-gipsy rhetoric is nothing new to the Orbán regime.
When Fidesz came to power in 2010, it had endeavoured to gain popularity with white voters by giving the perception that it was “creating order” for the Roma community which accounts for almost 10 per cent of the population of Hungary. Historically, discrimination against gipsy minorities has been one of the most serious ethnicity-based issues in Hungary before the refugee crisis erupted in 2015.
Despite the fact that anti-Roma rhetoric has been toned down since the outbreak of the refugee crisis, it is quite telling that the Romani were often used as a primary explanation why Hungary does not accept asylum-seekers.
In this spirit, Péter Szijjártó, the Hungarian Minister of Trade and Foreign Affairs once told the Italian press that Hungarian society “is burdened enough by the unemployment of the Roma community”. The Hungarian Prime also used troubling terms in 2012 when he introduced major socio-political initiatives.
By claiming that “one cannot live from crime, nor from welfare”, Orbán invoked massive common stereotypes about the biggest officially recognised ethnic minority group in Hungary.
In effect, the party’s narrative matched the rhetoric of far-right actors, building on xenophobia, a clash of civilisations, ethnic groups, religions and cultures and a conspiracy-based world view. The new national curriculum reflects this since the regime has made books written by pro-Nazi and pro-Fascist authors a compulsory part of school literature.
This way, Fidesz could engage the most radical part of the electorate, while the far-right Jobbik party significantly weakened after 2015.
Taking the wind out of the far-right’s sails
Nevertheless, Viktor Orbán’s main populist ally in the EU is also polarising and mobilising society by creating enemies to amplify fears. In Poland, Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice (PiS) party also tries to take the wind out of the far-right’s sails but, in doing so, legitimises their radical messages and extremist subculture.
Similar to Fidesz, PiS promotes an ideology that is genuinely far-right and based on a nativist, exclusionist worldview, authoritarian tendencies and conspiracy theories.
Poland is one of the most ethnically and religiously homogenous countries in Europe, with Roma people barely accounting for 0.2 per cent of the total population, which is the lowest percentage in East and Central Europe.
As a consequence, PiS has mainly sought to energise radical voters by means of intensifying the cultural counter-revolution against political correctness concerning the LGBTQ and Muslim minorities. The ruling party wone the 2015 election in part because it built on a moral panic against refugees. It evoked the Muslim refugee as a “barbaric invader” who rapes and kills Europeans.
Unsurprisingly, this kind of rhetoric fell on fertile soil in Poland, and in Hungary, where the level of xenophobia was higher than in the West even before the refugee crisis escalated in 2015.
Against the will of the people
Authoritarian populists employ hatemongering not only against ethnic or national minorities but against agents that could somewhat restrict their executive power.
Their antagonism is often based on identity concerns (i.e. us v. them) claiming that institutional representatives failed to carry out the general will of ‘the people’ because they served the interest of ‘the corrupt elite’. As these institutions are not considered to be the right representatives of the right people, populists often advocate a majoritarian takeover of the existing polity.
In its judiciary overhaul, the Polish government has reached a new tipping point both in its rhetoric and action. President Andrzej Duda’s suggestion that judges are irresponsible and “should be eliminated”, otherwise “Poland will never be a normal country”, could be classified as an example of hate speech, which can lead to violence directed against individual judges.
Furthermore, the right-hand man of the Polish Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, Łukasz Piebiak, had to resign after an investigative report accused him of coordinating an anonymous hate campaign against judges opposed to the judicial reforms, including publishing details of their private life.
Gdansk’s liberal mayor, Pawel Adamowicz was killed only one year ago. The aftermath of his death shed light on the severe polarisation of Polish society. PiS risks much more with continued hatemongering than a couple of percentage points ahead of the presidential election in May.
Echoes in Budapest
A recent speech made by the Hungarian Prime Minister resembled Kaczyński’s populist argument about a corrupt judicial “caste” which needs to be replaced by a new elite serving justice “in the interest of the pure people”.
After the Hungarian government defied court rulings ordering the state to pay compensation to prisoners experiencing inhumane conditions, the Viktor Orbán spoke out against “profiteering” lawyers that are engaging in a “prison business” by bringing lawsuits against the state on behalf of the prisoners.
Obviously, the government is trying and testing a new strategy of “killing three birds with one stone” after they lost Budapest in the local elections last October.
Since hate-mongering against Muslims was not enough to maintain power in the capital, let alone several big cities in the countryside, the Orbán regime has not limited itself to stirring up hatred against minorities but has launched a broader strategy against lawyers, judges and imprisoned people.
Dialogue is not enough
Rhetorical attacks on minority groups and the judiciary send a worrying signal to the rest of Europe. Because these attacks are part of a broader authoritarian strategy, both in Hungary and in Poland, the EU institutions should set aside their soft attitude of “maintaining dialogue” with these regimes.
Arguably, one of the strongest means of influence on Fidesz, and to some extent on PiS, will be the upcoming discussions about EU funds and the broader context of the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF). In Hungary, EU subsidies account for four up to five per cent of GDP, and they have been the primary target of corruption. Moreover, they serve an important role in legitimising and supporting the regime.
Last May, the European Commission proposed to tie payments to certain requirements: if the independence of the judiciary is threatened or the risk of fraud involving EU funds would occur, financial sanctions should be set into motion. While the proposal is likely to go through, the Hungarian and Polish governments will do everything to weaken any conditionality during the negotiations of the next long-term EU budget, even if the proposal is technically not part of the negotiations.
Last but not least, instead of selling off democratic freedoms vote by vote, the European People’s Party should no longer tolerate Orbán’s behaviour. If it is unwilling to do so, the EPP needs to refrain from promoting itself as the comprehensive defender of political and civil rights. Hypocrisy pushes European integration into an unwanted lane – and against democracy.