On September 21, Viktor Orban published an opinion piece in pro-government daily Magyar Nemzet (also published in English). Prime ministerial opinion pieces are fairly common, however this one, titled Together We Will Succeed Again, deserves special attention.
Every year, the Prime Minister attends a ‘Summer University’ in Tusványos where he speaks about the theoretical basis for the decisions of his government and also sets out the agenda for the year. His infamous statement regarding making Hungary an ‘illiberal’ democracy in 2014 is perhaps the most well-known example of these speeches. It is also where, in 2018, Orbán declared a culture war. Due to the coronavirus crisis, the festival in Tusványos was not held this year. In lieu, Orbán wrote a short essay.
We will look at what the article said, analyse its key statements, and examine its main rhetorical methods.
The piece is divided into four segments: Orban first talks about the conflict between liberalism and conservatism, then about the future of the EU, the coronavirus, and finally about George Soros, NGOs and his domestic opposition.
In the first and longest segment, Orban focuses on the conflict between liberalism and conservatism. He argues that the two ideologies are direct opposites of each other and that the only reason they were allies in the 20th century was their opposition to communism and national socialism. This passage also argues that Orbán’s ideas regarding illiberalism are becoming increasingly popular around the world.
He then contextualises his well-known theories regarding the influence of George Soros and the NGOs within the liberal-conservative conflict described in the previous passage, arguing that liberals favour international organisations (that are, according to him, under the control of Soros), unlike conservatives who prefer institutions under national jurisdiction. In Orban’s interpretation, this is because international organisations can be ideologically motivated, in the EU’s instance by George Soros and liberals who are using their interpretation of the rule of law as a form of blackmail. He does not provide evidence to back up these statements.
The second segment is about the European Union. Orban argues that the EU is losing its influence economically and technologically. To resolve this, he comes out in favour of an EU army and criticizes sanctions against Russia. According to the Prime Minister, the Union is divided into a liberal West and a conservative East. This conflict is unlikely to be resolved, thus the Union has to find a way to continue operating through compromises.
The third segment is about the coronavirus pandemic. Orbán stresses multiple times that the virus arrived in Hungary from abroad and reiterates the government’s position according to which there will be no second lockdown in the country. He states that the economy and schools must function. He predicts that a vaccine will only be available by spring 2021. Finally, the Prime Minister criticises the Hungarian opposition, because according to him, they obstructed the government’s efforts during the pandemic.
Finally, looking forward to the elections of 2022, Orbán returns to some of his key messages regarding the greatest threat to Freedom being George Soros’s “network.” He claims that the network interfered in the Polish presidential elections earlier this summer and that it will likely interfere in the Hungarian elections in 2022. He argues that the election is going to be between Fidesz and the international organisations of George Soros who, he claims, are controlling the opposition.
Key passages of the Orban op-ed, and their implications
The following passages were chosen because they exemplify key arguments in Orbán’s text, are typical of Fidesz’s usual rhetorics, or because they require contextualisation.
“The struggle for spiritual sovereignty and intellectual freedom that we launched years ago in Tusnádfürdő is gradually bearing fruit.” – Orban argues that the ways in which he does politics are no longer a taboo. He portrays himself as the torchbearer for the populists and right-wing governments that emerged in the past five years. Later in the text, he mentions the V4 countries, the governments of Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia alongside Donald Trump as his key allies.
“The escape attempt itself is not simple, and the risk of punishment is high: expulsion from academic life, loss of employment, stigmatisation, running the gauntlet at universities.” – In this passage, the Prime Minister likely refers to conflicts about political correctness and cancel culture in western universities. He tries to portray Western Europe as a place full of censorship, implying a contrast with Hungary as a free country. The critics of the Prime Minister would likely say that under his rule many Hungarians faced similar “punishments,” think of the departure of CEU, the ongoing occupation of SZFE, or András Peczel, who was fired from a Fidesz-controlled local council due to his involvement with opposition party, Momentum in 2017.
“The modern-day conflation of conservatism and liberalism can be traced back to conservatives and liberals putting aside their fundamental – and then still obvious – differences in their great battle against totalitarianism.” – Here, Orban examines the break up of conservatism and liberalism. This is a rather topical question that many have asked in the past few years (most recently Anne Applebaum): what led to the breakup of liberalism and conservatism that dominated right-of-centre parties between the 1980s and the early 2010s? What turned the anti-communist heroes of the 90s such as Viktor Orban himself against the values they once claimed to represent? The text argues that the two ideologies are the arch-nemeses of one another, and the only thing that kept them together was their opposition to communism. An unaddressed problem with this interpretation, however, is that Orban disregards that many conservatives in Hungary and elsewhere in Europe are opposed to his version of Christian Conservatism and Illiberalism.
“In Berlin, Christian democrats enter into a coalition with the Left, then the EPP should follow suit in the European Parliament. If we adopt this approach, following the German election we will be able to appreciate the beauty of a coalition between the EPP and the Greens – one which is currently being sampled in the laboratory of Vienna. In Central Europe, however, there is rebellion against the idea of such perversion – not only on grounds of good taste, but also of common sense.” -The Prime Minister refers to the governing Conservative-Green coalition in Austria and speaks up against it. He then expresses his worry regarding a similar coalition potentially being formed at some point in Germany. This should come as no surprise. As a recent investigative report by Direkt36 confirms, part of the reason why Orban was able to build an illiberal democracy within the EU is that several German companies, mostly car manufacturers, receive huge favours in tax cuts and tailored legislation in Hungary. If chancellor Merkel’s successor will hold the interest of car manufacturers in smaller esteem, which would be likely in case the greens find themselves in parliament, Orbán’s power could be threatened significantly.
“Enthusiasm for [power given to international organisations] among Christian democrats, however, is limited: they can see that such organisations are inevitably prone to a despotism which they tend to call “the rule of law” but which is simply “the rule of blackmail”; they are vulnerable to infiltration by Soros-style networks, and if they are forced to choose between the citizens of individual national communities and the big guns of global capital, in the end they will always opt for the latter.” – This segment is crucial because the Prime Minister lays the ground for his domestic defence against the EU’s investigation into the breaches of the rule of law, the outcome of which is expected this autumn. In order to delegitimise constitutional and democratic worries expressed within Hungary and in the EU in the eyes of his supporters, Orbán connects the idea of the rule of law to his long-established narrative that George Soros is controlling international institutions and organisations
“From the viewpoint of loopy liberals, a single group is formed by the following: Trump and Johnson; Christians standing on the foundations of the New Testament and Jews standing on the foundations of the Old Testament; all kinds of ayatollahs; dictators of every rank and order, communists and Nazis; and, without any doubt, we Central European Christian democrats. This is parroted by 90 per cent of the Western media.“ – Here, Orban portrays himself and his allies as someone being unjustly attacked by the vast majority of the media who he has to fight against, which is a common mobilisation tactic of his. Another interesting aspect of the passage is the mention of Orthodox Jews. The rhetorics of Fidesz are often accused of antisemitism. For instance, the portrayal of a powerful figure, in alliance with liberals and representing the interests of global capital (the same way government messaging portrays George Soros as shown in the previous passage) is a frequent antisemitic trope. The way in which Orban defends himself from such accusations is by forging alliances with conservative Jewish figures such as Orthodox rabbi Slomó Köves or Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel. Pro-government papers also frequently portray Western Europe as a place dominated by antisemitism. This passage plays on both tactics by portraying Orban as the protector of Orthodox Jewish religion while showing the liberals as threatening the Orthodox branches of Judaism
“Another estimate was that by 2050, 20 per cent of the population of Europe – excluding Russia – would be Muslim. Today it seems likely that by 2050 we can expect majority Muslim populations in major Western cities.” – Fidesz have frequently used anti-muslim propaganda and evoked a type of ‘replacement theory’ which argues that Europe’s population will soon become predominantly Muslim. Orbán tries to back up his messaging with these figures. It is worth bearing in mind, however, that according to a report conducted by Pew Research Centre, even in a high migration scenario, only 14% of Europe’s population (excluding Russia) would be Muslim by 2050. As for Western Cities, for instance, London currently has a 12% Muslim population. Even if the number of Muslims in the city tripled (a UK-wide projection), and the number of people living in London would remain the same (which is highly unlikely), Muslims would only compose 37% of the city’s population.
“The West has lost its attractiveness in the eyes of Central Europe” – It is a frequent element of Orbán’s messaging that the liberals of the 90s and 2000s only tried to emulate the West, and rejected national traditions. The term “West-worshipper” was a common phrase in the early years of Fidesz-governance. Orban contrasts this with the idea that Fidesz managed to construct a new unique way of life and politics, ideal for the Hungarians. The greatest difference in this passage compared to previous versions of these rhetorics is that Orbán now claims to represent the whole of Central Europe with the unique way of politics and illiberalism.
“[Those who support national sovereignty] have succeeded in preventing Brussels intervening to push the Polish Christian democrats out of power, for years they have been stabilising their positions in Croatia and Serbia, the Slovenians are also on the right track towards achieving this, and the survival chances of the Bulgarian governing party and Prime Minister – who are under all-out attack – are not bad either. Babiš and Fidesz are holding up, and the new Slovakian government has not left the V4 camp.”
– In this segment, Orban identifies who he claims to be his key allies. These passages regarding Hungary’s role in the region are the most important aspects of the texts. It has long been rumoured that the Hungarian Prime Minister is bored of domestic politics and wants to become an important regional player in Europe. Identifying regional countries as his key allies is a sign of these ambitions. Another sign of this, for instance, is V4NA, a news agency operated by Fidesz’s spin-doctor Árpád Habony, are actively pushing the illiberal narrative in the region (namely in Slovenia and North-Macedonia), albeit with moderate success.
However, there are obstacles in his ambitions Orbán fails to acknowledge in his text. The Croatian government, for instance, tends to keep a cautious distance from Orbán’s illiberalism. In terms of the V4, while it is true the countries have managed to form a relatively consistent alliance within the EU, there are issues regarding which they have opposing interests. For instance, the hawkish China-policy of Slovakia and the Czech Republic are the direct opposites of Hungary’s friendly, “Eastern Opening” approach. The Polish government is heavily wary of Russia, while Orbán is Putin’s closest ally in the EU.
“The second wave of the virus is here. We’re already experiencing it. It has arrived – as could be expected, and as we did expect. Just like the first wave, it has come from abroad. It was brought into Hungary from abroad.” – Ever since the start of the pandemic, the Hungarian government portrayed the danger of the pandemic as being correlated with migration. The first official coronavirus cases in the country were Iranian citizens accompanied by intense media coverage. Some of them were even deported under dubious circumstances. This summer, Hungary’s Chief Medical Officer went to the Hungarian-Serbian border amidst extensive media attention and talked about the health-risks of immigrants coming to the country. By connecting the issue of immigration and the pandemic, Orbán does not have to change the narrative that helped maintain his popularity in recent years. He can also portray Hungary as a safe country as opposed to Western Europe.
“We consulted the people of Hungary in a timely manner: in the National Consultation everyone had the opportunity to express their opinion. (…) The will of the people was unanimous: Hungary must continue to function! We cannot allow the virus to again paralyse the country, the economy, schools and everyday life. – The National Consultations are a commonly used way of communication for Fidesz. They are non-representative surveys sent out by the government, which responders can send back free of charge, and the responses often provide legitimacy to government decisions. Their critics, however, argue that their questions are often loaded (for instance a question in the most recent survey was “Do you agree with the plan of George Soros which would force our nation into debt for a long time?”). The results of the previous consultation have not been published yet, therefore it is difficult to verify what the Hungarian public deems the best way to tackle the pandemic. However, the last survey did include a question regarding the matter.
“Between 2015 and 2019, per capita gross domestic product (GDP) increased by 39.65 per cent, while that of Germany increased by 13.3 per cent and that of France by 10.1 per cent.” – Many argue that economic results in GDP growth are one of the key elements of Fidesz’s legitimacy. Thus, it is no surprise that the Prime Minister highlights it in his yearly ideological statement. By comparing Hungary to countries in western Europe, Orbán is feeding his narrative about an emerging Central Europe and a declining West. However, his data is not entirely correct. According to The World Bank, Hungary’s GDP per capita growth between 2015 and 2019 was 30.22%, that of Germany was 12.4%, and that of France was 10.5%.
“Meanwhile we will have no peace from the Left, on whom we cannot depend – even now, amidst the greatest difficulties and in a global pandemic. All we can count on from them is backstabbing and backbiting, the undermining of national strength and solidarity, sniping at political leaders and experts leading the country’s defence operation, snitching and betrayal in Brussels, sabotage and trickery. This is the Left we have ended up with. What’s more, they are now mixed in with Jobbik.” – As it was predicted at the start of the pandemic, Orban uses the Opposition’s reluctance to vote for the Coronavirus bill to portray them as hindering government efforts in the defence against coronavirus. In March, the opposition voted down the government’s emergency bill that gave Orbán the right to rule by decree after futile attempts for compromise. The reference to Jobbik is a reference to the official statement of all opposition parties earlier this August in which they announced that they will cooperate for the 2022 election.
“We should not deceive ourselves: the global elite will apply the same strategy in Hungary in the 2022 election campaign. Their instrument is the Left, which has already failed several times. The leader of this is Ferenc Gyurcsány, its youth organisation is Momentum, and its billionaire sponsor is George Soros. They are the forces from the past, who have already ruined the country once.” This passage is an indication of the direction of the rhetorics the Fidesz campaign will take in 2022. It will likely portray the opposition as representing foreign interests. The mentioned Ferenc Gyurcsány was prime minister of Hungary between 2004 and 2009 and is a highly disliked figure, even amongst opposition voters. He is currently the leader of the Democratic Coalition, the highest-polling opposition party (around 15%). Portraying him as the leader of the united opposition is also a frequent element in Fidesz communications, given that the threat of Gyurcsány as prime minister is able to persuade even some of Orbán’s moderate critics to vote for Fidesz.
What are the main lessons of Orbán’s message this year? Some of the most crucial aspects of the piece are stylistic. For instance, with the use of the term loopy-liberal (“libernyák” in the original version which is arguably a stronger, more dismissive term and could also be translated as “liberling” or “libernik”), the Prime Minister speaks more dismissively and more disrespectfully about his opponents than before (Orbán started to use the term earlier this summer). Another notable element is the frequent evocation of war language. This is not necessarily new in Orbán’s rhetorics but it is particularly intense in the article (see the use of the phrase “defence” regarding coronavirus as well as the repeated references to the 2022 elections as a “battle”).
The most important aspect, and perhaps the biggest difference to Orbán’s previous yearly ideological statements is its target audience. Previous statements at Tusványos or elsewhere were more accessible and involved strong elements of populism. It was at these occasions when Orbán set out to explain the rationale behind his policies to his voters.
This time the audience was different. The fact that immediately after its release the article was published in English and the clear and conscious focus on Central Europe and the V4 are clear signs that the piece was meant for an international audience. The article is directed at the allies and opponents Orbán identifies in the article. The article is a statement of intent to establish illiberalism not just in Hungary but in Central Europe with Orbán at its helm.
By Ábel Bede
Ábel Bede was born in Budapest and is currently studying History at Durham University. He wrote his dissertation on early 20th century Hungarian politics and culture and published several pieces in prominent Hungarian newspapers. Feel free to check out more of his articles right here!