Book review: Europe’s New Strongman

Reuters/Laszlo Balogh

Book title: Orbán: Europe’s New Strongman
Author: Paul Lendvai
Released: 2019
Review by: Byron Clark

While there has hardly been a shortage of strongman leaders for the right to admire in recent years, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has stood out. Last year Vox referred to him as “The American right’s favourite strongman”1 and British far-right figurehead Tommy Robinson described him as the “defender of Europe” when appearing on Hungarian television.

In New Zealand Orbán has been praised by the far-right YouTube personality Lee Williams (who has favourably compared the New Conservative party to Orbán’s Fidesz party) and in Australia his support comes not just from the fringes but from mainstream politicians; in 2019 former Prime Minister Tony Abbott gave a speech in Hungary claiming migrants are “swarming across the borders in Europe”.2 Orbán was also praised by then US president Donald Trump in 2019 for doing a “tremendous job”.3

The biography “Orbán: Europe’s New Strongman” is the first book published in English on the topic of the Orbán regime. Paul Lendavi was born in Hungary and is now based in Austria. For this book he has drawn on work from Hungarian journalists and political scientists, making the book in-depth despite its short length. It is written for an international audience and doesn’t require extensive prior knowledge of Hungarian history or politics.

Orbán’s rise to power followed scandals in the centre-left Socialist Party, including financial corruption. While Orbán’s Fidesz regime has been far more corrupt, with Orbán enriching himself using the power he wields as prime minister, the Socialist Party is judged more harshly by voters for the sheer hypocrisy of their corruption; with Orbán’s Fidesz Party it has been expected.

Orbán has used anti-immigrant populism to gain support in one of Europe’s most ethnically homogeneous countries. At a march in Paris following the terror attack on Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, he announced “Zero tolerance against immigrants…As long as I am Prime Minister, and as long as this government is in power, we will not allow Hungary to become the destination of immigrants steered from Brussels.”

His government has erected billboards with messages to refugees – that if they want to come to Hungary they must integrate with Hungarian society, and must not take jobs from Hungarians. These billboards are however written in Hungarian, and are unlikely to be read by any Syrian or Iraqi refugees entering the country- a number which is very small, in part due to the fences erected on the country’s border with Croatia. The billboards are not really there for refugees to read; they are there to implant the idea in the minds of Hungarians that immigrants will steal jobs and refuse to integrate.

The regime has been effective at spreading this xenophobia. Polling cited in the book notes that fear of a terrorist attack from refugees (a statistically unlikely probability) is higher in Hungary than any other European country. More recent polls conducted since the book’s publication show sixty percent of Hungarians have a negative or very negative opinion of immigrants while a similar number (fifty four percent) hold negative or very negative opinions of Muslims.4

“Orbán makes no secret of his satisfaction at the misery of the refugees” writes Lendvai in reference to one of the prime minister’s speeches in 2015 at the height of the refugee crisis, where Orbán claimed “The crisis offers the opportunity for the national Christian ideology to reign supreme, not only in Hungary but in all of Europe”.

Orbán has also made a bogeyman of George Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire philanthropist who is a common figure in far-right conspiracy theories. Orbán, echoing those same theories, claims that Soros is promoting mass migration of Muslims into Europe. While Orbán claims that Muslim migrants will spread anti-Semitism, his rhetoric about Soros (a Jew and Holocaust survivor) comes with a heavy anti-Semitic subtext. Paraphrasing the liberal Hungarian weekly Magyar Narancs, who have compared the Soros conspiracy theory to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Lendvai writes “The world Jew has not been mentioned in the Soros context as there is no need – everybody understands the reference”. Polls cited by Lendvai show almost a third of Hungarians holding anti-Semitic views. Ironically, it was philanthropic work by Soros’ Open Society Foundation, promoting human rights and liberal democracy in Europe after the fall of the Eastern Bloc, that funded much of Orbán’s education.

The Fidesz regime in Hungary is likely to remain in power for years to come – in part because of constitutional changes made with the party’s unprecedented two thirds majority in parliament, and extensive gerrymandering – and will serve as inspiration for far-right groups in Europe and even further afield. This book will give readers the broad overview of contemporary Hungary that will help us recognise when politicians in our own countries attempt to come to power on a similar platform of xenophobia and bigotry.

1 https://www.vox.com/2020/5/21/21256324/viktor-Orbán-hungary-american-conservatives

2 https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/why-australia-s-conservatives-are-finding-friends-in-hungary-20190924-p52uim.html

3 https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/may/13/trump-latest-viktor-Orbán-hungary-prime-minister-white-house

4 https://www.hopenothate.org.uk/europeanstateofhate-polling/

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