Orbán’s culture wars divert, disrupt and avoid serious repercussions – POLITICO

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Viktor Orbán is striding back to the global culture wars – departing from domestic economic hardships and aware that the EU is unlikely to challenge his rhetoric.

The longtime Hungarian leader, a former liberal who has become Europe’s far-right figurehead, sparked outrage this week after he said Hungary does not want to be a “mixed” country.

The remarks — which relied on language once considered taboo in mainstream Hungarian society — added to the mountain of burning social issues that Orbán had been building for years. He has demonized immigrants, faced cries of anti-Semitism and ostracized the LGBTQ+ community — often when trying to build domestic support.

Abroad, Orbán also has ties to conservative and far-right figures, describing himself as a lone figure standing across the West”awakened movement.” Next week, he will even speak on the same bill as former US President Donald Trump during a Texas stop on the roadshow favorable to MAGA, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).

The Hungarian leader does not open this cultural war front in a vacuum. At home, the Prime Minister is grappling with an increasing number of problems.

The Hungarian government urgently needs pandemic recovery funds that the EU is withholding due to corruption concerns. The country’s currency has reached record highs. Households are grappling with rising prices. And a tax change sparked protests.

Viktor Orbán has ostracized the LGBTQ+ community in the past | Ferenc Isza/AFP via Getty Images

In his speech, Orbán made an explicit plea: Don’t let these concerns distract you from more historical issues.

“I ask you not to be wrong, not to be wrong,” he implored the crowd in Romania, where he was speaking. “There is a war, an energy crisis, an economic crisis and wartime inflation, and all of this draws a screen before our eyes, a screen between us and the issue of gender and migration.

He then hit the point: “It is on these questions that the future will be decided.”

For Orbán, the tactic is a calculated gamble.

Despite worries about Hungary’s economy and democracy, Orbán remains in a relatively comfortable political position, having just been re-elected and controlling much of the local media landscape. And while Brussels may withhold some funds from Hungary for legal reasons, European policymakers want to keep the Western camp united as the Russian war rages in Ukraine.

“A government with a two-thirds majority,” Orbán reminded people last weekend, “cannot be overthrown.”

A faltering economy

The Hungarian economy is in bad shape – and many Hungarians are increasingly worried about soaring prices. Inflation is at a nearly 24-year high, hitting 11.7% in June from a year ago. Meanwhile, the country’s currency, the forint, is the worst performer in the region.

The crumbling performance drew attention to Orbán’s financial leadership.

“Hungarian monetary policy is neither independent nor credible,” said Júlia Király, a professor who served as deputy governor of Hungary’s central bank from 2007 to 2013. The depreciation of the currency, she said, is “partly the result of a very loose currency and monetary policy”. fiscal policy before the crisis.

The problems run deep.

“We have high inflation, a high deficit and a deteriorating current account,” said Péter Ákos Bod, a former minister who served as governor of Hungary’s central bank in the early 1990s and is critical of the current government.

“It’s a perfect storm for any macroeconomist,” he said. “You should tell people the truth: ‘Sorry, it happened, and then we have to economize on things, we have to correct the imbalances’ – it hasn’t been done yet, just in part.”

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Orbán is primarily committed to protecting the country’s economy. Hungary, he said last weekend, can be “a local exception in a global recession”.

Yet the country’s finances are particularly vulnerable due to questions about whether the country will be able to access billions from a European pandemic recovery fund. The money has so far been withheld due to EU concerns over corruption and Hungary’s way of awarding public contracts.

Negotiations are currently underway between Brussels and Budapest to determine whether the Hungarian reforms are sufficient to meet the EU’s scruples.

Adding to the situation is a longer-term spat between the EU and Hungary. In April, the European Commission took the historic decision to trigger a new mechanism that could deprive Hungary of regular EU funds in the event of a violation of the rule of law.

“EU money”, said Király, “is crucial”.

Amid the uncertainty, signs of social unrest have multiplied.

A series of street protests have erupted against the government’s unexpected decision this summer to swiftly change the tax system, dramatically raising income taxes for hundreds of thousands of Hungarians.

Families are also worried about changes to the government’s flagship policy of capping utility prices. This decision will result in higher costs for households with higher than average gas and electricity consumption.

Economists said higher utility prices were needed, but chastised Orbán’s government for its timing and approach. Other government measures have simply left experts perplexed.

“As an economist,” Bod said, “sometimes I get lost.”

Cause culture wars

While economists scratch their heads in Hungary, Orbán has gone global with his identity politics and his clash of civilizations rhetoric.

His ‘mestizo’ speech drew angry cries from civil rights groups and even one of his own longtime advisers, who dramatically resigned, brandishing Orbán’s comments as racist and anti-Semites in a resignation letter leaked to the press.

Foreign officials have also directed anger at Orbán, although more indirectly.

“We are all part of the same race, the human race,” European Commission Executive Vice-President Frans Timmermans tweeted, without mentioning Orbán. The US Embassy in Budapest issued a general condemnation of “all ideologies, policies and rhetoric that give oxygen to the doctrines of hatred and division”.

But while governments can scold Orbán (explicitly or not), there isn’t much concrete action they can take.

The EU can take countries to court over specific local laws – a long and winding process. And it can, theoretically, cut regular budget payments to rule of law absentees – as it is currently threatening to do with Hungary. But it cannot directly take similar action on the political discourse of national leaders.

During Orbán’s speech, the prime minister also claimed that war in Ukraine “would never have broken out” if Donald Trump and Angela Merkel were still in power. And he urged the EU not to take sides between Ukraine and Russia, underlining its position on the fringes of the EU.

But its big message was one of identity.

“This is the great historical battle we are waging,” he said, pointing to “demography, migration and gender”.

The Hungarian government did not respond to questions about the prime minister’s rhetoric. During a visit to Austria on Thursday, Orbán appeared to attempt to address the furor over his remarks. “I can sometimes express myself in a way that can be misunderstood,” he said, insisting that his anti-migration stance is tied to “cultural” differences.

Pundits and critics said the Hungarian leader was likely deflecting economic challenges and stirring up his Fidesz party base, even though his next election is four years away and his political opposition has eroded under tighter control of the political landscape. information.

Orbán “wants these symbolic topics to dominate the discussion and distract from possibly more and more austerity measures that the government has to implement,” said Péter Krekó, executive director of the Budapest-based think tank. , Political Capital Institute.

“Austerity, of course, never really helps maintain popularity,” Kreko added. But “with symbolic fights”, he said, Orbán can “retain the core of the Fidesz electorate and try to minimize the losses – and this is mainly the current strategy”.

It’s a dangerous ploy, Orbán’s political rivals have warned.

“Unfortunately in history we have seen it many times – that when there is turbulence, there is an economic crisis, then the politics of hate is something that can preserve the power of the ruling party “, said Klára Dobrev, member of the European Union. Parliament of the Hungarian opposition Democratic Coalition party.

“It’s a one-way road,” she stressed, “from democracy to illiberal regimes, dictatorship or aggression.”

Helen D. Jessen