How Corruption Politics Facilitated Hungary’s Response to the Refugee Crisis

Politicians using xenophobia as a tool for their political benefit is unfortunately common; the past few years have seen populist, far-right parties across Europe take stances that involve stirring nationalist sentiments by portraying their countries as figuratively—and, in their eyes, sometimes literally—under attack by foreigners who have come to reside there. Still, even as those parties’ popularity increases, they have largely not yet succeeded in taking full control of government. Not so in Hungary, where Prime Minister Victor Orbán’s centralist, ultra-nationalist variant on the theme holds sway, and where the country’s escalating efforts to “keep Europe Christian” by excluding Syrian refugees (as well as many other predominantly Muslim migrants and refugees) are extreme even compared to its neighbors.

The reasons for Orbán’s rise to and maintain power are numerous and complex. What has largely gone overlooked in media reports so far, however, is the important role that corruption has played, first in helping Orbán to the premiership, and then in influencing his anti-refugee/migrant policy.

  • First, Orbán played upon frustration with corruption to sweep the previous party out of power. Orbán became prime minister in 2010 largely thanks to public frustration with corruption under the more leftist MSZP. Orbán’s Fidesz party ran a campaign that eschewed substantive policy suggestions, or even much talk about itself, and focused instead on how “incompetent and corrupt” MSZP was. Though the case that came to epitomize MSZP’s corruption has nearly collapsed, it’s too late: the case had become a symbol of “the all-pervading corruption that allegedly characterized”  the MSZP’s rule. The perception of that corruption led to their loss and Fidesz’s victory.
  • Second, notwithstanding the fact that Fidesz ran on an anticorruption platform, once in office Orbán used suspiciously close (and arguably corrupt) alliances to consolidate his power.As Orbán directed the state to take control of an increasing number of businesses, he appointed “loyalists” throughout the state-owned companies, in addition to the media and the courts. He ensured their companies received the largest government contracts by “personally select[ing]” the winning bids, after having often already coercively “eliminated” the competition so that only one bid was received. One man who particularly benefited from this process, and rewarded Orbán in return, was Lajos Simicska, formerly a longtime friend and ally.  Orbán gave Simicska’s construction companies a “disproportionate” amount of government bids and used government money, via the medium of state advertising, to fund Simicska’s media companies. Even as the rest of the Hungarian construction industry began to struggle, Simicska’s companies thrived thanks to EU funds dispersed by a government ministry full of Simicska allies and former business partners. The government was also prone to passing laws that disadvantaged Simicska’s competitors. For his part, Simicska raised money and used the weight of his media empire to Orbán’s advantage.
  • Third, the corruption-related issues within Orbán’s own party pushed him to extreme anti-migrant posturing as a distraction. Although Fidesz resoundingly won the 2014 elections, by 2015 Orbán realized that his anticorruption angle was no longer viable: corruption concerns had led the European Commission to freeze its payments to Hungary, the revelation of various scandals had led to anticorruption protests, and Orbán’s popularity was declining. Around the same time, Orbán was further weakened by another situation whose seeds were planted by corruption. Orbán and Fidesz leadership, feeling threatened by Simicska’s success in placing his allies in important government jobs, decided to counter Simicska’s power and began to remove Simicska loyalists from their posts and took other acts which threatened the “legalized corruption” of his “media empire.” Angry, Simicska publicly dissolved his alliance with Orbán in a series of insult-filled interviews. No longer able to rely on favorable news coverage from Simicska’s media empire, facing strong opposition from the even further right Jobbik party, and seeing his own popularity fall due to the corruption allegations, Orbán began to seek a new way of rallying Hungary’s people behind him. Likely inspired by Jobbik’s own extreme xenophobic stances, he ultimately landed upon his current anti-refugee posture. He has largely succeeded in generating a sense that refugees threaten Hungary, which has in turn reversed Fidesz’s declining popularity.

At this point, one might reasonably ask why any of this matters to anyone other than a political historian. The reason is that Hungary’s case suggests that when a party isn’t able to follow through on its anticorruption promises, it may resort to bringing fringe xenophobia into the mainstream. That particular lesson isn’t limited to corruption; a party may resort to insular nationality when it fears a decline in its popularity for any reason. However, there is a certain fear of losing touch with the “virtues of duty, cleanliness, …order,… [and] purity” that the politicized versions of both anticorruption and xenophobia tap into. That commonality may make transferring supporters picked up through one of those techniques more susceptible to the second technique when, for some reason—like the revelation of corruption within one’s own party—the original technique is no longer viable.

Perhaps more pointedly, though, Orbán’s decision to gin up fear of an influx of Muslim refugees is a useful indicator as to what his true Achilles heel actually is. If the anticorruption critique he was beginning to face had no potency, he would not have felt the need to resort to this distraction—and having successfully harnessed that critique to defeat the previous government, he knows how effective it can be. As thousands of Hungarians risk arrest to alleviate the immediate needs of the refugees who have fled to their country, they would do well to also keep an eye on a long-term strategy for removing the government responsible for the policies they so detest—and it seems likely that the rhetoric of anticorruption should have a prominent role in that strategy.

12 thoughts on “How Corruption Politics Facilitated Hungary’s Response to the Refugee Crisis

  1. Pingback: How Corruption Politics Facilitated Hungary’s Response to the Refugee Crisis | Anti Corruption Digest

  2. Thank you for this great post. As you pointed out the issue of extreme political parties using corruption as a political tool and use the public frustration to win elections is unfortunately more and more common across the world and in Europe particularly. For instance a year and half ago, the military coup in Thailand was allegedly justified by the need to fight corruption. In the same way, the Front National in France is currently using corruption as well as growing concerns about immigration as part of its campaign. The fact that this line of action works shows the public seems to attach a big importance to anticorruption.
    I wonder if these political parties, once elected, are actually taking any anticorruption measures / reforms or if they just use anticorruption as a façade to win elections.

    • I’d add Alexei Nevalny in Russia, Narendra Modi in India, and Jimmy Morales in Guatemala to the list of anticorruption/good governance/outsider political leaders with ties to xenophobia, nationalism, or at least anti-minority group sentiment (all to different extents). Oh, and perhaps Donald Trump…

    • It’s a question worth further study (and further posts). Without having done that study, I’d guess that there’s rarely much of a sincere effort, outside of more politically-oriented anticorruption tactics, especially given the difficulty of making real change in that field.

      An additional danger that some of the figures you two mention raise is that if the anticorruption stance is strong enough, other countries may overlook the worrisome xenophobic strands in these figures’ ideology (though that’s not necessarily limited just to anticorruption campaigns–there’s a danger of it being true whenever an opposition group is opposing a government which other countries dislike or want to see lose power).

  3. Thanks for all this interesting insight. I don’t think many people would think it rare that a winning party or candidate changed a position or took part in activity in ways opposite to what was promised in a campaign. As you pointed out, there does seem to be an interesting consonance between xenophobia and rhetoric against corruption that might make it easier to leverage the same constituents for the former once the latter has ceased to be effective. I wonder if it could work the other way and, also, if it could be argued that outsiders were also bringing corruption. That is, in certain situations, it might be possible to link xenophobia to rhetoric about rooting out corruption by identifying some joint cause of both. For example, there were many reports of xenophobic violence in South Africa in the spring. Do you have a sense if the sides there and the sides more recently in the ANC protests would have been the same or drawn on the same constituents?

    • With the caveat that someone actually engaging with the people involved in South Africa would have a better understanding, my sense is there that there was some difference between the two groups. The inspiration behind the movements was somewhat different (the violence, I think, may relate more directly to frustrations about poverty and jobs; arguably corruption could contribute to that, but I’m not sure that that perception has taken hold). I’d also venture that the cities where the anticorruption movement has been based are different than where most of the xenophobic violence has been based (though that’s an overgeneralization). Still, you could be on to something with that theory!

  4. Thanks for a great post! The cleanliness link between corruption and xenophobia rhetoric is really interesting, as is the point you bring up about the Hagyo case that ultimately fizzled becoming the face of the movement. It seems like that case was noticeably far-fetched on its face and still managed to become a symbol of pervasive corruption, which is perhaps a reason to worry about other politicians (potentially unfairly) becoming scapegoats for corruption when convicted by public opinion but not a court, especially if their situations are more plausible than an experienced crook openly extorting a stranger (as was allegedly the case in the Hagyo incident).

    • That is a worrying thread that I hadn’t picked up on, and I think you’re right–it does speak to the potential power that this narrative can have. I suppose the flip side of that danger (if I’m trying to be glass-half-full) is that if harnessed, it might be able to be used against politicians who the “good guys” want to get out of power. Slightly tangential, but the thought you’ve just inspired (as well as what I mention in my last paragraph) has me wondering if there’s a difference in the effectiveness of anticorruption rhetoric based on whether one is in power or in opposition trying to get into power–is it easier to use and easier to persuade the public in one or the other position?

      • I would imagine that running on an anti corruption campaign is far easier when you have not yet been in power; if an incumbent runs on the platform, people will be able to contrast the rhetoric to their experiences and what they’ve heard about bribery and other corruption lately. If if is a fresh face making the promises, there will be nothing to compare it to.

        That being said, it seems like it would be hardest for an incumbent to “get away” with pervasive petty corruption, which would be closest to the lived experiences of so many voters. Grand corruption can in certain places be easier to hide and easier to seem like you are cracking down on with a few well placed show trials.

  5. On this same issue, I wonder if there is anything politicians running on an anticorruption platform can do dispel any fears that the platform is a facade for power grab intentions. Did the Fidesz campaign mention any specific reforms he would bring to combat corruption? When attacking the MSZP, did Orban make any distinction between their practices and what his intentions for the office (beyond vague proclamations of fighting corruption at every level)? This post reminds me of China’s President Xi Jinping’s expansive and (by some measures) successful anticorruption campaign. Since taking office in 2013, President Xi’s party has already identified and penalized hundreds of corrupt politicians, and enacted policies aimed at curbing political graft. Granted, some are calling the campaign a facade for silencing his political opposition, but he has also penalized officials on his side of the aisle and promulgated policies that limit his own power. Regardless of how you think about his motives though, President Xi is indisputably carrying out his anti-corruption campaign. Can these results be replicated in a democracy?

  6. Thank you for this excellent post. Initially I was dubious about this link between corruption and nativism/racism, but your piece and the sheer number of examples other people have thought of has really made me rethink my position.

    All that said, I still think we need to be careful about confusing correlation and causation here. While Orban and Hungary may be worst than most European countries, nativist tendencies — in the wake of the flood of Syrian refugees — seem only be on the rise. And in light of the tragedy in Paris, I imagine anti-Muslim sentiment will only get worse. I suspect there will be incentives for any failing political party, regardless of their relationship to corruption, to latch onto those sentiments and try to change their political fortunes.

    • I agree with Courtney’s assessment that any failing political party might be incentivized to latch onto nativist sentiments, and that there might be a correlation/causation problem. Migration flows are notably visible phenomena–in addition to being an attractive, visible issue for failing parties to capitalize on, migration is an issue that parties in power may be forced to address as it becomes increasingly visible to the public. Thus, where there already exists underlying xenophobic public sentiment, in order to stave off any further criticism, parties experiencing potential threats to power may be more likely to adopt rhetoric reflecting existing public sentiment. Ultimately, I agree that this all supports Katie’s point that this narrative might support that Orban’s real Achille’s heel is corruption, but it might also be that any administration being criticized especially needs to bend to public sentiment (including xenophobia). On that view, corrupt/criticized parties might just be more (perversely) responsive to sentiments like nativism (that don’t necessarily require reforming one’s corrupt ways) rather than actively seeking nativism as a convenient external tool to introduce to distract a disgruntled citizenry.

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