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.