Hungary on the Cutting Edge
Budapest’s populist conservatism may foreshadow a post-midterms recovery.
In November 1956, a glimmer of hope flickered behind the Iron Curtain. In late October, Hungarians had dared to defy the mighty Soviet Union, rising up in revolution in the streets of Budapest and toppling the Communist regime imposed on them after World War II. The rebellion was quickly and resoundingly crushed by November 11. But it revealed something shocking: the USSR was vulnerable. This was the first successful overthrow of a Moscow-backed government in the Soviet era. Decades before the Berlin Wall fell, the Hungarians won themselves a vanishingly brief taste of post-Soviet freedom.
It was not the first time Hungary found itself at the forefront of political change in the West. The 1222 “Golden Bull,” for instance, limited the power of the Hungarian king and granted rights to nobles just seven years after the promulgation of the Magna Carta in England. The 1568 Edict of Torda in the Hungarian region of Transylvania is “widely considered as the first legal decree of religious freedom in the modern history of Europe,” as Gergely Rosta writes in The Social Significance of Religion in the Enlarged Europe. Hungary’s 1848 Revolution against Austrian Habsburg rule was at the leading edge of the European “Spring of Nations,” a period of several months that saw a cascade of uprisings across the continent. And following the 1956 revolution, the regime—wary of igniting another rebellion—implemented a set of liberalizing reforms known as “goulash Communism” that resembled the “perestroika” policy the Soviets implemented several decades later.
For its over 1,100 years of existence, Hungary has been surrounded by stronger powers. It has endured Mongol incursions, Ottoman rule, and Austrian domination and was a battleground of both the Nazis and the Soviets in World War II. Today, it borders a nation at war and is a member of a European Union that increasingly treats it as an outcast. Balázs Orbán, top advisor to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (no relation), writes in The Hungarian Way of Strategy that the history of Hungary can largely be summed up as “an epic struggle to maintain and regain sovereignty.” Because of its fierce desire for independence and its difficult position at the crossroads of Europe, it has always been—and will continue to be—forced to confront global trends. The United States, powerful and far removed from competitors, has the luxury to ignore trends. Hungary does not. It must win its independence through fierce struggle with the forces of the day.
If historical precedent is any guide, the state of affairs in Hungary today offers intriguing insights into emerging political currents. The rise of Hungary’s Fidesz party in 2010, under the leadership of Viktor Orbán, prefigured the wave of conservative populism in the West that appeared later in the 2010s. The rise of Fidesz as a populist party came years before Trump and Brexit put the spotlight on the conservative populist phenomenon in the West. It came years before voters in Poland—a strong ally of Hungary in the European Union—delivered a majority to the conservative Law and Justice party. The fall of 2022 was marked by a conservative victory in—of all places—Sweden, driven by the success of the populist Sweden Democrats and their pledge to curb immigration. While next door in Denmark voters re-elected center-left Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen on November 1, it was likely due in part to her Social Democrats party’s strategy of courting right-wing voters with a restrictive position on migration. In October, the Italian right-wing coalition led by Giorgia Meloni secured a commanding election victory. In Brazil, while Jair Bolsonaro, the “Tropical Trump,” narrowly lost his October bid for re-election, he drastically outperformed the polls’ expectations. The rise of Fidesz also pre-dated the emergence of unabashed anti-“woke” Republican stars like Ron DeSantis in the United States. If historians look back on the current era as a conservative populist moment, they may very well regard Hungary as having been ahead of the curve once again.
The currents present in conservatism throughout the world today bear some striking similarities to the Fidesz agenda. Hungary began building a wall on its southern border to stem mass illegal migration the same month Trump announced his presidential run in 2015. This strict stance on migration—initially condemned by other European nations—has now been emulated in several EU member states as well as in EU policy in Brussels. Orbán has not minced words on the issue, referring to it in September as a “civilizational threat” with adverse impacts that have already become clear in Western Europe.
And Fidesz wasted no time delving into cultural battles. In 2011, for instance, it promulgated a new constitution declaring that “Hungary shall protect the institution of marriage as the union of a man and a woman.” Hungary took a stand against the teaching of LGBT ideology in schools in 2021, a year before Florida passed a strikingly similar bill under the leadership of Governor Ron DeSantis. From early in the 2010s, Fidesz has prioritized Christian education, fostering an increase in the amount of Christian schools and amending public school curriculum to include religion classes. While Hungary is not a particularly religious country—only 17% attend worship on a monthly basis—Orbán often refers to its Christian identity. “Christianity in Hungary is a matter not of choice, but of definition,” he remarked shortly before Pope Francis’s visit to Hungary in 2021. “There is a cultural, even a civilizational battle going on right now; the fight for the soul and future of Europe is here, it is happening here.” Fidesz’s focus on Christian values also led to the 2016 launch of Hungary Helps, an organization of the Hungarian government aimed at aiding persecuted Christians in the Middle East and Africa.
Campaign slogans used by Fidesz—“Our Message to Brussels: Respect Hungarians” in 2014 and “For Us, Hungary is First” in 2018—fit right in with Trump’s “America First,” the Brexit campaign’s “Take Back Control,” and Giorgia Meloni’s “Italy and Italians First.” The insistence on prioritizing the nation’s interests over those of international organizations is a hallmark of the conservative populist turn in Hungary and throughout the West. While Fidesz backed EU accession in 2003, it has had a variety of spats with Brussels over domestic policy issues since then on matters related to courts, media, and the constitution, among others. The most recent iteration has been the disagreement between Brussels and Budapest on the approach to the war in Ukraine. Orbán has voiced opposition to involvement in the war and the EU’s economic sanctions against Russia, which he believes threaten his own country’s security and economic well-being.
If Hungary’s predictive track record continues, what might it reveal about the future of conservatism in the coming decades?
For one, it would suggest that tomorrow’s conservatives will act more boldly on social issues, not content to merely win elections from time to time, but to actively make gains in the culture. “There was a saying in Fidesz that from 1998 to 2002, we were in government but we weren’t in power,” notes Rodrigo Ballester, Head of the Centre for European Studies at the Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC), alluding to the party’s first term leading government. “They were the first one to understand that if you want to be in power, you also have to fight the cultural hegemony of the left—universities, institutions, media, everything.” Despite accusations of curtailing freedoms, Orbán has laid out a blueprint for what that could look like, promoting conservative-friendly education (Ballester points to the MCC as a prime example) and media. Fidesz has managed to build a conservative movement that enjoys broad, successful coalitions. The party suffered losses to left-wing coalitions led by the Hungarian Socialist Party in 2002 and 2006, but has appeared invincible since 2010, winning two-thirds parliamentary majorities in every election. Even when the disparate opposition parties united as a single force in last April’s election, Fidesz still sailed to victory with an outright majority of the popular vote.
The divide between Right and Left throughout the world is increasingly a divide between the working class and elites, Ballester argues, and Orbán has leaned into this new reality. The cornerstone of Orbán’s strategy is to “nurture and fuel the middle class,” he says. “Fidesz is a party that manages to stay in touch with the wishes, complaints, and aspirations of the majority of the Hungarian people.” Ballester points to Fidesz’s use of “national consultations,” surveys sent to citizens regarding a particular issue. Late last year, for example, Hungarians filled out surveys on the EU sanctions related to the war in Ukraine. Especially notable given the attention on shifting voting demographics in U.S. politics, Orbán’s coalition has won strong support from the Roma, Hungary’s largest minority group.
After months of predictions ended in an underwhelming U.S. midterm election performance for Republicans, American conservatives will spend the years leading up to 2024 reading the political climate and charting a course forward accordingly. Don’t be surprised if their conclusions end up looking a lot like those of Hungary.
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