Understanding the rise of Orban: a lesson for western democracies in crisis

"Hungary comes first with us." Victor Orban electoral campaign poster in Miskolc, Hungary, March 2018. NurPhoto/Press Association. All rights reserved. The last couple of years have seen a
worrisome trend of rising illiberalism across democratic societies. President
Trump’s victory, the Brexit vote, emerging right-wing forces in Germany – these
are all examples that the liberal democratic consensus is in serious crisis.

The case of Hungary, whose fall into
illiberalism starting in 2010, preceding all others, offers key lessons to
understanding the causes of this crisis. After gradually coming to terms with
the nature of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s regime, the international community
has once again been shocked by the results of the
Hungarian elections in April. However, most observers seem to utterly
miss the angle that makes the story of Hungary's last decades a case-study with
international implications. Most observers utterly miss the angle that makes the story of Hungary's
last decades a case-study with international implications.

Viktor Orban’s electoral victories
did not happen in a vacuum – they were direct consequences of the
disillusionment that most Hungarians felt after 20 years of democracy. In the
wake of the fall of communism, the early 1990s made Hungary the poster child
for the post-communist transition: free-market capitalism backed by democratic
institutions was swiftly adopted, and after a sluggish start, the economy
experienced stable growth.

All this change was led by urban,
technocratic elites, who as ardent followers of the neoliberal orthodoxy,
promised people that Hungary would catch-up with the west in 15 years. As good
students of the then dominant deregulation theory they focused all their energy
on creating a textbook neoliberal wonderland: austerity measures,
privatization, deregulation, and courtship of multinational corporations ruled
the land. As a result, the country consistently ranked high in international
rankings. So what went wrong, what made people turn to a rising autocrat? As a result, the country consistently
ranked high in international rankings. So what went wrong, what made people
turn to a rising autocrat?

In fact, not far under this
enthusiastic surface a different story entirely had been developing. While on a
superficial level Hungary looked like a fairytale of a free-market transition,
the social conditions of the majority of the population entered a spiralling
decline.

As unchecked privatization and
deregulation gave all the fruits of growth to multinational corporations and
their small upper-middle class workforce, austerity measures took a heavy toll
on the education and health-care systems. Accordingly, social mobility froze,
and millions found their dreams for a better life crushed. The biggest victims
of these trends were working-class and small town communities. Forsaken by the
triumphant public discussions, these people’s everyday reality was steadily
rising mortality rates, crumbling hospitals, and schools, structural
unemployment, and status anxiety.

Meanwhile, the ruling liberal elites
seemed to be living in a bubble – they arrogantly denied even the existence of
these severe social problems and viewed struggling communities as groups of
backward Joe Six-Packs. No wonder that further strained by the global
recession, voters wanted radical change. Enter Viktor Orban, whose illiberalism
brought total state capture and wealth accumulation in favor of his inner
circles. Meanwhile, the
ruling liberal elites seemed to be living in a bubble – they… viewed struggling
communities as groups of backward Joe Six-Packs.

So an illiberal turn has the
following ingredients:

– neoliberal deregulation led by a
technocratic elite living in a bubble of detachment;

– masses left behind in their
struggle and despair putting all their hopes in a rising strongman;

– hatred for the distant and ignorant
elites and their cultural norms.

In the light of President’s Trump
rise to power, this may sound profoundly familiar. My personal experiences
confirm this: in 2016, just days before the presidential elections, I spent
some days in the small working-class towns of Southern Iowa. The stories I
heard from locals strongly echoed the ones I heard several times in the
Hungarian countryside. Popular resentment rooted in economic anxiety, and
strengthened by a hatred for the distant and ignorant elites and their cultural
norms, are all symptoms that could be observed in such different countries as
the US and Hungary. Thus, while democratic traditions and a healthy middle
class may provide shields against undemocratic turns, they are unable to halt
the threat if social cohesion is severely undermined as has happened in the US
and other western countries. Neoliberal practices open the door to undemocratic forces.

Because the best environment for the
rise of illiberalism is unchecked, deregulated capitalism, the final objective
of neoliberalism. By ruining the social fabric and postwar consensus of modern
western societies, neoliberal practices open the door to undemocratic forces.
Hence, capitalism without oversight has the inherent possibility to destroy
democracy – no matter how long it has been functioning in a given country.

So the lesson is clear: unless we
create socially and economically inclusive societies, our freedoms will always
be exposed to the attacks of extremist strongmen. In the last eight years, my
country has been learning this lesson the hard way. I hope that her example
will help others avoid a similar fate.

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