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Orban and Vucic triumphant: liberalism in peril

KEVIN OVENDEN looks at how the Hungarian and Serbian elections failed to go the way the political centre wanted — and why that is as much the fault of the neoliberal opposition as it is due to support for the hard right

SUNDAY’S ELECTIONS in Hungary and Serbia saw the return of incumbent right-wing nationalist leaders Viktor Orban and Aleksander Vucic against widespread predictions that they would do worse.

Orban’s Fidesz party won 135 of the 199 seats in the Hungarian parliament, giving him a two-thirds majority and a fifth term as prime minister. Vucic increased his direct vote for the presidency to 2.18 million. His party lost support in the parliamentary elections but that did not go to the liberal opposition. In both countries parties of the far right gained as did those ranging from sceptical of the West and its institutions through to pro-Russian.

The result should temper the triumphalism of politicians of the liberal centre who hailed first the victory of Emmanuel Macron in France five years ago and then of Joe Biden in the US as the vanquishing of “populism,” the restoration of “normal” politics and the inexorable advance of “progressive” capitalism.

Now there is rising Establishment panic — part real, part to boost Macron’s vote — about this month’s French presidential election. The crisis of liberal strategy in eastern Europe is not confined to there.

Instead of facing reality, the conventional explanation for the election results, Hungary’s especially, is corruption, gerrymandering, fettering of the media and other anti-democratic measures.

Those are real. Most of Hungary’s media is allied to Fidesz. The owner of the company monopolising billboard advertising is a friend of Orban’s. The state broadcaster gives precious little airtime to the opposition. Public institutions have been co-opted. All that, however, cannot explain the scale of the result or why Fidesz was level-pegging with the opposition bloc last November only to win a crushing victory on Sunday.

Nor can it account for why the extreme right Mi Hazank party broke through with seven MPs despite lacking the patronage it had from Orban’s media machine three years ago when he used it to break up the party it had just emerged from.

The reality is that despite the rigged political system (which in Europe, in type if not scale, is far from unique to Hungary) politics has taken place and most voters’ choices do not conform to what liberal-capitalist politicians insist they be.

Orban has balanced between the Russian state and the EU/Nato for a decade. So he condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine but has opposed sanctions.

That stance, we were assured five weeks ago, would damage him in the election.

The argument was that ordinary Hungarians would rally to Western-supported opposition parties as a way to register their anger at Russia — they do oppose Putin’s invasion — and as a guarantee of national security in the face of “Moscow’s expansionism.” The opposition said they would topple “Hungary’s Putin.”

It turns out that people’s thinking in Hungary is not the same as the one-dimensional propaganda that uses the atrocities in Ukraine to argue for a stronger Nato and EU.

Orban said he was going to keep Hungary out of the war and he continued to walk the tightrope. He won handsomely. Other parties and groupings of the right went further in calling for Hungary never to deploy its military for Nato missions and for Nato troops out of the country. There were slogans such as “we won’t die in Nato’s war.” Those parties gained.

Their slogan was often fused with highly nationalist and racist positions. But it tapped a mood that is not right-wing. There was no radical-left force leading a popular sentiment against war in a good direction.

The opposition Blairite social democrats want more Nato and seemed to agree with Ukrainian state demands that ordinary Hungarians should accept higher fuel prices as “an act of solidarity.”

The thrust of its campaign was over corruption, democratic norms, and improving relations with the EU.

Of course the defence of democratic rights — even the thinnest and most formalistic in the case of parliamentary processes and the rule of law — is important. While the opposition spoke in abstract nouns about democratic procedures and the judiciary, however, Orban talked about the economy, people’s way of life and a nationalist economic recovery plan that enough people thought credible.

That has been a pattern over the last decade. Orban has used the powers of the state to take important parts of the economy not into democratic public control but to promote political allies into business. It is corrupt. So was the shock therapy in Hungary and elsewhere in the 1990s and 2000s. That and those responsible remain seared into public consciousness.

But Orban’s model of the state allied to billionaires has also a logic that cuts against the capitalist globalisation that has favoured the global multinationals at the expense of both working people and weaker national capitals.

His government, for example, plans to use taxation and regulatory powers to take swathes of food retail from multinational into domestic, supposedly nationally minded, capitalist hands. It is a popular policy in an epoch of food insecurity and chaotic supply chains.

The flipside of building up a “Hungary first” business class is a nationalist welfare policy. It is in no way socialist but has brought public jobs to poorer areas, though with unemployment benefit cuts to “encourage the virtue of work” — except for women pressed to rearing children as their national duty.

It is similar to the social policy of the Catholic national-conservative and equally anti-democratic government in Poland. It was in the EU’s sin bin alongside Hungary until recently. The Polish government’s fanatical calls for more militarisation and confrontation with Russia (and thus for its own expansion as a serious regional power) have washed its sins away, for now.

Sooner or later Orban’s attempt at crony-capitalist national corporatism is going to come crashing down — though the opposition’s politics are holding it up.

When they talk about corruption, they equate the Hungarian version of the British government’s track and trace scandal with public work schemes in the villages and towns. Now, those can be a source of clientelism. Orban polls best in the poorest areas. But the jobs are as real as under Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1930s America. To sunder Orban’s authoritarian political machine from the needed jobs and investment, you need to stand on a platform of more jobs and investment, not on the nostrums of the old neoliberal order.

You need politics of radical class redistribution and economic reorganisation, not moaning that the “wrong” businessmen and their political gang are running things, so we need to put the right ones in — that is, those who oversaw the 1990s privatisations and the devastation following the 2008 crisis.

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica, a specialist in eastern European politics at the Universtity of Glasgow, makes a similar point about Vucic in Serbia who has also balanced between the EU and Russia.

He “appears to have done just enough to maintain high levels of public support, which are also based on years of incoming Foreign Direct Investment, a strong grip on the media, and major clientelist networks — as well as voter intimidation.”

Recent plans to sell off at fire sale prices mining rights to Serbia’s lithium deposits showed the contradictions in such a strategy. It provoked a huge social movement across the country that forced the government to retreat.

A new “green left alliance” was thus expected to make a major breakthrough as a result. Yet as Unkovski-Korica says, leading figures “not only condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but supported EU sanctions against Russia. Although this might have been calculated at increasing the coalition’s vote... by appealing to disenchanted liberal voters, it would not have gone down well with many more citizens who might have been tempted to vote for a new, vaguely left-sounding formation.”

The Greens entered parliament but well short of the predicted 7 per cent. Most people in Serbia see China and Russia as better allies to their country than the EU. Hungary was condemned in western capitals for buying China’s Covid vaccine. Hungarian public opinion is similar to Serbian.

This mismatch between official liberalism and popular opinion goes wider. Those in Britain urging a “progressive alliance” ought to consider these Hungarian and Serbian results where the progressive parties, marching at the pace of the most conventional, formed just such a pact. They lost.

Instead of make-do observations or chauvinist stereotypes about those in the east by way of explanation, the labour movement in Britain should look things in the eye.

Over two decades of the centre trying to smash the radical left have not produced a liberal paradise. Orban and Vucic are the result of that and of broadly left sentiment being corralled behind all sorts of NGO and centrist contraptions.

That the nationalist right did not do as well in Budapest or Belgrade is little comfort. The issue is why the progressive opposition did so badly in smaller cities, towns and villages where most people happen to live. That is a pattern across Europe, east and west. The only recent exception was Syriza’s win in Greece in 2015.

The case for return to class politics and to rebuilding the radical left on a stronger basis than before is not nostalgic. The centre cannot win the support of the poorest layers or of the working class.

No offering of progressive lifestylism to the university city and fake patriotism and Nato-ism to the dying town will turn this around in Britain or elsewhere.

The labour movement has to reassert a politics of radical social and political transformation, whether or not that is reflected in the current parliament.

That means class. That means socialist politics of anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. We need that east and west.

Twitter: @kevin_ovenden.

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