Hungary, Europe and the rise of populist nationalist politics

With a long weekend fast approaching for our American readers (Happy Memorial Day!), we’re offering a little recommended reading from Denis McShane, a former Minister for Europe and retired Labour Party MP from the United Kingdom. Mr. McShane wrote of the “drift to illiberal Pop-Nat” (populist nationalist) politics in much of Europe, and the gradual decline of moderate, centrist and liberal voices on the continent. Hungary features prominently in this process, which certainly extends beyond national boundaries and even crosses oceans. (One cannot help but think of the rather spectacular political rise of Donald Trump, to become the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party.)

Mr. McSchane writes the following for the left-leaning Social Europe website:

“There is no sign that the grip of Orbán-Kaczynski style politics is weakening.  They represent the soft EU version of Putin-Erdogan political control. Elections are held. A market economy exists. People can travel and publish. But the Pop-Nat political class slowly dissolves the separation of powers and seeks to influence or reduce judicial and media independence. (…) In Poland, 141 journalists have lost their jobs. The Pop-Nat states are defined by enemies – the US and the West for Putin; secular Ataturk traditions for Erdogan; liberal European values for Kaczynski. Religion has returned to centre-stage. Erdogan is re-islamising Turkey after the long reign of secular Ataturkism. Putin is seen regularly in Orthodox cathedrals while Kaczysnki preaches Catholic rules and essays a return to banning the Polish woman’s right to choose.”

The former Labour MP also suggests that Pop-Nat politics are appearing on the left as well, and points to the Syriza party in Greece and Podemos in Spain as examples of this trend. That having been said, I might add here that Syriza has moderated its politics and its message quite significantly during its almost 18 months in power and had little choice but to slowly morph into a relatively centrist, left-leaning party, if it was to meet the harsh terms of continued international loans to keep its financial system and economy on life support, and within the Euro Zone.

Mr. McShane, however, is correct to note that “the democratic left has been almost entirely eliminated from the politics of the new ex-communist EU member states.”

“Instead Pop-Nat leaders like Orbán, Kaczynski and Robert Fico in Slovakia have emerged to become the alternative vector of political mobilisation and government,” he adds.

Viktor Orbán and Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico. Photo:

Viktor Orbán and Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico. Photo:

Part of the problem in Hungary, I would argue, is that the Hungarian democratic left completely ceded the language of social justice to the Hungarian populist right during their years in power (2002-2010). Liberals in Hungary (especially those from the now defunct Alliance of Free Democrats – SZDSZ) managed to denigrate the definition of liberalism and the liberal political identity to meaning almost nothing other than low taxes, small government and privatization. They allowed for the construction of an endless list of shopping malls and box stores in Budapest and elsewhere, without ever considering the impact on local small businesses, communities and on the environment. They allowed for the demolition and displacement of large sections of the economically disadvantaged 8th District to build the shopping malls and condos of the so-called Corvin Negyed, without any concern about the displaced population–often Roma–who then ended up either in the neighbouring 9th District or in rural ghettos. They did nothing to reach out to those who were economically marginalized. Many of these voters drifted to Fidesz and Jobbik–both parties that were quick to detect and to then fill in this void.

The rise of Pop-Nat in Hungary is in large part the result of the failures and the lack of political acumen of Hungarian liberals and the left.


  1. Avatar András B. Göllner says:

    To give the Hungarian Liberals a bit of justice – they are not the only ones to botch up the democratic transition in Central and Eastern Europe. There are many reasons for the failure of the “Liberal Democratic” solution to the challenges of the 21st century, and it is imperative that we come to grips with these failures. But there is one question we cannot avoid: Is it Liberal Democracy or the Liberal Democratic class that failed us ? The two are not necessarily the same, even if the boisterous gang in the Nat Pop cavalcade would have us to conclude that it is.

    Blaming Communism for the failures of Stalin, or Gorbachev, is just as foolish, and fashionable a practices on the Right. .Throwing the baby out with the bathwater is much in fashion these days – we should be more prudent. It is this error, that is enshrined in the soon to be unveiled national monument to “The Victims of Communism” in Ottawa, that was initiated by the Right wing government of Stephen Harper. The monument’s largest donor, after the Federal Government, is non other than the government of Viktor Orbán, which is a self-professed enemy of Liberalism, and of the values professed by the Liberal Party of Canada and all those who have voted for them. Politics, they say, makes for strange bedfellows. Non would be stranger than the sight of Justin Trudeau and Viktor Orbán, standing next to each other in front of this monument.

    To conclude: The critical comments directed towards Hungary’s Left-Liberal coalition parties by Christopher Adam are perfectly valid, as are the views expressed by McShane. The big question is this – are Liberal Democrats able to learn from their mistakes, can they readjust and pull themselves up by the bootstraps ? Will they remain obsessively attached to remedies that kill the patient rather than cure the disease ?

  2. Avatar Liz Aucoin says:

    It is interesting that you bring up the Tribute to Liberty, the memorial to the victims of communism set to be erected in Ottawa. I have been a strong supporter of this initiative as I believe that the victims of communism are far reaching here in Canada as there are as many as 8 million Canadians affected by Communism through our parents and grandparents. I did see the report that the Hungarian government donated a large sum of money to this monument, but I would question their intentions with this. As a Canadian born Hungarian, who spent a major portion of my childhood and youth in Hungary, during the Kadar era, I don’t trust the intentions of the Orban government with regards to this donation. I am disgusted about what this monument is set to achieve here as I support it for its educational value to Canadians especially children who have no clue about how many of us have been deeply affected by communism and we must learn from these corrupt political systems and dictatorships, but I am also worried for what the new “illiberal democracies” that are popping up are doing to the future of these countries. National populism is on the rise not just in Europe, but as you can see, it is rearing its ugly head on this side of the pond as well as you can see with Trump. I also recently have been seeing more of it in Canadian politics as well. It is all about screwing over the populace and gaining power and money, it has nothing to do with creating better countries and a better world, or prosperity for all to equally enjoy. I fear for future generations.

  3. Avatar György Lázár says:

    At the recent AHEA conference in Washington DC I spoke about the „forgotten generation” of Hungarian refugees and/or immigrants 1959-1989. Over 130 thousand Hungarians left the country during this period and about 500 could enter the US annually. (Altogether about 15 thousand in the 30Y period.) Virtually all of us „disszidált”, left the country illegally, and in many cases there were various retributions by the Kádár-regime to family, property left behind… (I experienced it.) This was done by the Police, KISZ, MSZMP leaders and Human Resources executives („személyzetisek”) etc. To my amazement, lately the very same people show up here in the US as anti-Communists… In fact, it seems that the reason Orbán gave money to the US Victims of Communism outfit (1 million dollars) because they invite Hungarian ex-Communists and „whitewash” them by giving them anti-Communist credentials. (e.g. János Martonyi)

  4. Avatar András B. Göllner says:

    @ Liz Aucoin

    The important point the gets lost in the shuffle is this: Communism – the belief in the possibility of a Stateless society, based on communal ownership, non-exploitation of anyone’s labor, and equal opportunity for all to express their views – has been hijacked before the ink dried on the Manifesto. Christianity has also been hijacked many a times – but we don’t raise monuments to the victims of Christianity.

    You are absolutely right – we SHOULD have a monument to the victims of the hijackers of Communism, a monument to the victims of Bolshevik affinity fraud, that pretended to represent the interest of labor, and the working class, in order to secure a berth for its cadres at the proverbial through. There is an absolutely important lesson, that young Canadians should learn from this. And the victims of the hijacking should be remembered. My own family, and I personally have suffered at the hands of these hijackers. But I also know, that Mr Orbán, the Hungarian PM along with the top echelons of Fidesz were all part of the team that hijacked us all. He is a grand master of of affinity fraud. What has changed, since the hijackers of Communism have been swept from power in Hungary or Russia ? Basically nothing. Go see the film, Leviathan. It’s still the same affinity game, only the subject of the affinity has been altered. It’s now Christianity, the Nation, anti-Communism that is the lure, the “feeling”, the “emotion” that is being manipulated, in order to enable the current rulers to rob their country blind, to silence critics, to deny democratic governance.

    We should not only observe how Mr Orbán is pursuing his affinity fraud with the Canadian Liberal Party, but actively fight to unmask him in the circles we move in. That is our responsibility to the victims of affinity fraud.

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