Hungary’s deluded, xenophobic prime minister has become the new József Torgyán

I was a teenager living in Budapest, when József Torgyán, the colourful chair of the right-wing populist Independent Smallholders’ Party (FKGP), bumbled his way through Hungarian party politics for over a decade, following the transition to democracy. He was, essentially, a self-important fuddy-duddy: the awkward uncle that both amuses, but at times causes embarrassment for the family.  Under Socialist Prime Minister Gyula Horn (1994-1998), Mr. Torgyán implied that the birth rate was in decline, because “Hungarian women didn’t want to produce kids for the prime minister.” His attempts to trade cherries with Chile and his decision to pump hundreds of millions of forints in state funds into the coffers of a struggling soccer team were seen as bizarre, erratic decisions. Today, Mr. Torgyán is 82 years old, has long been exiled from active politics and his once reasonably powerful party effectively ceased to exist over 12 years ago. (FKGP did run in the 2014 elections, but only garnered 0.16% of the vote.) He occasionally makes strange and desperate appearances in reality television shows, and clearly misses the limelight of national politics.

Mr. Torgyán (left) chatting  with a much younger Mr. Orbán (right), about 15 years ago.

Mr. Torgyán (left) chatting with a much younger Mr. Orbán (right), about 15 years ago.

Yet when I saw Mr. Orbán speak to the European Parliament and earlier heard what he had to say about homophobia (there isn’t any in Hungary, but the LGBT community had better not be too provocative), he sounded like the stereotypical middle-aged eastern European male: folksy, with a faux macho element,  who thrives on being perceived as stubbornly ‘old-fasioned’ (regressive is the more appropriate term here), and ready to battle the tides of change…especially if this change is proposed by “sensitive” and “weak-kneed” liberal-types.

Speaking in Strasbourg, Mr. Orbán held back no punches, when it came to his anti-immigration platform. “The proposal on the table from the European Commission is absurd, bordering on insanity (…) Member states have to protect their own borders. I think it’s insane to propose letting in all immigrants to Europe,” said Mr. Orbán to the European Parliament’s lawmakers on Tuesday.  He then raised his newly-found pet project, namely: talking up the entirely unlikely possibility of reinstating the death penalty. Mr. Orbán is now framing this as an issue of free speech, with westerners and liberals apparently curtailing these rights. “This is not about the death penalty… This is about freedom of expression and freedom of thought,” said Mr. Orbán.  Frans Timmermans of the European Commission rebuked Mr. Orbán by confirming that there is agreement at the helm of the EU on this issue. “Don’t make a caricature of the plans of this Commission, because we’re on the same page,” said Mr. Timmermans.

Prime Minister Orbán on Tuesday, in the European Parliament.

Prime Minister Orbán on Tuesday, in the European Parliament.

Mr. Orbán also spoke to his preferance for a culturally and ethnically homogeneous Hungary, and implied that Hungarians have no history of multiculturalism, like the former colonial powers of western Europe, who in his mind are driving the EU’s agenda. What’s fascinating about this statement and perception on the part of the prime minister is not that it is a complete misrepresentation of Hungarian history, starting from the times of St. Stephen all the way to the demise of Austria-Hungary after World War I, but that Mr. Orbán is doing what the right-wing often accuses the left-wing of engaging in: of only seeing the post-Trianon Hungarian nation and state, and of trying to build a national identity that is tied not to a greater, pre-1920 Hungary, but rather to the far smaller, and more homogeneous post-World War I state. János Kádár, Hungary’s former Soviet era dictator, was sometimes perceived as trying to construct a new, post-Trianon Hungarian identity. If Mr. Orbán believes that Hungarians have a heritage of homogeneity, and that multiculturalism, living side-by-side people of different faiths, languages and cultures, is unfamiliar to Hungarians, then he truly does have a deeply warped view of the country’s history.

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