Viktor Orbán, the triumphant?

“Not a single refugee will step foot in here. This I can guarantee,” said Robert Kaliňák, Slovakia’s interior minister, on his way home from the EU summit called to deal with the most significant refugee crisis since World War II. Prime Minister Robert Fico’s populist left-wing government is obtaining technology from an American company called Hesco Bastion, which will allow it to erect a type of temporary, mobile barrier along key portions of its border with Hungary. The barrier is quick and easy to erect, requires fewer soldiers or police than the construction of a fence, but it is not generally used to secure borders over very long distances. 

But with the end of the EU summit, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán looked more like a winner, and Slovakia’s Fico government more like a tough-talking Slovak sidekick of their Hungarian big brother. Slovak nationalists won’t like this depiction one bit, but then again, the rabidly anti-Hungarian far-right politician, Marián Kotleba, surprised many by telling Mr. Orbán in a very friendly letter that “if Hungary falls, Slovakia will fall next, and then all of Europe,” as he heaped praise on the Hungarian prime minister for his tough stance on refugees.

Viktor Orbán chats with  the Christian Social Union leadership of Bavaria. CSU politicians have been supportive of Mr. Orbán's tough stance on refugees and critical of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photo: Viktor Orbán's Facebook page.

Viktor Orbán chats with the Christian Social Union leadership of Bavaria. CSU politicians have been supportive of Mr. Orbán’s tough stance on refugees and critical of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photo: Viktor Orbán’s Facebook page.

One could say that having friends like Mr. Kotleba isn’t much to write home about. But the fact is that Mr. Orbán has managed to pacify the perpetually confused Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) on the issue of refugees, to the point where the Socialists are effectively in agreement with the prime minister on his handling of the affair and the prime minister’s six points for solving the crisis, as presented in Brussels. Attila Mesterházy, the MSZP’s former leader, categorically declared that he can support Mr. Orbán’s six points, which include having the EU play a role in bolstering Greece’s borders against the arrival of further migrants, the creation of a list of safe countries accepted by all EU states, assessing whether or not to grant asylum status before a prospective refugee arrives within the Schengen Area, the fair worldwide distribution of refugees, so that Europe is not bearing the burden alone, special partnerships  and agreements with Turkey and Russia, which would then play a critical role in addressing the refugee crisis, and a requirement for all EU member states to collectively raise the amount of money that they contribute to the EU’s joint coffers.

Speaking on behalf of the tiny Hungarian Liberal Party, István Szent Iványi joined Mr. Mesterházy in praising Mr. Orbán’s plan, noting that “this is a realistic and good proposal.”

While Mr. Orbán was praised by these two left-centre parties, Hungary’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Péter Szijjártó, received criticism for confusing his role as a spokesperson of the Fidesz party with his duties as the country’s foreign minister. Hungary’s diplomatic relations were in tatters and something had to be done to repair the damage–the Socialist and Liberal politicians agreed on this point.

What is really unfortunate, yet sadly in character, is that the democratic opposition was again several steps behind when it came to both formulating and effectively communicating their proposed strategy on the refugee crisis. All of the democratic opposition parties seem to constantly be playing a game of catch-up with Mr. Orbán, where they do little more than react to the government, but seldom act proactively by making a proposal, engaging the population and when they have some level of engagement, applying pressure on the government.

Mr. Orbán likes it just fine the way it is, I am sure. He can continue to dominate and fully dictate the parameters of the discourse on any issue, and the opposition will effectively work within those parameters without ever pushing the envelope and will usually act and speak in a way that is entirely predictable for the government. And one of Mr. Orbán’s political talents is to take the pulse of the population on an issue like migration or immigration, then make bombastic, scandalous statements that will enrage and horrify certain political and intellectual elites–who will, in turn, speak up and condemn these messages–while much of the population quietly nods their head in agreement with the strongman prime minister, seeing the “weak-kneed” liberal intelligentsia as being out of touch with reality.

The Hungarian democratic opposition and liberal intellectuals were absolutely right to stand up for certain principles surrounding a compassionate response to a crisis that has engulfed the region, and to speak out against government-sanctioned xenophobia. But what they consistently fail to do is to explain their message effectively to Hungarian society, to have real dialogue with voters at the local level and to discuss their principles with them.

Hungary’s democratic opposition does not have its ear to the ground. That’s one thing Mr. Orbán has been doing for a long time, and he has built a political career on feeling the pulse of the nation and then being several steps ahead of his opponents.

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