When European Parliament’s largest and most influential political party votes today on whether or not to expel Hungary’s right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party, it will be a choice to either reject a nationalist movement that has threatened the state of democracy in Hungary, or normalize it.
Since first taking power in 2010, Orban has gradually chipped away at democratic institutions in his country, severely restricting the scope of independent media and civil society, curtailing education curriculums is not in line with his far-right ideology and cracking down on dissenters deemed tools of an alleged liberal conspiracy. Now, he has his sights set on a greater role in the European Union with the all-important European elections scheduled in May.
As a part of his strategy to win votes, Orban has employed a tactic that has elevated him to his status as autocrat at home — using an anti-migrant platform to pigeonhole opponents as enemies of the state. But Europe is not Hungary, and he may have gone too far for the European People’s Party, which Fidesz is a member of, after installing billboards attacking European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker. The party will decide today in Brussels if Orban’s various offences are enough to warrant expulsion.
“There are reasonable, serious grounds to conclude that Fidesz is in breach of EPP values and principles. It has crossed red lines and it has not kept the commitments that have been jointly agreed,” Petteri Orpo, president of the National Coalition Party of Finland wrote in a letter to the head of the EPP on March 1.
Orban has for years been a thorn in the side of the political establishment in Brussels, particularly when it comes to immigration. As a part of his most recent media campaign in the run-up to the European elections, the Hungarian government accuses EU leaders of launching experimental immigration projects with African countries, introducing mandatory settlement quotas and reducing financial assistance for countries opposed to migration.
But the campaign has also stoked antisemitism at home while linking officials in Brussels with vilified Hungarian-American financier and billionaire George Soros, who is a frequent target of the Hungarian government. Earlier this month, Orban referred to his would-be ousters in the EPP as “useful idiots.” The comments forced an apology from Orban.
“For voters like me, the fact that he’s mocking Juncker or [first vice-president of the European Commission] Franz Timmermans… is a kind of childish mockery, but was nonetheless the last straw for the EPP that they needed to solve this problem,” said Hungary expert and visiting professor of the Central European University (CEU), Petra Bard.
In Hungary, Orban maintains a parliamentary supermajority after dominating a one-sided national election last year, using the opportunity to declare an end to the liberal democracy that has existed in there since the fall of communism. He then used his newfound power to push through a series of repressive new rules, including a controversial package of laws in June that criminalized the act of helping undocumented migrants, while also making it virtually impossible for those migrants to settle in Hungary.
The changes were so damaging to Hungary’s democracy that U.S.-based nonprofit Freedom House last month downgraded Hungary’s status as a free nation to a ‘partly free’ nation. For civil society actors that have frequently been the victim of Orban’s relentless attacks, tomorrow’s vote is long overdue.
“Fidesz’s policies have led to the dismantling of key democratic checks-and-balance, including media pluralism, freedom of association and judiciary independence,” Philippe Dam, advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch told TRT World. “This is clearly at odds with the EPP Charter…and the EPP should wake up to the threat it represents for itself and for Europe, instead of shielding Orban from scrutiny for a handful of votes at the EP [European Parliament].”
Currently, Fidesz makes up an important part of EPP’s voting bloc and like several European far-right parties is expected to pick up more seats in the May election. Still, while it is uncertain what the result of tomorrow’s vote will be, the EPP’s willingness to exclude Fidesz from the party so close to the parliamentary elections underscores the seriousness of the charges, said Balazs Jarabik, a nonresident scholar of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Europe think-tank.
“[The EPP] is genuinely upset by the situation. Wherever they go the question arises, what are you going to do with Orban,” he said.
Last week, Orban said he would prefer stay within the EPP and move its agenda towards an anti-immigration platform, but he also said that he was open to quitting the EPP and recruiting far-right allies to start a new party. Jarabik said the latter decision would likely not look so good to voters if he was forced out of the EPP.
“[Orban] wants to have a choice. If he is kicked out, he will not have a choice and it will weaken his position,” he said.
A Hungarian government spokesman said earlier this month that the campaign against Juncker was due to end on March 15, while local media in Hungary are reporting today that the government is covering up the controversial posters in last-minute bid to retain EPP membership.
Orban and his Fidesz party are already fighting an uphill battle with EU after the European Parliament in September took the unprecedented step of triggering Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union for undermining democratic rules. If found in breach of treaty, Hungary could among other things lose its voting rights in the European Council.
Nevertheless, he has made it very clear that if Fidesz were excluded from the EPP, he would begin courting Poland’s own ruling populist party, Law and Justice (PiS), which is not an EPP member.
“The debate may end up with [Fidesz] finding its place not within but outside the People’s party,” he told Hungarian public radio on Friday. “If we need to start something new … then obviously the first place to hold talks will be in Poland.”