WASHINGTON—Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s overwhelming victory in Hungary’s parliamentary elections two weeks ago highlights a form of pragmatic populism that is ascendant in Europe today. This populism has, in part, been made possible by the constraints posed by the European Union, which effectively ensure that the only way to govern is by being predominantly centrist and technocratic. More than 70 percent of national laws in Europe are now created in Brussels through a very long consensual process. For example, the so-called Fiscal Pact effectively deprives European national politics of any room for economic maneuver. As the differences between social and Christian democrats are mostly marginal on many issues, it becomes almost impossible to distinguish these parties in terms of their national economic governance.
Today, Europe’s permissive consensus — the elite-led European integration that has been driving force of change for decades — is over. Instead, the supranational European Union is being blamed for national troubles. The so-called troika of the European Commission, International Monetary Fund, and European Central Bank is often pictured as a symbol of evil, not only in Hungary but also throughout Southern Europe. For new political movements, populism that capitalizes on such sentiments has become the only way to succeed in national politics, particularly in times of economic misery. The consequent support for populist parties will be visible in the forthcoming European Parliament elections, which will likely see their strongest ever representation.
However, once populist parties are accommodated in a political system, they tend to become more moderate – a trend already observable both in the case of Hungary’s Jobbik and France’s National Front. Nevertheless, this process changes the way in which mainstream parties conduct the business of politics. They can confront populism with rational politics in the belief that people are ultimately reasonable, which tends to result in grand coalitions, to the long-term advantage of populists. The other method is for mainstream parties to sharpen their rhetoric, face populists on their own terms, and push them to the corner of the political spectrum, often to the detriment of a country’s democratic system.
Orban has very decisively pursued the second option. Years ago, his Fidesz party was much more moderate. Today Hungary’s credentials as a liberal democracy are often questioned, as is its foreign policy alignment with autocratic Russia and China. Overall, Orban has made smart use of the rising tide of populism. He has got into serious public disputes with both the European Commission and the IMF, thereby projecting himself as a politician who is not afraid to challenge major international institutions, while managing to not be condemned by other European leaders — not least from his own European family, the Christian Democrats. In fact, he is not the first leader to have successfully pursued this style of politics. Robert Fico, the prime minister of Slovakia, showed how to be populist in a manner that was not only accepted, but even prized by mainstream European leaders.
Populism usually offers simple solutions to complicated problems. Orban has proved that he can ensure direction, protection, and order for Hungary and used this to win over voters. This is the basic function of political leadership. But the tensions he has created in Hungarian society have been enormous. Far too many people, going by public opinion, consider the current system as a zero-sum game and too unjust to be durable. Furthermore, Orban’s policy has in fact strengthened — not weakened — the far right Jobbik. A price for his policies will have to be paid.
Populists used to project themselves as ultimately sovereign, although this was always somewhat delusional. While Orban may feel less dependent on the IMF or the European Union today, he is more dependent on non-democratic powers. During a meeting with the Chinese leadership, he once said that the West’s decline and China’s rise were justifiable. If this is what he stands for, he is in for a reality check; his image has already suffered for not condemning Russia’s aggression in Crimea.
Ultimately, all political leaders want to be remembered well in the history books. Orban is no different. Every time he is in Brussels, he takes care to manage his public relations. Until now, he has proved a very successful politician, but his historical legacy promises to be rather bleak. Economically and politically, Hungarians are no better off than when he came to power. Fico, at the very least, led Slovakia into the eurozone. Orban should learn that his brand of pragmatic populism will also need a positive flagship project to be truly successful.
Bartlomiej E. Nowak is a fellow at the Transatlantic Academy, an initiative of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC.