Orban's patriotism seen by some as last refuge of a scoundrel


BUDAPEST LETTER:Nationalist Poles admire the Hungarian prime minister, but his defiance of Brussels and the IMF is testing creditors’ patience

BUSES AND trains brought them south in their hundreds, the Poles who came to Hungary recently to march for its prime minister, Viktor Orban.

Arriving at dawn under a clear blue sky, they unfurled the flags of their homeland and their hosts, hoisted banners celebrating ancient ties between Pole and Magyar, and chanted the name of their Hungarian hero – a leader for whom little love is lost these days in most European capitals.

What irks the continent’s liberals makes these Poles, and millions of Hungarians, admire Orban, who by vowing to defy international opinion to defend his country’s interests and to erase the last remnants of the communist era, echoes their own right-wing champion back in Warsaw.

But while Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s turbulent days as Poland’s premier were short-lived and are unlikely to be repeated, Orban now enjoys a huge majority in Hungary’s parliament and looks down from lofty heights on a liberal opposition in disarray.

He has introduced hundreds of new laws that he insists will not only make Hungary a modern and prosperous state but also – echoing the “moral revolution” that Kaczynski promised Poland – restore the nation’s pride, patriotism and respect for traditional conservative values.

Orban’s critics at home and abroad see his project somewhat differently. For them, he is sweeping away checks and balances on his power, giving allies control of previously independent institutions and changing electoral rules to ensure that his Fidesz party stays in office for the foreseeable future; in short, they say, he is dismantling the very foundations of Hungarian democracy.

As the Poles proceeded through a sunny Budapest, mingling with tens of thousands of locals who used last month’s national holiday to rally in support of Orban, they expressed only respect for Hungary’s premier – and some envy that he was not one of their own.

“We need someone like him. He’s the only leader in post-communist Europe that really defends his country,” said one visiting Pole, Mieczyslaw Bona. “Germany and France are running the whole EU. It’s good that someone like Orban is standing up to them.”

On a holiday that commemorates Hungary’s 1848 revolution against Austrian rule, Orban used a speech outside parliament to strike a now-familiar note of defiance.

“We came here because we Hungarians are freedom-fighters – we will not be a colony,” Orban declaimed, linking his resistance to Brussels with the events of 1848 and Hungary’s 1956 anti-Soviet uprising. “Hungarians write their own constitution and don’t need unsolicited help from foreigners who wish to control our actions,” he said.

“We very well know the nature of unsolicited help from comrades, and we recognise it even if it’s not wearing uniforms but well-cut suits.”

Brussels rebuked Orban for likening its officials to Soviet apparatchiks, but the EU is now as accustomed to his broadsides as he is to its scolding; in their latest spat, the EU is threatening to withhold half a billion euro in aid unless Hungary takes action to curb its budget deficit.

Orban and the EU are now engaged in an intriguing and dangerous game, the other players being the International Monetary Fund and the global financial markets.

With the economy stagnant, Orban has requested an estimated €20 billion credit line from the EU and IMF to ensure that Hungary will stay solvent, but they will not even start talks until Budapest changes several of its controversial new laws.

Orban may want the cash, but he would resent the strict conditions attached.

For months now, Orban has calmed bond markets by insisting he is ready to strike a deal with the EU and IMF. The easing of the Greek debt crisis has also helped his cause. But his foot-dragging over the EU’s demands is testing creditors’ patience, and a sharp jolt to market sentiment could end Hungary’s high-wire act before a financial safety net is in place.

If it does, and Hungary has to accept tough terms for urgent aid, Orban will blame the markets, the EU and the IMF; by his own lights, he will be just the latest in a centuries-long line of Hungarian heroes to suffer at the hands of hostile foreign powers.

While Orban addressed his Hungarian and Polish admirers, across the Danube tens of thousands cheered speeches foretelling his political demise, buoyed by surveys that suggest growing disillusionment with his rule.

Unemployment is at 11 per cent and climbing, the economy is forecast to shrink this year, the forint is fragile, and corruption, according to Transparency International, is growing as Hungary’s political and business elites intertwine ever tighter.

Surveying these results of Orban’s first 21 months in power, opponents depict him as the latest political scoundrel to seek refuge in patriotism.

How they wish the “Viktator” could emulate Jaroslaw Kaczynski and fade quickly from right-wing hero to yesterday’s man. They know, however, that he is likely to be here for many national holidays to come.