Hungary before the Elections: Understanding the Hegemony Project of Fidesz

By Seongcheol Kim

Eight years into the rule of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz, Hungary offers a particularly fascinating case for a discourse and hegemony analysis that examines how hegemonies institute, redefine, and displace the frontiers defining the social space.[1] What is notable in the discourse of Fidesz is that in the last 20-odd years, a core set of key signifiers or nodal points such as “homeland” or “nation” has been articulated around shifting oppositions and, in the past eight years, has been tied to a systematic attempt to institute a new type of regime – first under the name of the “System of National Cooperation” following the Fidesz landslide of 2010 and then under the internationally catchier heading of an “illiberal state.” The hegemony project of Fidesz, in a sense, takes onto a whole new level of institutional radicality the aim of every hegemonic project: namely, the redefining of the coordinates of the social. As Orbán openly declared in a 2009 speech:

“So much is certain: there is the real possibility that the Hungarian politics of the next 25 years will not be determined by the field of dual power that, with constant value debates, generates division and petty and unnecessary social consequences. Instead, there will emerge for a long time a large governing party, a central political field of power that will be capable of formulating the national concerns – and does this not in constant debate, but rather represents it with its naturalness.”

On one level, this is a markedly nationalist iteration of a familiar pattern from populist challenges across the region that seek to redefine the terms of political contestation by claiming to represent “the people” against a bipolar logic of competition between established parties of the left and right. In contrast to the Czech Republic and Slovakia, where the main populist challengers (from Public Affairs in 2010 to Dawn (later Freedom and Direct Democracy) and ANO since 2013 and, yes, Smer’s emergence in 2002 as a self-proclaimed “Third Way”) have defined themselves in opposition to a bipolar framework of “left” and “right” – leading some to refer somewhat misleadingly to a phenomenon of “centrist populism” – Fidesz’s key hegemonic displacement has been in positioning itself, in its capacity as an established force of the right, as the party of “homeland” or “nation” against its opponents to the left. Between the 1994 and 1998 elections – in a shifting environment following the electoral collapse of the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) and the formation of a coalition government of the Socialist Party (MSZP) and Free Democrats (SZDSZ) – Orbán presided over a transformation of Fidesz from a liberal party to a nationalist one. It was already in a 1997 speech that he pitted “homeland” against “the open society” supposedly represented by the MSZP-SZDSZ government, formulating a blend of cultural and economic nationalism:

“An ‘open society’ where there is no country anymore, only habitat, there is no homeland anymore, only an investment-site. Where no nation, only population exists. Where progress equals assimilation into world-wide processes. Where progress does not serve the interests of the nation but simply satisfies the ambition of the narrow power elite to become world citizens.”[2]

Orbán’s centrist and center-left opponents, however, themselves initially managed to partially displace this frontier (not least the part about selling out the homeland as an investment-site) by incorporating a strong element of welfare statism: the MSZP won the 2002 election under the slogan “Change of Welfare System” and introduced a series of popular wage and pension rises, many of which Fidesz saw itself forced to vote for in parliament. It was in 2006 – not long after the second MSZP-SZDSZ coalition’s re-election – that an organic crisis-like situation emerged when PM Ferenc Gyurcsány’s leaked secret speech sparked mass protests, with riot police firing rubber bullets at crowds in Budapest, and an economic downturn led to severe austerity measures (and eventually an IMF loan) followed by an upsurge in labor protest and strikes. It was here that a more strongly populist moment emerged in the discourse of Fidesz, as the party held open-air protest rallies and appealed to “the people” as a crystallization of unfulfilled demands against a lying elite. If Fidesz’s flagship project in opposition between 2002 and 2006 was a failed referendum initiative on granting citizenship to ethnic Hungarians outside Hungary – indicative of the party’s ethno-nationalism (or “homeland nationalism” following Brubaker) – the party successfully initiated a 2008 referendum on abolishing hospital and tuition fees introduced by the MSZP-SZDSZ government, indicative of an equivalential incorporation of key anti-austerity demands. This was tied to a strategy of presenting the political system as broken and run by a liar government, as Orbán made clear in the following terms:

“The people [emberek] are being deceived, misled […] Therefore the Hungarian people today cannot rely on indirect democracy. […] The other possibility is to resort to the instrument of direct democracy instead of indirect democracy. This is the referendum […] I, as the people [nép], as electoral citizen shall decide. Not through the politicians.”[3]

If an organic crisis is understood (in the sense common to both Gramsci and Laclau) as a breakdown of hegemonic reproduction, Fidesz’s was a hegemony project par excellence in this context that claimed to institute order out of disorder – the hegemonic operation consisting precisely in the equating of a particular form of order with order as such, of Fidesz with the nation as such, of the part with the whole. As Orbán had declared in his famous 2002 speech following Fidesz’s election defeat as an outgoing party of government:

“The civic Hungary is not the one smaller or bigger part of this country. The civic Hungary is the whole. The civic Hungary is that which the people [emberek] as citizen constitute independently of the government. […] It may be that our parties and our representatives are in opposition in the parliament, but we who are here on the square will not be and also cannot be in opposition, because the homeland cannot be in opposition.”

The above-quoted 2009 speech – delivered before Fidesz’s (widely anticipated) landslide victory in 2010 – points to a key pivot from a more populist discourse to an institutionalist one (following Laclau’s terminology) promising the reproduction of a stable, conflict-free field of differences within the frontiers instituted by prior populist moments. The “System of National Cooperation” is built on the notion that with the Fidesz landslide, “the long period of transition rife with struggles, divisiveness, and crises” has come to an end and given way to “national unity” – the nation, of course, as represented by Fidesz, which promptly proceeded to pack state organs with party personnel and dismantle checks and balances in a constitutional coup. The 2011 constitution, unilaterally drafted and ratified by Fidesz’s two-thirds parliamentary majority, enshrined an ethno-nationalist imaginary by holding the state responsible for the “one single Hungarian nation” as extending onto “the Hungarians living beyond its orders”. It is worth noting that the constitutional project itself followed an institutionalist logic of differential incorporation: the idea of a new constitution with the Holy Crown as state symbol was part of Jobbik’s 2010 election program, co-opted by Fidesz after the election from a position of power from its new main competitor on the right.

As seen in the above-cited reference to representing “national concerns” in their “naturalness” without the need for debate, Fidesz’s institutionalist hegemony project of occupying the “field of power” in line with one-party majoritarianism merges with a deeply reductionist nationalism that naturalizes and reduces its collective subject onto an ethnically defined and determinate essence. Whereas in populism, “the people” becomes a name for the collective exclusion of social demands unfulfilled by “power” – and, in this sense, an empty signifier that tends to renounce a differential particularity of its own in order to take on this representative function – reductionism is about privileging some (in this case ethnic) differential particularity as the innate, transcendental ground of “the people.”  Orbán, perhaps more so than any representative of the European right, presented a remarkably blunt version of ethno-reductionism when he called for “ethnic homogeneity” in a 2017 speech (so blunt that the PM’s office initially saw fit to manipulate the translation to read “cultural homogeneity” in the official transcript) and followed up in 2018 with the declaration that “we do not want our own colour, traditions and national culture to be mixed with those of others. […] We want to be how we became 1100 years ago here in the Carpathian Basin.”

The populism in Fidesz’s discourse, then, only (re-)emerges periodically as a (re-)instituting moment that defines the terrain for this illiberal, ethno-reductionist institutionalism by reminding everyone who is on the other side, so to speak. A populist logic from a position of government can only work if it constructs and constantly reproduces opposing loci of power – whether as some kind of state within the state (e.g. “układ” in the earlier discourse of PiS) or in the form of an external threat. In his “illiberal state” speech of 2014, Orbán defined the “illiberal state” around the nodal point “national interest” (which “liberal democracy” had proven itself incapable of representing) in opposition to external threats to it, such as the following:

“There is a debate going on between the EU and Hungary, because we changed this system, and the government decided, that whoever decides on these EU funds in the new illiberal state conception has to be employed by the Hungarian state […].Contrary to the liberal state organizational logic of the past twenty years, this is a state organization originating in national interests.”

“And these political activists are, moreover, political activists paid by foreigners. […] It is vital, therefore, that if we would like to reorganize our nation state instead of the liberal state, that we should make it clear, that these are not civilians coming against us, opposing us, but political activists attempting to promote foreign interests.”

This populist moment can be seen in full flourish in the Fidesz government’s recent campaign against George Soros, who takes on the function of an external locus of power – a puppet-master who supposedly holds together an otherwise hopelessly fragmented opposition and existentially threatens the nation with a secret “plan” to relocate millions of immigrants to Hungary. In this discourse, the name of Soros becomes an empty signifier par excellence that ascribes to the opposition a positive cohesion – beyond just being against Fidesz – that otherwise (and in reality) is not there: one of the government posters seen frequently around the country features Soros shoulder-to-shoulder with the leaders of Jobbik, MSZP-Dialogue, the Greens (LMP), and the Democratic Coalition, with the caption “Together they dismantle the border closure”; in the last few weeks before the election, the same poster has been replaced by the Fidesz campaign with the caption “Let’s stop Soros’s candidates!” (see title photo) This points back to the key problem for the centrist and center-left opposition parties: the lack of coordination in single-member districts amid increasing calls for doing so (especially following the shock local by-election result in Hódmezővásárhely) – with the evil paymaster Soros supposedly standing behind any desperate last-ditch attempts to coordinate.

This, then, is the latest hegemonic displacement in Fidesz’s discourse: the upcoming election will be about whether Hungary will become an “immigrant country” – replete with the worst nightmares from Western European cities – with Fidesz representing the sole opposition to the forces of Soros bent on making this happen. This can be read not least as an attempt to neutralize Jobbik, which, under Gábor Vona’s “people’s party” strategy, has pursued a counter-hegemony project from the right that seeks to dislocate the discourse of Fidesz by dismissing its enemy constructions as unreal threats diverting from its own mismanagement of the country (from opposing the Lex CEU to Vona’s insistence that the biggest problem in Hungary is emigration, not immigration). The centrist and center-left parties – despite Gergely Karácsony’s candidacy as head of the MSZP-Dialogue alliance and his forays into left-wing populist territory in opposing “the Fidesz elite” and calling for an “oligarch tax” – remain hampered to varying degrees by their pasts and, in the absence of actual coordination, may be left facing political oblivion in an ever more militant illiberal state.

[1] In the theory of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, all social reality is understood as discursively constituted through the production of differences, yet the differential identity of any discursive element (e.g. “liberty” or “justice”) resists definitive fixation and can be re-inscribed equivalentially around new oppositions (e.g. “the people” as all those who are exploited by the ruling class; “liberty” as the overcoming of one-party rule). Hegemony is this essentially political operation that (re-)defines the coordinates of the social by instituting a field of differences in antagonistic demarcation from something else and reproducing it in partially sedimented form (as the “natural” state of affairs), often in conjunction with (re-)invocations of an antagonistic Other(s) that reinforce the identity of the hegemonic bloc.

[2] Cited in Zsolt Enyedi, “Plebeians, Citoyens and Aristocrats or Where is the Bottom of Bottom-up? The Case of Hungary,” in Hanspeter Kriesi and Takis Pappas, eds, European Populism in the Shadow of the Great Recession (Colchester: ECPR Press, 2015), 237.

[3] Cited in József Debreczeni, Arcmás (Budapest: Noran-Libro Kiadó, 2009), 336.

3 Gedanken zu „Hungary before the Elections: Understanding the Hegemony Project of Fidesz

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