Every day the world seems to inch closer to completely falling apart. Donald Trump is stepping up the bellicose rhetoric against Bashar Al-Assad and his friend Vladimir Putin, Russia has launched a chemical weapons attack on British soil and London’s murder rate has overtaken New York’s.
Amongst all this you could be forgiven for overlooking the re-election of Viktor Orbán as Prime Minister of Hungary. On the service it doesn’t seem remarkable that an election took place in the world’s 58th largest economy, but Orbán’s re-election requires our attention - perhaps more so than Trump’s misadventures in international relations.
Orbán won his third time as Hungary’s Prime Minister by stirring up hatred of migrants and refugees. He has claimed increasing immigration would lead to “terrorism and crime, and would expose our womenfolk and daughters to danger.”
It is frightening how effective Orbán’s strategy has been. It’s unusual that a politician can remain consistently popular for as long as Orbán has. He has been Prime Minister of Hungary since 2000, weathering the financial crash, the Eurozone crisis and the migrant crisis by stoking fear of vulnerable people fleeing war, famine and poverty.
This is not the first time that hatred and fear of migrants has been used by unscrupulous right wing politicians to swing an election. What Orbán has done in Hungary is only a more brazen version of Trump’s rhetoric about Mexicans or the misinformation spread by Vote Leave ahead of the Brexit referendum. Across the world, right wing populist and aspiring authoritarians are exploiting fears to get the results they want.
Orbán is not the first strongman to use fear of migrants to gain power, but he could be the most successful and the most frightening. Orbán’s Fidesz party held onto their two-third majority in the Hungarian parliament following Sunday’s election, which means he retains the ability to pass amendments to the Hungarians constitution. Orbán has already made changes to turn Hungary into what he describes as an “illiberal democracy” a place where there are opposition parties and free elections, but the democratic process is hampered by a lack of independent media.
Hungary is the not the only country currently taking an anti-democratic turn. Poland and Austria both have their authoritarian leaders who dislike criticism and threaten the foundations of liberal democracy. However, the country Orbán’s Hungary bares the closest relationship to is Russia, where democracy is seriously threatened and it appears all but impossible that Putin will relinquish power.
Those of us who live in Western democracies should be very worried about the rise of these right wing authoritarian strongmen, who surf into power on a wave of xenophobic hatred of migrants and then get to work dismantling liberal democracy. Our democracy is only stable as long as we protect it.
There are plenty of aspiring despots in the UK. If Nigel Farage, Arron Banks and other high-priests of Brexit get their hands on the reigns of power they are likely to have as much respect for the institutions of liberal democracy as Putin does. These are the people who look at what Orbán is doing in Hungary and see the possibilities of what they can do here.
The centre and the left have very little that can counter the persuasive power of right wing populists like Orbán. The liberal LMP party did well in metropolitan Budapest, but poorly in the rest of the country. Hungary’s official opposition party is Jobbik, another nationalist party. From Hillary Clinton to the Remain campaign, liberal arguments are failing to connect with voters. Unless we can find a way to convince people of the value of an open, tolerant society, with healthy democratic institutions, then aspiring authoritarians will use their prejudices to undermine democracy.
The solution to the problem posed by Orbán and others is not to give into the easy option of demonising vulnerable people who are fleeing their homes and looking for a safe country to make a new life in. The solution is bridge the gap of understanding and to find a way to convince voters that liberal democracy offers a better solution to their problems then the nightmare of totalitarian illiberal democracy.
This needs to be done before it is too late. Authoritarian populists are on the march across the world, from Hungary to Britain, and they are coming to dismantle our democracy.