Hungary’s right leaves the tent

This morning’s news from Europe is that Fidesz, the party of Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orbán, has finally been evicted from the European People’s Party (EPP), the centre-right group in the European parliament.

This has been a disgracefully long time in coming. Fidesz was suspended almost two years ago, but its MPs remained members of the EPP parliamentary group. Yesterday, however, the EPP approved, by a large majority of 148 to 28, a new rule that would allow members to be excluded. Orbán chose not to wait for its implementation, and withdrew his party en bloc from the group.

It’s an important decision at two levels: for Europe and for Hungary. As far as the European parliament is concerned, it’s a move by the EPP to regain some much-needed credibility. Mainstream centre-right parties have had a pretty lean time recently; in the parliament’s 2019 elections the centre-right and centre-left lost their joint majority for the first time, and in many countries centre-right parties are torn over how to respond to the challenge of far-right and Eurosceptic parties.

The EPP lost one troublesome lot of Eurosceptics, Britain’s Conservative Party, back in 2009, and most of the far-right parties have never been members. They now have a group of their own, Identity & Democracy, and increasingly dominate the Eurosceptic group, European Conservatives & Reformists (ECR). But Fidesz, which was once regarded as an ordinary centre-right party, has ventured progressively further down the authoritarian road, bringing discredit upon the whole group.

It’s inherently difficult for a political group to disown followers. Numbers are its life-blood: things have to be unusually serious before it will voluntarily give them away. So the EPP temporised, even as more and more of its members spoke out against Orbán, until finally it had to act.

Orbán’s group may now join his occasional Polish allies, Law & Justice, in ECR, or it may remain independent for the time being. Hungary is not a big country, so even though Fidesz dominates Hungary’s delegation, that’s still a fairly small voice in the European parliament. More interesting is the question of what it might mean in Hungary itself.

Orbán has been in power since 2010, partly thanks to his control of the media and a deeply unfair electoral system. But he has also benefited greatly from disunity among his opponents. At the last election, in 2018, he won two-thirds of the seats in parliament with fractionally less than half the vote; the other half was divided between centre-left, liberals, Greens and what can now be described as a moderate far-right party, Jobbik.

It has long been clear that Orbán’s actual support in the country was far from overwhelming and that if his opponents could only combine against him they would have a good chance of winning. But that was prevented by the usual inter-party jealousies, as well as by the centre-left’s reluctance to work with the antisemitic Jobbik.

Last December, however, an agreement was finally signed by all the main opposition parties to field a joint program at next year’s election, including an agreed candidate for prime minister (to be chosen by primaries later this year) and a single candidate in each constituency – a necessity in a first-past-the-post system. Opinion polls show their alliance running neck-and-neck with Fidesz.

No doubt Orbán will use the EPP’s decision to feed his narrative of being victimised by the wicked Europeans, hoping to play off xenophobic sentiments in the electorate as he has in the past. But it’s at least possible that it will work to his disadvantage, sending a message to centre-right Hungarian voters that Fidesz is no longer part of the family and no longer to be regarded as a respectable choice, but rather something out on the fringe.

Just as the jury is still out on whether mainstream conservatives are ready to abandon Donald Trump in the United States (or, more improbably, his imitators in Australia), it’s impossible to say whether or not there is a significant element of the Hungarian mainstream that might also jump ship. But it is surely no coincidence that the two most right-wing governments in the European Union are in the hands of parties that did not start out that way, but shifted rightwards while trading on a more respectable past.

As I’ve said many times, the far right depends less on its own committed support than on the acquiescence (or more) of the much larger body of centre-right politicians and voters. If some of those voters in Hungary now have their eyes opened to what their prime minister stands for, then the EPP will have boosted more than just its own reputation.

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