One of Viktor Orbán’s most successful political ploys, we often read, is to divert attention from the failings of his administration by bringing up new topics that dominate the news. So, the argument goes, last fall’s crisis that erupted after revelations that the U.S. had banned certain Hungarian officials from entering the United States due to corruption and this spring’s scandal of government involvement in the financial fraud of the Quaestor Group almost automatically led to the “creation” of the grave immigration crisis. Yes, the talking heads maintain, there is a serious immigration crisis in the western part of the European Union, but that is not the case in Hungary. Ninety-nine percent of those who cross the Serb-Hungarian border leave the country at the very first opportunity.
I am one of the few people who don’t subscribe to this theory. I am convinced that Viktor Orbán honestly believes that Hungary should remain uni-cultural and that the mixing of cultures brings only strife and conflict. Commentators tend to forget that already in August 2014, while delivering a speech to the country’s ambassadors, Orbán lashed out against immigration, stating that “the goal is to cease immigration altogether.”
Unfortunately, his own personal beliefs happen to coincide with the feelings of the majority of the Hungarian people. Orbán is a smart, if corrupt and immoral politician, who knows better than most people that the majority of Hungarians are xenophobic. Over the years, polling results unequivocally showed that Hungarians didn’t want to let immigrants into the country. They didn’t even want to have anything to do with “pirézek,” a nonexistent group of people. So, one doesn’t have to be a political genius to know that the “immigration card” is a sure bet. It will always work. Especially if it is presented in such a way that the population comes to believe that it is Viktor Orbán and his government who are defending them from a peril that threatens their way of life.
Such rhetoric can dramatically influence public sentiment, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Fidesz and Viktor Orbán’s popularity increases in the next few months. This game is not about diverting attention but about regaining popularity and hence retaining power. Preferably for decades to come. Orbán always seems to be capable of coming up with clever new ideas to secure his position. Whether these moves are injurious to the country’s reputation or its position in the European Union interests him not at all. Simply put, he is ready to do anything to remain the prime minister of Hungary. And as long as the Hungarians swallow his ideas hook, line, and sinker, he will succeed at his game.
A lot of people on the left are skeptical about the polling results of Századvég and Nézőpont, and they are certainly correct when it comes to Nézőpont, but Századvég numbers are more reliable. Therefore, I don’t seriously question Századvég’s latest poll on the population’s reaction to the three billboards that the government created in order to incite Hungarians against immigrants. It turns out that the majority of Hungarians agree with the billboards’ messages. Eighty-five percent agreed that the immigrants must obey the laws of the country, which is no surprise at all. Seventy-five percent agreed that they have to respect Hungarian culture. Even the most controversial message, “If you come to Hungary, you can’t take away the jobs of Hungarians!” is supported by 59% of the population. In the case of the first two questions there is no discernible difference between pro-Fidesz and pro-Jobbik respondents on the one hand and supporters of parties of the left on the other. When it comes to taking jobs away, those who reject the message come only from the left. However disheartening it may be, the majority of the population supports this sickening campaign.
All of the non-Hungarian newspapers I looked at today disapproved of the way the Orbán government is handling the crisis. First of all, almost everybody agreed that the problem is European-wide and can be managed only by the joint effort of all the member states. In addition, almost all the newspapers decried the brutish methods employed by the Hungarian government. As Die Zeit says, the construction of the 175 km-long security fence “matches the brutal policies of Premier Orbán.”
The idea of building a wall was first suggested by László Toroczkai, a neo-Nazi who last year became the Jobbik mayor of a village close to the Serbian border. That was back in February. Once again, Fidesz is taking over a Jobbik idea. Admittedly, there are other walls and fences all over the world by now which, by the way, are no answer to migration. But in Hungary’s case sealing the border with Serbia is especially shameful. Twenty-six years ago, on June 27, 1989, Gyula Horn, the country’s foreign minister, along with his Austrian counterpart, cut the wire fence between the two countries to symbolize the beginning of a new era. The country allowed thousands of East German refugees to cross to Austria and freedom. Hungary also sent its own share of refugees to other countries in 1956, refugees who found sympathy, shelter, and eventually new homes abroad.
Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vučić was “surprised and shocked,” and tomorrow at a Serbian-Hungarian summit he most likely will reiterate his reaction. He declared that Serbia will not follow Hungary’s example: “it will not build walls … and will not live in Auschwitz.”
As for the seriousness of the situation, opinions differ widely. Jan Schroth, head of the Czech office of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), claims that the current situation is neither dramatic nor unusual. The only difference is that too many people are dying needlessly at the borders of the EU. Using IOM’s data, he alleges that in the first half of the year 100,000 refugees arrived, while last year the total number was 200,000. So, there is no appreciable increase in the numbers. In his opinion, “Europe with its population of 500 million could easily absorb one million immigrants over a number of years.”
A lot of economists would agree. The birthrate in European countries is very low, and hence their populations are aging rapidly. For the most part the immigrants are young, and they could contribute to economic and demographic growth. The Hungarian situation has been particularly bad as far as the country’s demographics are concerned. The last time the fertility rate was over 2, which would have kept the size of the population more or less stable, was in 1979. Since 1981 the natural change has been consistently in negative territory. In 1981 the country’s population was 10,700,000, while in 2014 it was only 9,849,000. This is an 8% decrease. To this figure we could add the almost half a million Hungarians who have left the country in the last ten years or so and yet remain on the census rolls. All efforts to change this trend have failed, and I see no other remedy than a gradual but determined policy of immigration. But for political purposes Viktor Orbán is doing everything in his power to prevent such a course of action.