Viktor Orbán’s condemned speech at Băile Tușnad marks a dangerous turn towards fascist rhetoric. But it also reveals a larger narrative overlooked by international observers. Orbán’s party could be undergoing programmatic realignment to attract support from far-right voters in a time when it faces great insecurity, writes Kinga Korányi
The Hungarian Prime Minister’s annual speech at Băile Tușnad’s Free Summer University (‘Tusványos’ in Hungarian) is not new to international headlines. In his 2014 speech, Viktor Orbán announced that his government was constructing an ‘illiberal state’.
Since then, ‘Tusványos’ has become an institution for Orbán’s yearly state-of-the-union address. Topics usually include Hungary’s role in defending a 'Christian Europe', the ‘migrant crisis’, and meddling in Hungarian domestic affairs by Brussels and George Soros. Băile Tușnad, located in predominantly Hungarian-speaking and Fidesz-supporting Szeklerland in Romania, bears significance for Fidesz’s irredentist politics.
The hitherto unknown level of racist rhetoric in Orban's Tusványos speech this year was, curiously, coupled with a lack of agenda-setting or policy forecasts
This year’s speech, which included the statement ‘[Hungarians] do not want to become peoples of mixed race,’ surpassed existing expectations of provocation. Zsuzsa Hegedüs, one of Orbán’s most senior political advisors, handed in her resignation effective immediately. She compared the Prime Minister’s address to a ‘Nazi speech’.
But compared to previous years, the hitherto unknown level of racist rhetoric was, curiously, coupled with a lack of agenda-setting. There were few concrete policy forecasts or mentions of the Hungarian economy. Indeed, Hungarian observers remarked that Orbán’s historically inaccurate race theory about the Carpathian basin was an attempt to make this Băile Tușnad speech more memorable.
Hungary is engulfed in tense negotiations with the European Union to unlock €5.8 billion of Covid-19 recovery funds. These are tied to a ‘rule of law’ conditionality the Fidesz government has failed to meet. In this context, the timing of Orbán’s speech is puzzling.
Why would the Hungarian Prime Minister incite international condemnation precisely when his government must solicit Brussels’ confidence to secure vital funding to help mitigate its crumbling economy?
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Hungarian forint has plunged 10% against the euro. In response, the government approved a bill to slash the Itemised Tax for Small Businesses, a favourable tax regime for entrepreneurs and small businesses. Approximately 450,000 people (20% of the population) will be affected by this bill, either by failing to qualify for this tax rate from 1 September, or because taxation thresholds will increase.
The new bill was met with a series of nationwide protests – unusual in Hungary. Budapest police have arrested numerous protesters and even used tasers to discourage the daily demonstrations, but to no avail.
Fidesz's responses to the looming economic crisis in Hungary have proved deeply unpopular. By the end of the year, they could lose the support of hundreds of thousands of voters
Fidesz’s other response to Hungary’s looming economic crisis has been equally unpopular. Maintaining government caps on household electricity and gas was one of the main cornerstones of Orbán’s 2022 re-election campaign. And at his first post-election press conference, Orbán affirmed his commitment to the utility caps.
However, despite promises, the government has announced it plans to break its promise on these subsidies. This will force households to pay market value on utilities from August – approximately 6.5 times more for electricity, and 9 times more for gas.
The new utility prices will vary depending on family size and building type, but will affect millions of Hungarians. The impact on Fidesz is already being felt. From June to July, Fidesz’s popularity dropped by 12%. By the end of the year, the party could lose the support of hundreds of thousands of voters.
Fidesz understands that economic crisis can send incumbents’ popularity plummeting. In 2010, the party won after Hungarians became disillusioned with the centre-left government’s management of the financial crisis. Tides could now turn for Fidesz, too, but Orbán’s party is not afraid of the fragmented, mostly centre-left coalition. The real threat is emerging from the radical right.
In the 2014 and 2018 elections, Jobbik (‘further right’) won approximately 20% of votes. But afterwards, Jobbik underwent programmatic realignment, emerging as a centre-right party, and joined forces with the mostly centre-left coalition. As a result, Jobbik was only able to secure nine mandates in Parliament compared with 26 back in 2018.
Nevertheless, widespread ideological support for radical-right parties still exists in Hungary. The void left by Jobbik's realignment has been filled by Mi Hazánk Mozgalom or Our Homeland Movement. The party, often described as neo-Nazi, introduces into Hungarian politics a right-wing rhetoric even more extreme than during Jobbik's heyday.
Widespread ideological support for radical right parties does exist in Hungary today, exemplified by Our Homeland Movement, a party often described as neo-Nazi
Orbán’s recent comment about ‘no mixed race’ will play well with Our Homeland Movement supporters, revealing a larger strategy at play. Such a strategy may have its benefits, but former Jobbik leader Gábor Vona remarked that, ‘For Fidesz, 5–10% support for Our Homeland Movement is an asset, but to see this support climb to 15–20% during this time of socio-economic crisis is unacceptable’.
Absorbing voters from the right is not a new strategy for Fidesz. After Jobbik’s realignment, Fidesz gained disillusioned Jobbik voters ideologically closer to them than to the centre-left coalition. The prospect of losing some of his party's own voter base could have inspired Orbán to appeal to even more radical right-wing views at Băile Tușnad. Moreover, Orbán can pre-empt Our Homeland Movement taking control of a crisis narrative that will inevitably emerge in the coming months.
Appearing in Vienna on Thursday, Orbán attempted to soften the aftershocks from his Băile Tușnad speech. He explained, 'This is not a racial, it is a cultural question… From time to time, I tend to use misunderstandable wording.'
Clearly, the provocation at Băile Tușnad was a distraction from Hungary's catastrophic economic landscape, and a power grab on Our Homeland Movement's turf. In addition to condemning Orbán’s speech, we should situate it in the wider context of Hungarian party politics. Viktor Orbán could, in truth, fear for his hold on power.