Viktor Orbán’s opponents are out of touch
A left-wing defence of Hungarian voters
The Hungarian working class deserve better than a choice between Fidesz and a liberal, globalist opposition, argues Agnes Lesti.
Bemoaning the apparent decline in Hungary’s democratic values is a popular pastime among Europe’s cultural elite. It is clear, however, that these critics have no relationship with the Hungarian public and they do not understand the masses who turn up at the ballot boxes to attest their support for Viktor Orbán’s ‘illiberal democracy’.
Zsuzsanna Szelényi, a former Hungarian MP and the author of Tainted Democracy: Viktor Orbán and the Subversion of Hungary, is one of these out-of-touch critics. In a recent essay for UnHerd, Szelényi argues that Orbán’s ‘Machiavellian genius’ was to position himself as the representative of all Hungarians and then to promote this message to the public through the ‘Fidesz-built media and right-wing columnists’. This view has gained ground among the liberal urban elite, ‘independent’ media, and opposition leaders. On the surface, it seems to be a criticism of Orbán but it is really an attack on Hungarian voters who are presented as gullible, naïve puppets who are not capable of acting in their own interest but merely assist in Orbán’s rampaging dismantling of all democratic norms.
This speaks to a top-down elitist disdain for the public that actually helps sustain Orbán’s political regime. The patronising attitude of the Hungarian elite – who are often EU- or US-educated – leaves many of the Hungarian public feeling as if they have little option other than to back Fidesz.
The divide between the Hungarian urban intelligentsia and the more traditional working classes (including manual labourers and agricultural workers) who typically live outside of the capital Budapest, could not be sharper. According to a 2021 survey, Budapest is the only region in the EU that shows a stronger attachment to Europe than to its nation or a region within it. At the same time, the rest of Hungary, like most other European regions, shows an overwhelming affinity to their nation. There is a similarly sharp difference between levels of education. While over 92 per cent of those who live in Budapest have upper secondary education (amongst the highest within the EU), this level is significantly lower in the rest of the country. These divisions between country and capital correspond with the outcome of the 2022 parliamentary elections: while Fidesz won a landslide up and down the country, the party lost nearly all the seats it held in Budapest.
This correlation between education, attitudes towards national identity and voting intentions has led some opposition political commentators to call for the retraction of voting rights for those they deem uneducated. For them, this undemocratic solution is the only way to restore democracy in Hungary. Their patronising contempt for the people whose votes they aspire to gain was in evidence at an election rally held by Péter Márky-Zay, the leader of the United Opposition, as he insulted Fidesz voters claiming that they are ‘misled’ and ‘stupid’.
Footage of Márky-Zay hurling disparaging remarks at country folk at a food market went viral and was, of course, exploited by the Fidesz-owned media. Márky-Zay was scornful of unwitting voters being deceived by Orbán’s propaganda but, ironically, after the election it emerged that the opposition movement he led had received nearly $5million from the US-based NGO, Action for Democracy, to deliver its political messages. Who is really deceiving voters?
It seems that while the state-owned media is being used as a tool to strengthen Orbán’s illiberal system, the opposition media, that relies heavily on US and EU funding, is a mouthpiece of the intellectual liberal elite and an instrument for extending Western influence in Hungary.
Although these outlets operate side-by-side in Hungary, they speak to very different audiences and even use dissimilar language. While the former speak to everyday Hungarians in everyday language (short sentences, to the point and even using emojis as in the case of a billboard campaign) the latter communicates with the urban classes often using intellectual jargon and even English words or their localised versions that still sound foreign to many.
This split between the language of the educated civic classes and the mainly rural peasantry or working classes is not a new phenomenon. Until the 18th century, Latin was the official language of administration in Hungary (then the Kingdom of Hungary) until German took over under the rule of Joseph II. As a result, only the upper classes and those educated to a high level could take political office and participate in everyday politics. The uneducated were excluded. It was only in 1844 that Hungarian became the official language used by government bodies and the judiciary.
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Now it seems that Hungary is once more divided by culture and language. It is again home to two different nations served by different news outlets. While the nominally independent media is run by a group of urban intellectuals, often descendants of an historical literary or political elite, populist Fidesz has built its own media empire as an answer to this snobbery, arrogance, and exclusivity.
The ‘independent’ press claims that Orbán’s right-wing media monopoly is rigging the fair voting system by suppressing all dissenting opposition voices, but it hails only its own journalists and political commentators as the most influential opinion leaders in its annual media ranking. It is bizarre to suggest that journalists have the power to sway elections while also not being influential, but this again speaks to the opposition’s elitism: they claim that as they are the bearers of truth and objectivity, only they have the right to say who counts as a journalist.
At the same time as importing Western ideas and verbiage, opposition columnists and politicians are alienating the very people they claim to represent. By regurgitating conceptual ideas born in the humanities departments of American universities, they disregard the everyday realities of the working-class and offer the right-wing media a breeding ground for mockery.
When embracing the pink-blue paradigm of gender ideology, for instance, liberal columnists ignore the fact that poorer Hungarians dress their children in fairly gender-neutral clothes so that they can be reused by siblings. Similarly, when forcefully adopting words like ‘misgendering’ – localised to Hungarian by NGO-funded human rights organisations – they disregard the fact that the Hungarian language is gender-neutral. In fact, the word ‘gender’ makes barely any sense to most people.
Real social issues, like the prevalence of domestic violence, alcoholism and poverty in Hungary get little airtime in the opposition media while issues imported under Western influence are highlighted. For example, in the summer of 2020, liberal media outlets reported daily on the progress of global Black Lives Matter protests. One opposition-led council even erected a sculpture of a kneeling Statue of Liberty in Pride colours, while downplaying the significance of a local incident involving the discrimination of a Roma youth in Budapest.
Similarly, environmental issues are heightened by the liberal press, while thousands of homes are still not connected to a water-supply network or lack gas or electric heating. So, while the opposition media is hammering green issues, for those battling with the fuel shortage surviving the winter is more of a problem than global warming. Jet-setting journalists who preach about ways to reduce one’s carbon footprint lose their relevance among readers who have never set foot on a plane.
Everyday concerns are left to be covered by the Fidesz-led media with solutions offered by the ruling government, although often nominally or in ways that infringe upon workers’ rights. These concerns can then get picked up by the far-right Mi Hazánk which becomes the only party that typically deals with trade union rights.
So while the populist right Fidesz boasts about welfare measures for the country’s working-class, rural and retired populations, like pension increases and bonuses, low-unemployment rates and housing subsidies for families, the opposition seeks to turn Hungary into a liberal democracy with scant regard for local or national concerns.
While there is much to criticise about Orbán’s rule – with its embezzling, national oligarchy, and disregard for environmental and human considerations when serving the country up to foreign manufacturing giants – there seems to be no alternative on the political horizon. In order to offer a viable choice for working-class voters, Hungary needs to free itself from the grip of Western influence and establish a national left-wing party that, instead of promoting the interest of a global liberal elite, focuses on and talks to its own populace.
Agnes Lesti was born in the Hungarian People’s Republic and lived in the UK and in Hungary. She graduated from Goldsmiths, University of London, in English and comparative literature and has worked in hospitality, construction, education, and media. She is a member of an extra-parliamentary social democratic party in Hungary and is tired of people misunderstanding her homeland. She publishes on Hungarian news sites and on her Substack.