6 years ago

Hungary's election: An 'old' versus 'new' argument

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It is not just Hungary "looking more and more like Russia," as a CNN piece observed of Viktor Orban's re-election as prime minister for the third straight term in early April 2018. Poland has also been on a similar pathway of promoting grassroots interests over national, challenging the European Union (EU) decision-making in Brussels, and 'draining the swamp' like Donald J. Trump in Washington, D.C., that is, clearing the capital city of 'establishment' people. Ironically, the previous Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk, now President of the European Council and the longest-tenured chief executive in that country, believed Poland was headed in the 'dark-side' direction, that is, "backward and eastwards," after Beata Szydlo led the Law and Justice Party (LJP) to power in November 2015.

Ironically, the Law and Justice Party had briefly exercised power between 2005 and 2006, before losing to Tusk's Civic Platform. Two inter-related points draw attention. First, Orban's Fidesz's Party, in power from 2010, very much like LJP's Maleersz Morawiecki in Warsaw, successfully galvanised local concerns against European Union identities and interests. Second, both Poles and Hungarians aptly returned to a mindset more in sync with the Soviet era.

Hungary's local concerns stemmed largely and most concurrently from absorbing Syrian refugees, which not only elevated the border-closing, and thereby, nationalistic ante, but also defied European Union directives for a 'go-slow, sift-more' approach to the refugee crisis. Poland's is to restore law, ironically the key LJP calling-card, that the European Union believes has been deprived or denied presently under LJP rule, almost to the point of sanctioning Poland. Challenging the European Union may be the common concern in both, yet so too the full-fledged return to an agenda being unnecessarily tinged with Russia: Morawiecki himself blamed Russia for a 2010 air disaster in Smolensk (Russia), killing the then president, Lech Kaczynski, among others. Though Hungary and Poland may be "looking more and more like Russia," they may also be fidgeting not to.

Populism lies behind this identity crisis in the media. Yet such a mindset has been driven by short-term problems, like refugees and job-migration, it misses the entire culprit entirely: today's 'old' Europe, consisting of country-side dwellers with limited expectations beyond family security, confronts a 'new' Europe of ever-changing boundaries, both geographically and legally (as demanded by the European Union), through vacations and professions (based on market-needs and technical innovations), and by multifaceted competitive thrusts (through education levels, capacities to travel, and desires to explore the unknown).

This is not at all like the 'old' Europe US Secretary of Defence Donald J. Rumsfeld had in mind to describe those past US friends that did not defend the US war on Iraq in 2003 (France and Germany), against those in the 'new' Europe supporting the United States, like Poland (then under the Democratic Left Alliance, one year before the LJP entered the office for the first time). In this usage, the labels get completely reversed: referring to the rural areas, the  'old' is capable of supplying wider legislative representation in any democratic election, leaving the 'new' to be those living in urban and more cosmopolitan metropolitans, but proportionally unable to influence legislative outcomes. Whereas the latter gets motivated by progressive job outlets providing an upwardly-mobile income, the former either will not or cannot change traditional skills, thereby falling commensurately farther behind in income and with unfolding changes.

What worsens the equation for countries of the Hungary/Poland stripe is simply that the European continent has revolved, largely since World War II, increasingly behind a German economic machine. Two obvious implications follow: (a) the more the German growth, the better for these other countries (mostly neighbours along the eastern and southern borders), but so too a German slowdown disproportionately spiking hangover-effects on those countries; and (b) returning to an earlier European Union allusion (today's 'new' configuration), Germany receives more grudges in these other countries by being better off whether its economic growth is positive, negative, or in-between.

Under normal circumstances, whichever way Germany's economy and political preference make-up goes, the more likely we will find the European Union in close proximity. Ever since the 'European Union' name was first used in 1993, as if accenting the 'new' Europe, an already unbeknownst counter-current was already underway: the gradual eastward shift of the EU agricultural heartland, from France towards primarily Poland, that is, today's 'old' Europe. It is of small wonder why, given the steep EU farm subsidies that Poland's growth relies so much on the European Union. As the agricultural sector simultaneously receives ever-dwindling EU budget allocations, Poland faces a 'rude awakening' even as it leads former Soviet-controlled East European bloc-members in 'westernising' during the 1990s.

This point was anticipated by the likes of the LJP grouping, and it came amid other secular developments with negative consequences (such as the 2007-10 Great Recession and Grexit, for which Germany had to supply the key bail-out funds; and bloated African migration, then the Syrian refugee influxes, both also headed largely for Germany), not to mention the streams of outwardly migrating Poles threatened by Great Britain's Brexit votes (one-third of that 1.9 million flock). Unsurprisingly, the 'populist' goose only fattened.

Of course, Hungary has a far smaller outwardly-migrating flock than Poland's, but with a far larger Syrian refugee confrontation, it was not hard to develop like-mindedness. That is not to say Hungarians woke up to vote in April 2018 by saying "We are going to feel and behave the same way as you, Dear Poles," but the point should not be missed: rural voters in England, Poland, and Hungary, not to mention the other Central and Eastern European countries, may have found a moment when all their different gripes can be unleashed against a group progressive enough to hold the future compass in their own hand, and cosmopolitan enough to share the fruits with fellow-travellers, both domestic and foreign, than with the old-timers and nationalists.

Europe's malaise lies right here: the more it struggles to compete with other countries economically, the more it must compromise with local social and political forces to share the fruits of progress. It has reached a break-even point, illustrated by none other than centripetal Germany, where Angela Merkel's victory was so constrained that she still struggles to eke out a viable minority government. Other 'new' European countries had too little to hold on to in order to withstand yesteryear's forces. Which way Europe will go amid this populist surge may still be decided as the European Union history was, by Europe's engine: Germany. Whatever happens to Merkel's political fate may speak for a large chunk of Europe.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

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