28 October 2020

Europe’s true Christian democrats must stand up to Orban’s twisted ‘Christianism’

By Zsuzsanna Szelényi

On a hot summer’s day in July 2019, hundreds gathered to hear Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, speak in Romania’s Hungarian-populated Transylvania region.

“We are Christian Democrats” he told the crowd, in a speech that mentioned the word “Christian” 31 times. Today, Orbán sees himself and his Fidesz party as the vehicle of a ‘new European Christian Democracy’. His vision is so popular at home and abroad that it’s worth examining what he means by it – and consider how western Europe’s Christian Democrats can outflank it.

Orbán has made a long journey from a young liberal politician to a leader who the European Court of Justice ruled this week had jeopardised academic freedom in Hungary by forcing the closure of a free university. He turned to the right after József Antall, the first freely elected prime minister of Hungary and a conservative, died in 1993. Orbán quickly took on Antall’s conservative profile, attracting his supporters and, by 1998, had become the head of Hungary’s leading center-right party. At first, Orbán seemed to be following Antall’s Christian Democrat legacy by expanding his voter base. But after the financial crisis he won a constitutional supermajority in parliament, and began to transform Hungary into a hard-right authoritarian regime.

In the space of ten years, he has strengthened his power by centralising the state, weakening checks and balances and the rule of law, and paralysing the political opposition. The constitution and laws governing the media and elections were rewritten; state functions were filled with the prime minister’s friends; an independent judiciary, and the division of state and church was thrown into question.

By pushing foreign media owners out of Hungary, Orbán’s cronies have accumulated hundreds of media outlets and turned them into party propaganda machines. And whatever fiscal conservatism Fidesz once laid claim to has long been overshadowed by rampant corruption and protectionist economic policies.

Orbán promises to make Hungarians the ‘winners of history’, harking back to an era of national grandeur lost after World War I. There is a plot against the nation, he claims, orchestrated by the US-financed, cosmopolitan, European left-liberals who are organising masses of Muslim migrants to invade Europe and rid it of its Christian identity. Orbán claims Christianity, Fidesz-style, is the only force that can push back liberal dominance and “save Europe”. He stresses that European conservatives have betrayed traditional values and accepted the left’s cosmopolitanism, and calls for a new movement of illiberal Christian democrats.

Orbán’s definition of Christian Democracy flies in the face of  its traditional, decent European tradition. His “Christian identity” is a negative creed that separates “good people” from “bad people”. It legitimises discrimination against Jews, Muslims, socialists, and liberals. In the name of Christianity, he justifies attacking his critics and political rivals, ultimately undermining democratic institutions. This ’Christianism’, a term used first by the US blogger Andrew Sullivan, means Christianity as a political identity is denuded of ethical content.

Ever since Orbán’s takeover in 2010, his political influence has spread in Europe, both among the extreme right and conservative political circles. The poisonous mix of ethno-nationalism and exclusion in the name of Christian Democracy has led to a far-right populist culture war played out across Europe. In an article last month, Orbán was optimistic that he could transform European politics into a rebellion “against political correctness” and the “dictates of loopy liberal ideas” (‘liberniak”). His culture war, however, is just a cover story for autocracy.

Enter Covid

Coronavirus has bolstered the social anxiety already generated by globalisation, technological revolution, and climate change. Orbán, who has shouted about existential threats for years, can finally claim that he has been proven ‘right’.

When the crisis hit Hungary, Orbán further strengthened his power. Thirteen party leaders from Fidesz’s own party group in the European Parliament – the European People’s Party (EPP) – expressed their deep concern about the rule of law and human rights in Hungary. In April, Donald Tusk, the leader of this political grouping, said that using the coronavirus crisis to stage an executive power grab would be “politically dangerous, and morally unacceptable”.

“With all due respect, I have no time for this!” Orbán replied to the secretary general of the EPP. At the same time, he wrote to CDU President Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer blaming Tusk for seeding division in the EPP.

MEPs have long hesitated over how to treat Orbán’s troublesome politics. The tradition of dialogue with partners and adversaries alike, and prioritising of smooth economic relationships, has stopped them from challenging this provocative ‘family member’. Just a few days ago the European Commission published its first ever ‘Rule of Law report’, condemning Hungary’s authoritarian politics and rampant corruption. It is unclear, if the situation doesn’t improve, whether the EU are are prepared to prevent future European fiscal transfers, so important for maintaining Orbán’s power.

The decision on Fidesz’s membership of the Europan People’s Party (EPP) has been delayed for another year, emboldening the party to carry on with its culture war. But there is an opportunity to fix Europe’s damaged democracy.

With the pandemic giving us a new appreciation for pragmatic, action-orientated politics, this is the perfect time to demonstrate how we want to live together in the future in a pluralist society. Christian democrats face an open challenge from the anti-liberal movement of ‘Christianism’ and cannot avoid choosing the values they stand for. Should the European People’s Party miss the moment, autocracy will continue under the guise of Christian democracy.

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Zsuzsanna Szelényi is a former Hungarian politician and expert in foreign policy, who started her career in Fidesz, which she represented in parliament from 1990 to 1994.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.