BUDAPEST – Viktor Orbán’s resounding victory in Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Hungary shows that, even in the 21st century, you can win an election by blaming all your country’s problems on a Jew.
Orbán’s right-wing Fidesz party secured nearly 49 percent of the vote, an increase of approximately 4 percent from 2014. Fidesz also looks to have secured yet another parliamentary supermajority, which would enable Orbán and Co. to amend the country’s constitution and further consolidate a regime that one commentator, Princeton University politics Prof. Jan-Werner Müller, has called an “electoral autocracy.”
It’s the culmination of a hate-filled campaign that, for Orbán, was focused on only one issue: Muslim migrants and the apparent threat they pose to Hungary and Europe’s existence.
The personification of that threat isn’t hard to miss on the streets of Budapest: Hungarian-born financier George Soros.
Despite the fact Soros’ Open Society Foundations provides less than $4 million per year to Hungarian organizations – far less than the $50 million of state funds Hungarian investigative journalists say was spent to attack Soros in 2017 – the octogenarian has long been presented as a fundamental threat to Hungary’s existence.
One of Fidesz’s campaign ads warned that “the day after the election, the opposition will start to settle migrants in the country,” urging voters to stop “Soros’ people” from forming the government.
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Orbán’s campaign against Soros is omnipresent in Hungary. Hungarian media have even reported that schoolchildren believe he’s “the devil” and use his name as an epithet on the playground. The morning after the election, Soros’ face is still plastered on Fidesz party posters and stickers all over central Budapest.
Furthermore, a Fidesz spokesperson told Hungarian state news agency MTI on Monday that the new parliament could pass a “Stop Soros” law as early as next month – legislation that would empower Orbán’s government to ban organizations that support migration and pose a “national security risk.”
The campaign against Soros has long been criticized for using subtle – and not-so-subtle – anti-Semitic language and imagery. It’s worried many members of Hungary’s Jewish community.
Last July, Orbán was criticized by Hungary’s Jewish community for running an anti-Soros billboard campaign.
“Let’s not allow Soros to have the last laugh,” warned posters next to a face of a smiling Soros. Some of them were defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti.
One community leader called it a campaign that was “very capable” of arousing uncontrolled passions, including anti-Semitism.
“Today, in Hungary an all-out propaganda campaign could be started with visual and linguistic tools that triggered bad feelings among us Jews,” Andras Heisler, chairman of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Federations (Mazsihisz), was quoted as saying at the time by Reuters.
That ad campaign was soon halted.
Orbán and his supporters – including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, no fan of Soros’ spending on liberal causes – have strenuously denied there is anything anti-Semitic about the attacks on Soros.
But some of Orbán’s language during the election campaign suggested otherwise.
At a speech last month commemorating the 170th anniversary of the Hungarian revolution of 1848, Orbán used familiar anti-Semitic tropes to disparage his opponents.
“They are not national, but international; they do not believe in work, but speculate with money; they have no homeland, but feel that the whole world is theirs,” he said.
At another rally just days before the election Orbán used similar language, warning that “Europe’s leaders together with a billionaire speculator don’t want to defend the borders, but want to bring in the migrants. That’s the truth.”
Prof. András Kovács, an expert on anti-Semitism in Hungary, told Haaretz that while such language may not be overtly anti-Semitic, it is structured and stated in a way that is well-known to voters who are familiar with anti-Semitic messaging.
“Not everyone gets it, but some do,” said Kovács, a professor at Central European University, an institution founded by Soros and which has been threatened with closure from Orbán’s government.
“Anyone who’s familiar with this sort of rhetoric could associate it with that,” he said, adding that studies suggest up to 30 percent of Hungarians harbor anti-Semitic views.
Still, the primary target remains migrants and Muslims, even if Orbán relied on anti-Semitic tropes to get there.
“This type of language isn’t necessarily just to target Jews, or even aimed at them,” said Zselyke Csaky, a senior researcher at democracy watchdog Freedom House.
“It’s part of the way Orbán and Fidesz lash out at everything foreign,” she added.
At the same time, Orbán has been more than happy to play the philo-Semitism card when it helps further his attacks on Muslims and migrants.
At the recent opening of a newly renovated synagogue in Subotica, Serbia, where there is a substantial Hungarian minority, Orbán took advantage of the opportunity to claim common cause with Jews against Muslims.
“[It is] our moral duty to stand up for a Hungary and a Europe in which Jews and Christians can live and practice their religions without fear,” Orbán said, warning that if Europeans allow their “cultural subsoil to be replaced,” the future would be written by others.
In Orbán’s telling, anti-Semitism is hardly something he’s guilty of – he points the finger at Muslim migrants.
“Those who charge us with anti-Semitism bring tens of thousands of anti-Semites into Europe through migration,” Orbán said last year after being accused of using anti-Semitic themes in his government’s anti-Soros ad campaign.
“Our migrant policies serve the interests of European Jewish communities, even if they don’t stand up for their own interests.”
Orbán’s resounding victory on Sunday gives new meaning to something else he said in a speech last month about “Uncle Georgie” Soros and “his network.”
“After the election, we will of course seek amends – moral, political and legal amends,” Orbán said in the official English translation of that speech.
But the precise word Orbán used in Hungarian translated as “amends” – elégtétel – defies easy translation into English. Some have translated it as “revenge” or “vengeance”; others suggest it means “getting back” at someone perceived to be guilty of a wrong. Nonetheless, observers interpreted Orbán’s words as a “grave threat,” with some going as far as to compare it to the speech of a dictator.
It’s why Csaky and other observers in Hungary and beyond are worried about what comes next.
“Fidesz successfully created a culture of hate, of xenophobia,” said Adam Schönberger, director of a Jewish association that runs and owns the Aurora community center in Budapest.
“The result strengthens Orbán’s resolve that hate-mongering works,” Czaky added.
Orbán’s international fans – from French far-right figurehead Marine Le Pen to American white supremacist David Duke and British neo-Nazi Nick Griffin – are doubtless drawing the same conclusions.