Myth of Medusa
John Milton in his masque “Comus” presented the following lines:
“What was that snaky-headed Gorgon sheild…
Wherwith she freez’d her foes to congeal’d stone?”
The horrifying image of Gorgon Medusa had been intertwined with Greek mythology, initially being unfolded in The Iliad of Homer. The future generations started interpreting these myths as a subset of metaphorical doctrines which project a critique of human vices. The legend of Medusa became depicted as the opposite outcome of positive societal changes.
During the age of modernity, when the volcanic eruption of globalization covered the traditional foundations with the liberal magma, Medusa in the form of Hungarian radical-right populist party Fidesz rose from the ashes in Central Europe. According to 2018 Statista Reports, in ten years, Hungarian right-wing populist vote share in the national elections rose by 21.39%, with Fidesz receiving 48.53% in the 2018 general elections, securing 134 out of 199 seats in the parliament. The face of this Medusa embodies Hungarian PM, Viktor Orban, whose anti-immigration and transphobic policies have violated the European Convention on Human Rights and culminated in Hungary’s potential exclusion from the EEP.
The demonic creature of Fidesz continues to ubiquitously stone the democratic system and electorate. However, before identifying Perseus who is capable of beheading this Medusa, we need to analyze why Fidesz and Orban should be considered populist and what were the agonizingly incinerating screams that awakened this ancient evil.
Heart of Medusa
“The sort of words a man says is the sort he hears in return.” – Homer, The Iliad
Most of academia assigns the stigma of “populism” to Fidesz and Viktor Orban, as seen, for example, in the recently published paper by Szicherle et al. (2019). Nonetheless, what do we know of the meaning behind such a concept and its correlation with the given political party?
According to the Oxford handbook, populism is a “thin-centered ideology, which is based not only on the Manichean distinction between the “pure people” and “corrupt elite”, but also on the defence of popular sovereignty at any cost”. The “thin-centered” implies that characteristics that embody populism may adhere to the different sides of the ideological spectrum, thus creating a differentiation of left and right-wing populism. The essential stem of the populist flower is its appeal to the general public – “common people” – through the prism of verbal and procedural attacks on the perceived plutocrats – “corrupt elite”. This appeal is materialized through the sacred notion of “popular sovereignty” – a categorical imperative that the political edifice in the form of the government is built and modified by the will of the people. Therefore, the foundation of populism stands upon its three core pillars – “The People”, “The Elite”, and “The General Will”.
“The People” encompasses three distinct characteristics – authenticity, socioeconomic status, nationality – which are being emphasized by the populist narrative equating the populists themselves to the general public. In this case, authenticity echoes the term “sovereign people” – citizens appearing not only as a source of power but as legitimate “rulers” themselves. Viktor Orban in his 2018 speech proclaimed, “We are gentle and cheerful people, though we are neither blind nor we are pushovers”. Orban employs the personal pronoun “we” accompanied by a declarative tone to reinforce the narrative of the sovereignty of the people in their ability to seek political restitution. Furthermore, socioeconomic status adheres to the notion of “common people” – critique of the dominant elite in favor of augmented socio-economic opportunities for the perceived marginalised groups. During Hungarian Revolution commemoration speech, Orban condemned the “globalist forces” by employing a verbal dualization between “the people” and “the elite”, as he declared, “We, the millions with national sentiments, on the one side, the citizen-of-the-world elite on the other side”. Additionally, the image of nationality is portrayed through the aperture of “peoples as nations” with the interlinked nativism – disproportionate protection of the natives’ interests based on the spurious idea of cultural preservation. Defending his anti-immigration policies at the European Forum Conference in 2014, Orban accentuated on the importance of the continuation of Christian culture homogeneity, as he said, “Christianity is not only a religion, but is also a culture on which we have built a whole civilization”.
“The Elite”, presented as a contradistinction to the purity of the general public, represents an essential device within the populist machine. Hence, a populist movement may exploit this stigma to convey the agenda and plant the seed of “crisis”. Once ascending to power, the populist leaders may suggest the interconnectivity of political and economic elites suggesting the existence of the strong cahoots seeking egocentric interests. In 2009, Fidesz and Viktor Orban played a key role in the events leading to the resignation of the former PM Ferenc Gyurcsany through the continuous government critique and rumored financial support of the media disseminating the word of omnipresent corruption. Once in office, populist leaders may redefine the elite, thus, targeting the opposition sector. In 2019, one of the opposition leaders Gergely Karacsony was elected as a mayor of Budapest, which presented a high threat to Fidesz’s potential victory in 2022 elections. However, during the pandemic outbreak, Orban’s government passed a law handing the PM almost totalitarian ability to rule by decree to diminish the socio-economic effects of the virus. Instead, Orban used this law to target Karacsony’s legitimacy by reallocating funding and disguising the infection statistics.
“The General Will” and its activation represent the last door which leads the populist onto the path of support and power. As introduced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “The General Will” alludes to the capacity of citizens to unite together into a community and legislate to enforce their common goals. Therefore, such a notion may be utilized to formulate a critique of representative government, thus appealing to Rousseau’s idea of republican self-governmentalism, where the citizens create and implement the laws. Despite the utopian connotations, the populists may employ certain aspects of such an idea to create an illusion of citizen participation in governing. In the case of Fidesz, the immersion into such an illusion is implemented through referendums. In 2016, Hungary had a referendum on “closing the door to refugees”, as part of Orban’s cultural preservation politics. The referendum failed with more than half of legitimate voters not participating. However, despite the invalidity of the outcome, during the next three years, Fidesz refused to host the refugees from the Middle East, putting them into migrant camps.
Based on the presented arguments within the three pillars of populism, we can make an inference that both the Medusa of Fidesz and its face Viktor Orban could be considered populist. These core components of populism are activated through a provocative discourse, speeding up Medusa’s heart. Not only Fidesz and Orban employ populism as a strategy to seek and exercise power but also as a means to reprogram the social character, leading to the stoning of populist ideology within Hungarian society. However, the success of the populist movement is not possible without a perceived cause.
Eyes of Medusa
“A multitude of rulers is not a good thing. Let there be one ruler…” – Homer, The Iliad
In the case of Hungary, the eyes of Medusa represent different causes for populism, which turned the Fidesz electorate into a rock. These causes are economic and sociotropic, which are being shaped within the boundaries of globalization.
The driving force of economically induced populism is the population’s dissatisfaction with economic well-being. Following the trends of the global economic deceleration, inflation has been rising rapidly since 2005. This decline of economic security experienced by the population continued deteriorating throughout the next four years, supported by the leaked 2006 Őszöd speech and The Great Recession of 2007-08. This fuelled the public dissatisfaction with the governing the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) party, shaking its legitimacy, and finally resulted in Fidesz triumphantly winning the 2010 parliamentary elections. This was further augmented by Orban’s rhetoric suggesting that the poor state of the economy was an aftermath of not only corrupt governing but also a backfire of economic globalisation. Therefore, Fidesz embraced left-wing populism, focusing more on the income-class aspects (Rodrik, 2017).
Particularly, the party adopted a set of socialist economic policies with a populist connotations – raised the minimum wage, increased public sector job availability, decreased utility pricing. Despite an apparent utilisation of clientelism, the Hungarian economy benefited.
Figure 1: Hungary GDP growth (World Bank estimate)
In the next 8 years, the economic growth quintupled, as seen in Figure 1. Moreover, the government debt shrunk by 10.4%, and Hungary found its place in the top twenty most equal countries with a Gini index of 30.6 in 2017.
Immersed into a state of economic well-being, the left-side populist rhetoric and policies were gradually drowned under the incoming wave of the rightist populism, with an emphasis on the ethno-cultural cleavages. After the 2015 refugee crisis in Europe, Fidesz shifted the arrows on its populist compass, opening the second eye of Hungarian Medusa in the form of sociotropic populism. Orban started portraying the influx of refugees as a menace to Christian Europe and the traditional foundations of Hungary. Orban drew a painting of crisis which presented an existential threat to the Christian identity. This supplemented the rejection of changes – “Cultural Backlash” – linked with the rise of postmaterialist (not driven by economic incentives) values instilled by the cultural globalisation. Then, Orban began exploiting public fears to propose and implement laws that would present a solution to the crisis, thus generating more support for his movement.
Figure 2: Hungary Refugee Statistics (World Bank estimate)
Orban’s anti-immigration stance can be deduced from Figure 2, which depicts the annual percentage change of refugees being granted asylum. Later, Fidesz employed a successful pro-culture platform to attack other Postmaterialist liberal values such as gender freedom – Hungary recently voted to end legal recognition for intersex and transgender people.
The presented symbolic threats imposed by globalisation enabled Orban to shift the focus from the rising wealth inequality and corruption allegations, thus helping the party to escape the downfall. Fidesz was able to readjust its populism along the spectrum utilising immigration as a scapegoating tool, thus rooting right-wing populist ideology with nationalist fertilizer within societal soil.
“Hateful to me as the gates of Hades is that man who hides one thing in his heart and speaks another.” – Homer, The Iliad
Ultimately, the phenomenon of Fidesz represents the Gorgon Medusa of modern politics. Fidesz and its leader Viktor Orban can be considered populist based on their adherence to the characteristics that define such a notion. Moreover, their support and retention of power can be explained through the economic and sociotropic arguments, with immigration being the essential tool calibrating the populist machine.
However, this populist platform is not sustainable in the long-term, as the growing wealth inequality, potential exclusion from the EU, and the growing generation of opposition may be that Perseus, who can behead this Medusa. Subsequently, this action may not only revive the liberal democracy of Hungary but also initiate the volcano of change which will burn the far-right populist governments of other countries.
If political structures will be built upon openness and communication, rather than greed and deceit, we will witness the last day of populist devilism.
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