By Anne Luo and Norbert Tóth
With the influx of immigrants around 2014, migration is increasingly becoming the focus of foreign and defense policies, making it one of the most salient and controversial political issues in Europe. In Hungary, anti-immigration rhetoric has evolved over the last few years, with the actual campaign targeted at the 87 year-old Hungarian-born American financier and philanthropist George Soros. As seen in the video above, the Stop Soros Campaign is an attempt at linking Soros to the issue of immigration. The so-called ‘Stop Soros package’ consists of three proposed immigration laws: allow the government to register, penalise, and ban those it deems to be supporting illegal immigrants. It would also entail banning NGOs that encourage migration and “pose a risk to national security.” In his recent speech, Viktor Orbán, the leader of the ruling party (Fidesz), declared that “Now it is being decided whether we can bring back our great old Europe: the Europe that existed in the days before multiculturalism. We want a Europe that is safe, just, civic, Christian and free.” According to Orbán, Soros is the mastermind of a plan to “flood Europe with hundreds of thousands of immigrants each year,” thus putting the future of Europe and Hungary in jeopardy.
Hungarian nationalism: fearing immigrants
Immigration tends to be heavily politicised by political leaders. Through a discourse of ‘us’ versus ‘them’, immigrants are subject to differentiation, and ultimately become a category of identity – the ‘other’. In the case of Hungary, the threat is framed as coming from outside the border. Orbán’s discourse is based on religion, in which he identifies the incompatibility of European Christian values with those of Islamic ones. He justifies this anti-Muslim rhetoric as the preservation of the ‘sovereignty of the nation’. In fact, since the beginning of this refugee crisis, Orbán emerged as one of the high-profile nationalist voices in the European Union due to his strong stance on sovereignty and cultural integrity.
His discourse also relies on the portrayal of immigration as a meta-issue, that is, a source of many problems ranging from unemployment, criminality, social unrest, to terrorism. Here, immigration serves as a convenient reference point for uncertain fears. As there is no clear empirical evidence to demonstrate or rebut such claims, immigration is the perfect catchword to incarnate all sort of blames. This is particularly useful for politicians, for they can use such fears to justify their authority and maintain their legitimacy. For instance, the politicisation of immigration enables failures in macro-economic policies to be reduced to a much simpler causality.
Crucially, this representation of societal dangers is directed to the individual level, thus making the threat even more credible, as well as creating a sense of urgency. Fidesz launched a billboard initiative in 2016 that emphasised how immigrants impact the individual’s daily life.
For instance, this billboard translates to: “Did you know? The number of harassments against women has increased by leaps and bounds since the beginning of the migrant crisis in Europe.”
Anti-immigration attitudes are also visible on the ground. The construction of anti-refugee fences is part of a politics of unease, for it creates a sense of fear domestically. Crucially, this politicisation and securitisation of migration is supported by Fidesz’s propaganda and quasi-monopoly over the media. The nationalist party has introduced new laws after coming to power in 2010 which limit press freedom immensely. It is now very difficult for opposition thinkers and critics to have access to the printed press and to television. The situation has worsened with the entry of Arktos Media, the world’s largest distributor of alt-right and far-right literature, in Hungary in 2015. Consequently, the media has successfully mobilised anti-immigration sentiments amongst the Hungarians, which in turn, garnered support for Fidesz.
Soros: a multi-layered identity & perfect enemy of the nationalist party
Why did Orbán conflate the issue of immigration with the image of Soros, and why has the anti-Soros rhetoric intensified only in recent months? Well, conspiracy theorists have an explanation for everything. Repackaging issues into a single person and identifying Soros as the enemy does enhance the idea of the collectiveness of Hungarians or magyars fighting against the outsider’s dark conspiracy against the preservation of the Hungarian identity. This imagined threat enables Fidesz to acquire significant support from more right-wing radical Hungarians for the upcoming 2018 elections. If Fidesz establishes a stronger stance it can easily shake off the potential competition it is facing from the Jobbik party, who used to follow a similar right-wing agenda. In a way, Fidesz finds itself in a competition in which it has to act more nationalistic than Jobbik in order to ‘preserve’ the Hungarian identity and to sustain the rule of the party. Conveniently, being Hungarian-born, Soros can be seen as the traitor, the ‘other within’; but because he is not based in Hungary, Hungarian people will never encounter him personally. Therefore, the urgency expressed through the campaign and the new repackaging is based on political needs and is merely an electoral calculation.
Critics often deem the Stop Soros Campaign anti-Semitic in nature because of Soros’ Jewish background. However, it is important to note that the campaign goes beyond religion, with the latter functioning as a facade that covers up anti-liberal criticisms. Interestingly, the Soros-hatred is neither a new phenomenon, nor is it unique to Hungary. As early as 2007, Soros was denounced on Fox News as the “Dr Evil of the whole world of leftwing foundations” because of his opposition to the Iraq War and his support for liberal causes in the United States in general. Hungary’s Stop Soros campaign is in fact a postlude to the 2016 National Referendum, where the following question was asked:
“Do you want to allow the European Union to mandate the resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens to Hungary without the approval of the National Assembly?”
Fidesz extended the anti-immigration discourse to blame the European Union for the influx of immigrants as Brussels imposed the migrant quota on Hungary, forcefully moving migrants to the country. In this situation, the cause-effect was shifted from the immigrant as the enemy to a wider definition which includes the European Union. Even though the referendum vote was invalid due to low turnout, the majority of the people voted against. Fidesz framed this as a clear message made by Hungarians that they are against the European Union, particularly its liberal values. However, the initiative was of limited success, as it ruffled ties between Brussels and Budapest. Consequently, Fidesz had to find a new enemy.
Today, Soros represents a liberal internationalist in an age of nationalism. Soros’ Open Society Foundations campaigns for nothing but the opposite of Fidesz’s political agenda: for strengthening civil society, advancing human rights, greater acceptance of migrants and refugees, combating corruption etc. While being an EU member and a major beneficiary of EU financial assistance, Fidesz is claiming a competing system of values for Europe – one that is largely based on illiberalism and Christianity. The Stop Soros campaign allows Fidesz to indirectly target civil society and to violate the EU’s basic rights enshrined in the Article 2 of the EU Treaty. The campaign therefore reflects a demolition of democratic values in Hungary and shows Fidesz’s selectivity: wanting the EU’s money but not its values.
In facing the upcoming election, Orbán portrays himself as the champion of the rural poor against the Budapest liberal elites. On a state level, he positions himself as the protector of Hungary against European and Western liberal forces. On an international level, Orbán asserts himself as the defender of a Christian Europe. Soros’ multi-layered identity: an American financier, a staunch liberal (especially due to his pro-immigration views), and conveniently, non-Christian, unsurprisingly makes him the perfect enemy of the nationalist party. Yet, the Stop Soros campaign is merely a new way to institutionalise existing anti-immigration discourses. By targeting the individual level, and framing it as a conspiracy theory, this campaign is particularly successful. As it is shown in the graph, in only 3 months, public opinion has significantly changed. With overwhelming support, the party is en route to win the upcoming election, potentially with a two-thirds majority. But the great irony is that Orbán himself was once a beneficiary of the Soros Scholarship; he also fought against the Communist party and the Church under Fidesz, which initially marked its position on the Hungarian political scene as a youthful libertarian party.
With the rise of populist far right, expect the attacks on Soros to intensify. If not Soros, a new bogeyman will simply in turn be identified and targeted. “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh!” say the posters spread all over Hungary. But how about the future of the country?
Featured Image: Stop Soros Campaign
Anne and Norbert are final year students of IR at King’s College London. Their interests include nationalism, East Asian affairs and political economy.