Orban’s brand of populism blinds him to reality

Published by The Times (14th May, 2019)

Viktor Orban, Hungary’s pugnacious prime minister, created the template for the populism sweeping western democracies. This former anti-communist activist has taken pride in the creation of an ‘illiberal state’. It draws on fears that have become hideously familiar: scapegoating of refugees, scaremongering over Muslims, rejection of multiculturalism and sympathy towards Putin’s Russia.

Steve Bannon, the former Trump adviser seeking to forge a nationalist alliance across Europe, called him ‘Trump before Trump’. Orban was the only European leader to endorse the Republican candidate’s campaign in 2016. Last night, he was rewarded finally by the president with a White House reception.

But there is an irony in Orban’s stance against immigration, as he closes borders and calls for an ‘anti-immigration axis’ with other populists in Europe. Hungary is the classic example of a country that needs an influx of people to support its ageing and shrinking population, which is falling by 32,000 citizens a year thanks to low birth rates and young people emigrating.

Hungary had a population of 10.7 million in 1980, which has fallen by about a million and is expected to fall by a similar number over the next half-century. Since the end of communism, the proportion of pensioners to children under 15 has doubled. This old age dependency ratio is anticipated to double again by 2080. Yet Orban bases his politics on opposition to the most obvious solution: substantial immigration.

Instead the prime minister — a father of five himself — throws state money at families in the hope of engineering a baby boom, with cheap home loans and freedom from income tax for mothers with four children. But as the economy surges and wages rise, there are acute labour shortages. His response was to allow companies to demand 400 hours of annual overtime from staff with salaries delayed for up to three years, but it was derided as a ‘slave law’ and provoked protests.

Before his makeover into a small-minded nationalist, Orban admitted that Hungary needed an injection of four million immigrants. Now he uses refugees and religion to pose as a patriot while sowing division. Like so many populists, he is a hypocrite whose malign influence undermines his nation’s wellbeing.

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