Blog series “How to Counter the Populist Narrative of Scapegoating?” is part of the project “Improving Communication on Human Rights”, organized by ELF and supported by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, with the aim of creating a safer work environment for human rights defenders and increasing the visibility of their work.
Viktor Orbán used immigrants (as he usually calls them without making a distinction with refugees entitled to asylum) to keep the consensus and stay in power since 2015. Like most of the populist leaders he is very good at communication and his government always has strong and easily understandable messages with respect to migration issues. Even the people living in poor little villages can agree with him and see him as a great leader. How did he do it?
Hungary is at the eastern edge of the European Union. Geographically we belong to Central Europe, but our society is more like Eastern Europe. This creates a unique situation when we look at refugees. Before 2015, there weren’t a lot of refugees in Hungary. They chose more advanced countries to live in. Then in 2015, nearly 765,000 people entered our country from Serbia1. (Most of these people were simply passing through Hungary but it was still a huge shock to the society.) So in Hungary the “exposure to migration was similar to that of Greece or Italy, while in terms of other migration indicators, it was similar to those of Eastern European Member States that were not particularly affected by the arrival of refugees”2.
Most of the Hungarians have never met with any refugees during their life so they had no real-life experience about them. That is one of the reasons why it was convenient for Viktor Orbán and his party to use this to their own advantage. They also did not need to fear that immigrants will retaliate by voting against them.
One of the biggest problems in our country is that Orbán and his government “has systematically dismantled media independence and used verbal attacks, lawsuits and other means to harass critical journalists in Hungary”.3 They occupied the public media (payed for by taxpayers) to spread their messages, and can even lie without a problem. In a leaked recording, a leader of the public television explained that “they don’t support opposition coalition in the institution”4 and he also told his co-workers that they can quit if they don’t like this situation. It clearly shows that they do what Orbán tells them without question.
This is the power Orbán used to propagate his messages in the whole country. He created a very powerful narrative that immigrants (not refugees) are dangerous, and he is the only one who is able to and who is willing to protect “us” and his beloved country from them. He also lies that every other party, non-governmental organization and human rights defender wants to transport thousands of illegal immigrants into the country.
There is a plot twist in the story. Between 2013 and 2017 Orbán and his government let 19,838 immigrants move into the country5. Why did they do that when all the communications were about not settling any immigrants? Because of money of course. These people simply payed for a residency bond in Hungary. The government told the Hungarians that we need this money because we are in debt. Later studies showed that “the state and taxpayers suffered a relative loss of at least HUF 21 billion for the entire residency bond program”6.
This was a huge scam, since Orbán and his party basically lied about their most important message, and in 2017 we already knew about it7. Although they said it was a financial success for the country (which was not true) they admitted that they let in nearly 20,000 immigrants to Hungary and the European Union without real inspection about who they were and what they intended to do.
After all this came the election in 2018. Orbán and his party used the same narrative during the campaign: he’s the only one who can protect us from the immigrants. And it worked perfectly. They won again and they got more than 2/3 of the seats in the parliament. If you do not understand how it happened, you are not alone. The only reasonable explanation I can think of is that lots of people believe in him like in a religion. They probably see Orbán as some sort of god who is perfect and unquestionable. They do not believe any facts or any studies because they believe in Orbán, our great protector and our great leader.
The solution for this situation is to go out and talk to the people. Start conversations about their real problems, about their everyday sufferings like poverty or unemployment. We must show to everybody that there are people in this country who want to help them, and they are not Orbán nor his government. This takes a lot of time and a lot of work, but in the end it will be worth it if we can live in a better society where people can live a better life.
“Viktor Orbán’s policy is based on inciting conflicts, rather than building any national consensus.”8 Our job is to start the conversations between different people and to show them that they aren’t so different after all.
Attila Juhász, Csaba Molnár, Edit Zgut – Menekültügy és migráció Magyarországon, page 14. – 2017., download: november 7, 2020.
Balázs Bozzay – Kiszivárgott hangfelvételen magyarázzák a köztévé vezető szerkesztői, hogy „az intézményben nem az ellenzéki összefogást támogatják” – Telex, november 12, 2020
Balázs Romhányi – A letelepedési államkötvények szerepe a magyar állam finanszírozásában, page 21. – 2018., download: november 7, 2020.
Fran Quarterly, Quarter 4, October – december 10, 2015
No Archive – Hungary’s media control unprecedented in EU, joint mission finds – december 3, 2019
Péter Urfi – Majdnem 20 ezer bevándorló kaphat letelepedési engedélyt a kormányközeli offshore cégeken keresztül – 444.hu, november 8, 2017
Tamás Wiedenmann – 59 országból jött Magyarországra a húszezer letelepedési kötvényes – G7, january 16, 2019
Adria Flóra Kerekes is an architect from Hungary. She is a member of Momentum Mozgalom (a Hungarian party) and she is an active volunteer in the field of human rights.