Is Hungary in for an "anyone but Orbán" election?

Hungary's PM Viktor Orban

Viktor Orbán, Hungary's far-right populist prime minister, likes to shock people. It's part of his political appeal. Orbán has proudly proclaimed that he is an "illiberal" leader," creating a frenzy in Brussels because Hungary is a member of the European Union.

It's been over a decade since the 58-year old, whom some have dubbed the "Trump before Trump" became prime minister. In that time he has, critics say, hollowed out Hungary's governing institutions and eroded the state's democratic characteristics.


But now for the first time since then, Orbán faces a real challenge to his power. Six ideologically-diverse opposition parties have joined forces to unseat him. But even if the opposition bloc wins elections next spring, a hard feat given Orbán's popular appeal, what would it even mean to "liberalize" Hungary again?

Orbán: Liked but not loved. Early in his political career, Orbán learnt that popular resentment could be harnessed as a political weapon. After the collapse of Hungary's communist regime, Orbán, a student who grew up in the countryside without running water, became a founding member of Fidesz (then called "Alliance of Young Democrats"), an anti-communism youth party. Under his influence, in particular his close alliance with Hungary's influential churches, the party took on a strongly socially conservative bent as well as a resentment of so-called "urban elites."

Since then, Orbán has fashioned himself as a bulwark against a corrupt political elite detached from salt-of-the-earth Hungarians who are tired of being pushed around by liberal elites and global heavyweights. In recent years, he has appealed in particular to Hungarians' strong sense of nationalism to rally against the progressive and migrant-friendly policies of the European Union.

Still, while Orban's anti-EU, anti-immigrant sentiment has struck a chord with many Hungarians — particularly during Europe's migrant crisis in 2015 — he has not personally endeared himself to constituents like, say, Donald Trump or Israel's Bibi Netanyahu. (No one, for example, is getting Orbán's initials inked across their chest.) Analysts say that the absence of cult-like infatuation surrounding the PM could indeed bode well for those vying to unseat him.

A ragtag opposition makes common cause. Last December, opposition parties put aside their political differences and teamed up to oust Orbán. Undoubtedly, this unsettled Orbán, who had long exploited discord within the opposition to tighten his grip on power. Tellingly, the opposition bloc — which spans the political spectrum and includes the progressive Democratic Coalition and the right-wing Jobbik party — has vowed to run unity candidates in all 106 legislative races. For now, the plan is working: Fidesz and the United Opposition are neck-and-neck in the polls.

Meanwhile, Budapest's liberal mayor Gergely Karácsony — formerly a member of the Green Politics Can be Different Party who won the mayoral race in a massive upset in 2019, defeating the Fidesz-aligned incumbent — is considered the frontrunner to head the opposition after leadership primaries take place in September. Karácsony is also a former political pollster, which is sure to come in handy on the campaign trail. Still, an upset in relatively liberal Budapest is one thing — replicating that at the national level will require winning over millions of more conservative rural voters.

What's actually at stake? Well, democracy. Hungary has taken an authoritarian turn under Orbán, who has cracked down on the independent media and restructured the electoral map to benefit Fidesz (Hungarian gerrymandering, if you will). Crucially, he has also gutted the judiciary, stacking the Constitutional Court with loyalists. And in some instances, the government has simply scoffed at court rulings. (Last year, Orbán said he would ignore a court ruling ordering the government to compensate Roma families for school segregation policies.) The EU, for its part, has condemned the erosion of the rule of law in the country, though Brussels has never been able to dish out anything more punitive than a wrist slap.

More recently, Orbán, like his ideological compatriots in Poland, has taken up the third rail issue of LGBT rights, vowing to soon hold a referendum on banning LGBT content from school curriculums. (Opposition figures said the move aimed to deflect attention from recent allegations that Orbán's government spied on journalists and activists.)

Even if the opposition wins next spring, reversing Orbán's political legacies — dilution of the independent judiciary, increased corruption and cronyism — will be extremely challenging. That's because Orbán's reforms are now entrenched in many of Hungary's institutions: for example, parliament recently appointed an Orbán ally to head the Supreme Court for nine years. Additionally, overriding big legislation requires a two-thirds majority in parliament, a pipe dream for the fragmented opposition. And even if Fidesz loses, the group will still remain immensely popular for some time.

The (potential) de-Orbanization of Hungary. Winning the election next year is only half the battle for Hungary's fired-up opposition. Reversing the political legacy of an illiberal stalwart like Viktor Orbán could take many, many years.

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Germany's historic moment of choice is finally here, and voters will stream to the polls on Sunday for the country's first post-World War II vote without a national leader seeking re-election. They will elect new members of the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament. The leader of the party that wins the most seats will then try to secure a majority of seats by drawing other parties into a governing partnership. He or she will then replace Angela Merkel as Germany's chancellor.

If the latest opinion polls are right, the center-left Social Democrats will finish first. In coming weeks, they look likely to form a (potentially unwieldy) governing coalition with the Green Party and the pro-business Free Democrats, which would be Germany's first-ever governing alliance of more than two parties.

Change?

Though he's a man of the center-left, Olaf Scholz, current finance minister and most likely next chancellor, wouldn't represent a radical break from Merkel. He's among the more fiscally frugal of Germany's Social Democrats, and after decades in German politics, he's an experienced technocrat and a skilled manager of political alliances.

Nor would a change in government radically shift Germany's foreign and trade policies. Its new government, whoever it includes, will keep strong security ties with the United States and NATO and protect opportunities to expand economic relations with China. Germany's dependence on Russian energy will demand a continuation of Merkel's pragmatic approach to Vladimir Putin's government.

Scholz's conviction that a strong and cohesive EU is good for Germany will limit any temptation to get tougher with the governments of Poland and Hungary over their violations of EU rules and principles. And aware that COVID can widen gaps between richer and poorer EU countries, and that anti-EU economic populism remains a potent force in Italy and elsewhere, he's likely to support a generous approach to pandemic recovery in southern Europe.

But climate policy, an area where Merkel concedes she should have done more, will be an important and interesting story to watch. Given its leadership within the EU and its standing as the world's fourth largest economy, the influence of Germany's next government on climate policy will be crucial to global climate strategies. A new German government with Scholz as chancellor will likely push the pace of transition from carbon to renewable energy, at least in part because the Green Party coalition partner will push for this as hard as it can. The Greens must show progress on the climate front to maintain political credibility and popularity. If the Free Democrats are indeed part of the coalition, they'll push hard to limit tax increases to pay for tougher climate action, but they won't blow up the coalition that gives them a seat at Germany's governing table.

Merkel's legacy

Even in a country that values stability and continuity, Angela Merkel's 16-year run is remarkable. More than once she's proved the maxim that it's not the smartest or strongest who survives, but the one most adaptable to change. Merkel is smart and strong, to be sure, but she'll be remembered longest – by both devoted admirers and bitter critics – as the leader who insisted Germany could and should do more to help indebted countries survive Europe's sovereign debt crisis (2010-12) and to manage the surge of migrants that followed unrest in the Middle East (2015-16). Her improvisational talents also led her to change tack on nuclear power (after the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan) and on common European debt.

But the main reason Merkel leaves power with an 80 percent approval rating is that, whether she receives more credit than she deserves, she has presided over a period of economic expansion and prosperity in Germany that few other world leaders can match. It's all the more remarkable then that her party looks set to find itself in opposition once a new government is formed. It's Merkel that German voters like, not her political family.

Bottom-line: Whatever he accomplishes as Germany's next chancellor, Olaf Scholz will find Angela Merkel a tough act to follow.

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel has seen a lot during her 16 years in power. She's navigated a global economic recession, multiple wars in the Middle East which sparked an EU refugee crisis, and now a once-in-a-generation pandemic. Often the only woman in the room, Merkel has had to learn to tactfully deal with dozens of idiosyncratic world leaders. Many have come and gone since 2005, but Merkel has won elections again and again. We take a look at who she's dealt with from the top five democracies (by economic size) throughout her tenure.

In May 2020, economic historian Adam Tooze told GZERO World he feared 1 in 5 American workers could still be out of job now due to COVID. It didn't happen. Why? Tooze says he failed to anticipate how quickly we'd get highly effective vaccines, and the scale of the economic stimulus the government was willing to put up. During the 2008 financial crisis, he explains, "we were still beginning to flex our muscles with regards to economic policy, and the scale of fiscal and monetary stimulus that we've seen is as unprecedented as the shock of the spring of last year."

Watch Tooze's interview with Ian Bremmer on the latest episode of GZERO World, airing on US public television starting Friday 9/23/21. Check local listings.

Will Evergrande be China's Lehman Bros? Chinese authorities are bracing for the increasingly likely default of Evergrande, the country's most indebted property developer. If Evergrande — a gargantuan corporation with properties in 200 cities across China — stiffs its creditors, that'll send shockwaves throughout the country's financial system, and the wider Chinese economy and society. The possible ripple effects on home buyers and countless companies and individuals that do business with or are owed money by Evergrande have invited comparisons with Lehman Brothers, the US investment bank whose 2008 collapse triggered an American financial crisis that quickly spread to the entire world. Although in principle authoritarian China has ways of containing the fallout, the potential for social unrest is real — and opacity could make it worse. More broadly, the demise of such a big player in the country's once-booming real estate market, which accounts for over 7 percent of GDP, would expose the shaky foundations of China's debt-driven economic growth model, eroding confidence in China both at home and abroad.

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Betrayal. Treason. Duplicity. These are some of the words used by the French government to describe the US' recent decision to freeze Paris out of a new security pact with the UK and Australia in the Indo-Pacific, which nixed a contract for Australia to buy French submarines.

Macron's subsequent tough stance against one of its oldest and closest allies is unusual, including his decision to briefly recall the French ambassador from Washington, the first time a French president has done so. But this headstrong strategy is also a deliberate diplomatic choice.

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43: Eight months into the job, US President Biden's approval rating has hit a new low of 43 percent, a six-point drop since August. Of all the US presidents elected since World War II, only Donald Trump had a lower approval rating at this stage of his presidency. It sure looks like Biden's honeymoon period is over.

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