Editorial: A race to the bottom on immigration

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The following is the editorial column from the May 8-21 print edition of the Budapest Business Journal.

When Prime Minister Viktor Orbán suggested recently that the death penalty should be considered here in a European Union country, he said he was reacting to the shock of the murder of a shopkeeper. He was also probably trying to stay competitive with Jobbik, the far-right party that appears ready to overtake Orbán’s Fidesz party in popularity.

Keeping up with Jobbik is also apparently the impetus for Orbán’s recent xenophobic-sounding statements about immigration to the EU. The prime minister seems eager to move further right to stay ahead of the opposition. In fact he’s racing to the bottom.

It is true that polls show Jobbik is doing well, perhaps in part because they have never been in power so they haven’t disappointed anyone yet. It is true that Jobbik espouses xenophobia and calls for the reestablishment of the death penalty. It is also true that a recent poll by Tárki shows 46% of the Hungarian adult population is xenophobic, the highest percentage since the polling company was formed in 1991, and that 60% of respondents said that they opposed the immigration of “Piréz” people – an ethnic group that does not exist. Current events, including the wave of refugees who flee violence in the Middle East and North Africa and temporarily pass through Hungary on their way to Germany, have apparently fueled fear of immigration.

But this is a time for our leadership to oversee a tolerant approach to migrants and immigrants. Doing so is a good idea for humane reasons, as a way to encourage regional stability and also as a way to provide a source of young workers for aging Europe. Instead of being open-minded, Orbán seems determined to stand out as the least tolerant leader in Europe, and to whip up the kind of fear that demagogues use to maintain power.

After pressure from various EU officials – who pointed out that the death penalty is “barbaric”, does not deter crime and is banned in the EU – Orbán backed away from his stance on capital punishment. The migrant bashing, however, continues, and Fidesz has upped the ante by sending out another one of their “national consultations” on the issue. Like previous such exercises, this one is a mass mailing, delivered at taxpayers’ expense, and filled with loaded questions that are obviously not aimed at encouraging intelligent discourse.

Take these doozies:

“3. Some say that mistaken immigration policies by Brussels contribute to the spread of terrorism. Do you agree?”

“5. Do you agree with the opinion that economic immigrants endanger the jobs and livelihoods of the Hungarian people?”

“12. Do you agree with the Hungarian Government that instead of allocating funds to immigration we should support Hungarian families and those children yet to be born?” 

The consultation could almost be considered laughable, but the subject is not funny. An estimated 700 people died when a boat full of migrants fleeing war and desperation sank off the coast of Libya on April 19. Reports of similar deaths come almost daily. While others in Europe decry the callous policies that make this continuing tragedy possible, Fidesz is trying to make sure their party goes as far right as Jobbik in expressing fear of outsiders.

Back in 1993, Orbán and the Fidesz leadership decided that their exciting new, progressive party would give up its liberal stance because there were more seats to be had in Parliament by luring voters away from the center-right Magyar Democratic Forum. Suddenly the “youth” party became the “citizens” party, and Fidesz successfully took over dominance of the center right in Hungary.

But doing the same with Jobbik, by matching its radical right-wing stance, would require adopting a host of unsavory, hateful platforms.

Perhaps a better political strategy would be to differentiate your party from Jobbik by taking a civilized, caring stance on the issues. Instead of seeing who can reach bottom first, Fidesz and other parties might help the country more by vying for the higher ground. 

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