Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s quest for legitimacy and influence, despite his long-standing authoritarian governance record, has recently gained an important boost from leading members of the European People’s Party (EPP), the group of center-right parties in the European Parliament dominated by the Christian Democratic Union (CDU/CSU) in Germany. The EPP is bending over backwards to keep Orban as its member, overlooking his anti-Semitic election campaign against the sitting EPP Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Hungarian-born philanthropist George Soros.
The likely reason for these recent cynical political moves, despite Orban and his Fidesz party’s numerous attacks on the rule of law in Hungary leading to its ranking as the European Union’s first ever only “partially free” member state by Freedom House, derives from German domestic politics.
Chancellor Angela Merkel continues to lead her grand coalition with the Social Democrats. But the recent rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party to the right of the ruling center-right CDU/CSU party is having an impact especially at the regional political level in Germany. German state elections are due to take place later in 2019 in Bremen, Brandenburg, Saxony, and Thuringia. The new CDU party leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK), hopes to cement her chances to succeed Merkel in 2021 by doing well in those state elections. That means placating the CDU’s conservative base by being tough on immigration and making references to “Bohemian urban elites,” questioning the compatibility of some versions of Islam with Europe’s open societies, and opposing fiscal transfers in Europe. In addition, she seems willing to go to great lengths to keep the anti-immigrant firebrand Viktor Orban in the EPP, as he might otherwise prove a powerful ally of AfD.
Manfred Weber, leader of the EPP and aspiring president of the European Commission, comes from the conservative Christian Social Union of Bavaria (CSU) and is also cozying up to Orban for similar reasons—partly, of course, because AKK, as the presumed next German chancellor, will soon be his political boss, but because as the EPP’s candidate for the presidency of the European Commission (spitzenkandidat), he faces a critical test. To avoid becoming an electoral loser, he has to outdo the CSU’s performance in the previous European elections in Bavaria in 2014—a difficult feat because the AfD was not on the ballot the last time, when the CSU received 40.5 percent of the vote.
The CSU is clearly struggling from the threat on its right flank. Its performance in the Bavarian state election in October 2018 was at 37.2 percent, its lowest vote share since 1950. The CDU and CSU together are polling only at around 30 percent of the total German vote in the European elections, while the AfD polls at 8 to 10 percent in both German and Bavarian polls. These numbers help explain why Weber is trying to keep Orban in the EPP ahead of the European elections in May, knowing that Orban’s expulsion would motivate him to organize a new rightwing nationalist group in the European Parliament and then actively try to recruit AfD to such a new political group.
As this situation in Bavaria illustrates, European politics are really German and local politics, just as they are in the United States.
1. EPP spitzenkandidat Manfred Weber has in recent days issued a set of demands to Orban for him to be allowed to remain in the EPP. These include an immediate stop to, and apology for, the campaign against Jean-Claude Juncker and a government guarantee to the Soros-supported Central European University to be able to continue to operate unimpeded in Budapest. These are indefensibly weak political demands in the face of Orban’s repeated attacks on the rule of law and freedom of the press in Hungary. The response of the Hungarian government is not yet clear, though the EPP is scheduled to meet and decide on Orban’s fate on March 20, 2019.
2. Weber will obviously himself try to frame his personal performance as measured not against the European elections in 2014 but against the lower electoral bar of the most recent CSU state election result in Bavaria in October 2018, where the CSU got a noticeably worse result than in 2014.