Upstart party Momentum held a conference Saturday in Budapest titled “Winning an election in a populist era: the Dutch model”, where it hosted members of the Netherlands’ governing party VVD, and a number of MPs from Hungary’s political opposition.
In his opening address, Momentum chairman András Fekete-Győr first welcomed the international guests of the event in English, saying that “we are fortunate to have you as allies against populism and totalitarianism”. Fekete-Győr then switched to Hungarian and gave a campaign-like speech stressing the importance of strong international allies in spite of Prime Minister Victor Orbán’s orientation towards Russia.
“He would only succeed over our bodies,” Fekete-Győr added of Orbán’s attempts to draw Hungary closer to Russia.
Getting to the theme of the event – populism – Fekete-Győr stated that there are two distinct types of populists: bad ones – always referring to the “people” but doing nothing for them – and good ones. According to Fekete-Győr, Orbán is a textbook example of a bad populist who deceives two million “of our fellow countrymen” while a “nation of 15 million” suffers. (It is worth noting that although there are indeed roughly 15 million ethnic Hungarians around the world, except for far-right populists such as Viktor Orbán or Jobbik’s Gábor Vona, Hungarian politicians rarely – if ever – speak about a “nation of 15 million.”-ed.)
Fekete-Győr used this contrasting of bad and good populism as a lead-up to his announcement of Momentum’s latest campaign to gather signatures for a referendum on repealing the government’s controversial NGO law. The Momentum chairman stated that the protection of civil organizations “is Momentum’s most important duty”.
“Because today it’s the NGOs, tomorrow it’s you,” he warned.
Finally, Fekete-Győr turned to the topic of the first panel of the conference, the future of the European Union, and declared that the EU too must “walk on a new path” to rejuvenation and acceleration. He also referred to a common EU border defense, joining the European Public Prosecutor’s Office, and the eurozone as Momentum’s vision for Hungary and the EU.
Fekete-Győr seized the opportunity to once again distance his party from the struggling left-wing opposition in Hungary by saying that “instead of coordination and election technique tricks, we are not bargaining with the old parties but coordinating with our [European] neighbors.” He did not, however, go into detail of how coordinating with a Romanian or Lithuanian political force could better the living conditions in Hungary.
Sophie Hermans of the Dutch conservative-liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) then took the stage to give a short lecture about how her party managed to beat Geert Wilders’s populist radical right-wing party Party for Freedom (PVV) in this year’s general election in the Netherlands. Hermans listed “positive communication of solutions and achievements,” an intensive media and social media campaign and “telling the story from the people’s perspective” as strategies that proved to be effective against populist forces.
“Winning an election in a populist era is possible,” Hermans concluded, and added that in her opinion Momentum is needed for the modernization of Hungary.
The first panel discussion, concentrating on the future of the EU amid the emergence of populism, included panelists Fekete-Győr, Hermans, MP and Senator for Diaspora Radu Mihail of the liberal Save Romania Union (USR), MP of the German Free Democratic Party (FDP) Alexander Graf Lambsdorff and MP of the Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union (LVŽS) Rūta Miliūtė.
The discussion revolved mostly around Russian influence within EU Member States and possible ways to tackle it. All panelists welcomed the recent agreement made between the EU foreign affairs ministers to move forward with the Permanent Structured Cooperation in Defense (PESCO) that aims to set up a joint EU defense policy. Fekete-Győr said that regarding the issue of European defense, “we are on the same platform with Fidesz, we need common defense. We have to work together to make it a reality.”
The panelists also agreed that a possible future joint EU defense force could not be a substitute for NATO. Fekete-Győr expressed his hope that some day the EU might become a defense union and added that he personally doesn’t want to “wait for [US President] Trump to defend the EU.” Graf Lambsdorff noted that justifying foreign affairs and defense spending in a populist era is extremely hard as populists consider everything that is foreign suspicious. He said German society would not accept spending 2 percent of the country’s GDP on defense, a target which was set up by NATO itself.
Speaking of Russian influence in Hungary, Fekete-Győr described the situation as “terrible” and vowed that if his party wins the election next year, Momentum would disclose all information on Russian intelligence operations in Hungary. The Momentum chairman said the fact that EU intelligence operatives are not willing to cooperate with their Hungarian counterparts due to a lack of trust is a national security threat.
Fekete-Győr described Hungary’s relationship with Russia with a Star Wars analogy, comparing Prime Minister Orbán to Darth Vader and Russian President Vladimir Putin to Emperor Palpatine.
Near the end of the discussion, Fekete-Győr again brought up the topic of bad populists and good ones, but this time he stated that Momentum is a good populist party. The Momentum chairman contrasted Fidesz’s hate-mongering nationalism with his own party’s patriotism. “Organizing events and handing out stickers, this is what you need to do. You have to build a movement,” he said.
Regarding the future of cooperation in the EU, Fekete-Győr said that as a “member of the Erasmus [an EU university student exchange program] generation”, he cannot accept people being pessimistic about the EU. He said his party needs to inform those citizens who couldn’t travel during their youth about the importance of EU issues.
“The Erasmus generation has to be the ambassadors of Europe,” Fekete-Győr declared.
The final panel discussion at the event was with the participation of invited guests István Ujhelyi (MSZP), Márta Demeter (LMP), János Volner (Jobbik) and Momentum’s Tamás Soproni. Under the heading of “Strong nation states or a united Europe? How to reform the EU”, the panel participants discussed their visions of Hungary’s position within Europe going into the future, and their own parties’ positions on a number if issues concerning European integration.
On whether Hungary should adopt the euro as its currency, all respondents agreed that it should be introduced but they were divided on when and under what conditions. Ujhelyi answered simply that the euro should come to Hungary as soon as possible, while Volner argued that the Hungarian economy is not yet strong and balanced enough with the broader European economy for the introduction of the euro to benefit the country. Demeter took a similar position, arguing that Hungary’s accession to the EU in 2004 meant that Hungary would eventually introduce the common currency, but maintained that it should only be introduced when Hungary’s citizens will not be negatively affected by the move.
When asked whether a Jobbik-LMP-Momentum electoral coalition could come to pass, Verner insisted that Jobbik is a “cooperative” party, but is only willing to cooperate with “21st-century parties” that are conducting a modern kind of politics. Verner considers Jobbik and LMP such parties, but said 20th-century parties “like MSZP and Fidesz” must be swept out of power, and Jobbik has vowed never to cooperate with them. Soproni said that while political cooperation between parties with similar aims can be valuable, it is “not time ” for such a cooperation between his party, LMP and Jobbik. Soproni insisted that each party must now be out among voters individually building its own base of support.