Hungary to choose between two visions of Christianity and politics

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Hungary to choose between two visions of Christianity and politics

Peter Marki Zay’s vision of Christian Democracy for Hungary looks set to challenge Viktor Orbán, with important consequences for religion and politics across Europe.

Viktor Orbán’s supposed defence of what he calls ‘Christian Europe’ has made him into a reference point for far-right politicians across the West. Yet, despite Orbán’s claims, it is a devout Catholic, Peter Marki Zay, who presents the biggest challenge to his leadership.

The first part  of this two-part series explored how Orbán has utilised religion to legitimise his authoritarian form of government under the name of ‘Christian democracy’. This second part will consider how the upcoming elections will contrast two visions of religion and politics. Orbán’s authoritarianism on the one hand, against the conservative, yet clearly democratic, vision of Peter Marki Zay, on the other.

Influence abroad

Following the 2015 refugee crisis, Orbán’s so-called defence of ‘Christian Europe’ has gained him admirers among the far right across Europe. This has been noted by academic researchers. In particular, a paper by Christian Lamour explained that for far-right groups across the West, Christianity has been used as a means of “structuring antagonism” towards another faith – Islam.[1]

Orbán’s model of using religion as part of a culture war has been exemplary for far-right parties across Europe. This is because it allows them to unite their nationalistic and often xenophobic anti-refugee positions with a supposed defence of religious and traditional values.

This strategy has been seen among far-right groups across Europe. In November 2021, Orbán met with two of Europe’s leading far-right politicians, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Italian politician Matteo Salvini, to discuss their plans for a ‘European renaissance’. In comments following the meeting, Morawiecki spoke of the need to defend “Europe’s Christian roots.” Meanwhile, Salvini criticised the EU for having “made a grave mistake when it rejected its Judeo-Christian roots in the basic treaty.”[2]

Orbán has also inspired Santiago Abascal, the leader of the far-right Vox party in Spain, who has visited Hungary and spoken of the need to defend “Europe’s roots.”[3] Meanwhile, in Orthodox-majority Romania, the far-right AUR has called for a protection of the “cultural paradigms” of Europe, one of which is “Christianity.”[4]

Furthermore, Orbán’s model of associating the defence of Christianity with the rejection of migrants coming from Islam majority nations offers far-right politicians a way of rejecting the compassionate stance of Pope Francis. For politicians in Catholic countries, this is an important tool in aiming to justify how they can both oppose Pope Francis on this issue, yet still be defenders of Christianity.[5]

The Christian Democratic tradition

Since returning to leadership in 2010, Orbán and his Fidesz party have increasingly tightened their grip on power, unilaterally making changes to the country’s constitution. However, in the upcoming April 2022 elections, the opposition has united around a conservative and devout Catholic candidate, Peter Marki-Zay. Analysts have said Marki Zay’s, widely referred to as MZP, candidacy represents “the first time the opposition has a real chance to win” in 16 years.[6]

MZP’s candidacy is a direct challenge to the fusion of Christianity and authoritarianism that Orbán and his supporters rely on. Marki Zay was formerly a member of Orbán’s Fidesz party. As he explained in an interview with OpenDemocracy, during the late 1990s, Orbán’s party “turned into a Christian democratic right-wing conservative party; anti-Putin, pro-Europe.” During this period MZP campaigned for Fidesz. However, he says that by 2010, the party had begun to change and became “anti-Europe, pro-Putin, radical right-wing; not only nationalistic but a mostly a racist party.”[7]

The change that MZP describes reflects a wider process in European politics. Over the last decade, the traditional conservative political ideology of Christian Democracy has been challenged by the populist, far-right approach favoured by Orbán. [8]

One subject on which these two approaches clearly clash is the question of LGBTQ+ rights. In June 2021, the Fidesz majority in the Hungarian parliament passed a law that banned gay people from featuring in school educational materials or TV shows for under-18s.[9] In addition, the law banned the sale of products which ‘express homosexuality’ within a 200-metre radius of churches.[10] This law has attracted widespread condemnation both inside and outside Hungary.[11]

Meanwhile, in an interview with the BBC, MZP expressed his support for a secular state that grants equal rights to everyone, including recognising secular gay marriage and abortion rights.[12] This support clearly demonstrates that although he is a conservative and a devout Catholic, MZP leads a united opposition that includes liberals and leftists. He is committed to re-establishing a secular and democratic system in Hungary.

A way forward for Europe?

Just as Orbán has had an influence across Europe, MZP’s political vision of Christian democracy has earned him supporters abroad. In December 2021, he met with the chairman of the European People’s Party, Donald Tusk. Tusk stated that the two politicians “share Christian Democratic values” and said that “we speak a common language.” In Tusk’s native Poland, the far-right PiS government, which are closely allied with Orbán, have utilised the Church as a means of attacking LGBTQ+ rights and in effect making an outright ban on abortion.[13]

The relevance of MZP’s candidacy has been noticed elsewhere in Europe. Bernd Posselt, a German politician from the CSU section of the Christian Democratic Union party (CDU/CSU), visited MZP’s hometown in 2021.[14] For the CDU/CSU in Germany, there are clear parallels with their refusal to share power with the far-right AfD and MZP’s campaign against Orbán.[15]

However, in other European nations, traditionally Christian Democrat parties have been more open to working with the far right. In Spain, the conservative Partido Popular rely on the support of Vox in various regional governments, and in Italy, Berlusconi’s conservative Forza Italia have expressed their openness to working alongside Matteo Salvini’s Lega party.[16] [17]

Looking ahead to April

The challenge that MZP poses to Orbán will have important consequences far beyond Hungary. Over the last 12 years, Orbán has utilised the language and symbols of Christianity to justify his autocratic and populist brand of politics. This mix has become popular among far-right groups across Europe.

Therefore, the possibility that a more traditional and democratic understanding of the ideology of Christian Democracy could defeat him could also have important consequences. By uniting the opposition, MZP’s campaign will give hope that democrats of different ideologies can find a way to defeat far-right populism via the ballot box. And for those who are Christians and believe in a secular state, hope that these two positions remain compatible and successful in 21st-century European politics.

Freddie Scott

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[1] Orbán Urbi et Orbi: Christianity as a Nodal Point of Radical-right Populism | Politics and Religion | Cambridge Core

[2] Orbán in Talks with Salvini, Morawiecki on New EU Political Group

[3] Abascal recibe a Orbán en Madrid y pide construir una UE “fuerte de naciones soberanas” que “colaboren libremente”

[4] https://lefteast.org/first-as-tragedy-then-as-farce-aur-and-the-long-shadow-of-fascism-in-romania/

[5] Pope Francis meets anti-immigrant Orbán in lightning Hungary visit

[6] Hungary election: outsider from the right backed by left to beat Viktor Orbán | Hungary | The Guardian

[7] Meet the conservative who could unseat Viktor Orbán | openDemocracy

[8] Mainstream right in Western Europe: challenging times; trouble ahead? – UK in a changing Europe

[9] Hungary’s controversial anti-LGBT law goes into effect despite EU warnings

[10] Hungary anti-LGBTQ law to apply around churches – EURACTIV.com

[11] ‘Grotesque’: EU countries condemn Hungary over anti-LGBTQ law | Reuters

[12] Press Roundup: Márki-Zay Supports Same Sex Marriage – Hungary Today

[13] Tusk: “European People’s Party Welcomes Péter Márki-Zay” – Hungary Today

[14] Tusk: “European People’s Party Welcomes Péter Márki-Zay” – Hungary Today

[15] German CDU leader says ‘firewall’ against far right will hold firm

[16] Los gobiernos regionales del PP sustentados por Vox apoyan el ‘no’ de Casado a Abascal en la moción

[17] ‘Wife, or mistress?’ The Salvini-Berlusconi hook-up