Anti-Immigrant Spell Fades in Hungary as Teachers Defy Orban

  • Hungarian prime minister faces protests over education reform
  • Voters' attention shifts after drop in migrant arrivals

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who harnessed Europe’s refugee crisis to solidify his support at home, is finding limits to the effectiveness of anti-immigrant rhetoric as teachers turn the nation’s focus inward again.

QuickTake Europe's Refugee Crisis

Almost 25,000 of them walked off the job at 1,185 schools across Hungary on Wednesday in the first full-day strike against Orban since he returned to power in 2010. The work stoppage was part of a movement that demands the reversal of centralization in education. While the ruling Fidesz party remains atop opinion polls, its support has taken a hit as concern over refugees who crossed Hungary last year is replaced by worries about conditions in schools and hospitals.

Orban, 52, spearheaded the opposition to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy on refugees and erected a fence to shut migrants out of Hungary as he urged the European Union to make the defense of its external borders a priority. After the razor-wire barrier and the trading-bloc’s deal with Turkey helped stem the flow, the Hungarian leader needs a new focus as he turns his attention to the 2018 election, according to Gabor Torok, an analyst in Budapest.

“It’s getting tougher and tougher for the government to dominate the political agenda with the migrant crisis because voters care less and less about it now that the crisis is no longer unfolding in Hungary,” Torok, a political scientist at Vision Politics Budapest, said in a phone interview. “It’s going to be very hard to win the 2018 elections by focusing on this topic.”

Arrivals Drop

The backdrop to Orban’s focus on migration was the entry of more than 400,000 people, mostly refugees from Syria’s civil war. Over a million people arrived in Europe from Asia, the Middle East and Africa last year. The flow to Hungary slowed to a trickle after the government built the fence on the border with Serbia. As an EU-Turkey deal effectively shut the Balkan route, arrivals to Hungary averaged 70 a day in the first quarter, compared with 1,127 last year, according to Bloomberg calculations based on police data.

For Orban, the warning sign is next door. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico lost his legislative majority last month after a campaign focused on keeping refugees out as voters penalized him for neglecting schools and hospitals.

South of the border, about a fifth of Hungarian teachers went on strike after street demonstrations failed to push Orban to reverse course on education. A crumbling, underfunded state health-care system is also coming to the fore as some nurses have joined the protest, raising the risk that the movement may snowball.

“Slovakia is a good benchmark,” Zoltan Balazs, a political scientist who teaches at Corvinus University in Budapest, said by phone. “If Europe really does get a handle on the migration crisis or if the refugees avoid Hungary, then I don’t see how you can continue to gain politically from this issue.”

The unraveling of Orban’s education overhaul coincided with the dwindling refugee numbers. As a funding shortfall and organizational mistakes by the centralized system led to unpaid bills, principals complained of their lost autonomy, teachers protested being stripped of the choice of textbooks and parents said their children were overburdened.

Government Reaction

While the government has made some changes -- it replaced the second-most senior education official, pledged to scrap the central authority Klik and has started a “public education roundtable” -- the protests intensified. Teacher groups said the cabinet’s gestures were incremental and failed to fully reverse centralization.

The government plans to replace Klik with 57 smaller hubs to ensure that decisions affecting public schools are made locally, Laszlo Palkovics, the state secretary in charge of education, told private broadcaster ATV on Thursday. The cabinet won’t yield to pressure to return school ownership to municipalities, he said.

Popularity Hit

“The migrant crisis won’t make the education crisis go away,” Istvanne Gallo, president of a 23,000-member teacher union, said by phone. “The only way this problem will go away for the government is if it deals with it.”

Orban’s popularity took a hit. Backing for Fidesz fell seven percentage points to 46 percent among decided voters in February, according to a Median survey published last month. The poll also found 76 percent support for teachers’ demands.

Fidesz still leads rivals by a wide margin. The party said that the majority of teachers staying away from the strike shows their realization that the movement is being used by the opposition for political purposes, according to the state news service MTI.

Showing that the refugee crisis remains in the government’s focus, it declared a state of emergency in March. The reasons for doing so were classified for 10 years, cabinet spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said Wednesday in an e-mailed response to questions. The cabinet also plans a referendum against the mandatory settlement of migrants in Hungary, one of the solutions floated by the EU.

“The referendum is a double-edged sword, because if not enough people go vote to make the ballot valid, then it can backfire,” said Balazs, the political scientist. “At the end of the day, you can only focus on the migrant crisis for so long if they don’t come here.”

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