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Russia’s invasion is boosting Europe’s right

France's presidential election is shaping as the next and biggest test of the popularity of Europe's authoritarian right

marine Le Pen at a campaign rally. Photo: AAP/EPA/CAROLINE BLUMBERG)

Last weekend, it was the landslide re-election of the godfather of the global ethno-nationalist movement, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. This weekend, it’s the first round in the French presidential elections and the opportunity for the movement’s great white hope, Marine Le Pen.

The results and the polls combine to suggest that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is helping, not hindering, the rise of right-wing authoritarians — Putin’s allies — in Europe as they position themselves as the voices of “peace”.

The result? In France this Sunday, there’ll be less interest in whether Scott Morrison’s bête noir, President Emmanuel Macron, comes in first (which all the polls indicate), than just how close a second-place finish Le Pen’s post-invasion polling surge can deliver — and how much of a springboard that will give her into the head-to-head second round in two weeks’ time.

The latest Politico poll of polls shows Macron leading by five points in the first round, translated into a surprisingly narrow predicted 54-46% lead in the second round. (Macron defeated Le Pen by two-thirds to one-third in 2017.)

Le Pen famously said of Putin at the time of the first Russian incursions into Ukraine back in 2014 that he was a “defender of the Christian heritage of European civilisation”. Now, she’s more circumspect, saying the invasion is “a clear violation straight of international law and absolutely indefensible”.

Meanwhile, Le Pen’s links with the Hungarian right has strengthened with news last month that her party was funding its campaign courtesy of a €10.7 million loan from Hungary’s MKB Bank, largely owned by Orbán’s business supporters.

Le Pen will be hoping that some of Orbán’s success rubs off on her. In Hungary, six months of polls showed a tight four-point lead for Orbán’s right-wing Fidesz party. Then Russia’s February 24 invasion sent the lead soaring up to Sunday’s shock 20-point margin over the United Opposition, electing Orbán to a fourth term with a two-thirds control over the Parliament.

On the same day in neighbouring Serbia, his right-wing ally, Aleksandar Vučić, was comfortably re-elected as president on a policy of keeping the country disengaged from the sanctions against Russia. Orbán similarly has held off sanctions and has blocked arms for Ukraine being delivered through (or over) Hungary. 

Claiming the win, Orbán bragged in a dig at his critics: “We won a victory so big that you can see it from the moon, and you can certainly see it from Brussels.” A day later, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen announced the commission would trigger proceedings to cut funding to Hungary for its persistent eroding of democratic (or “rule of law”) standards.

Orbán’s model of illiberal democracy has been enabled by what journalists and press freedom activists have called “the most advanced model of media capture ever developed within the European Union” with private media taken over by state-dependent industries or Orbán-friendly oligarchs. The public broadcaster has been turned into another arm of state propaganda.

Control is powered by exorbitantly large state advertising budgets, which make only pro-Orbán media financially viable.

A handful of independent media survive in the digital space, dependent on donations and subscriptions, like the journalist-controlled Telex, set up in a revolt against the takeover of their former newsrooms by government-friendly oligarchs.

Orbán’s party used its control over media to position itself as the pro-peace party. (Vučić did the same in Serbia.) Most notoriously, state-supporting media widely promoted false claims by Fidesz figures that the opposition intended to commit Hungarian troops to fight in Ukraine. 

The obsessions of Orbán — and the ethno-nationalist right in general — with migrants and population decline of “real Europeans” has been brought together through Hungary’s biennial Budapest Demographic Summit. In 2019, Australia’s own Tony Abbott spoke at the summit to warn of military-age migrants “swarming” into Europe. He was joined by soon-to-be-ex Liberal MP Kevin Andrews. Last year’s summit featured Trump’s vice-president, Mike Pence.

Right-wing media are returning the favour, promoting Orbán as a leader of world standing. Last August, the Murdochs’ Fox News flagship Tucker Carlson Tonight broadcast from Budapest for a week, with Carlson praising Hungary as a “small country with a lot of lessons for the rest of us”.

This worldwide networking is paying off, with each supporting each — and all watching Sunday’s French elections to see what comes next.

This piece was originally published by Crikey.

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