The Political Relevance of the Migration Issue at the 2017 Czech, Dutch and German Elections


The Political Relevance of the Migration Issue at the 2017 Czech, Dutch and German Elections

Republikon Intézet

 On April 8 2018 the right wing-conservative Fidesz government could win more than two-third of the seats in the Hungarian parliament for the third  time in a row. It was a surprising victory for many correspondents and ana- lysts, since many thought that they cannot mobilize more than 2,3 million  voters. As it turned out, there was no glass ceiling for Fidesz; they had around  2,6 million domestic votes and more than 200 thousand from abroad. Af- ter the results, it was obvious that the Fidesz party was not overestimated  in the opinion polls. Since the 2015 migration crisis pollsters measured the governing party between 45 and 50% among likely voters. However, many opposition voters were very disappointed since the general opinion was that the high turnout (70.22%) favors the opposition. Thus, after the election, the question was: how could Fidesz mobilize a surplus of 450 thousand voters compared to their 2014 results? Various factors led to the triumph of Viktor  Orbán and his party, but one of the most important issues remained migra- tion since the crisis in 2015.

Fidesz could display herself as the only party  which could protect Hungarians. Nevertheless, Fidesz also needed the back- ing from state owned and state subsidized private media. The government’s  communication machine could successfully present migrants as a real threat. The message resonated well in areas where jobs and subsidies are scarce. After the election, similar debates started over the polarization of the country and the contradictions and conflicts between rural and urbanized Hungary as in the USA after the presidential campaign and in the UK after the Brexit vote. However, Fidesz could already establish herself as the strongest party in small villages already in 2002. They could even get a higher proportion of votes in 2010, as they were still in opposition and lacked the present-day  media support. Nevertheless, the Fidesz campaign, which built on the uncer- tainty caused by the migration crisis, worked very well in rural areas, where  many of the surplus votes in 2018 stemmed from. Similarly, Donald Trump  appealed to the angry white working and middle classes, which were dis- satisfied even with the Republican Party elite. Jeb Bush fell out early during  the primaries thanks to this anti-elite sentiment. From this aspect, the US presidential election, Brexit and Viktor Orbán’s victory in 2018 are part of a general rise of populism.

However, as it turned out, not only did the white working class vote for Trump, but the white middle class as well. Similarly, Viktor Orbán’s victory at the 2018 parliamentary election depended not only on the rural underclass. The tax policy and the support of families through tax reduction favored the upper middle class. Moreover, we can also assume that the migration issue resonated well in this latter social stratum. Migration can cause anxiety and  uncertainty among the wealthier as well, just like in Hungary, where the elec- toral success of the radical right wing Jobbik party in 2010 could be explained  only partly by welfare frustration. Thus, the electorate of populist right wing parties are not created solely by the fear of a loss of economic status, but also by a perceived threat to one’s lifestyle, system of self-evaluation, and integrity  of reference groups. Tastes, emotions, and cultural representation have al- ways had an effect on politics through individual and collective identities, but  the internet and especially social media amplified this impact. While in the 2008 Obama campaign internet was celebrated as a tool to bring  people together into the digital citizens’ hall, at the time of the Trump cam- paign social media was deemed responsible for the spread of fake news and  the intensification of political polarization. Nevertheless, with social media,  generating and disseminating content were drastically democratized.

How- ever, social media did not bring rational debates of citizens into politics as it  was hoped by the supporters of deliberative democracy; instead, many locked  themselves into digital echo chambers. While for Donald Trump social me- dia was an instrument to directly communicate with his voters, Viktor Orbán  could dominate the mainstream media as well through government friendly media outlet owners and through the Fidesz controlled national broadcasters. Still, fake news had an important role in the Hungarian campaign as well. The government initiated a national consultation of the so called ‘Soros plan’.  In this consultation different statements from George Soros on the resettle- ment of migrants in Europe and on migration in general were selectively and  deceptively used to prove the government right. While the public sphere was democratized through social media, the media literacy of users could not  keep pace with this trend, thus fake news and different types of misinfor- mation became viral on both sides of the Atlantic. Neither Donald Trump  nor Viktor Orbán had an election program. The new politician of the post- fact era does not offer policies like a professional, but makes demands and  mobilizes. Statistics and expertise do not matter; the point is if a political  community is able to act; if it could have an impact on politics or not. The new populists wished to prove their political competence through questions like national sovereignty and the borders of the political community. Other such issues include the relationship to supranational organizations, regimes, agreements (NAFTA, EU) and migration. It was not just Donald Trump or Viktor Orbán who wished to demonstrate political competence with a hard-line stance on the migration issue. In this volume we show that in other European countries migration was a serious risk for mainstream politicians, but also an opportunity for challengers. The refugee crisis polarized Czech politics and fragmented the party system, as it is demonstrated in the first chapter by Tereza Chmelíková and David Březina.

During the 2018 Czech presidential elections fake news spread via emails was used to dishonor the rival of incumbent president Miloš Zeman. While migration was not a new topic in Western Europe, the 2015 refugee crisis had a significant political impact in these countries as well. As Niels Back, Claudia Elion and Marthe Hesselmans write in chapter 3, in the Netherlands migration was such a crucial issue that it also made it more difficult to form a government after the elections. Mainstream parties are losing ground, just  like in Germany. As Stefan Maximilian Drexler noted in his chapter, the mi- gration issue contributed to the rise of the Alternative für Deutschland Party  (AfD), which is the first extreme right wing party in the German Bunde- stag since 1945. This success of the AfD was also the consequence of Angela  Merkel’s failed attempt to create a new politicalconsensus on migration since the 1990s.

The whole publication is available HERE.