Stephen Harper criticized for congratulating Hungary's Orban following anti-immigrant campaign

Former prime minister Stephen Harper is being criticized for congratulating Hungary's Viktor Orban on his election victory, despite the concerns of international observers who say the campaign was tainted by hostile anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Orban claimed third consecutive mandate Sunday after riling up anti-migrant sentiment

Hardline Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán delivers a campaign speech after claiming a third consecutive term on Sunday. (Ferenc Isza/AFP/Getty Images)

Former prime minister Stephen Harper is being criticized for congratulating Hungary's Viktor Orban on his election victory, despite the concerns of international observers who say the campaign was tainted by hostile anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Harper tweeted his congratulations to Orban Monday evening after the Hungarian prime minister and his Fidesz party cruised to a third consecutive mandate, securing a two-thirds majority in Sunday's vote.

Harper made the comments in his role as chairman of the International Democrat Union, an alliance of more than 80 centre-right parties from around the world which includes the Conservative Party of Canada.

Observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe have expressed concerns about the Hungarian election campaign, saying that political debate was stifled by "intimidating and xenophobic rhetoric, media bias and opaque campaign financing."

Riling up anti-migrant sentiment

Throughout the campaign, Orban railed against the United Nations, the European Union, Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros and the civic groups he funds, accusing them of plotting to turn Hungary into an "immigrant country" and erase its Christian identity.

"I don't think [Harper] has much of an idea of what's going on in Hungary," said Robert Austin, an associate professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs and an expert on the politics and history of Central Europe.

"That was true when he was in power. Canada was always noticeably silent about some of the issues that other states had raised about shortcomings in Hungarian democracy."

Syrian migrants cross under a fence as they enter Hungary at the border with Serbia, near Roszke in August 2015. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

Since coming to power in 2010, Austin said, Orban has upended Hungary's democracy, pursuing divisive and anti-liberal policies as part of his plan to create a "Hungary for the Hungarians."

Along with seizing on the 2015 refugee crisis as an opportunity to whip up latent anti-migrant sentiment, he said, Orban has pushed judicial appointments that line up with his political views and clamped down on media outlets that he deemed unfriendly to his government.

Thousands of Hungarians, mostly students, protested in April 2017 against what they said were attempts by Orbán's Fidesz government to silence critical voices. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

Last year, Orban also moved to shut down the Central European University in Budapest. Led by former Liberal Party of Canada leader Michael Ignatieff, the school is largely funded by its founder, George Soros — someone the ruling Fidesz party considers an ideological enemy.

"The prime minister of Hungary has no time for liberal democracy," Austin said. "He shut the door on that a long time ago. He's building something totally different."

Customary congratulations

Rachel Curran, Harper's former policy director and now a senior associate at Harper and Associates, said Harper's tweet should not be seen as making any sort of comment on Orban or his policies.

"He's not offering his views or opinions on Mr. Orban's government or his party," she said. "He is in his capacity as chair of the IDU congratulating him on his political success, which in its instance has included a massive democratic mandate from Hungarians."

Congratulatory messages are sent out regularly to IDU member parties that win election, Curran said, adding that the practice started long before Harper's appointment as the alliance's chair.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper became chairman of the International Democrat Union in February 2018. He has said the values shared by its member parties are "central to peace and global security." (Reuters)

Curran also rejected the suggestion that Harper could have done anything apart from offer the customary congratulations to Orban, adding that it would be "totally inappropriate" for him to send a political message to a member party of the IDU.

"The chair of the IDU isn't in the position of pronouncing on the particular practices or the particular election tactics of member parties," she said. "That's just not the role."

Still, many on Twitter criticized Harper for congratulating Orban, citing the Hungarian leader's anti-democratic policies.

Government of Canada responds

In response to Orban's election, a spokesperson for the Minister of Foreign Affairs said Canada remains committed to fostering open, inclusive and democratic societies.

"As a NATO ally and EU member state, Hungary must ensure the protection of human and democratic rights — including the rights of a free press and civil society," Adam Austen said.

"Our government has made its concerns clear, including about the actions taken against the Central European University. This is an issue that the Minister has raised directly with her Hungarian counterpart.‎"

Corrections

  • This story has been edited from a previous version that left out the word “liberal” in a quote from Robert Austin. In fact, he said “the prime minister of Hungary has no time for liberal democracy."
    Apr 11, 2018 8:42 AM ET