By Kyoichi Sasazawa / Yomiuri Shimbun Geneva Bureau Chief“Nigeru wa Hajidaga Yakunitatsu” (Running away is a shame, but it is useful), the title of a manga that became a hit TV drama in Japan last year, is a direct translation of a Hungarian proverb. According to a journalist acquaintance of mine living in Budapest, the proverb is well-known in Hungary. It means: “He who flees from battle may live to fight another day” — it is saying you should choose the right moment to engage in a fight.
There is no way that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban would not know this proverb. He has often quoted proverbs and sayings in his speeches, including a Native American adage that goes: “When you discover that you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount.” This proverb is telling us that if we realize that what we are doing is useless, we should stop right away.
Orban has been suffering repeated defeats in crucial battles recently. A national referendum held last October on the European Union’s migration quotas, which he opposed, was annulled as the voter turnout fell short of a majority at 44 percent.
Pointing out that dissenting votes accounted for 98 percent in the national referendum, he called for revising the Constitution to refuse migration quotas, but the bill submitted for the revision was voted down by the parliament the following month.
If his defeats continue, he will lose influence not only in domestic political affairs — including a general election set for next year — but in Europe as well. In considering his strategy for the future, Orban might have thought about the proverb about running away.
Since his return as prime minister in 2010, Orban has been pushing forward with high-handed reforms such as establishing a new Constitution and restraining the press, with backing from an administration supported by a center-right coalition that holds over two-thirds of seats in parliament. He is losing his footing, however, by being too confident of his majority backing and the effect of populism, which initially served as a tailwind for him.
Populism, which has swept across Europe, is also serving as a tailwind for the far-right Jobbik party, which calls for the exclusion of migrants.
In two by-elections held in 2015, opposition parties, including Jobbik, took seats previously occupied by the ruling coalition parties. As a result, the number of coalition seats fell below two-thirds of the total. The bill to revise the Constitution to reject the EU’s migration quotas did not pass parliament because Jobbik, whose demand to alter the immigration policy was rejected, abstained from voting.
Orban, who has been struggling to strike a delicate balance between calls to adopt and reject hard-line policies, has put forth a new policy to detain refugees using containers placed along the border.
But such strong-arm policies are not just problematic from a humanitarian point of view. There is also the fear that they can start an undesirable chain of events in neighboring countries. In fact, neighboring Slovenia approved a bill to reject refugees in January for fear that refugees pushed out of Hungary would flow into Slovenia. If countries start excluding refugees based on selfish rules, it will lead to the emergence of discrimination against and the exclusion of refugees, who will be left stranded wherever they are.
At a summit meeting of Balkan countries last September, the leaders followed Orban’s lead and reached a broad agreement to take measures on the issue, including tightening inspections in Bulgaria, which serves as the gateway from the Middle East to the EU. The policy Orban should pursue, however, is not to install containers along the border, but to take the initiative to seek a multinational framework to resolve the issue of refugees, and not run away.