Hungarian Prime Viktor Orban tweeted out a photo with former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on July 6. The two men were shaking hands in front of some Hungarian national flags. Orban also wrote the following, “Had a great meeting today with @IDUAlliance Chairman @stephenharper. International cooperation between right-wing, conservative parties is more important than ever. Chairman Harper is a great ally in this respect. Thank you for your support, Mr. Chairman!”
Harper tweeted out the same photo almost two hours later. “As @IDUalliance Chairman I was pleased to meet with Fidesz Party Leader @PM_ViktorOrban today in Budapest. We discussed the IDU’s strong support for Ukraine and the importance of centre-right parties strengthening their collaboration.”
Pretty straightforward photo-op, all things considered. But if you perused some social media comments from well-known and unknown users, it was similar to Hell freezing over.
Words like “disturbing,” “evil,” “disgusting,” “appalling,” “traitor,” “disgraceful,” “outrageous” and “disappointing” were used on multiple occasions. Some wondered why the former Canadian PM would meet with a world leader they believe is nothing more than a “fascist,” “neo-fascist,” “authoritarian,” “racist,” “anti-semite,” “anti-Muslim” and several other descriptors.
Quite a few disagreed with Harper calling Orban “centre-right.” Several attempted to point out the Hungarian PM’s cordial relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. A number of them wondered why Orban and Fidesz were still in the IDU. There were those who claimed this was Harper’s attempt to reframe conservatism for right-leaning parties and leaders, including current Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre.
On and on it went.
These quick takes (and others) about Harper’s photo-op with Orban were complete nonsense. Most people don’t understand the inner workings of modern politics. Blaming them for being oblivious to the obvious isn’t fair or justified. As for those who do live and breathe political vapours, it was nothing more than an intentional misrepresentation of what really happened.
Let’s go back a few steps.
The International Democrat Union is an alliance of various centre-right political parties around the world. Founded on June 24, 1983, some of its original members included prominent conservative leaders and politicians like Margaret Thatcher (Britain), George H.W. Bush (U.S.), Jacques Chirac (France) and Helmut Kohl (Germany). Canada has been a full member since the beginning. Erik Nielsen, who was Leader of the Opposition and had just stepped down as interim leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada after Brian Mulroney’s victory, was one of the 19 founding dignitaries.
Harper was elected IDU Chairman in 2018. Others who have held this prestigious role include former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, former New Zealand Prime Minister Sir John Key and former British Conservative leader William Hague. He works hand-in-hand with members, welcomes their input and guides the alliance during conferences, meetings and the like.
In other words, the IDU exists to promote conservative, classical liberal and centre-right principles and values. The purpose isn’t to create tension between various right-leaning parties and leaders. Rather, it’s to promote greater levels of intellectual discourse and find ways to agree on issues and work together.
Naturally, the IDU members don’t all think alike. There are political, personal and policy differences between conservatives in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, North America and elsewhere. Some of them are minor, and others are more significant. That’s exactly what happens when like-minded Liberal, Socialist, Green and other parties and leaders get together for conferences and summits, too. It’s not a unique situation for one side of the political spectrum.
Orban and Fidesz are certainly different from other IDU members. They take centre-right and classical liberal positions on politics and economics, but also mix in elements of populism and nationalism. The Hungarian PM has also made controversial remarks on issues like immigration, press freedom and foreign policy.
Is Orban a fascist or anti-semitic? No. He condemned anti-semitism at the 2013 World Jewish Congress meeting in Budapest, stating it was “unacceptable and cannot be tolerated.” While Orban’s critics claimed his billboard campaign against George Soros and his NGOs reeked of Nazi Germany and the Second World War, it wasn’t that at all. It was clearly a campaign against Soros’s political and economic influence, not his religious background. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu realized this and backed the Hungarian PM.
As for Harper, one of his main goals in speaking with Orban was stated in his tweet, “We discussed the IDU’s strong support for Ukraine.” The former Canadian PM has strongly supported Ukraine in its war against Russia. There’s no love lost between Harper and Putin on this issue, as their memorable 2015 tete-a-tete showed. Orban is also one of the few Western leaders who has been able to maintain some semblance of relations with Russia and Ukraine during this conflict.
Why shouldn’t Harper, the IDU Chairman, take the opportunity to meet with Orban, a fellow IDU member, in Budapest about this contentious issue and find ways to work together? That’s what experienced politicians and leaders are supposed to do – and have always done throughout history.
These aren’t difficult things to understand. Unless you don’t understand politics, or don’t want others to understand how politics actually works in the real world.
Michael Taube, a long-time newspaper columnist and political commentator, was a speechwriter for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.