Last weekend, the rise of the Right in Europe continued at pace. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s party, Fidesz, with its coalition partner reportedly secured at least 133 of the 199 seats in the Hungarian Parliament. The Prime Minister said his “decisive” re-election victory and the super majority in parliament that his right-wing populist party has won was “an opportunity to defend Hungary”. He continued: “A great battle is behind us. We have achieved a decisive victory.”
The language sounds familiar.
Such a majority would give the Prime Minister the ability to change the Hungarian constitution. He won the election by a landslide by campaigning on unyielding anti-migration policies and by stirring up fears on the alleged negative effects of migration. In fact, the Prime Minister’s campaign was heavy with nationalistic fervour, anti-Muslim sentiment and outright anti-foreigner messaging. The results were catastrophic for the left and centrist viewpoints.
The Hungarian election will give a boost to the anti-migration messaging that is gaining traction in Austria, Poland and Germany. Followers of European politics will know that the German Chancellor Angela Merkel took six months to form a coalition because of the rise of the far Right — a direct result of her decision to allow one million undocumented immigrants into Germany.
In Austria, the birthplace of Adolf Hitler, the far-Right Freedom Party is in a coalition government and in December 2017 was granted the powerful posts of foreign, interior and defence ministries. In Poland, the Government is led by a centre-right Eurosceptic party that is also labelled “anti-immigration”.
In Sweden, there is a real concern that one of the most liberal and accepting European countries may face a nightmare scenario of the right-wing Swedish Democratic Party gaining significant ground. An election is due to be held in September. In Britain, we already know that a populist Eurosceptic movement resulted in the people deciding to leave the European Union. All of these parties and campaigns were successful as a result of anti-immigration sentiment and fear of the destruction of local customs and cultures.
When you add Donald Trump’s electoral victory to the mix, you have a world that is xenophobic and less tolerant than ever before. Just watch thousands of Trump supporters screaming “build that wall” and you will get what I’m saying.
The reason Hungary’s election is important is because it represents a worrying trend, a continued backlash against liberal values and the consequent overall benefits of immigration. It demonstrates that right-wing populism, anti-immigration messages and painting foreigners as the enemy will bring landslide victories at the polls. This is especially so in countries where there has been mass immigration and refugee crises on a regular basis.
So what does the Hungarian result actually mean and why am I even talking about it? Who in Bermuda cares about Hungary, a country more than 4,000 miles away, and its election results?
Frankly, anyone who actually gives a damn about liberal values should care. Sadly, however, it increasingly feels as if such values are waning in Bermuda as well as the rest of the world.
In Bermuda, like other countries that often rely on immigrant labour, many quickly blame those same immigrants for our woes. However, unlike most of the countries I have mentioned earlier, Bermuda easily controls its borders and we do not have to be concerned with mass refugee crises.
Most guest workers share similar backgrounds as Bermudians in terms of cultural, religious and social mores. Migrant workers are given legal permission to be in Bermuda under very strict controls. However, that does not stop the blame game and our desire to keep people out, despite the mass benefits to all. In a way, these points make our right-wing political reality in Bermuda all the more strange and unreal compared with the European experience.
Why, then, do we as a self-professed welcoming and friendly island constantly use immigration as a wedge to divide and conquer like many right-wing European nations and Trump? Why? Because it is easy. It has been proven time and time again that populism wins elections, and it is easiest to blame others, particularly outsiders, for our own failings.
Systemic failings in respect of education, and economic and healthcare reform can be ignored when you can scare the voter in respect of immigration. Such structural reforms in Bermuda and elsewhere take years and years to achieve results, which is why most political parties do not gain much traction in talking about them. They don’t create as much controversy. Hammering foreigners is much, much easier — they are voiceless, vote less and are politically powerless. There is no one that will talk back to you.
In Hungary, most polls, in fact, showed that the electorates’ biggest concerns related to those very issues — economic diversity and healthcare — and yet the Hungarian Prime Minister, like Trump, spent an inordinate amount of time on anti-immigration messages and on terrifying the voter. Both are, of course, similar to Bermuda’s election in 2017. History shows what hate brings to those that practise it. The “rise of the Right” inevitably brings destruction and misery to the masses, not the salvation promised by the preachers of intolerance.
What is most interesting in the Bermuda context is how little has actually changed in respect of immigration laws and regulations since the 2017 landslide, populist Progressive Labour Party victory. Despite all the noise, the rhetoric and the anti-foreigner placards, the only published policy change to the work-permit policy passed under my watch has been the requirement that employers actually provide required police certificates to the Department of Immigration when seeking approval for a work permit.
That, along with an increase to work-permit fees. That is it. In other words, despite everything, things have stayed relatively the same.
In my view, Bermuda has drifted politically to the Right. We are ultimately less tolerant and less welcoming. Messages designed for a quick win result in long-term issues. This was demonstrated to me loud and clear on the weekend when my family witnessed a black Bermudian taxi driver approach a young white preteen tourist at the entrance to a beach.
The taxi driver was initially friendly and said to the young boy: “Hey, you enjoying Bermuda? Touch me, boss.” The taxi driver was looking for a fist bump. The preteen had clearly not properly heard or understood the taxi driver. Before being asked to repeat himself, the taxi driver then immediately said, in front of the preteen and other tourists: “There you go. A white boy who doesn’t want to fist bump a black man.”
Colour had no room in this conversation. What impression the tourists walked away with, we can only guess.
What kind of Bermuda are we in where that is to be deemed acceptable in any way?
Is this the direction Bermuda is going?
An open tolerance of intolerance?
The acceptance of populist messaging finding its sinister way into everyday interactions?
Right-wing populist attitudes should have no place in a modern-day society. We can do better and should do better. I hope we can.
• Michael Fahy is a former Minister of Home Affairs, Minister of Tourism, Transport and Municipalities, and Junior Minister of Finance under the One Bermuda Alliance government