Refugee Crises, Refugee Hypocrisy, and Public Opinion in Hungary

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was a watershed moment in European politics. Among the many shocking visuals of the early weeks of the war was the sight of millions of Ukrainian refugees fleeing their home country into neighboring countries like Poland, Hungary, and Romania—as well as to other countries throughout Europe. As of this week, more than 7 million Ukrainian refugees had fled the conflict, with more than half of them having received temporary status in a European country.

It did not take long for observers—in Europe and around the world—to notice the dramatic difference between how refugees from Ukraine were treated relative to refugees from the rest of the world. Europe has long been a desirable destination for refugees fleeing conflict in places like Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere, yet their reception in Europe has been contentious and politically divisive. Indeed, the 2015 refugee crisis was also a watershed moment in European politics, with anti-immigrant and anti-refugee movements capitalizing on the perceived threat of migrants and refugee to build support for exclusionary and far-right populist parties like Fidesz in Hungary, Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, and others. Recent research shows that refugee crises and migration crises have big implications for democratic citizenship more generally, and in the United States as well.

What’s more, European national governments’ responses to the crisis exposed deep challenges to European integration and supranational governance. And yet the Ukrainian refugee crisis does not seem to have done anything similar to strengthen anti-refugee sentiments in Europe, even though the scale of the crisis is far larger than the 2015 crisis. This is, in the words of one commenter, a sign of Europe’s refugee hypocrisy.*

What are the political implications of this new refugee crisis for European politics? Unfolding events mean that a lot can change in a short amount of time, but it has been plain to see that European countries have welcomed Ukrainian refugees with more open and accommodative policies than those afforded to previous refugee waves, but what of the consequences of this new crisis on public opinion or on domestic politics? In a new paper, Krisztina Szabo, Ádám Reiff, and I provide some of the first systematic evidence on how the 2022 Ukrainian refugee crisis has affected public opinion.

Our focus is on Hungary, a country which has received over 2 million refugees from Ukraine since February.** We introduce new survey data collected in April 2022 that we carefully designed so as to be comparable with historical surveys in Hungary from two different data sources, but which also delves more deeply into the factors that might explain views on refugees in the current moment. Here is the abstract, which summarizes the research questions and our main findings.

The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine is a watershed moment in European politics. An immediate consequence of the invasion was a massive influx of refugees into Central Europe, a region in which immigration has proven highly contentious and politically salient over the past thirty years. We study public opinion towards refugees in Hungary, a highly exclusionary political environment in which anti-migrant and anti-refugee sentiments are commonly invoked by the ruling government. Combining historical public opinion data from the past decade with original survey data collected in April 2022, we demonstrate that the Ukrainian refugee crisis was accompanied by a large increase in tolerance for refugees, reversing what had previously been one of the most anti-refugee public opinion environments in Europe. To explain this reversal, we use a series of survey experiments to investigate how conflict proximity and racial, religious, and national identity (three manifestations of what we term civilizational characteristics) shape openness to refugees. We find that the distinguishing feature of the 2022 refugee crisis was that refugees were mostly white European Christians driven from their home country by conflict. We discuss the implications of our argument for Hungary, for European politics in times of crisis, and for the politics of public opinion in competitive authoritarian regimes.

There is a lot more in the paper, which is rich with new data and empirical analyses, including over-time comparisons of Fidesz voters’ views on immigrants and refugees from before the onset of the 2015 refugee crisis until now. It also catalogues the blatantly religious and racial features of government policy discourse on refugees by translating into English a number of speeches by Viktor Orbán which are either unavailable in English, or which have been poorly and incompletely translated previously. We encourage you to read the full draft for more.

NOTES

* And this isn’t just a European phenomenon; as Arwa Dawon argues, hypocrisy towards refugees in the context of the Ukrainian refugee crisis is a generally Western problem.

** This is roughly twice the number of refugees as entered Europe as a whole during the 2015 refugee crisis.

Will Poor Midterm Results Pull the GOP Towards the Center?

The emerging consensus among pundits is that the GOP is underperforming relative to expectations in the 2022 midterm elections. The normal account of U.S. midterm elections is that the incumbent president’s party loses seats in midterm elections. In 2022, this would mean that the Democrats should expect to lose seats in the House, the Senate, and in statewide elections. This isn’t an ironclad law—witness how the GOP did in 2002, in the midterm elections of George W. Bush’s first term—but it’s a pretty robust pattern.

An anti-incumbent midterm swing would seem to be particularly likely in a highly polarized environment with a president whose approval ratings remain very low. And yet the Democratic candidates in last night’s elections did much better than anticipated. For example, President Trump carried my own congressional district* by 11 points in 2020, but in last night’s special election to name a replacement for Tom Reed (R), the GOP candidate won by only 5 points. That’s not a swing against the Democrats, it’s the exact opposite.

Given the pundits’ consensus interpretation of these results, one might expect the GOP to infer that nominating extreme candidates like Carl Paladino is a mistake, and that to win elections they ought to run more to the center. That would be a good story of electoral accountability in which partisan competition incentivizes parties to run towards the center as they learn from the results of past elections about where the median voter’s preferences are.

But there’s a problem: President Trump. President Trump has regularly alleged that the results of the 2020 presidential election were rigged, somehow marred by fraud and biased against him. In some new research, Andrew Little, Andrew Mack, and I are studying what happens to partisan competition when one party believes that elections are fraudulent. The short answer is that under these conditions, parties cannot learn properly about what voters want, so they do not converge to the center in the way that they would if they trusted that election results were unbiased.

The implication is, the GOP may infer from the results of last night’s elections not that their candidates are unpopular, but rather instead as further evidence that the system is rigged against them, driving the parties apart rather than pulling them towards the median voter.

A full treatment will be available in a working paper soon to come, and that version will state our results precisely. But I can offer the intuition behind our analysis here. Imagine that you are a party that suffers an electoral defeat. You might think that this means that your platform wasn’t very popular. But what if, instead, you believed that elections might be biased against you?** You would have a tough time attributing your party’s performance to your platform versus what you think is fraud. So you might respond to your defeat by concluding that your platform should remain where it is and that the system is unfair.

Your opponent, in turn, can offer a more extreme platform then they would otherwise because you have ceded some of the center ground on the basis of your belief that you are more popular than you are (which, again, emerges because you attribute your own poor showing to fraud rather than to your own unpopularity).

Some of this divergence will dissipate over time in repeated elections, but under generous conditions the partisan divergence will be strictly greater than if you didn’t believe in fraud.

There is a lot more to dig into here—watch this space for more. But the key takeaway is that our results make me skeptical that the GOP will infer from last night’s results that they need to offer more moderate candidates with more moderate platforms. It could be that they are right not to make much of last night’s results. Maybe they were a fluke, or maybe they were unusual. But this is a further corrosive implication of the widespread belief among the GOP that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent.

NOTES

* NY-23, soon to be redistricted away.

** In fact, these results emerge even when the party has no intrinsic interest in believing in fraud. You can get these results purely from motivated reasoning from one or both parties, who find comfort in the belief that their platform is close to the median.