Stephen Harper is having a bit of a moment lately, thanks to his instantly notorious selfie last week with Hungarian neofascist Viktor Orbán, which both of them proudly tweeted about.
Mr. Harper is the former Conservative prime minister of Canada who is now chair of the so-called International Democrat Union, the organization of right-wing and even-farther-right-wing national political parties that serves as the Neoliberal Internationale in this era of faltering democracy.
Mr. Orbán is the prime minister of Hungary and leader of the increasingly far-right Fidesz political movement, which advocates a “national conservative” ideology. He has been accused of dismantling Hungarian democracy and using racist rhetoric in his quest to turn Hungary into an “illiberal democracy.”
Together, judging from their harmonic tweetery last Thursday, they are also members of an exclusive mutual admiration society – although not one without its differences.
Mr. Orbán tweeted first (in English) about his “great meeting” with Mr. Harper. “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!”
Mr. Harper followed up a couple of hours later: “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.”
Calling Fidesz a centre-right party is genuinely Orwellian. The same case could be made more convincingly nowadays about the Conservative Party of Canada, I suppose, although it’s been held back a little by the stubbornly small-l liberal preferences of large numbers of Canadian voters from achieving Mr. Harper’s ambitions for the party he helped to found.
As for the term collaboration, that’s a fair description of how IDU governments seem to try to work together to defeat more progressive parties in other countries – an activity that for mysterious reasons never seems to be called foreign interference by Canadian media. However, Mr. Harper may not have been aware that use of the term is fraught in Europe in ways it isn’t necessarily in North America. It’s something to do with what happened over there in the 1940s.
The photo included with both tweets – obviously snapped by a photographer in Mr. Orbán’s service – shows a vampirically pale Mr. Harper gripping the paw of the Hungarian PM, who in the shot strangely resembles Ontario Conservative Premier Doug Ford.
Perhaps Mr. Harper was there to try to get Mr. Orbán on side in the unhappy matter of Ukraine, Russia, NATO, and the Hungarian premier’s stubborn tendency to see things Vladimir Putin’s way in that conflict. Mr. Harper’s tweet certainly suggests so.
Back in Canada, Conservatives grow misty eyed when they think of Mr. Harper – after all, he was their last leader proven capable of winning a federal election. (They’ve actually had five leaders since Mr. Harper was beaten by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in 2015, although two were short-term placeholders. The two that led the party into elections with Mr. Trudeau both lost. The jury is still out on the latest one, Pierre Poilievre.)
We can be thankful, at least, that Mr. Harper’s friendly tweet exchange with an outright neofascist hasn’t prompted a spate of Internet memes asking if we miss Stephen Harper yet. (The answer is no, we don’t.)
Other Canadians, naturally, have a less enthusiastic assessment of Mr. Harper’s achievements in office than do his CPC followers.
“Stephen Harper and his Conservatives have racked up dozens of serious abuses of power since forming government in 2006,” wrote Tyee publisher David Beers shortly before the 2015 election. “From scams to smears, monkey-wrenching opponents to intimidating public servants like an Orwellian gorilla, some offences are criminal, others just offend human decency.”
The article listed 31 instances of broken laws and ethical lapses during Mr. Harper’s nearly 10 years in power. A couple of days later, The Tyee published 28 more ways Mr. Harper’s Conservatives “lied, flouted rules and stymied democracy to achieve political and ideological ends.”
So, in regard to their approach to the mechanics of democracy at least, Mr. Harper and Mr. Orbán would appear to be birds of a feather, flocking together.
But say what you will about Mr. Orbán, he is popular with Hungarian voters. He won a supermajority in 2010 that has allowed him to reject European Union efforts at multiculturalism, attack immigrants, interfere with the courts, and undermine Hungarian democracy, among other sins.
As blogger Susan Wright observed in a piece on this unsavoury pairing, “the CPC is frantically looking for the secret sauce to catapult the party back into power and keep it there.” And so far, she observed, nothing is working.
The party, she suggests, may be looking at Mr. Orbán’s brand of East European populism as a model. She asks: “Where might collaboration between the CPC and the likes of Orbán lead us?” One shudders to think!
If Mr. Trudeau was the anti-Harper, Mr. Poilievre is the mini-Harper.
Like Mr. Harper, the latest Conservative leader is not above circumventing the rules of how to conduct and finance a fair election.
Mr. Harper, it would seem, haunts us still.*
*With apologies to Christina McMcCall and Stephen Clarkson, who memorably said the same thing about Justin Trudeau’s father, Pierre Trudeau.