President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo, back to the camera, waves at Viktor Orban, right, as the Hungarian PM leaves the Merdeka State Palace on Thursday. (Antara Photo/Puspa Perwitasari)

The Peculiar Case of Viktor Orban's Visit to Indonesia


JANUARY 26, 2020

“We don't see these people as Muslim refugees. We consider them Muslim invaders,” said the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in an interview with the German tabloid Bild.

Had the quote from Bild ever made it to Indonesian WhatsApp groups, Orban might not have been welcomed so enthusiastically in his recent three-day visit to Indonesia.

Orban's Indonesian visit was part of his diplomatic tour to Asia and included visits to Jakarta and Yogyakarta. This was not his first time on Indonesian soil as President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo also welcomed him as a state guest in 2016.

Orban's latest visit to Indonesia was officially a sojourn to strengthen 65 years of standing bilateral ties between the two countries, especially by deepening cooperations in economy, infrastructure, trade, health and people-to-people contact.


Orban also attended a meeting of the CDI (Centrist Democrat International), an international centrist and Christian democratic party alliance, hosted by Muhaimin Iskandar's National Awakening Party (PKB) in Yogyakarta. Orban himself is the vice president of CDI.

Jokowi looked happy enough with his Hungarian counterpart's visit as Orban pledged attractive investment and diplomatic commitment.

Muhaimin Iskandar also seemed to have enjoyed Orban's visit, judging from his multiple Instagram stories.

It appears nobody really paid attention to or had the willingness to point out his erratic political footprints, especially on contentious issues such as multiculturalism, refugees and Islam.

Outside of Indonesia, Orban is widely known as the beacon of European populism, a poster boy of the right-wing movement in the West and a staunch critic of the European Union's immigration policies who constantly berates refugees and denounces multiculturalism.

Fidesz, his political party, is associated with anti-Islam and anti-Semitism narratives in Hungary and Central Europe. As an example, Orban makes repeated mentions of the dangers of multiculturalism and liberalism in Hungary by referring to "mass-scale Muslim refugees' invasion" in many of his speeches. 

Given his political stance and the anti-Muslim narrative he constantly sports, it is intriguing to observe how Orban, the proponent of so-called "Christian and Illiberal Democracy," engages in close diplomatic partnership with the biggest Muslim-majority country in the world.

This is not to mention his partnership with PKB, the biggest Islamic party in Indonesia, under the CDI platform. We should not forget that PKB is strongly popular for its multiculturalism and pluralism, inherited from the teachings of its spiritual guru, former president Abdurrahman Wahid.

Follow the Money Trail

Strategic and monetary considerations might have played more profound roles in Orban's visits to Indonesia.

In 2011, he launched the "Opening to the East Policy" to diversify Hungarian economic ties to Russia and Asian countries.

This ambitious foreign policy direction has not been as successful as Orban would've have wanted it to be, mostly because he has not fully exploited Hungarian engagement with Asian countries. His visits to Indonesia, then, would have been geared toward strengthening Hungary's footing in Southeast Asia.

Under Orban's administration, the central European country has been enjoying an enviable economic performance, reaching an average GDP growth of 4.5 percent in the past three years, surpassing most of its neighbors in Europe.

Hungarian industries and infrastructure development have been quite vibrant, offering massive opportunities for Indonesia to become a strategic partner in trade and investment.

Hungary has also developed an advanced and sophisticated water management system in Budapest and across the Danube River – something that Indonesia could easily copy for its new capital city.

All of this aligns with Jokowi's main goal of attracting more foreign investment to Indonesia.

Being closer to Hungary also means Indonesia might be able to open up a new export market in central and eastern Europe. These regions are not just potential alternative markets for Indonesian export commodities; they are also increasingly pivotal in the geopolitical landscape of Europe.

Take the Good With the Bad?

However, Orban’s negative discourse on Islam and multiculturalism should not be left unnoticed. It has, directly and indirectly, fires up Islamophobia in Europe.

Jokowi must not only take into account Hungary's economic and geopolitical intentions. Closer ties with Hungary should be exploited to overcome xenophobia and anti-Islamic sentiment in the Central European country. Jokowi must follow up on Orban's diplomatic offerings with efforts to promote interfaith understanding.

An exchange program for political and religious leaders from both countries is desperately needed to foster a better understanding of Islam and multiculturalism in Hungary. PKB, Fidesz's counterpart in Indonesia, must delve into deeper communication with Hungary.

PKB should take on the moral responsibility to speak up against anti-pluralism and Islamophobia directly to Fidesz or using the CDI platform. Instagram stories and being a welcoming host for a CDI event are simply not enough.

The party, using Indonesia as an example, should try to show Orban and his party that harmony between democracy and religion is indeed possible. 

Democratic and religious values are not counterintuitive as Orban and his party might have believed. They are in fact the source of Indonesia's strength. If Orban made it all the way to Indonesia to court its influence then surely it could copy some of its examples?

A bilateral cooperation built solely on material benefits would never last. Both countries must start it on the right side of history: against hatred and xenophobia.

Abid A. Adonis is currently completing a dual master's degree in international affairs at the Paris School of International Affairs (Sciences Po) and the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).