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Hungary’s National Election on Sunday is a Microcosm of Global Politics

[1]5,089 words

This Sunday, April 3, Hungarian voters will go to the polls to decide whether or not to give Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party a fourth consecutive term in office (which would be Orbán’s fifth term overall counting his first in 1998-2002; his present term has made him the longest-serving Prime Minister in Hungary’s history). Hungary has attracted a great deal of attention and comment in recent years due to Mr. Orbán’s sometimes controversial actions and positions — typically praise from the Right, whereas Hungary is often bracketed by liberal Leftists with their other designated anti-democratic “rogue states” such as Iran, North Korea, and of course Russia in yet another example of their hysterical hyperbole.

I have written [2] and spoken [3] extensively about Mr. Orbán and the political situation in Hungary more generally in previous years [4], recounting how Fidesz went from being a fairly typical European populist center-Right party whose only distinguishing feature was a charismatic leader to rapidly moving further to the Right during the so-called “migrant crisis” of 2015 (which actually began before 2015 and has yet to end, but that goes beyond the scope of this essay). Since 2015, not only on immigration but also a host of other issues, Orbán has transformed Hungary into a microcosm of the forces battling it out in the world at large: globalism versus protectionism, secularism versus religious values, multiculturalism versus rooted identity, individualism versus the family and traditional gender roles, and Atlanticism versus a more multipolar approach to geopolitics.

Fidesz is certainly no “radical Right” party, as I will make clear further on, but Mr. Orbán has nevertheless pushed the limits of what a mainstream conservative party in twenty-first century Europe can do without becoming an international pariah (just). This is not to say that Fidesz represents the path forward for the salvation of Western civilization; far from it, but it has certainly gone further than any other major political force in present-day Europe and North America in challenging globohomo’s status quo. And it is this that has allowed Viktor Orbán to punch far above Hungary’s weight on the global stage, turning a small, landlocked country with a tiny economy and an insignificant military into a symbol of illiberalism in action that has inspired other populist leaders around the world, including Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump, both of whom have officially paid homage to Mr. Orbán. The truth about Fidesz is in fact a bit more complicated than its rhetoric alone suggests, but again, more on that later.

Beyond the unique features of Fidesz itself, what makes Hungary’s 2022 election remarkable is the backdrop it is occurring against, both domestically and globally.

Orbán’s opposition, which for the previous 16 years — since the previous Left-wing government discredited itself by bankrupting the country and then lying about it in 2006 — had been weak and divided, is for the first time challenging him along a united front. All of Hungary’s major Left-liberal parties have joined forces with each other as well as with the country’s largest opposition party, the self-described “center-Right” — previously radical Right, before they did a political 180 [5] and closed ranks with the Left-liberal opposition — Jobbik to present a unified list on the ballot. This list, named Egységben Magyarországért (United for Hungary), brings together six parties — Jobbik, the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), the Democratic Coalition (DK), the Green Party of Hungary (LMP), the Momentum Movement (MM), and Dialogue for Hungary (PM) — as well as two movements, the Everybody’s Hungary Movement (MMM) and the 99 Movement (99M). These groups have agreed to run common parliamentary candidates in many of Hungary’s electoral districts and to support a common candidate for Prime Minister, Péter Márki-Zay. Such an alliance is unprecedented in Hungarian history and shows how determined the liberal-Left is to unseat Orbán after being kept out of power for 12 years.

[6]

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This election is also remarkable because it is occurring amidst two of the largest crises of the century (so far): the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russo-Ukrainian War. The Hungarian economy, like every other national economy, has been severely impacted by the response to the pandemic. And given Orbán’s friendly relations with Russia and China — Hungary enjoys friendlier relations with both than any other European Union member state, thanks to him –, as well as the fact that Hungary gets most of its energy resources from Russia and also borders Ukraine, means that Fidesz found itself caught in a perfect storm of challenges and controversy from the moment Mr. Putin’s “special military operation” began, a mere five weeks before Election Day.

But first, let’s get up to date on what Orbán has been up to since the last election. In 2018 Fidesz won by campaigning essentially on one issue: immigration. It won quite handily with this strategy, even once again achieving a two-thirds supermajority in Parliament, which allows the party to enact new legislation without having to cooperate with any other, something that even some of Fidesz’s own representatives had feared they would lose. Fidesz has continued to focus on illegal immigration as one of its major issues since then, but they seemed to recognize that Hungarians were getting tired of hearing about only one theme. Thus, to their program in recent years they have added the themes of defending Hungary’s sovereignty against encroachment by the European Union (which was also a campaign issue in 2018), broadening Hungary’s cooperation with nations beyond Europe and the United States, defending Christian and family values, and opposing the LGBTQ agenda.

Orbán’s relationship with the European Union has always been rocky but has grown progressively worse in recent years, primarily because of Hungary’s refusal to accept quotas of illegal migrants as well as Brussels’ constant accusations that the Hungarian government is in violation of the EU’s vague “rule of law” requirements. This latter pertains to the endless claims that Orbán is anti-democratic in his handling of the media (something easily disproven, given that there is plenty of Fidesz-critical media in the country) and the judiciary, and further that his government is corrupt in how it handles both EU and public funds (something constantly reiterated by both the EU and the opposition, but usually with little evidence to back it).

This tension was most visible in March of 2021, when the EU parliamentary bloc of which Fidesz was a part, the center-Right European People’s Party (the largest bloc in the EU Parliament), changed its rules so that it could expel Fidesz amid claims that the party no longer represented good conservative values and had become “far Right.” Orbán quit the EPP before they had a chance to expel him, and opinion by observers was divided as to whether this was a move Orbán had anticipated or was the result of a miscalculation on his part; either way, the move certainly reduced his ability to influence politics in Brussels. Fidesz has remained non-inscrits (unaligned with any EU bloc) since then, despite the anticipation that Orbán would form a new bloc of his own, with Poland’s ruling PiS party, Matteo Salvini’s Lega, and Marine Le Pen’s National Rally all named as potential partners. Although talks were held, nothing concrete has materialized, and such a prospect seems even more remote given subsequent political developments.

More recently, Brussels adopted a new instrument which allows the EU to withhold funds from member states deemed to be in violation of its “rule of law” principles, a weapon that is not only being aimed at Hungary but Poland as well. Both nations challenged this development in the European Court of Justice, but last month the court unsurprisingly ruled against them. It seems certain that economic measures to punish the two heretics will eventually come to pass short of them making concessions, although the EU has signaled that it is willing to postpone bringing the hammer down until after the Russo-Ukrainian War ends given that both Poland and Hungary are on the front lines of caring for large numbers of Ukrainian refugees — although in Hungary’s case, the EU has refused to make a decision on the matter until after Sunday’s election.

In international relations, Fidesz has always plotted a unique course for Hungary by attempting to maintain good relations with a wide array of other nations both great and small across the world, and some of which are enemies of each other (as, for example, with Ukraine and Russia, and China and the United States). As a member of both the European Union and NATO — things that both Fidesz and public opinion polls signal Hungary wants to maintain –, Hungary’s most crucial relationships remain with Brussels and Washington. But Orbán continues to court controversy both at home and abroad by maintaining close relationships with fellow “illiberal” regimes such as those in Moscow and Beijing. Orbán has enjoyed good relations with Vladimir Putin on both the personal and political levels — something which he does out of practical necessity more than ideological kinship, given that Hungary is overwhelmingly dependent on Russia for natural gas, gasoline, oil, and uranium. In September of 2021, for example, Orbán concluded a very lucrative 15-year natural gas contract with Russia over Ukrainian objections. But more on Hungary’s relationship with Russia later.

Even more controversially at home for Orbán has been his cultivating of ties with the Chinese. In recent years, China has begun to serve as a sort of “toolbox” for illiberal states in Europe, offering them alternative sources of support and resources when they are shunned by the woke elites in Western Europe and the United States. Among the tangible manifestations of this relationship have been China’s commitment to building a high-speed rail link between Budapest and Belgrade as part of its Belt and Road initiative. It is believed that once completed, both Hungary and China will profit from greater access to trade in the region — although as usual, its construction has been delayed by EU regulatory meddling. In 2021 Hungary and China also agreed to increase exchanges and cooperation between the two countries’ militaries.

But by far the biggest outcome of this friendship thus far has been Orbán’s decision to allow the establishment of a branch campus of China’s state-run Fudan University in Budapest. Orbán claims that doing this will allow for the training of a new Hungarian elite in international relations that would permit Hungary to work more closely with the rising power in the future. This caused significant outcry in Hungary not only because of the idea of welcoming a Chinese institution on Hungarian soil, which even some critics on the Right believe may become a base for Chinese espionage and the importation of its ideology into Europe, but because of its price tag: $1.7 billion in US dollars, which is an enormous sum by any standards but most especially for a small country (and adds up to more than Hungary spends on all of its own public universities combined). Although China has offered to put up this amount as a loan, Hungary will nevertheless be expected to pay it back. The united opposition has tried to capitalize on this issue and had promised to put the campus’ construction to a referendum on Sunday’s ballot, but they failed to submit the necessary paperwork in time, so it is not happening. A signature drive in favor of such a referendum was conducted privately by Budapest’s Left-wing Mayor, however, and attained more than the 200,000 required, so one will likely be held on the issue later this year.

Although Fidesz has always styled itself as a party dedicated to Christian and traditional family values, they began making opposition to the LGBTQ agenda a centerpiece of their agenda in 2020, and it has become a major theme in their current electoral campaign as well. In May of 2020, Fidesz passed a law requiring that a person’s gender as recorded on his national ID card must correspond to his natural gender at birth, effectively ending legal recognition of transsexuality. Although the law has had no impact on transsexuals apart from their legal identity, it naturally sent the liberal-Left into paroxysms about discrimination and potential violence.

But even more importantly, in August of 2020 Előd Novák, Vice President of Mi Hazánk, Hungary’s new far-Right party (more on them later), made a public protest against the LGBTQ agenda by tearing the Pride flag from the face of Budapest’s City Hall, which had been placed there by the city’s liberal government. Although Novák was quickly arrested, his action proved quite popular with the general public. Even though Fidesz never endorsed the deed, the fact that it was popular seems to have made an impression on them, and it was shortly afterwards that they began speaking of the need for Hungary to resist the LGBTQ agenda that they say is creeping into the country at the behest of Brussels and Western Europe more generally. This suggests that Mi Hazánk has the potential to act as Jobbik once did when it was a Right-wing party by suggesting new ideas that pull Fidesz further to the Right in its desire to remain ahead of its competitors.

The most tangible outcome of this new pillar of Fidesz’s agenda was the law they passed in June of 2021, which makes it illegal for information or propaganda concerning homosexuality or transsexuality to be shared with those under 18. The law also restricts sex education in schools to those on a government-approved list in an attempt to block access to schoolchildren by groups that promote such agendas, and increases the legal penalties for those found guilty of pedophilia. Predictably, the EU and the United States reacted with outrage to the new law and Brussels initiated yet more infringement procedures against the country. Fidesz has added a referendum on the issue to the ballot for Sunday’s election. “We must make it clear that the mother is a woman, the father is a man,” Orbán stated at a campaign rally yesterday.

[8]

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The other primary theme in Fidesz’s campaign has been an attempt to convince voters that a victory for the united opposition will result in a return to the bad old days of the 2000s. To explain, from 2002 until 2010 Hungary was led by the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), which in 2006 was headed by Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány. Shortly after winning a second term in the 2006 election, a clandestine recording of a secret speech that Mr. Gyurcsány gave to his own party in which he admitted that they had lied about the country’s economic condition to win reelection was released to the public. In fact, the MSZP had relied heavily on borrowing to keep the country afloat, and this strategy imploded in their second term, forcing Hungary to take out loans from both the EU and the International Monetary Fund. The broadcast of the speech led to protests and rioting for weeks by nationalist groups of all stripes and the government responded with a brutal police crackdown.

Although Gyurcsány has become more of a background figure in Hungarian politics since he resigned as Prime Minister in 2009, he is still considered the éminence grise behind the liberal Left and has become a bogeyman for the Right who is conjured whenever they want to scare the public away from the opposition. A prominent feature of Fidesz’s campaign this time around has been a brilliant Austin Powers-themed image in which Gyurcsány is shown as Dr. Evil next to Péter Márki-Zay, who is presented as Mini-Me. Claiming that the opposition’s main figurehead of the moment is in fact merely a puppet for Gyurcsány has been a consistent Fidesz strategy since 2010. This signaling was even stronger in the current campaign, however. On October 23 of last year, which is a major holiday in Hungary commemorating the outbreak of its 1956 revolution against the Soviets, Fidesz held a huge march of their supporters in Budapest as a show of force against the opposition. All along the march’s route large screens were set up on which images of police violence against the nationalist protesters in 2006 was shown. Fidesz’s message was clear: The Left’s return to power would mean a return to the “communist repression” of the 2000s.

Two of the major issues facing Fidesz today have been due to circumstances beyond their control: the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russo-Ukrainian War. When I tell those from outside Central Europe that Orbán’s response to the pandemic was akin to those of the most draconian liberal governments in the US and Western Europe, they express surprise. To be fair, Hungary’s measures were far from the most extreme in Europe, such as those seen in Italy. But it is nonetheless the case that Hungary’s response included locking down the country for nearly nine out of the first 14 months of the pandemic in two lockdowns, including a nighttime curfew during the second, six-month lockdown; turning away patients suffering from other illnesses in order to keep hospital wards free for COVID patients; introducing so-called “COVID passports” for certain types of social events; and authorizing employers to mandate vaccination for their employees. Such policies run contrary to the views of most on the Right in the US and Western Europe, although in Orbán’s defense, the worst that can be said about him is that he did what nearly every other European country has been doing in response to COVID. (Not that the opposition offered a saner view on the issue; the only difference between the Hungarian Left’s position on it and Fidesz’s is that the liberals have continually castigated Orbán for not enacting even stricter measures.) Also, as Fidesz’s base tends to be older, and hence more vulnerable to the virus, they may not have taken kindly to it if they had felt that Orbán wasn’t doing everything he could to protect them, whether these policies were in fact effective or not. It should also be noted that polls have consistently indicated that a solid majority of Hungarians supported the government’s COVID strategy throughout the crisis thus far.

To Orbán’s credit, since the latest “wave” of the pandemic that began in Europe in late 2021, he refused to enact any lockdown measures again despite a high number of reported cases. Whether this was due to a new understanding of such measures’ ineffectiveness or merely a desire not to irritate voters just before the election by subjecting them to yet further social isolation and financial hardship is unclear, but in any event, it was a welcome change of approach for those of us who live in Hungary.

But the more hidden, yet more ominous, aspect of the crisis is that Orbán’s government has only been able to keep Hungary’s economy afloat despite the economic damage wrought by the lockdowns by going into debt — which was the same thing that sank his predecessor’s government in the 2000s. While this has not been an issue in the current campaign, it may very well become a major one in Orbán’s next term if he is reelected, when the loans come due.

As for the Russo-Ukrainian War, given Orbán’s previously described relationship with Russia and his country’s dependence on Russian resources in its energy sector, it has placed him in an extremely awkward situation. As a member of both the EU and NATO, Hungary had little choice but to reluctantly go along with the condemnations of Russia’s counteroffensive in Ukraine and to approve the bloc’s sanctions against Russia. Orbán has refused to go any further than what is required, however, and despite pleas from President Zelensky and the international media, has refused to allow weapons to be transported across Hungary to Ukraine and will not consider cutting off Hungary’s trade relations with Russia. Orbán has instead taken a staunchly neutral stance [10] dedicated solely to his country’s own self-interests. While this may anger many in other countries, Hungarians remain a very pragmatic people and most of them understand that Orbán’s position is the one that best serves them. The united opposition has tried to make much of Orbán’s connections to Putin since the war began, but for Leftists it is merely another reason among many to hate him, and it is unlikely that a significant number of Fidesz voters will change their vote because of this issue (nor has this been reflected in the polls, where in fact the vast majority of Hungarians have indicated that they trust Orbán more than the opposition on matters of national security).

Orbán may not emerge unscathed in his relationships with his closest international allies, however. Poland has taken a strongly anti-Russian position in the war, and PiS, its populist Right-wing government, which has traditionally been Orbán’s closest ally, has voiced its concern over his refusal to confront Russia. This became clear when the Polish government cancelled its celebration of the traditional Polish-Hungarian Friendship Day in March. If this cooling of relations persists it could result in a serious problem for Orbán’s government, given that they have few allies within Europe. Similarly, another member of the V4, also known as the Visegrád Group — which has often been seen as a possible new illiberal bloc that could stand in opposition to the EU –, namely the Czech Republic, joined with Poland in pulling out of a planned meeting on defense-related issues in Budapest this week to protest Orbán’s position on Russia. This renders the V4 effectively dead for the time being, and if it continues this could seriously jeopardize the possibility of a new illiberal axis emerging in Europe for the foreseeable future. Only time will tell. Orbán remains undaunted, however, and only two days ago vetoed an EU resolution condemning Russia for demanding that customers pay for their natural gas in rubles.

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Another aspect of the election that is worth mentioning is that this will be the first national election in which the new “radical Right” party, Mi Hazánk [12], is competing. Mi Hazánk emerged in the wake of the 2018 election, when Jobbik’s sharp liberal turn had become clearly apparent. The party was established and is led by László Toroczkai, a longtime nationalist activist who was previously a Vice President of Jobbik. He joined with other former Jobbik supporters who were angered at the party’s new direction to create what they describe as a more genuinely Right-wing alternative to Fidesz. There are two major distinguishing themes of their campaign. The first has been their highlighting of the gypsy problem in Hungary, an ethnic group that is viewed by many Hungarians as disproportionately responsible for crime in the country, and it is a topic which Fidesz mostly ignores given that it courts the gypsy votes. The second, and even larger, issue has been protesting the government’s COVID measures, which they term the “COVID dictatorship.” While there is no possibility of Mi Hazánk coming to power in the present election, it is hoped that they will achieve the 5% minimum of the vote that is necessary for a party to enter Parliament and thus become a voice for the “radical Right” as well as one that can pull Fidesz further to the Right, the role that Jobbik used to fill. Most polls have been showing the party as hovering around 2-3%, but polls are often wrong when it comes to the smaller parties in Hungary, so this should be taken with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, the fact that the government ended all of the remaining COVID restrictions last month means that the issue that Mi Hazánk made the focus of their campaign has disappeared from most voters’ awareness (at least for the moment).

As for the opposition, this election was expected to be the most hotly-contested one in Hungary’s recent history, with many personal attacks and mudslinging anticipated, but as it has turned out to be far milder than the 2018 one was. The reason may be the united opposition’s choice for its Prime Ministerial candidate, Péter Márki-Zay. Although Budapest’s popular (with the Left) liberal Mayor, Gergely Karácsony, was widely expected to be chosen, Márki-Zay won in the end. Márki-Zay describes himself as a disappointed Fidesz supporter and as a conservative Christian and family man. He first came to prominence in 2018, when he defeated the incumbent Fidesz candidate to become the Mayor of Hódmezővásárhely, a small city in southeastern Hungary of 44,000 people. This was hailed by the Left at the time as evidence that Fidesz’s lock on power could be defeated. It is reasonable to assume that Márki-Zay ended up being chosen because it was hoped that, as a conservative, he would pull votes away from Fidesz.

In practice, however, his campaign has not been an auspicious one. Márki-Zay’s main problem has been his own mouth. In public statements both in speeches and in his weekly livestreams, he has made gaffe after gaffe. To mention just a few highlights, Márki-Zay has stated that COVID will help the opposition given that many Fidesz supporters are older, and that therefore more of them will have died from the virus; that Jobbik hasn’t been contributing enough funds to the opposition’s campaign; that as Prime Minister he would consider single-handedly supplying weapons and troops to Ukraine, even if NATO does not; that Orbán had personally given Putin the go-ahead to go to war with Ukraine; and most bizarrely, he has stated that the opposition consists of a coalition of “liberals, Communists, conservatives, and fascists” — causing his supporters to question who the fascists are among their ranks. As a result, enthusiasm for his candidacy has been lukewarm even among liberals, and some of the other opposition leaders seem to have been distancing themselves from Márki-Zay in recent months. It also appears to be the case that many liberals do not feel comfortable with supporting a conservative, even one who is allied with all of the major Left-wing groups. In short, it seems that the experience of being a small-city Mayor has not been enough to prepare him for the role of Prime Minister — and many Hungarians seem to be aware of this. Some polls have even suggested that a significant minority of liberal voters would prefer Orbán to have another term as opposed to trusting the country to Mr. Márki-Zay, who I have heard even many liberals describe as dangerously incompetent.

[13]

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The opposition has also not been very clear on exactly what they will do if they win. Basically, their main promise is to not be Orbán. Their stated intention is to set up a technocratic government that will “reset” the country’s politics, changing the direction that Fidesz has been taking the country and ending all the corruption that they claim is going on (whereas they, of course, will all be as pure as driven snow in their dealings). This will of course include trying to repair relations with the EU, which would undoubtedly include welcoming migrants into the country, reversing the LGBTQ legislation, and so on. On the bright side, however, even if Márki-Zay is victorious, his coalition is composed of many disparate groups and movements with very different agendas, and the Hungarian Left has a history of devolving into infighting as soon as they enjoy any measure of success. It is therefore virtually guaranteed to fall apart into internal strife and bickering in short order if they take power.

But while the signs are good, Orbán’s victory is not a certainty. Whereas polls in 2021 often showed Fidesz and the united opposition in a dead heat, since the beginning of this year Orbán has commanded a comfortable lead in most polling. But as we have seen many times in recent years, polls can often be hugely mistaken, and while in this writer’s opinion it’s very unlikely, that may turn out to be the case again here. In Hungary’s last municipal elections, which were held in October 2019, Fidesz sustained a sound drubbing; while it retained most of small-town and rural Hungary, it lost control of most city governments, including that of Budapest itself. This is indicative of the fact that Orbán has been in power for so long that many Hungarian voters simply long for change, even if they aren’t entirely confident in the opposition.

Orbán has been in power for 12 years now, which means that younger voters in their teens and twenties don’t remember a time before he was Prime Minister, and thus blame him for everything that is wrong with the country. This, coupled with the fact that most younger Hungarians walk around with an outlet for Western-style liberalism and anti-Fidesz propaganda in their pockets in the form of their phones, means that even with all the institutional power Fidesz enjoys in Hungary, there are still significant forces arrayed against them. Indeed, in this writer’s experience, often liberal Hungarians can’t even explain why they oppose Orbán; they just know that they dislike him. And as the opposition has been insisting in every election since 2014, this is “the last chance to defeat the Orbán dictatorship”! Some people genuinely believe that.

Orbán and Fidesz are far from ideal. Their actions often do not match up with their own rhetoric. For example, while Fidesz has made illegal immigration a cornerstone of their platform, legal immigration continues unabated, and while its impact is still far from what we have seen in Western Europe, it is nevertheless having an effect on the country. Similarly, Fidesz touts itself as “anti-globalist” — and yet the Hungarian economy is essentially dependent on the German auto industry, which maintains many factories in the country. Likewise, the fact is that Orbán is very careful never to do anything that might jeopardize Hungary’s position in the EU or NATO in any serious way. In other words, yes, he does do commendable things from a Right-wing perspective, but there are definite lines that he will not cross — and the fact remains that the moderate Right is insufficient to combat the destructive effects of liberalism and globalization at their roots. This type of Right may slow the advance of the rot somewhat, but they’re not stopping it. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on Orbán, however; after all, the alternative would be to turn Hungary into a state as isolated as North Korea, and few Hungarians would support such an endeavor even if he tried to go that route.

In the final analysis, Orbán is not perfect, but he is the best option for Hungary under present circumstances, and of course his value as a symbol of the populist Right extends far beyond Hungary itself. It is also the case that Fidesz is very active in building a firm metapolitical base that will hopefully exert a positive influence on the country’s direction for years to come, and I hope to write about this in detail in future articles. Another Fidesz victory will allow them to further solidify these efforts.

Let’s hope that most Hungarian voters feel the same way.

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