Hungarian voters will go to the polls for parliamentary elections on Sunday. They will, in all likelihood, re-elect Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his ruling Fidesz party.
That isn’t to say the opposition, united behind Péter Márki-Zay, mayor of Hódmezővásárhely, has no chance. But a combination of a media landscape dominated by those loyal to or aligned with the government, an electoral map that effectively means the opposition would need to win by 3 per cent to carry the day, and some genuine support for the ruling party, particularly in rural areas, all mean that the likeliest outcome is an Orbán victory.
That, in turn, could mean a still more repressive domestic political situation – and tough choices for Europe.
Viktor Orbán has been prime minister of Hungary for a total of 16 years. He was in office from 1998 to 2002, was voted out, and then returned to power in 2010. His time as head of Hungary’s government has heavily featured rewriting historical narratives for present political gain; attacking NGOs and civil society; and putting pressure on groups ranging from migrants and asylum seekers to LGBTQ+ Hungarians (in fact, on 3 April Hungarians will also vote on a referendum that would ban teachers from using material that features homosexuality and transgender issues in schools). Orbán and his government have faced numerous allegations of corruption. He, in turn, positions himself as the defender of a Christian, sovereign Hungary, which he is protecting from forces as varied as Hungarian-born billionaire philanthropist George Soros and Eurocrats in Brussels.
That is likely to continue.
“If he wins – to me, that’s a sign the level playing field is just non-existent,” said Dalibor Rohac, a senior fellow focused on central and eastern Europe at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank based in Washington, DC. The “demoralising effect” of a fourth consecutive Orbán turn “will be enormous” for the opposition and civil society, he said. The opposition may be closer than it has been in years to unseating Orbán in this election, but, if they lose, the opportunity to do so may move still farther out of reach.
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“I will be watching the continued assault on higher education”, said Paul Hanebrink, a professor of history at Rutgers University, focused on modern east-central Europe. There was, famously, the case of Central European University, founded by Soros in the 1990s, which the Orbán government in effect pushed out of the country. There are also state research centres that are “under a lot of pressure,” said Hanebrink, who said he would be watching the “continued assault on civil society organisations”.
But not all will be as it was before the election.
“Domestically, whoever wins – they will face a very painful period,” said Zselyke Csaky, research director for Europe, media and democracy at Freedom House. Between exorbitant pre-election spending and economic realities settling in as a result of Russia’s war in Ukraine, “economically, a very painful and difficult few months are coming” compared to much of the last decade, she said.
Orbán may “try to find scapegoats again”, Csaky said. But the old song may not sound the same. “If people really see their livelihoods being threatened, I’m not sure that will be good enough.”
Abroad, things may become more difficult for Orbán, too.
“Up until this point, Fidesz was leveraging Russia and China against the EU for [its] own purposes,” said Csaky. “With the [Russian war in Ukraine], they needed to sort of change tack a little bit.” At least in the short term, what many viewed as Orbán’s strategy of playing Russia and the EU off against each other will not work any more.
Immediately after Russia launched its all-out attack on Ukraine, Orbán denounced the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and made it seem as though Hungary would work in lockstep with the EU and Nato. Since then, though, the government has made it clear that Hungary would not provide Ukraine with military equipment and would not support an embargo on Russian oil and gas.
This has drawn condemnation from Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. “Listen, Viktor,” he said during a speech to European leaders last week: “do you know what’s going on in Mariupol? Please, if you can, go to your waterfront. Look at those shoes. And you will see how mass killings can happen again in today’s world,” he said, in a reference to the Budapest memorial for the Jews murdered along the Danube in the Second World War.) It has also drawn criticism from Orbán’s fellow central European leaders: the defence ministers of both Poland and the Czech Republic refused to come to a planned meeting in Budapest.
Orbán has burned through significant capital in the European Union and Nato, said Rohac. “They’ve lost even the Poles at this stage.”
There is also, of course, the matter of money from the EU. Coronavirus recovery grants were frozen over frustrations in Brussels regarding democratic standards. But there are many more billions of euros from the EU that could be withheld. A report commissioned by members of the European Parliament found earlier this year that Orbán had not ensured that funds allocated to Hungary by the European Union were used in a transparent way, and the government has been accused of putting the money towards corrupt purposes.
“If that spigot were turned off in a meaningful way – that could shake up the landscape,” Hanebrink said. “That is the elephant in the room, to my mind.”