Having held power continuously since 2010, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán is the longest serving prime minister in Europe. Now, as the dust settles on the latest election, he is beginning yet another four-year term.
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Orbán faced down a challenge from a six party-strong opposition during the election campaign to hold on to his two-thirds super majority in parliament. His efforts to shore up power in recent years have once again delivered the vast majority of parliamentary seats to his Fidesz party.
Orbán is still the most successful politician in Hungary even if he owes that success to questionable tactics. A report from the Central European University’s Democracy Institute accuses Fidesz of sabotaging the vote by rewriting electoral rules to suit its own needs and deploying state power to control the media and public institutions as part of a “systematic effort to rig the elections”.
Nevertheless, such manipulation cannot account for the opposition’s failure to make itself more relevant to the Hungarian electorate. The aim had been to bring six parties together to propose an alternative coalition for government with Péter Márki-Zay, the non-party-affiliated mayor of the Hungarian county town of Hódmezővásárhely, at the helm. But as the Hungarian political opinion survey guru Gábor Tóka warned, the opposition was unable to become “one giant”, instead remaining “six small people”.
The opposition ran a campaign that targeted Orbán personally over issues such as the war in Ukraine, inflation and the decision to shun Pfizer vaccines in favour of Russia’s COVID vaccine Sputnik V. But convincing voters that a sprawling multi-party composition would be a viable alternative that could solve these problems was not ultimately possible.
Although the coalition held together throughout the campaign, there remained a very real prospect of it collapsing almost immediately under the strain of government were it to have won. A strong sign of this was the sheer volume of right-wing votes that ended up going to extremist party Mi Hazánk – proof that these voters were not happy to see their regular party Jobbik joining the opposition coalition. As a result, Mi Hazánk has secured enough votes to enter parliament for the first time.
All this was enough to discourage voters from straying away from the extreme continuity of a government that has been in place for over a decade. Clearly sensing a vulnerability in the diverse electoral goals of the opposition, Orbán focused his campaign on promising stability and protecting the nation in a time of uncertainty.
The Ukraine question
The war in Ukraine has certainly put Orbán in an uncomfortable position. Hungary is heavily dependent on Russia for energy and commerce and Orbán has not condemned Russian president Vladimir Putin to nearly the same extent as most European leaders.
Orbán’s response to criticism on this point was to warn that the opposition parties would cut off Russian gas if elected to government, resulting in the collapse of the Hungarian economy. In his victory speech, Orbán referred to Brussels bureaucrats, the international media and even Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy as his “opponents” in this election.
However, it seems unlikely that voters would support Orbán for this rhetoric as opposed to supporting him in spite of it. The question therefore becomes why they continue to back him. Certainly media freedom is highly compromised in Hungary and the public media has served as a mouthpiece for the government all throughout the campaign period.
It does however appear that rather than reacting against rises in inflation, energy prices and the general cost of living, voters endorsed a leader they know rather than trying someone new. Both the poorest areas in the north east and the richest regions of western Hungary gave Orbán significant support. The opposition, as before, remains limited to Budapest despite some increases in Fidesz support there as well. The western-oriented, liberal and Europe-focused narrative did not appeal to the electorate.
The electorate has given Orbán a pass on his position regarding Russia, but this will be a defining issue in the opening months of his new term – at least internationally. When it comes to Putin, Orbán is radically out of step with his European counterparts.
Hungary has operated as part of an informal alliance with Poland in recent years, challenging Brussels over the EU’s approach to democratic principles. But this partnership has been weakened by differing views on Ukraine. Other countries in the region that have traditionally supported Orbán’s anti-immigration politics now find themselves drawn closer into the European fold, offering support to Ukrainian refugees alongside everyone else.
The Hungarian election results show that “illiberal democracy” can exist in Europe, even as it faces a threat from Russia. Indeed, another authoritarian leader with close links to Russia is projected to win an impending election in Serbia, too.
It is still possible that Hungary might act with the European camp in opposition to the war in Ukraine. But such an alliance may be driven more by economic priorities than by a desire to defend liberal and democratic values.