Triumphant Orbán Thumbs his Nose at the West

Photo: Viktor Orbán holds a final rally before the Hungarian election. Credit: Orbán Viktor via Facebook.
Photo: Viktor Orbán holds a final rally before the Hungarian election. Credit: Orbán Viktor via Facebook.

Hungary’s premier won a crushing victory in the April 3 election, registering a two-thirds (and therefore constitution-changing) parliamentary majority.

Viktor Orbán won his fourth election with a larger vote share than ever before, taking 53.3% and at least 135 parliamentary seats out of 199. The six-party opposition secured only 35% of the vote, hugely underperforming expectations created by opinion polls and the fact that they had won 47% when they ran separately four years ago. The far-right, coronavirus-skeptic, strongly pro-Russian Mi Hazánk (Our Homeland) Movement, won seats in the National Assembly with 6% of the vote.

The reasons for Orbán’s win are multifold. The four most important factors are:

  • An unfair electoral process, in which government candidates received significant assistance while opposition candidates were hindered and their message distorted or silenced
  • huge pre-election spending by the government
  • an inability of the joint opposition to mobilize voters, and
  • Russia’s aggression in neighboring Ukraine, resulted in a huge rally around the flag effect, despite Orbán’s pro-Russian past.

The 58-year-old premier now stands unchallenged at the pinnacle of power. He dominates the landscape like no other politician in post-revolution Hungary, having served as prime minister for 16 of the 32 years since the first post-communist vote in 1990. While the European Union (EU) and its Franco-German engine may be disappointed at the victory of the liberal turned illiberal, its ability to affect events inside the country is limited. There is now very little to constrain Orbán’s government, at least on the domestic front.

There is little sign that he seeks a concord with those described as enemies. His victory speech included a lashing for the domestic opposition and once again, for the Jewish financier George Soros, the EU’s headquarters in Brussels, the international press, and even Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the president of Ukraine, with whom he has been exchanging hostile rhetoric. There was no mention of Orbán’s long-time admirer, Vladimir Putin, because there was no need to. Fidesz voters trust their prime minister to steer the ship of state.

All of which is not to say Orbán is in a good place internationally, even if he has tacked slightly to accept EU sanctions on Russia and NATO’s first (and possibly long-term) deployment to his country, with troops slated to arrive from the US, Turkey, Croatia, Montenegro, and Italy. Hungary’s Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó stated repeatedly that the allied troops were not needed, and the government ultimately — and less than welcomingly — accepted a “few hundred” NATO personnel could be based in the west of the country, away from the Ukrainian border.

Orbán has continued to take a combative tone towards Ukraine and his ambivalence towards Russia raised eyebrows in EU and NATO alike. That position seems to have annoyed his nearest allies in the four nation Visegrád group — which includes the Poles, Czechs, and Slovaks — who canceled a meeting of defense ministers last week.

Czech Defense Minister Jana Černochová used unusually blunt language to describe the situation, saying: “I have always supported the V4 [Visegrád four] and I’m really sorry that Hungarian politicians now find cheap Russian oil more important than Ukrainian blood.”

When his Polish, Czech and Slovenian counterparts visited Ukraine in a show of solidarity on March 16, Orbán instead traveled to Serbia to support fellow illiberal Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić (who was re-elected as head of state on April 3.) Putin sent congratulatory messages to both men in the wake of the votes. And right after the election, Hungarian Foreign Minister Szijjártó visited Bosnia-Hercegovina only to meet the nationalist, secessionist, and pro-Russian leader of the Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, widely seen in the West as a menace to the country’s unity.

And yet; Orbán’s future will be strongly dependent on the goodwill of the EU because he needs its cash.

The government embarked on a huge pre-election spending spree of $5.35bn in tax cuts and tax rebates, plus wage and pension increases even as the Ukraine war hit the economy and energy and other prices soared, threatening a period of stagflation. The EU has suspended some payments to Hungary as part of continuing disputes about its governance and illiberalism. The sums involved are significant and Orbán needs to unfreeze them.

These comprise:

  • the loan package of about $10bn under the resumption funds
  • the recovery funds to ease the economic impact of the pandemic (about $7bn), and
  •  the Multiannual Financial Framework, worth an EU-wide total of $1.8tn.

The first is in limbo, the second is frozen, while the third is in danger of being suspended due to the rule of law conditionality mechanism just about to be imposed on Hungary. The biggest concern is the lack of transparency in spending EU funds.

At the same time, it is hard to imagine that Orbán’s government will change to please the EU. While some window-dressing is possible, increasing transparency would endanger the administration’s hold on power.

Hungary now lacks an effective opposition, leaving the administration is free to behave much as it wishes. Attacks on the judiciary, the last, still partially free branch of government, could become more acute, and free speech might become still more constrained, while a fast-deteriorating economy might push the administration towards greater authoritarianism, especially if popular discontent rises.

The ruling party’s policies on Russia are unlikely to change. The government will not use its EU veto to block sanctions, but it can always threaten to prevent extensions, particularly if the bloc decided to restrict EU gas imports from Russia. Fidesz might seek to become friendlier to China, which remains an easier option than cuddling up to Russia. Orbán said in a recent interview that China will become the world’s foremost state and that the US is on the decline.

After its electoral defeat, the opposition faces new hurdles. Having secured enough signatures to force a referendum on the Chinese state loan-supported $1.5bn government-Shanghai Fudan university project in Budapest (civil servants took 11 weeks to count the signatures and have now suggested a referendum date in October), there are questions as to whether they have the organizational heft to win the vote.

That would leave the European Commission to employ its conditionality mechanism, and the resumption and recovery funds, as a weapon to keep the Hungarian ruling party within key red lines when it comes to the rule of law.

Yet there is more than can be done if the EU (and the US) want to limit the room for maneuver for Putin’s sympathizers within the bloc:

  • Firstly, putting the Budapest-based International Investment Bank (IIB) — referred to by Hungary’s opposition as Putin’s “spy bank” — on sanctions lists so that it loses the ability to move Russian agents freely within the Schengen Zone, without any background checks.
  • Secondly, sanctioning Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy firm, Rosatom, to stop it from expanding its presence in the country, with the help of the Hungarian authorities.
  • Thirdly, stepping up action against state-sponsored disinformation in EU member states, focusing on those parroting Kremlin soundbites, and circumventing banned Russian propaganda outlets such as RT and Sputnik.

Dr. Péter Krekó is a social psychologist and political scientist. A Senior Fellow of CEPA, and Director of Political Capital Institute, a Budapest-based think tank since 2011. He is also an Associate Professor at the ELTE University in Budapest, and currently is a visiting fellow at the JHU SAIS Bologna Policy Center.

April 7, 2022