The popularity of Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister had been waning. The invasion of Ukraine may offer an electoral lifeline.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which threatens to trigger a broader conflict, overshadows virtually everything else in Europe, as millions of civilians—in a country bordering the European Union—are denied access to basic necessities and subjected to indiscriminate bombardment by Russian forces.
Yet this is far from an isolated phenomenon. Ben Rhodes, a former deputy national security adviser in the United States, has argued that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and the political forces he represents are part of a wider ‘backlash to globalization, consumerism, and cultural homogeneity’, which has ‘sent strongmen in search of an updated brand of identity politics’. Putin and his supporters genuinely believe that Russian troops are waging a ‘defensive’ war in Ukraine against the relentless encroachment of western ideas, influence and institutions.
Hungary’s long-serving ‘strongman’, Viktor Orbán, has dominated his country’s politics since 2010. According to Mary Kaldor, Orbán and Putin—as with Narendra Modi in India and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil—expertly combine crony capitalism, ethnic nationalism and authoritarianism.
Orbán, who quickly established cordial relations with Putin after returning to office (he was previously prime minister between 1998 and 2002), has bestowed lavish patronage on relatives, friends and a clutch of compliant oligarchs. He has also expended considerable time and effort stoking the fires of ethnic nationalism, warning his countrymen of the supposed threat to Hungary and its ‘Christian culture’ from Muslim migrants, international financiers (ie Jews) and members of ‘deviant’ sexual minorities. The strategy proved effective in bolstering support for Fidesz, particularly in the provinces and among the less educated, as well as among members of ethnic Hungarian minorities in neighbouring states (many hold Hungarian citizenship and vote in Hungarian elections).
The overwhelmingly authoritarian nature of his political project can be seen in the steady erosion of democratic and constitutional safeguards in Hungary, the hollowing out of fundamental rights and freedoms, and the elimination of independent and intermittently troublesome institutions, including the Central European University (CEU) and the left-leaning daily newspaper, Népszabadság. Whereas the CEU was compelled to transfer most of its teaching from Budapest to Vienna, Népszabadság was forced to close in highly suspicious circumstances—suggesting interference by, or on behalf of, Orbán’s party, Fidesz.
According to Bálint Magyar, a sociologist and former minister, Orbán has succeeded, like Putin, in fashioning a ‘post-communist Mafia state’ in which power and patronage are ultimately vested in a single person, much like the head of a Mafia clan.
Opportunities and dangers
With a general election looming on Sunday, the conflict in neighbouring Ukraine presents opportunities as well as dangers for Orbán and Fidesz—whose popularity had begun to wane, particularly in the larger towns and cities. By late last year, polls were reporting that six opposition parties, which have formed an unprecedented electoral pact, enjoyed a narrow lead over Fidesz and its coalition partner, the Christian Democratic People’s Party (CDPP). In mid-February, little more than a week before the Russian invasion, the BBC reported that Orbán was facing his ‘toughest race so far’.
Apart from fielding a joint list, the united opposition parties have shrewdly endorsed Péter Márki-Zay as their choice for prime minister. A self-declared conservative, lifelong Catholic, father of seven and popular mayor of Hódmezővásárhely, a medium-sized provincial town, Márki-Zay embodies the traditional, conservative values Orbán merely professes.
As the fighting in neighbouring Ukraine has intensified, Orbán has manoeuvered to avoid a complete rupture of his longstanding relationship with Putin, while presenting himself to the electorate as the only politician who can prevent Hungary from becoming embroiled in a catastrophic war. Posters have appeared across the country showing a statesmanlike Orbán staring thoughtfully into the distance. The caption reads: ‘LET’S PRESERVE HUNGARY’S PEACE AND SECURITY!’
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In marked contrast to the Polish government, Orbán has refused to permit the direct transfer of arms to Ukraine from Hungarian territory. While the prime ministers of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia made the perilous journey to Kyiv in mid-March to demonstrate their solidarity with Ukraine’s beleaguered government, Orbán conspicuously stayed at home. And while other governments have lobbied for more effective economic sanctions against Russia, he has insisted he will not allow Hungarian families to ‘pay the price’ of countering its aggression—a policy which, of course, also serves the interests of Putin and Russia.
Gamble paying off
Orbán is gambling that, although most Hungarians deplore Russia’s murderous assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty and its civilian population, they are anxious to avoid direct involvement in a ruinous war and unwilling to meet the costs of stricter sanctions against Moscow. That gamble appears to be paying off.
While 64 per cent of Hungarians regard Russia as the aggressor in the conflict—a figure which falls to just 44 per cent among Fidesz voters—there has been a noticeable increase in support for Fidesz and the CDPP. According to recent polls, they currently enjoy a small but significant lead.
If Orbán succeeds in winning a fourth consecutive election, it will be due to the fears awakened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, his political skills and the deficiencies of the opposition. But it will also be a consequence of the growing disparity between Hungary and accepted notions of liberal constitutionalism. Under Orbán, Hungary has ceased to be a genuine constitutional democracy, in which alternative political voices can make themselves effectively heard and in which the rule of law continues to function in all circumstances.
Orbán’s ‘capture’ of public-service broadcasting has meant that material concerning the opposition parties or their policies is, at best, unreliable, while politicians from these parties are very rarely invited to contribute. When Márki-Zay appeared on state television on March 16th to outline the opposition parties’ joint platform—he was allotted five minutes—he pointed out that this was the first time he had set foot in its studios since he was selected to run against Orbán, following primaries last October.
Almost without exception, commercial radio and television outlets, along with most of the print media, have become equally subservient to the government. Without resorting to the assassination of key journalists, as in Russia, or their mass imprisonment, as in Turkey, the Orbán regime ‘has perfected the use of an alarmingly effective alternate set of tools to weaken media pluralism and independence’.
In the run-up to the election, Orbán and Fidesz have employed increasingly questionable means to boost their prospects. On February 25th, the Government Information Centre emailed Hungarians, setting out the government’s ‘position regarding the situation in Ukraine’. The email falsely stated that the opposition had called for Hungarian troops to be deployed in defence of Ukraine.
Although the allegation was unfounded and an obvious attempt to sway voters, the Constitutional Court ruled on March 23rd that the email did not infringe Hungary’s election laws, as ‘primarily and in its totality’ it was intended to ‘provide information to citizens’ in an ‘exceptional situation of war’, rather than to influence the outcome of the election. The dubious reasoning of the court—once a bulwark against abuse of power by an over-zealous government—demonstrates the extent to which Fidesz has succeeded in eroding judicial independence and the rule of law, as well as media pluralism.
Even those Orbán-as-statesman posters which have appeared across the country—just weeks before the election—are indicative of the deformation of Hungarian democracy. Funded by the government, they have no public-information content; their only purpose is to advance the ruling parties’ electoral prospects. The ubiquitous posters represent one more instance of the regime’s disregard for such quaint notions as transparency in election funding—and its readiness to exploit state resources fully to retain power.