The past month has probably been the most difficult one in Viktor Orbán’s political career. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has coincided with the approaching general election scheduled for April 3rd, in which the Hungarian premier will try and obtain a fourth consecutive mandate and a fifth one in his career. The outbreak of war was a disruptive event that has rocked the election campaign and risked breaking the bank, considering the privileged relationship there has been for years between the Hungarian premier and Vladimir Putin. Orbán has had to resort to his best balancing efforts to keep his electors steady, not displease the Kremlin excessively, and at the same time not deviate too much from the Western allies. With only a few days to go before the election, the mission seems to have been at least partially successful.
Readying to celebrate
According to a survey carried out by the Republikon Institute, Viktor Orbán’s party Fidesz maintains a slight advantage over “United for Hungary” the group of six parties led by the challenger Péter Márki-Zay. Votes for Fidesz appear to amount to 41% compared to the 39% preferring the opposition. It is apparently not an insurmountable margin that must however be read in the context of the Hungarian electoral system, which is a mixed proportional and majoritarian one, with greater weight on latter aspect. Of the 199 MPs in the National Assembly, 106 are elected in single-member constituencies, reorganised in a way that critics say clearly favors Fidesz. According to a projection by the independent daily Hvg, based on recent polls, 78 seats should go to Fidesz, and only 28 to the opposition.
In order to have a majority in parliament, Márki-Zay would therefore have to pray for a real miracle, obtaining at least 4% more votes than Orbán. The scenario outlined as more probable is therefore that Fidesz will be reconfirmed as leader of the government, but for the first time since 2010 the super-majority of two thirds of MPs might not be achieved. This is no small change, considering that it was this advantage that has allowed the current prime minister to rule unchallenged for the last 12 years, overturning the country’s institutional organization and bringing it completely under his control. To try to maximize his advantage Orbán, will have to try and mobilize as many people as possible to the polls. It is no coincidence that on the same day as the parliamentary elections, a referendum will also be held on the so-called ‘Child Protection Act’, otherwise known as the ‘Act against LGBT propaganda’. This is a set of rules that came into force last June, on which there has been a bitter clash with the European Union, which considers them highly discriminatory. Among other things, it prohibits the broadcasting of content touching on homosexuality and gender reassignment to minors under the age of 18.
An OSCE/ODIHR (Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights) team has already been present in Hungary for several weeks to monitor these elections. This mission envisages the use of 218 observers, with 200 over the short term and 18 long-term ones. Hungary has been under observation for some years now. The first alarm bells came in 2014 when the election round was assessed as “free but not regular”. Concerns have increased since 2018 when it was observed how state money was being used to finance the Fidesz election campaigns.
Regular elections are also undermined by the current state of the free press. Orbán can rely on almost total support from the national press and above all from the M1 state television channel. To provide a recent example, Márki-Zay was allowed to appear for the first time before the cameras of the flagship network on March 16th, for a total of five minutes, at eight o’clock in the morning. This was the maximum amount of time llotted to him and other opposition figures. The previous day, as it was Hungary’s National Day, Orbán had appeared on the same channel, nine times.
The role of television has been crucial over the last month and a half in helping the Hungarian premier to extricate himself from the dangerous cul-de-sac into which the war in Ukraine threatened to lead him.
A difficult balance
In recent years, Hungarian foreign policy has been characterized by marked multilateralism, through which Budapest has developed more than friendly relations with China and Russia, to the detriment of its relationship with Brussels, which is becoming increasingly conflictual. It is understandable how the approaching of the Ukrainian crisis has alarmed Orbán since the end of January. The threat of Russian intervention allegedly obliged him to justify his friendship with Putin and reshape his position both internally and with his Euro-Atlantic partners. This is why the Hungarian Prime Minister was one of the first European leaders to go to Moscow in person in order to avert the outbreak of conflict, an attempt that unfortunately proved to be in vain.
The invasion of Ukraine did not initially leave Orbán much freedom and he was obliged to align himself with Western countries in applying the first sanctions as well as allowing NATO troops to transit and position themselves on Hungarian soil. He did, however, remain inflexible as far as weapons were concerned, refusing not only to provide direct military support to Ukraine, but also not allowing transit for supplies coming from other countries. On February 24th he already dictated that, “Hungary must not become part of this war because the safety of Hungarians is the government’s priority.” Peace and security have been two concepts repeated like a mantra during the past six weeks. The message received, thanks also to the mass media, is that Fidesz is the party of peace because it keeps the Hungarians out of the conflict. This has kept the ranks tight on the domestic front, but has brought some turbulence in foreign policy.
Orbán’s lukewarm Atlanticism seems for the moment to be sufficient for France, Germany and Italy, but it is beginning to prove indigestible to regional allies. In particular, the ‘special relationship’ with Poland seems to be on a dangerous slippery slope. Warsaw’s posture, aimed at unconditional and in some ways very bold support for Ukraine, was from the very start diametrically opposed to that of Budapest. The situation has worsened since Orbán began to apply the brakes on energy-related sanctions, a position described by Polish President Duda as difficult to understand. The climate of tension has risen to such an extent that the Visegrád summit on defense scheduled for March 28th in Budapest has been cancelled due to the defections announced by the Polish minister Błaszczak and the Czech minister Jana Černochová. It was the latter who inflicted the most serious blow. “I have always supported the V4 and I am very sorry that for Hungary cheap Russian oil is more important than the blood of the Ukrainians.”
In addition to the allies’ cold words, Orbán also had to suffer a moral blow inflicted by the Ukrainian President Zelensky, who addressing him personally in a video message, asked him to decide which side he was on. The Magyar Prime Minister did not take kindly to this request and responded sharply, pointing out that after all Zelensky was an actor, unlike himself, who is trained as a lawyer.
A tarnished opposition
In a landscape dominated by war and Orbán’s prominence, the opposition has been unable to mount a convincing election campaign. The battle against corruption was supposed to be the centerpiece, but the international agenda has forced a change of direction. In his speeches, Márki-Zay has tried to transform these elections into a referendum between Europe and Putin, an apparently persuasive subject but one that for the moment does not appear to have touched voters’ hearts.
The feeling is that the enthusiasm generated by the primaries has not been followed by a compacting of the six different political parties that form the opposition. This would have been necessary, considering that the opposition comprises entities as far apart as the MSZP socialists and the right-wing Jobbik. Márki-Zay himself appears to have lost some of the shine that characterized him until a few months ago. Despite all the problems one must however observe that the outcome of the match to be played on Sunday is not yet a certainty. The fact that the gap separating the opposition from Fidesz is so narrow gives the challenger some hope. Although a victory seems unlikely, even a narrow defeat could result in a weakened Orbán, both domestically and internationally, changing the scenario of Hungarian politics.
Cover Photo: Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban arrives at the latest European Council summit – Brussels, March 25, 2022. (John Thys / AFP).
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