As deeply dismayed European leaders began to digest the meaning of Viktor Orbán’s landslide victory in the Hungarian election, it was a reaction from the other side of the Atlantic that summed up the encouragement it afforded for populist and autocratically inclined leaders across the planet.
Jeremy Carl, a former interior assistant secretary in the administration of Donald Trump (who warmly endorsed Orbán back in January) tweeted that the Hungarian prime minister had “won a stunning victory and probable two-thirds parliamentary majority based on a campaign that was conservative, nationalist, anti-immigration, pro-traditional family, and firmly against military intervention in Ukraine. A lesson there for the GOP [the Republicans], if we are willing to learn it.”
Certainly, the sheer scale of the defeat of the united six-party opposition led by Péter Márki-Zay had not been anticipated. Even in Budapest where opposition was thought to be far stronger than outside the capital, two districts voted for Orbán and results were close in others. Assuming that Orbán maintains his two-thirds majority he will be able to continue embedding his deeply controversial policies in the constitution – making them almost impossible to overturn.
Already the EU’s longest-serving leader before Monday’s result, Orbán greeted his Fidesz supporters with an ecstatic – not to say hubristic – sideswipe at his perceived adversaries across Europe, including the embattled Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky even as Kyiv reeled at the grisly images of nearby civilian slaughter by the Russian military. “We won so big you can see it from the moon, let alone from Brussels,” Orbán said, adding that his victory had overcome “the leftists at home, the international leftists, the Brussels bureaucrats, the [George] Soros organisations, the international media and ultimately even the Ukrainian president”.
It had been Zelensky who had seemingly humiliated Orbán over the Hungarian prime minister’s self-proclaimed neutrality in the face of the Russian invasion, a stance that had strongly reinforced the opposition leader Márki-Zay’s accusation that Orbán was “Hungary’s Putin”. In fact, the early evidence was that the Fidesz leader’s promise to keep Hungary out of the war had persuaded many undecided voters to back him for a fourth successive term.
Early in the campaign, Márki-Zay had said in a TV interview – honestly, but in a super-volatile climate perhaps against his own electoral interests – that as a loyal member of Nato, Hungary under his leadership would play its part in any joint action mounted by the alliance. But with Nato eschewing any such action unless Russia attacks one of its members the point was wholly hypothetical. Which of course Orbán well knew as he ruthlessly exploited the difference of approach from his rival’s.
But while Orbán’s spurious depiction of the united, six-party opposition as “pro-war” – along with his determination not to sacrifice the cheap energy for which it overwhelmingly depends on Russia – was clearly a big factor in his victory, some analysts in Budapest believe it is too early to identify a single explanation for the sheer size of his majority. Certainly, Orbán appears to have triumphed despite handicaps that would have been far more salient in any normal democratic election.
These included sharply rising inflation, a soaring deficit and the potential impact of Brussels’ confrontation with Orbán’s government over its corrupt misuse of EU funds, its packing of the judiciary, marginalisation of minorities and control of an increasingly compliant media – everything that had helped to define his proud boast of leading an “illiberal democracy”. It was Orbán’s dominance of the media that lay behind Márki-Zay’s declaration as he conceded defeat that Fidesz had “won because of propaganda, not because of honour or respect”. Márki-Zay had already complained bitterly that he had been allowed just five minutes on the powerful state broadcaster’s network – itself the first time that an opposition spokesman had access to the state TV’s audience for five years.
According to Istvan Hegedus, who chairs the Hungarian Europe Society, a pro-EU NGO, Orbán now faces “two options” – either “not to change course and go forward as he has been doing”, or to move closer to EU member state opinion, beginning by repairing the alliance – currently broken because of his emollient attitude to Putin’s aggression – with the also populist Polish leadership, and perhaps compromising with Brussels’ demands for a more independent judiciary.
On the face of it, the first option looks more likely. Noting that Orbán’s victory speech did not even contain a ritual promise to govern on behalf of the whole country, including those who voted against him, Hegedus added: “Listening to his speech he seems very confident, believing he has done everything correctly, and that he can carry on as before which will certainly bring him into confrontation with the European institutions.”
But if Orbán, who offered only grudging and qualified support for EU sanctions on Putin, faces a choice, so does the EU. Having already frozen £5.34bn due to Hungary as part of its post-Covid recovery fund, it has held out the threat of withholding the much larger sum Budapest can expect from the structural funds over the next five years – likely to be more than the £34.3m doled out to Hungary from 2017 to now to help bring its economy up to the European average. Hungary certainly needs the money, not least because of Orbán’s £4.08bn pre-election spending spree on tax cuts and rises in wages and pensions.
While a European Court of Justice decision last year opened the way for Brussels to “fine” Hungary in such a way, the EU will need unprecedented political will to impose a potentially devastating penalty on one of its member states. Yet if it baulks at that and Orbán refuses to compromise, its longstanding boast of being a bloc characterised by the rule of law and democratic checks and balances will be seriously undermined.
If nothing else, Orbán has cemented his role as poster boy for leaders from Latin America to Asia who shun liberal values. As Hegedus put it on Monday. “He was a pioneer 12 years ago of moving in a totally populist, illiberal direction and now he’s still here with a big majority. That’s terrible news not only for Hungary but for Europe and globally.”
Donald Macintyre is a British freelance journalist and author. He was formerly political editor and foreign correspondent at The Independent.