April 7, 2022
IntelBrief: Orban Claims Victory in Hungary, Posing a Challenge to European Unity
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban declared victory in elections this week, laying claim to his fourth consecutive term leading the government. Orban is now the longest-serving leader of any country in the European Union (EU), concerning for many given his illiberal tendencies which frequently make him an outlier in the EU. Despite opposition parties in Hungary joining together to unseat Orban, who has been dogged by his critics for being too pliant to Russian President Vladimir Putin, his Fidesz party emerged victorious, maintaining its two-thirds majority in parliament. Many analysts were expecting a closer election, based on some of the polls that circulated in the lead up to last weekend’s vote. As the world grows more divided between democracies and autocracies, elections like those in Hungary are viewed as bellwethers for illiberal regimes throughout the world. Moreover, his continued success poses a direct challenge to the premise of unified EU values on issues like human rights.
Overall, Hungary’s vote showed a further slide to the right, with far-right party Mi Hazank capitalizing on tensions surrounding COVID-19 restrictions to broaden its appeal and pick up seats in parliament. Concerns over democratic backsliding in Europe are growing, especially in the midst of the crisis in Ukraine, even as European and NATO unity is more steadfast than ever. Not only did Orban win Hungary’s elections, but his fellow populist strongman ally in Serbia, the pro-Russian Aleksandar Vucic, won a second presidential term, foreshadowing the potential for conflict in the Balkans, as they grapple with resurgent tensions. Hungary’s Orban has become something of an illiberal icon, even drawing notorious Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, who regularly lavishes Putin and Russia with praise, to Hungary to broadcast his show. The Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) in the U.S. recently announced its plans to convene a meeting in Budapest, yet another genuflection to the allure of illiberalism. Hungary, more generally, is a welcome platform for pro-Russian news media, which in turn propagates narratives sympathetic to Moscow about the current war in Ukraine.
Orban has been attempting to strike a delicate balance. Pressured by EU countries to do more to help a besieged Ukraine, Orban condemned Russia’s actions and joined EU sanctions against Putin and the oligarchs. But Budapest stopped short of allowing weapons to be facilitated to Ukraine via Hungary and stood against a total ban of Russian energy imports on oil and natural gas. As a result, there has been something of a fallout between Orban and Andrzej Duda, Poland’s President, who has been frustrated with Orban’s refusal to fully embrace support to Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been especially critical of Orban for not doing enough to support Ukraine. Confirming Zelenskyy’s critique, Orban just announced that Hungary would continue to purchase Russian energy supplies and in a boost to the Kremlin, will do so in rubles, the Russian currency. Orban’s reluctance to stand too starkly against Russia is the direct outcome of decades of Moscow’s strategy of building influence in countries like Hungary, where large infusions of cash from well-connected oligarchs built formidable bases of political support. Despite its membership in the EU, Orban’s Hungary has consistently lurched rightwards and could further encourage right-wing parties in other EU states to exert more influence; the elections in France will also send an important signal about Europe’s ability to preserve its democratic and pluralist values.
Hungary is still plagued by longstanding accusations of corruption, ranking 26th out of 27 EU states in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. Only Bulgaria ranks lower. Due to corruption issues, as well, Hungary’s access to funding from the EU has been delayed. In turn, Orban typically uses issues like this as a cudgel to rail against Brussels and play to the “anti-globalist” aspects of his base. Throughout Hungary, Orban has used issues like opposition to LGBTQ rights and the influx of migrants to curry favor among conservative voters. Still, approximately 400,000 Ukrainian refugees have so far relocated to Hungary, at least for now, which will pose a challenge to Orban’s government. Orban, as well as Vucic in Serbia, have dominated the media in their respective countries, turning them into veritable propaganda organs of the state. Orban has directed Hungary’s media apparatus to focus on criticizing those who say Hungary should do more, painting them as warmongers determined to drag Hungary into a war with Russia that its citizens want no part of. Russian disinformation also factors prominently into shaping the views of Hungarians, with Kremlin-backed campaigns pushing false narratives about Ukraine’s relationship with the United States, including that Ukraine has become a vast military base for U.S. forces, a blatant lie pushed by Moscow.