Hungary’s election a grim day for civil society
Despite facing a united opposition, Hungary’s authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán won a convincing victory in the April election. Even his close relationship with Vladimir Putin did not deter voters handing him a fourth successive term. Those he has frequently attacked – including civil society, independent media and LGBTQI+ people – now fear the worst. His victory will also embolden right-wing populists across Europe. Civil society will be looking for the European Union to stand by its rules about human rights and the rule of law and withhold funding from Hungary until Orbán commits to curbing his attacks on rights.
For many leaders, the receipt of warm congratulations from Vladimir Putin would surely cause embarrassment. But for Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, basking in his triumph of his latest election win, it was par for the course. Belarus’s dictator Alexander Lukashenko also offered his regards, along with a slew of right-wing populist politicians in France, Italy and the UK.
In his victory speech, Orbán, beginning a fourth successive term, took aim at some familiar targets, including the European Union (EU) and international media. But he also found time to swipe at a new opponent, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. It followed an election campaign in which the opposition tried to capitalise on Orbán’s close connections with Putin, and came in the wake of Zelenskyy’s criticism of Hungary over its opposition to EU sanctions on Russian oil and gas and its refusal, alone among Ukraine’s western neighbours, to allow the export of weapons to Ukraine.
Those wanting stronger EU action towards Putin’s aggression are far from the only ones dismayed at the result. The outcome is bad news for civil society, independent media and LGBTQI+ people.
Campaign for change fails
Hopes had been high last year, as six parties put their differences aside to stand as a united opposition to Orbán’s Fidesz party, under the banner of United for Hungary. Orbán had previously capitalised on a fragmented opposition; the aim this time was to deny him that advantage. United for Hungary’s mission was clear: to defeat Orbán and restore fundamental freedoms, such that genuine political competition on a level playing field could return at the next election.
The coalition knew the size of the task ahead. Over successive terms Orbán has turned state media into his mouthpiece and independent media have been taken over by his allies or forced off air. The government has used state advertising to reward supportive media and penalise critical outlets. Orbán has inserted his supporters into control of key institutions, including the constitutional court, public prosecutor’s office and media regulator. Checks and balances have thus been thoroughly eroded. Civil society has been attacked and LGBTQI+ people demonised as part of a culture war that resonates with Orbán’s socially conservative heartlands.
These moves paid off in the election campaign. State media, and the vast array of media controlled by Fidesz allies, relentlessly parroted Orbán’s campaign lines, positioned him favourably and vilified the opposition. Fidesz vastly outspent the opposition on advertising. Gerrymandering also unsurprisingly gave Fidesz an edge. Given these challenges, an Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe observer mission concluded that this was not a fair competition due to the ‘pervasive overlap’ between ruling party and state.
Despite the many challenges, prospects of a change initially looked promising. Last October the opposition coalition chose Péter Márki-Zay as its prime ministerial candidate. A centre-right Catholic who it was thought might appeal to some Fidesz supporters, Márki-Zay is also pro-EU and supports LGBTQI+ rights. The opposition quickly took an opinion poll lead. They gained further encouragement in January from the success of a similar tactic in defeating an Orbán ally and fellow Central European populist, Andrej Babiš in the Czech Republic.
Russia’s war dominates debate
However as the election neared, cracks started to show in the opposition. It was accused of running a disjointed campaign and not making clear what it stood for, something Orbán’s camp could not be accused of. There were complaints that bigger parties in the coalition were not doing enough and that Márki-Zay lacked charisma.
But then Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changed the campaign for both sides. Orbán’s closeness to Putin went from something the prime minister flaunted to an embarrassment he needed to distance himself from. The opposition seized on it, seeking to move the campaign away from Orbán’s culture-war territory. They proclaimed Orbán to be Putin’s poodle and a threat to national security.
But again they faced the problem of a skewed media: pro-government media soft-pedalled on Putin’s culpability in the war, something that made Orbán’s links with him less of an issue; research suggested that a quarter of Fidesz supporters bought Putin’s lie that the war was only a defensive action.
It’s possible that war across Hungary’s borders ultimately played to Orbán’s advantage. He immediately reversed his government’s notorious hostility to refugees, a switch that undoubtedly spoke to the public mood. But that aside, Orbán’s position as the EU leader least prepared to take further action might have benefited his campaign: his strategy has long been to pick fights with the EU, consistently portraying it as an interfering institution against which he alone can take a strong stance.
Cold war memories mean there may be little love for Russia among the older generations that most strongly support Fidesz, but there seems to be even less backing for the idea of any kind of military entanglement, in a country whose history makes war feel an existential threat. Orbán played on this, hammering home the false claim that the opposition wanted to involve Hungary militarily in Ukraine. In this narrative, Orbán was presented as the leader to keep Hungarians safe; connections with Putin might even be an advantage here.
Incumbency may also have been a factor, with the known quantity of Orbán’s continuing rule looking a better bet than the perceived inexperience and potential fragmentation of the opposition coalition.
As the focus in the last weeks of campaign shifted from culture war to actual war, the referendum Orbán scheduled on the same day as the election was mostly overlooked. This had been designed to stoke up further enmity towards LGBTQI+ people with a series of loaded questions about education and children. Before the focus shifted, LGBTQI+ people were lined up as the convenient enemy of Orbán’s re-election campaign.
Ultimately the referendum’s questions were rejected, through an organised campaign of ballot spoiling. While its anti-LGBTQI+ proposals won overwhelming support, around 20 per cent of votes cast were invalid, causing it to fall short of the 50 per cent threshold needed. But for LGBTQI+ people facing greater levels of censorship, hostility and violence, enabled by Orbán’s divisive rhetoric, the damage has already been done – and the future looks bleak.
Victory, but at a cost?
It was not a close result. Orbán won so comfortably that it’s hard to argue a fair election would have produced a completely different outcome. Fidesz received around 53.7 per cent of the vote, up on its previous performance. The opposition trailed on roughly 34.6 per cent. The workings of the electoral system translated this into even stronger dominance for Fidesz, giving it 135 of parliament’s 199 seats.
The result keeps Fidesz above the two-thirds threshold required to make constitutional changes, making renewed assaults on rights inevitable. The presence in parliament for the first time of the far-right Our Homeland party will help further drag the political agenda rightwards.
Orbán will celebrate his victory, and the opposition that joined together to try to unseat him will likely fragment again; recriminations are bound to come, and it will be no surprise if the broad coalition tactic is not embraced next time.
There are however some possible clouds on Orbán’s horizon. Hungary is experiencing high inflation and a record depreciation of its currency, which could worsen due to the impacts of the Ukraine conflict. The government significantly increased public spending ahead of the election, potentially limiting its future room for manoeuvre. Economic policies that play well with Fidesz voters – including substantial pensions and fuel price caps introduced last year – may be hard to sustain.
In this situation, EU funding could be vital. But Orbán’s battles with the EU, while central to his image, come at a cost. Currently €7.2 billion (approx. US$7.9 billion) of COVID-19 recovery funding is frozen over EU rule of law concerns. The European Commission’s rule of law report last July raised concerns about the country’s lack of anti-corruption measures and practices of favouritism, nepotism, clientelism and high-level political-business links, as well as restrictions on pluralism and media freedom. Following the election, the EU started a disciplinary procedure over corruption that could further cost Hungary EU funding.
Orbán’s Hungary may lose key allies. So far, it has worked closely with neighbouring populist-led EU states, notably Poland. The two long supported each other in fights with the EU. But Russia’s war in Ukraine threatens to change the dynamics, as Poland has taken a much stronger stance against Putin. If their relationship further deteriorates, Hungary could find itself fighting a lone battle against the EU.
If the pressure builds, Orbán is likely to launch further attacks on his usual targets, including civil society and LGBQTI+ people. To resist the backlash, solidarity is more necessary than ever, and it should come in the form of deeds, not just words. The EU must side with human rights by hitting Orbán’s regime where it hurts: by withholding funding until rights violations stop.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The EU must take a strong line in ensuring that Hungary complies with European human rights and rule of law requirements as a condition of providing funding.
International civil society must stand in active solidarity with Hungarian civil society and support it to defend rights and freedoms.
The opposition should reflect on the reasons why its unity strategy failed to stop Orbán and seek to refine it rather than discard it.
Cover photo by Janos Kummer/Getty Images