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  • Writer's pictureGergő Illés

War in Ukraine turns Hungarian election campaign upside down

How are this year’s Hungarian elections different? Can Putin’s war in Ukraine cost Viktor Orbán his re-election? Why is Orbán’s opposition running on a joint list? ? And who is the man who can potentially oust Orbán from power on 3 April? Five questions and five answers to the most pressing issues of the Hungarian national election.

This Sunday, Hungarians will head to the polls to pass judgement over Viktor Orbán’s long standing government, ruling the country for twelve years. Ever since, Orbán’s governing Fidesz party – ruling Hungary with a two-thirds parliamentary majority – has barely faced any constitutional barriers, let alone a real threat from weak and divided opposition parties. 

However, with the six parties of the opposition forming a united list and nominating a joint candidate for prime minister following an unprecedented primary election, this year’s voting can bring an unpredictable result. European Waves will guide you through the five most important questions of the Hungarian election campaign.

Who is Viktor Orbán?

Regardless of what you think of Orbán’s political legacy, he is by far the most talented Hungarian politician of the post-1989 era. Orbán and a group of college friends founded Fidesz (with the acronym standing for “The Alliance of Young Democrats”) as a staunchly anti-communist, liberal youth movement. The party entered the parliament as early as 1990, but as soon as Orbán saw a vacuum on the right side of the political spectrum, he rebranded his party to a moderate conservative, pro-EU movement.

This political turn made him the youngest-ever Hungarian Prime Minister in 1998, but a bitter defeat from the Socialist Party in 2002 and eight years spent in opposition made him rethink his ideology – again. As soon as he returned to the role of Prime Minister in 2010, he was no longer the moderate conservative he used to be. His new role was the decisive sovereignist strongman, the freedom fighter, who is not afraid of standing up to the “Brussels bureaucrats” when he or Hungary is attacked. 

So – who really is Viktor Orbán? This is a question hard to answer even for Hungarians. To his supporters – a historical leader who gave back Hungary its dignity, who has built up the country’s political and economic sovereignty, who amplified Hungary’s voice in the international arena, and who fights tooth and nail for Hungarian interests – even if it means conflicts with the EU. 

To his opponents – an autocrat, who unilaterally rewrote Hungary’s constitution, captured the state, built up an increasingly authoritarian model of governance, which he maintains through a system of embezzlement of taxpayers’ money and EU funds. With the increasing polarisation of Hungarian public opinion, there is less and less room for an in-between opinion.

Why has the opposition allied?

An unlikely alliance of six opposition parties has taken the lead in ousting Orbán from power in 2022. The bizarre coalition extends from the previously extremist and anti-Semitic Jobbik party to rural conservatives, social democrats and liberals, and even to smaller urban green left parties – forces that would have never considered cooperating in a functioning, multi-party democracy. The underlying reason for their cooperation is Hungary’s electoral law – unilaterally adopted by Fidesz in 2011.

The new legislation has not only abolished second rounds in Hungarian elections but has completely redrawn the borders of electoral districts. Gerrymandering was done to favour Fidesz – left- and liberal-leaning urban constituencies were often merged with more conservative rural regions. Instead of campaigning, the system has forced the organisationally weak and divided opposition to waste their time with technical questions and power struggles. This resulted in the ruling Fidesz-KDNP winning a two-thirds parliamentary majority with just 44 per cent of the votes in 2014 and 49 per cent in 2018. 

It took two humiliating defeats for the opposition to realise that full cooperation, joint candidates, and a united electoral list are the only way to defeat the governing parties in the current electoral system. The playing field, of course, is by no means even – but if the opposition wants a chance of winning, this is their only way. 

Who is the opposition’s joint candidate?

Full electoral coordination between opposition forces can prove difficult; hence, the parties held a – so far unprecedented – primary election to select the candidates in the constituencies as well as the joint prime minister candidate. With over 800,000 people taking part, the result was a slap in the face for all opposition parties, as none of the parties’ prime minister candidates had won.

Instead, an independent candidate and a political outsider, Péter Márki-Zay, snatched away the win from established parties. Márki-Zay – a Catholic and a father of seven – was elected as a mayor of Hódmezővásárhely, a former Fidesz stronghold in southeast Hungary, four years ago. His political myth lies in his ability not only to convince opposition voters but rural conservative Fidesz supporters. The vote reflected the dissatisfaction of opposition voters of their parties and caught the propaganda machine of Fidesz by surprise.

Márki-Zay’s outsider attitude and lack of experience in national politics gave him the upper hand in the primaries – but now, the exact same factors might cost him the election. The joint candidate tends to pick unnecessary fights in campaign events, making impulsive verbal gaffes and controversial statements in his often-improvised speeches – and Fidesz does not waste a second to use those against him. Consequently, Márki-Zay is often forced to explain himself on a weekly basis, which is doing no good to the opposition, desperately trying to present itself as a credible alternative to Orbán.

Who does Putin’s war in Ukraine benefit in Hungary?

Salvation for Márki-Zay came in the form of Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine on 24 February; as with the war, a new topic has appeared on the Hungarian political agenda, which Viktor Orbán cannot control. According to the political science cliché, wars generally favour incumbents – the outcome, however, is more unpredictable in Orbán’s case. Hungary’s relations with Russia in the past twelve years can be best described as amicable – and it is not only about cheap gas and energy security.

Hungary has agreed to take a Russian loan to expand its nuclear power plant in Paks in 2014. Since 2019, Budapest has been home to the International Investment Bank (IIB) – a Russia-led development bank often seen as the hotbed of Russian spying activity inside the EU. Before the war, Orbán also called for the end of EU sanctions against Russia – adopted following Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Bilateral relations peaked when foreign minister Péter Szijjártó received the Order of Friendship from his Russian colleague, Sergey Lavrov, in December 2021 – an award that Szijjártó refused to return despite the ongoing war. 

The longstanding “swing politics” of Orbán have brought an exciting development to Hungarian domestic politics: a significant portion of Orbán’s voter base now supports Russia rather than Ukraine in the ongoing war. Russian propaganda is not only widespread in alternative news channels but also present in the public media – a mouthpiece of the Hungarian government. Therefore, Orbán could not afford a complete U-turn on Russia and chose the strategy of “neutrality” in the war against Ukraine. In his speech commemorating the anniversary of Hungary’s anti-Habsburg revolution and freedom fight of 1848–1849, Orbán stated that, “We will not let the left drag Hungary into this war […] No Hungarian should be left between the Ukrainian anvil and the Russian hammer.”

It is not an exaggeration to say that war created an equal playing field, as the campaign machine of Fidesz now cannot dominate the entirety of the political agenda. The opposition’s biggest chance lies in deterring conservative voters from Fidesz by creating a narrative that a vote for Orbán is a vote for Putin. Many Hungarians still have vivid memories of the Soviet occupation before 1989 – including the 1956 revolution, brutally crushed by Russian tanks in Budapest.

What is at stake?

This year’s election is more of a referendum on Orbán’s rule than an ordinary parliamentary election in a European democracy. Not policy issues but simplified civil war rhetoric is now dominating the political communication of the two big electoral blocs – and the Prime Ministerial candidates are rather comfortable with that.

Orbán tries to scare away voters by portraying the opposition as puppets to Hungary’s deeply unpopular socialist ex-Prime Minister, Ferenc Gyurcsány: “If Gyurcsány’s people are back, they will open our borders! We won’t let them!”

Márki-Zay was even more straightforward when speaking about the stakes of the election campaign: “There are no more questions, no more internal debates […] There is only one question: Fidesz or not Fidesz?”

With an overheated election campaign built on polarising the Hungarian society, there is only one thing that seems clear. Regardless of the winner, a life-and-death rhetoric and an age of permanent campaigns is here to stay.



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