Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Hungary’s Orban Stronger at Home, Weaker Abroad Ahead of Elections

Hopes have faded for Hungary’s united opposition, but Budapest’s neutrality on Russia’s war in Ukraine has cost Orban in Europe.

By , an international correspondent based in Vienna.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban takes part in a press conference during the Visegrad summit at the Centre for the Meetings of Cultures in Lublin, Poland, on Sept. 11, 2020.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban takes part in a press conference during the Visegrad summit at the Centre for the Meetings of Cultures in Lublin, Poland, on Sept. 11, 2020.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban takes part in a press conference during the Visegrad summit at the Centre for the Meetings of Cultures in Lublin, Poland, on Sept. 11, 2020. Omar Marques/Getty Images

SZEKESFEHERVAR, Hungary—For the past few weeks, Viktoria Korner-Veber and her husband, Viktor Korner, have been at loggerheads over Hungary’s upcoming parliamentary election. Both 27, the couple from the rural town of Szekesfehervar have opposing views on who should run Hungary for the next four years. Korner-Veber believes it’s time for change and is supporting Hungary’s newly minted six-party united opposition, United for Hungary, and its leader, small-town mayor Peter Marki-Zay. Her husband, a semiprofessional soccer player, is a staunch supporter of the ruling Fidesz party and its leader, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who is seeking a fourth consecutive term in office.

While the debates inside the Korner home have often been heated, there are no such fireworks on Hungary’s state-controlled media outlets, which have broadcast the Fidesz line of Hungarian neutrality in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February. The Russian assault has upended the Hungarian election, scheduled for April 3, turning it from a battle over traditional values to one of security.

Although the invasion has shed light on Orban’s close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Fidesz spin doctors have reframed regional instability as a cause for concern—but not something Hungary should become involved with. Hungary, a member of NATO, has not offered any military assistance to Ukraine, will not allow lethal aid from other states to cross its territory, and has promised to block European Union sanctions on Russian oil and gas, arguing it would impact Hungarian households that are already struggling with headline inflation at 8.3 percent.

SZEKESFEHERVAR, Hungary—For the past few weeks, Viktoria Korner-Veber and her husband, Viktor Korner, have been at loggerheads over Hungary’s upcoming parliamentary election. Both 27, the couple from the rural town of Szekesfehervar have opposing views on who should run Hungary for the next four years. Korner-Veber believes it’s time for change and is supporting Hungary’s newly minted six-party united opposition, United for Hungary, and its leader, small-town mayor Peter Marki-Zay. Her husband, a semiprofessional soccer player, is a staunch supporter of the ruling Fidesz party and its leader, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who is seeking a fourth consecutive term in office.

While the debates inside the Korner home have often been heated, there are no such fireworks on Hungary’s state-controlled media outlets, which have broadcast the Fidesz line of Hungarian neutrality in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February. The Russian assault has upended the Hungarian election, scheduled for April 3, turning it from a battle over traditional values to one of security.

Although the invasion has shed light on Orban’s close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Fidesz spin doctors have reframed regional instability as a cause for concern—but not something Hungary should become involved with. Hungary, a member of NATO, has not offered any military assistance to Ukraine, will not allow lethal aid from other states to cross its territory, and has promised to block European Union sanctions on Russian oil and gas, arguing it would impact Hungarian households that are already struggling with headline inflation at 8.3 percent.

That line has gone down well with Hungary’s electorate. Polling conducted by the Median group in late March predicted a sweeping victory for Fidesz, with the party forecast to win 128 of the parliament’s 199 seats. The data also showed that 43 percent of the government’s supporters believed Russia acted justly in Ukraine. “Fidesz cares about the Hungarian people, is working in our interests, and is supporting our communities,” Korner told Foreign Policy. “I think it’s better if we stick with them.”

Those poll numbers underscore how the united opposition, which started strong and seemed within reach of unseating Fidesz, has floundered, failing especially to cut into Orban’s rural support and win over undecided voters. But the cards have been stacked against them. Marki-Zay had only five minutes of airtime on state television at 8 a.m. on March 16 for his entire campaign. Opposition spending has been significantly lower than that of the government, which has deployed state resources to bolster its campaign. According to Peter Zarand, the opposition campaign chief, Fidesz has acquired more than 20,000 billboards throughout the country. United for Hungary has been able to secure only 2,000.

“When Marki-Zay became the leader of the united opposition, we hoped his liberal-conservative values would reach key Orban voters. That didn’t happen, mainly because there wasn’t a convincing narrative, or vision, that moved beyond Orban-bashing,” said Istvan Hegedus, the chair of the Hungarian Europe Society and a former member of Fidesz. “This campaign isn’t about policy issues, it’s about Orban: You are either with him or against him. Marki-Zay is a good speaker, but he did make some mistakes, and I think there is a lack of a strong team and expertise behind him.”

Although Orban may be consolidating his position at home, abroad he is becoming an increasingly isolated figure. A meeting of the Visegrad Group in Budapest was canceled on March 29 after the defense ministers of Poland and the Czech Republic pulled out, citing the Hungarian government’s pro-Russia stance on the war in Ukraine. “I am very sorry that cheap Russian oil is more important to Hungarian politicians than Ukrainian blood,” Czech Defense Minister Jana Cernochova said on Twitter. The Visegrad Group, or V4, comprising the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, has been a strategic alternative for Orban after years of criticizing the EU’s democratic norms in Brussels.

The illiberal alliance between Poland and Hungary has been of particular importance to Budapest. With each other’s support, they have thwarted their countries’ independent media, judiciaries, and minority rights. But analysts fear Orban’s refusal to meaningfully denounce Russia and support tougher sanctions on Moscow could spell the beginning of the end for the V4 alliance.

“Viktor Orban has very consciously built the Polish-Hungarian alliance and the V4 framework around it over the past decade. He was able to create a temporary ‘inner fortress’ within the EU, but the unsustainability of an uncritical eastern policy has now destroyed the whole endeavor,” said Balazs Bocskei, the research director of the Budapest-based IDEA Institute. “The Hungarian prime minister may have thought that economic interests and the lure of EU power dominance would bring members together. The Russian-Ukrainian conflict has shattered these otherwise well-established plans.”

Speaking after U.S. President Joe Biden’s speech in Warsaw on March 26, Polish President Andrzej Duda made the unprecedented move of publicly criticizing Budapest’s relationship with the Kremlin. “Given Russian aggression against Ukraine, given the deaths of hundreds and thousands of civilians, given the shelling of housing blocks, which is a war crime by international law, it’s hard for me to understand this approach,” Duda said in an interview with Polish media. “This policy will be costly for Hungary, very costly.”

Days later, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto accused Kyiv of interfering in the Hungarian election. “[There has been] ongoing coordination between the Hungarian left and representatives of the Ukrainian government,” the minister said on social media. His Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, refuted the unsubstantiated claims: “We have never intervened in Hungary’s internal affairs. … Mr. Szijjarto is ready to invent nonsense, destroying the long-term relationship between us.”

Most Hungarian opponents of Orban and Fidesz are hoping the united opposition will do enough to at least break the government’s two-thirds “supermajority” in the parliament, which has allowed Orban to tamper with the constitution for 12 years. For only the second time in the EU’s history, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe will send a full observer mission to Hungary for Sunday’s vote.

“The cultural counterrevolution [led by Orban] is over in central Europe, but I’m relatively pessimistic about an opposition victory this weekend,” Hegedus said. “Even if they break the two-thirds majority, the damage has been done to Hungarian democracy, and Orban can continue to rule as before.”

Amanda Coakley is an international correspondent and Milena Jesenska journalist fellow at the IWM in Vienna. She covers Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Twitter: @amandamcoakley

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