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Viktor Orban Heads for Victory in Hungary

The Hungarian prime minister’s embrace of Putin is no obstacle to a fourth consecutive term for the EU’s problem child.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks during a meeting in London on March 8.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks during a meeting in London on March 8.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks during a meeting in London on March 8. Leon Neal/AFP

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, where we’re looking at Hungary’s general election, a crucial deadline for Russian gas, and more news worth following from around the world.

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, where we’re looking at Hungary’s general election, a crucial deadline for Russian gas, and more news worth following from around the world.

Reader note: Morning Brief will not publish on Monday, April 4, and will resume on Tuesday, April 5.

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Orban Heads for Fourth Consecutive Term

Viktor Orban looks set to earn a fourth successive term as Hungary’s prime minister as polls show his Fidesz party with a comfortable lead ahead of Sunday’s election.

Should Orban triumph, it will lead to uncomfortable questions for Hungary’s opposition, which had hoped to emulate the united opposition in neighboring Czech Republic by forming a multiparty pan-ideological alliance to unseat him. The United for Hungary alliance began the year in a strong position, neck and neck with Fidesz in polls, only for enthusiasm to wane in recent months.

The opposition may yet rue the choice of Peter Marki-Zay as its prime minister candidate. Marki-Zay won out in the alliance primary in October 2021 and was considered a compelling conservative alternative to Orban, having successfully won the mayoralty of Hodmezovasarhely, a Fidesz stronghold, in 2018. His campaign has since been criticized for poor organization and inexperience. U.S. observers may catch a whiff of Mitt Romney, a man who proved he could win in opposition territory only to falter on the national campaign trail against a popular incumbent.

As Amanda Coakley reports in Foreign Policy, Marki-Zay’s inability to win over rural support, a traditional Orban power base, may prove costly. An Orban-controlled media apparatus has not helped, with Marki-Zay given only five minutes of airtime on state television for his entire campaign.

Electoral maneuvers have also stacked the deck in favor of Fidesz. Changes to voting boundaries in 2013 effectively merged urban with more conservative rural areas, and those gerrymanders mean any opposition must win as much as 5 percent more of the vote than Fidesz would need to reach a parliamentary majority.

The polls also indicate that for all the West’s condemnation of Orban—from Fidesz’s anti-LGBT and anti-migrant policies to its embrace of civic repression that has led to a designation as only “partly free” by Freedom House—he still remains a popular figure nationally.

Daniel Hegedus, a visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States who has analyzed the election’s possible foreign-policy outcomes, told Foreign Policy that Orban’s endurance comes down to three factors: the electoral rules in his favor, Hungary’s economic success under his leadership, and his ability to tap into a sense of national pride.

“Orban is practically the only politician since the transition who has made it so Hungary punches above its weight. And I think that’s a very important factor for most voters with that nationalistic mindset,” Hegedus said. “Yes, Hungary is a minor power. But it has an influence at the level of European politics which exceeds its material capabilities and resources.”

The war in Ukraine has undoubtedly played a major role in the election, with Marki-Zay’s attacks on Orban’s courtship of Russian President Vladimir Putin failing to make an impact. Orban has instead championed his position—which has included a decision not to allow arms to transit the country to Ukraine—as principled neutrality, denouncing the opposition as warmongers.

That stance may prove crucial, especially in winning over any remaining undecided voters. “For them, the peace narrative of the Orban government is appealing because it promises them that they shouldn’t necessarily pay the economic price of the conflict,” Hegedus said. “And it also offers them a kind of moral release that they should not necessarily take part in this conflict because it goes against the official policy that puts equidistance between Russia and Ukraine.”

In the short term, Hungary’s future geopolitical choices hinge on the outcome of Russia’s war in Ukraine. If the war drags on, pressure will grow for Orban to come closer to the West. But it’s a different story if Russia wins in the coming weeks. In that scenario, Hegedus expects Orban to be the first in Europe to call for restoring relations with Moscow—but certainly not the last.

In the long term, an overwhelming Orban victory would be a shock to the European Union and its liberal foundations, Hegedus said: “If Orban wins with a landslide, then the perception of the existence of semi-authoritarian regimes within the European Union will be changed. Until now, it was more or less perceived as a kind of temporary phenomenon. This perception will shift in the direction that this is the new normal.”


What We’re Following Today 

Russia’s ruble deadline. Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned of “consequences” if “unfriendly countries” fail to pay for Russian gas in rubles, starting Friday. European leaders have rejected the change as a breach of contract. “The contracts are in euros and must be paid in euros and will be paid in euros,” French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said on Thursday.

The wording of a Kremlin decree appears softer than Putin’s threats. It says foreign buyers can continue paying in foreign currency through a Russian bank that will then convert those funds into rubles. After initially collapsing, the ruble’s value relative to the U.S. dollar has begun to rebound to prewar levels.

EU-China summit. EU leaders Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang in a virtual EU-China summit, the first since June 2020. The meeting is likely to be dominated by the war in Ukraine, with climate change and health further down the agenda.


Keep an Eye On

Serbia’s elections. Serbia holds its presidential and parliamentary elections on Sunday. Polls indicate incumbent President Aleksandar Vucic will win another five-year term while his Serbian Progressive Party will win a majority in parliament, albeit with fewer seats than it currently holds.

Armenia-Azerbaijan peace talks. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan will meet Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in Brussels next week after the two sides agreed to take part in EU-mediated talks over Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia has accused Azerbaijan of breaking a cease-fire agreement by making a further land grab in the disputed region and said it had recently cut off gas supplies to the enclave. Azerbaijan denies the accusations.

Pakistan’s vote. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan channeled his cricketer roots on Thursday, pledging to “fight until the last ball” and rejecting calls to resign ahead of a crucial no-confidence vote, expected this Sunday. Khan has also accused the United States of being behind the vote, saying his ouster had been planned as punishment for pursuing an independent foreign policy. At the time of writing, an opposition coalition appeared to have enough votes to force him out of office.


Odds and Ends

White House planners will need to devote a lot more of U.S. President Joe Biden’s schedule to travel time under new plans to phase out the presidential aircraft Air Force One in favor of a greener alternative. In keeping with new protocols revealed Friday, presidential travel will now be confined to Sail Boat One, a 350-foot sailing yacht that will operate out of the U.S. Naval Academy in nearby Annapolis, Maryland.

Sail Boat One comes equipped with state-of-the-art communications technology as well as White House comforts, including a full reproduction of the Oval Office. Among some of the upgrades from the presidential jet, the boat will feature a Diplomacy Deck, described as a place where “world leaders can kick back with a drink and enjoy the sunset.”

“A changing world requires a changing mindset. This administration is proud to lead by example and embrace the slower pace and greener methods that a no-carbon future will demand,” a White House statement read.

Landlocked nations have blasted the move amid fears that maritime nations will be given preferential treatment, while Republicans have scoffed at the change as an empty gesture, given the gas-guzzling Navy escort the boat is sure to have. Critics have also taken aim at the inefficiency of the vessel’s Class A prill-fueled backup engine.

“This thing is a tired joke thought up by an addled mind,” one retired naval officer said.*


*For those unaware of today’s date, we regret to inform you that, unfortunately, Sail Boat One does not exist. Happy April Fools’ Day.

Colm Quinn was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2020 and 2022. Twitter: @colmfquinn

Read More On Elections | Hungary

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