Orbán faces toughest election challenge amid Ukraine war

Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán, widely-seen as an ally of both Russian president Vladimir Putin and former US president Donald Trump, is facing his toughest challenge since coming into power in 2010, from a united opposition, at the general election this Sunday (3 April).

Almost eight million Hungarian voters will elect 199 members of the National Assembly, currently dominated by government Fidesz loyalists.

  • Opposition leader Péter Márki-Zay is mounting the most serious challenge to Orbán in the last 12 years (Photo: Eszter Zalan)

A politically-charged referendum pushed by the government on the so-called promotion of LGBTIQ in schools will also be voted on simultaneously. The issue is seen mostly as a Fidesz-led effort to rally its supporters with anti-LGBTIQ propaganda.

And while Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been dominating the campaign agenda, it has not redrawn the battle lines in a deeply-divided Hungarian society.

Over the past 12 years, Orbán and his Fidesz party has managed to rule with a two-thirds majority, constructed a self-described “illiberal” state, and curbed independent institutions, media freedom and judicial independence.

This time six opposition parties — spanning from once far-right Jobbik to urban liberal Momentum — have united to take on Orbán’s Fidesz party, led by conservative newcomer politician and anti-corruption champion Péter Márki-Zay.

Despite Márki-Zay’s successful bid last autumn to lead the opposition parties, they failed to spur a wider momentum to unseat Orbán.

This was partly due to “operational difficulties”, András Bíró-Nagy, director of think tank Policy Solutions, said. “They needed to build a campaign from scratch,” he said, adding that the opposition coalition itself had also been surprised that the small-town mayor overtook more heavyweight opposition figures.

Room for surprise

And Márki-Zay, 49, is facing an uphill battle against the Fidesz machinery.

The Fidesz media-dominance and persistent concerns over rewritten election laws — which have not been dealt with for four years despite damning reports by international observers — has led to a full-scale observation mission by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

“Fidesz has a much better chance to win, but for the first time in 16 years the opposition has a chance. There could be a surprise, but the expectation is that Orbán wins,” political analyst Róbert László at Budapest-based think tank Political Capital said.

A poll, conducted by pollster Zavecz Research 23-25 March and published by website Telex.hu on Monday, put support for nationalist Orban’s Fidesz at 41 percent of the electorate, while the opposition alliance stood at 39 percent.

Experts warn that because of the distortions built into the election system by the Fidesz majority, the opposition needs to win by at least a three-four percentage points margin over Orbán’s party to clinch victory.

Those distortions include gerrymandering: redrawing constituencies to favour Fidesz, and different voting rules for Hungarians living outside of Hungary.

“On top of it comes 12 years of permanent campaign we live in, that advantage is very difficult to counter,” he added, referring to the Orbán government’s years-long campaign against EU institutions, civil organisations, US billionaire George Soros, migrants, and most recently, LGBTQI people.

Orbán’s dominance also helped him avoid being hammered by the opposition. Their campaign is repeatedly pointing out his close ties with Russian president Vladimir Putin, who invaded Ukraine a month ago, and his lukewarm support for Ukrainians.

Pro-Kremlin narratives

While Hungary has backed EU sanctions, its pro-government and public media has been spewing Kremlin-inspired narratives.

Budapest is also home of the International Investment Bank, a Moscow-backed development bank viewed as an arm of the Russian secret service by its critics.

Russia has also signed a €12.5bn agreement with Hungary on expanding the country’s nuclear power plant, which has since ground to a halt given the widespread sanctions following Ukraine’s invasion.

On top of the cosy relationship, an investigative site, Direkt36 revealed on Monday that Russia had hacked the communication system of Hungary’s foreign ministry and had access to material including encrypted top-secret political documents.

The opposition has been attempting to focus the election as a choice between Putin and the West.

The Fidesz government has meanwhile had its own framing, falsely alleging that the “dangerous” opposition wants to take Hungary to war — because of wanting greater support for Ukraine — while Orbán is portrayed as the guarantor of peace.

“Orbán has betrayed Hungary, the European Union, and the Nato, he betrayed all of us,” Márki-Zay said at a campaign event on Tuesday (29 March) in Budapest.

“Orbán’s goal is not to let the issue of the war cause losses in his camp,” Bíró-Nagy added, saying that Orbán’s failed policy of opening towards the east, towards Russia, meant an opportunity for the opposition.

Although Orbán might be successful in convincing his voter base that his support for Putin was the best option, he remains in a tight spot.

Orbán’s immediate future remains extremely challenging, even if he wins the election.

Issues like high inflation, high energy prices, unsustainable price caps, and a lack of EU funds due to corruption have yet to be tackled. “It will be difficult to not call austerity what is about to come,” Róbert László added.

Orbán is also increasingly isolated on the international stage.

On Tuesday, a Budapest meeting of the defence ministers from Hungary’s closest allies, the Visegrad Four countries of the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia was cancelled, after Warsaw and Prague pulled out over Budapest’s lukewarm support for action against Moscow.

László pointed out that with so many things in Orban’s favour, his Fidesz party is still only polling neck-and-neck with the opposition. Those factors include government-controlled media dominance, a permanent campaign mode, the overhaul of the entire institutional system in Hungary, and a weak opposition.

“It shows that support for him isn’t great, he manages to hold onto this with hundreds of tricks,” László said.

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