February 17, 2022. Viktor Orbán at a press conference in Budapest.
There is a global angle to the election in Hungary
Hungary is a nation less than 10 million strong, yet today’s election could unlock the global battle against nationalist populism.
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party came to power more than a decade ago, in 2010. Since then, both elections – in 2014 and 2018 – have almost been pointless, as the opposition has been divided and incapable of mounting a serious challenge. Orbán’s government enjoyed strong support, especially among older generations and in rural areas however, the major reason was how Orbán and his Fidesz party used power to heavily tilt the political playing field in their favour.
Almost all media outlets are now either displaying vulgar propaganda or conveying a subtler, yet still pro-governmental line. Over the last term, the remaining few independent outlets – such as the popular news website Index in 2021 – have been taken down or had their editorial infiltrated by those close to Mr Orbán.
Furthermore, there has been excessive gerrymandering and electoral skullduggery. Ethnic Hungarians who live in Serbia for instance, who are largely Orbán’s supporters, were given passports and the right to vote, whilst these same rights were denied to ex-pats who live in other places – like Hungarian diasporas in the UK and the US, whose members are more liberal-leaning.
The elections themselves have most likely not been rigged but with such processes in place, there has been no need for that.
Péter Márki-Zay, the leader of the united opposition block.
This year, however, there are slight hints of panic on the government’s side, which has been unusually acting in the lead up to the vote, raising the minimum wage and pensions, cutting taxes; and capping supermarket prices.
The main reason is the fact that nine different opposition parties, which range from the far-left to the former far-right, have formed a single party called United for Hungary, with Péter Márki-Zay, a conservative mayor of Hódmezővásárhely (a town in Hungary’s south-east) as its leader. Given the vast disparity in ideology, the aim is to make the election a referendum on Orbán’s rule – quite similar to how the Democrats finally grouped behind Joe Biden, running a fairly policy-light campaign that transformed the election into a judgement of Donald Trump’s only term in the White House.
Were the united opposition to succeed, it could have a vast impact on Europe and the global political stage.
An immediate change would be for the European Union. Orbán has long led a crusade against what he branded ‘EU’s jihad’, and has recently come under increased scrutiny from Brussels, with EU funding being withheld for cracking down on the rule of law through the EU’s conditionality mechanism.
However, given that the EU requires a unanimous vote to take more severe sanctions against members defying the European rulebook (the member state in question does not have the right to vote in such a case) Hungary has allied with Poland since 2015 to prevent any significant actions from being taken against them both by Brussels.
With the recent change of government in the Czech Republic, if Hungary were to follow suit, the outsized power of the Visegrad Group would significantly diminish, strengthening the rule of law across the bloc by allowing Brussels to impose stronger measures against Law and Justice, the party in power in Warsaw.
The war effort in Ukraine would also be helped. Hungary has been the most reluctant member of the EU or NATO in confronting Russia. Orbán has long admired Vladimir Putin, seeing him as a fellow strongman confronting liberalism. As well as this, there is also the practical element of the economic benefits Hungary gains from Russia.
This has led to Hungary being incredibly reluctant in helping Ukraine, even leading to President Volodymyr Zelensky singling out Orbán in a speech to the EU Parliament. As this is undoubtedly the biggest global issue right now, a change in leadership on the doorstep of the conflict could help Ukraine directly and reduce Hungary’s dependence on Russia, further alienating Moscow economically and politically.
The possible implications of Orbán’s toppling would not be limited to Europe. Orbán has long been seen as one of the leading figures in global populism. The self-styled ‘illiberal’ has gained plaudits from populists both in Europe and across the world.
Poland has been intending to imitate Orbán’s playbook in turning a European democracy into a nationalist autocracy, and he has made numerous appearances on Fox News, where he has been widely praised. He even shares a friendship with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
If Orbán, one of the centrepieces of global populism, were to be toppled just a year after Trump’s failure, this would be detrimental to populism and a victory for liberal democrats.
There is still much that could go wrong. Firstly, the United for Hungary coalition has to win the election for these processes to even be possible. Even though the polls are much closer than during any recent Hungarian election, the opposition still faces an uphill battle.
Due to the complex electoral system, models such as those from The Economist suggest that anti-Orbánites would need to win around 54% of the popular vote to win a majority of 199 seats in the parliament. This is about 10 points more than their current standing in the polls, effectively making Fidesz the strong forerunner still.
If the opposition gains an unlikely victory, there is still the question of translating it into actual governing. The coalition of parties ranges from the left to the right. Whilst there are a handful of similarities, mostly focused around their pro-Europan views, there is little else they actually agree on other than distaste for Orbán. This would make governing an extremely difficult task, and even more so if Orbán’s web of control over the institutions of the state and the media would prove resilient to being unravelled.
There is the possibility that losing could play into Orbán’s hand in the longer term – if the coalition is unsuccessful and chaotic, Orbán could make a comeback as he did before, cementing populist rule in Hungary for another generation and offering him a powerful political tool for scaremongering and scapegoating.
Anti- or pro-Western, Hungarians look at Ukraine through the lens of their troubled history
Regardless of this, Sunday’s election proves both Orbán’s position and that of global populism are far from safe, as populism is quite visibly on the defensive. Whether one of its flagbearers remains in power is arguably one of its most significant tests. With Trump gone, Brexit behind us, and the right French faltering, Hungary is one of the last lines of defence for the global populist movement, which has marked the political life of the West for more than a decade.
If Hungary were to choose a more democratic path, it could have global ramifications and lead to a decline in populism. Amidst the crisis in Ukraine, populists and liberal democrats will be keeping a close eye on Hungary this Sunday.