HThose forces may be bogged down in Ukraine, but Vladimir Putin got a boost on Sunday. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the Russian president’s closest friend in the EU and NATO, is on course to win a fourth consecutive term, with more than 80% of the vote counted.
Vote counting began after polls closed at 7 p.m. local time, with Orban, 58, expected to win a strong majority of the 199 parliamentary seats. “We have won a victory so big you can see it from the moon, but you can definitely see it from Brussels,” Orban told supporters on Sunday evening, nodding to tensions with European leaders.
“We will remember this victory until the end of our lives because we had to fight against a large number of opponents,” he said, citing haters such as the international media, the Ukrainian president and the Hungarian left.
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It was an election that was supposed to be dominated by Hungary’s dismal health system following a dire pandemic response – the nation has suffered 5,217 COVID-19 deaths per million population, the second highest rate in Europe. But in the end, it turned into war in neighboring Ukraine.
Challenger Peter Marki-Zay, 49, campaigned to bring the landlocked nation of nearly 20 million closer to the EU and highlighted Orban’s close historical ties to Putin. Orban, in turn, has campaigned to keep Hungary completely out of the war with Ukraine – avoiding, he argued – much of the economic fallout that European nations are willing to suffer for. standing firm against tyranny. In the end, Orban prevailed, although the future looks difficult for the winner.
“Orban is isolated and is going through a very difficult period in Europe [following] election,” says Andras Bozoki, professor of political science at the Central European University in Vienna. “Because everyone knows him, his pragmatism and his opportunism, it’s not like anyone believes he’s going to be a better guy.”
Meanwhile, in Serbia, one of the few other pro-Russian leaders in Europe, President Aleksandar Vucic, also looked set to claim electoral victory with a strong majority. Serbia is not in the EU, but is in the process of joining it.
Hungary is a deeply polarized society with less educated rural voters who generally support Orban and more educated city dwellers who favor the opposition. It was always going to be a test of who could mobilize their base and attract the undecided 10-15% that rushed into the final weekend. The participation rate was estimated at 70%.
Despite a staunchly pro-EU population, the Hungarian government under Orban has leaned heavily towards the Kremlin. While Orban’s international messages emphasized Hungary’s neutrality, domestic state media repeat Putin’s justification for the invasion. Orban has refused to denounce Putin by name, but instead opposes the “war” in Ukraine. It also refused to allow the transport of NATO weapons through its territory to Ukraine. Although Orban did not oppose EU sanctions against kleptocrats or Russian institutions, he pledged to block any targeting of Russian oil or gas.
Orban also represents a significant risk to the security of the allies. According to an investigation by Direkt36, a non-profit investigative journalism center based in Budapest, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) had completely compromised the Hungarian Foreign Ministry’s computer network and internal correspondence at the mid-2021, and the breach has remained active during recent NATO Crisis Summits.
Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó did not publicly complain about the cyberattack, and on December 3 he was awarded the Order of Friendship medal – Russia’s highest state honor for a foreigner – at Moscow on the orders of Putin himself.
“I am proud that, despite extremely adverse global and regional developments…we were also able to maintain our cooperation with Moscow based on mutual trust and in accordance with our national interests,” Szijjártó wrote on his Facebook page.
Vote counters count ballots during the April 3, 2022 general parliamentary election in Budapest, Hungary.
Getty Images—Getty Images 2022
Still, Orban’s victory does not mean he has the full backing of Hungarians when it comes to backing Putin. “Orban knows that the overwhelming majority of young Hungarians are pro-EU and against Russian aggression,” says Carolina Plescia, assistant professor in the government department at the University of Vienna. “So in a sense, Orban can’t push this much more than he already does.”
Around 20,000 independent election observers were dispatched to ensure that ballots were cast and counted in a free and fair manner. But even before the first vote, it was clear that this would be a tall order for Marki-Zay, a political neophyte whose only public role so far was that of mayor of Hódmezővásárhely, a city of 44,000 whose name is translated as “Field of beavers”. Market place. He ran as an independent supported by six opposition parties.
The deck was stacked against Marki-Zay, who previously worked in Canada and the United States, initially as a door-to-door salesman, and campaigned on Christian family values. While election rules generally grant all candidates equal public TV time, the father-of-seven got just five minutes on public broadcaster M1 throughout the campaign, while Orban constantly aired his manifesto disguised as reports.
Government information posters were also indistinguishable from the campaign material of Orban’s Fidesz party. There are few mainstream newspapers, radio stations or television stations that have not been taken over by Orban’s allies. “The media environment and campaign finances were extremely unbalanced,” said Jennifer McCoy, an Eastern Europe specialist at Georgia State University.
Read more: Hungary is sliding towards authoritarianism. Can the mayor of Budapest save him?
Corruption and nepotism run rampant in Hungary, where Orban is protected by a cabal of oligarchs who have obscenely enriched themselves through government connections. The richest person in Hungary is Lorinc Meszaros, a childhood friend of Orban. He had worked as a gas fitter in their hometown of Felcsut, but is now worth around $1.4 billion. In 2017, its flagship company, Konzum Nyrt, was the best-performing stock in the world, thanks to a steady stream of government contracts. “God, luck and Viktor Orban have certainly played a part in what I’ve achieved so far,” Meszaros said in 2014.
While Marki-Zay campaigned to stamp out corruption, Orban offered even more populist policies. In February he restored a 13th month of income for pensioners – a key bloc of 2.5 million people, or a third of voters. In addition, Hungarians under the age of 25 were exempted from personal income tax. Soldiers and police got 10% wage increases, while parents with children got tax refunds. Members of a subordinate “public worker” scheme for the unemployed received a pay rise of €270 ($300) per month.
Plescia of the University of Vienna says she was surprised how little the economy played in the election, given the severity of the problems ahead. The country’s budget deficit swelled to 8.1% of GDP in 2020 amid the pandemic, with inflation hitting a nearly 15-year high of 8.3% in February. “Orban managed to manipulate the media into not talking so much about economic issues, so the war in Ukraine became the number one issue in the campaign.”
Under Orban, Hungary was ostracized and effectively expelled from the European People’s Party (EPP) grouping in the European Parliament. His attempts to form an alternative right-wing bloc of populist parties with Poland’s PiS party and Matteo Salvini’s Italian Lega Nord also failed. He was even sidelined by the Visegrád Group, a cultural and political alliance of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to advance military, cultural, economic and energy cooperation. “He’s isolated in Europe,” McCoy says.
A Marki-Zay victory would have been bad news for Putin, given that the opposition candidate has said he will agree to whatever measures the EU decides to implement, presumably including transporting arms . He also wanted to shut down the Russian-backed International Investment Bank, a multilateral development bank for Eastern Bloc states, which was founded by the Soviets in 1970 but moved its headquarters from Moscow to Budapest in 2019. She was charged with espionage. Following the invasion of Ukraine, the Czech Republic announced that it would accelerate its planned withdrawal, and Romania began the exit process. Marki-Zay also said he would review the planned expansion of the Paks nuclear power plant, which is funded by Russian nuclear company Rosatom.
Although good news for Putin, Orban’s victory poses significant problems for Hungarians. In February, the European Court of Justice dismissed a legal challenge by Hungary and Poland over a “rule of law conditionality” that ties EU funds to member states’ respect for democracy. Due to Orban’s self-proclaimed “illiberal” tendencies, Hungary is now set to lose subsidies equivalent to around 3-6% of its GDP at a time when its economy is facing serious headwinds.
As Bozoki of the Central European University puts it, Orban was “lucky that he [could] position yourself as a defender of peace and security in times of war in a neighboring country. After the COVID-19 pandemic, Orban will have to face a real enemy (after so many imaginary enemies): the shadow of the economic crisis.
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