Hungary’s Orban set for tricky term after landslide election win

The Hungarian strongman will have to adjust his nationalist conservative government’s outlook, pundits on both sides of the fence say.

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban
Orban acknowledges cheering supporters during an election night rally in Budapest [File: Petr David Josek/AP]

The nationalist conservative Fidesz party romped to victory at Hungary’s parliamentary elections on April 3, securing a fourth consecutive term in office for its leader Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

However, the government looks set for a tricky term, with challenges for its cornerstone economic and foreign policies mounting.

Despite the opposition having formed an alliance aimed at deposing the Hungarian strongman after 12 years, according to the preliminary count Fidesz won about 53 percent of the vote – its largest margin of victory since 2010.

That hands Orban another super-majority, with 135 of the 199 seats in parliament.

“We won a victory so big that you can see it from the moon, and you can certainly see it from Brussels,” Orban said in a bullish victory speech.

The six-party United for Hungary alliance flopped badly, winning just 56 seats. Ahead of the vote, questions over the unity of the block and performance of its prime ministerial candidate Peter Marki-Zay had grown louder.

Our Homeland also crossed the 5 percent threshold to enter parliament, and the far-right party is likely to support many of Fidesz’ populist and illiberal policy moves.

Fiery rhetoric

Fidesz’s success at the ballot box over the years has been boosted by Orban’s fiery rhetoric regarding migrants and minorities. However, a referendum that was run alongside the vote asking for approval of controversial legislation aimed at LGBTQ rights failed to pass the participation threshold.

Budapest has also waged a bitter campaign against the “globalist elite” and the European Union, which the prime minister insists is trying to usurp Hungarian sovereignty and European Christian culture.

The opposition and many in Brussels accuse Fidesz of having established a network of corruption designed to steal the billions in funds that Hungary receives from the EU.

The party’s super-majority, which means it is able to change the constitution, has been used to overhaul the judicial and electoral systems and rearrange the media landscape.

This has many opposition voices inside and outside Hungary complaining that the vote was not free and fair. In an unprecedented step for an EU member state, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) implemented a full monitoring mission for the vote.

“We knew in advance that it would be an extremely unequal fight,” Marki-Zay said as he conceded defeat. “We do not dispute that Fidesz won this election. That this election was democratic and free is, of course, something we continue to dispute.”

However, as Orban’s victory speech illustrated, he has been buoyed by the better-than-expected result against the unified opposition.

That has sparked worry that further capture of Hungary’s state institutions and conflict with the EU is on the cards.

“The big election victory vindicates his fiery rhetoric and anti-Brussels stance,” Andrius Tursa, a political risk consultant at advisory firm Teneo Intelligence, told Al Jazeera.

‘Unacceptable blackmail’

The European Commission refused to comment on the election.

However, amid the war in Ukraine – which dominated the latter part of the election campaign – Orban will have much to think about regarding his populist economic policies and cynically ambiguous foreign policy as he embarks on his new term.

Generous welfare, pensions and tax breaks, and capped energy prices have been key to Fidesz popularity over the years.

The lowered economic activity and raised energy prices stemming from the Russian invasion are likely to force some belt tightening, with the budget already under strain.

Orban could, therefore, seek to offer some compromise to the EU, which is withholding 7.2 billion euros ($7.9bn) in funding. However, it may be too late.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest ally in the EU, Orban has fallen out with Poland’s nationalist government, which is vehemently opposed to the Kremlin.

While the pair has for years ignored this elephant in the room, Orban’s refusal to break with Moscow despite its invasion of its neighbour, Ukraine, looks to have carved a deep fissure in relations with Warsaw.

Orban’s spokesman Zoltan Kovacs told Al Jazeera that Hungary will not give in to Poland’s “unacceptable blackmail”.

Budapest and Warsaw have over recent years blocked EU efforts to hold them to democratic standards. However, without Poland’s backup, Hungary is exposed.

Member of the European Parliament Daniel Freund claims that the European Commission may put its long-awaited rule of law mechanism, which could dock funding for Hungary, into gear as early as this week. Poland, he adds, is not set to suffer the same fate.

Orban’s resistance to calls for Hungary to offer enthusiastic support to Ukraine has deepened his isolation from all of Hungary’s EU and NATO partners and attracted fresh suspicion over his ambiguous foreign policy.

Putin was swift to congratulate Orban, expressing hopes of building a “partnership”.

However, pundits on both sides of the fence agree that the Hungarian leader will have to adjust his government’s outlook to take account of the new realities that the war has brought.

EU and NATO partners have for years harboured deep suspicion over Hungary’s links with Russia and China.

“Hungary is a trusted NATO partner, officially at least,” said Attila Mesterhazy, a former prime ministerial candidate for the Socialist Party and now a vice president of the NATO parliamentary assembly.

“But Fidesz is now realising that refusing to adjust its foreign policy would be political suicide, and that it will not be able to remain so close to Russia.”

Doubling down

But despite the challenges Fidesz faces in its new term, it will not necessarily pull Hungary back towards the mainstream or the West, warn observers.

Instead, faced with having to cut its financial incentives to supporters, at home Fidesz may well double down on symbolic issues, including an even harsher approach to culture war issues or minorities.

“To feed the soul instead of the stomach,” said Mesterhazy.

Orban clearly enjoys that he has become an icon for the global far-right, and his victory will help buoy a political trend that has struggled through the coronavirus pandemic, the fall of former US President Donald Trump, and now Russia’s onslaught against Ukraine.

Meanwhile, with the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia having all but scuppered the Visegrad Four grouping, which Orban has spent so many years trying to build into an illiberal bloc, some expect the Hungarian leader to accelerate his efforts to build bridges in other parts of Central and Eastern Europe.

Eyeing potential populist allies among the EU candidates, Orban has spent recent years extending his influence in the Western Balkans – a region also rife with Russian efforts to win sway – via investment in key assets and allies.

Faced with a lack of friends inside the EU, that strategy is likely to accelerate, says one political lobbyist who has worked closely with the government.

“Orban will be looking for new friends internationally,” he said. “He’ll feel he has more leeway, and will accelerate his push to the south.”

Source: Al Jazeera