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#Analize / Mălina Mîndruțescu

Viktor Orbán’s victory is a warning for Europe

Over the weekend, elections in Hungary and Serbia signalled a new path for Europe. In the midst a Russian invasion in Ukraine, the European leaders who have been the staunchest reporters of Russian president, Vladimir Putin, won re-election.

In Serbia, President Aleksandar Vučić won a landslide victory during Sunday’s presidential election. With the backing of over 60% of the vote, Vučić scored an outright victory. The populist leader, who has gradually clamped down on media and other organisations, has followed in the footsteps of other illiberal leaders within Europe, like Putin and the prime-minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán.

Since the beginning of the Russian war in Ukraine, protests supporting the war in Ukraine and the Russian invasion, had been recorded in Serbia. The country is in the process of formally seeking membership to the EU.

On Sunday, though, another pivotal election took place in Europe. Viktor Orbán, the populist, illiberal leader of the EU, has won a fourth re-election, maintaining his position as prime-minister, as parliamentary elections took place in Hungary.

In a campaign marred by the Ukraine crisis, prime-minister Orbán managed to centre the national conversation of the election around national security. With a friendly media apparatus and critical information infrastructure at his disposal (such as databases with people’s information, gathered for the purpose of tracing the Covid-19 virus), Orbán and his political party, Fidesz, not only won, but also increased its majority by winning 135 seats in the 199-member parliament.

The prime-minster managed to win the election on the basis of national security. Namely, promising that Hungary will be safe, protected and, under no circumstances will it get involved in the war in Ukraine. Over the past few months, Orbán has manged to associate his name with Europe, security and safety.

orban putin

Photo source: Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

 

Additionally, despite Hungary’s difficult economic situation – exacerbated by the EU withholding €7bn worth of COVID recovery funds over rule of law concerns – Orbán’s main tool in his ninth general election run-in has been financial largesse.

In February, Hungarian pensioners received an extra ‘13th-month’ pension payment. Under 25s have been exempted from personal income tax. Members of Orbán’s own menial “public worker” scheme also received a pay rise – to €270 per month. Families with children got tax refunds, while Hungarian soldiers and police officers got salary hikes of 10%.

The approach appears to have worked. A poll by Medián, published on Wednesday, found that, among decided voters, the governing party has 50% support to the opposition’s 40%. This would result in 128 parliamentary seats for Orbán’s Fidesz – only five short of another supermajority – and 71 for the opposition alliance, United for Hungary. Neither far-Right Mi Hazánk nor the spoof Two-Tailed Dog Party MKKP would win any seats, according to Medián, according to a report by Open Democracy.

The electoral result crushed a six-party opposition bloc that united to form a common front aimed at unseating the prime-minister, led by Péter Márki-Zay, a conservative mayor and economist by training. The united front of the opposition has been Hungary’s biggest hope of unseating Orbán, the EU’s longest serving leader.

The effort, however concerted it may have been, failed to lead to a change in power.

The popular vote margin was 53.7% for Fidesz to 34.4% for the United for Hungary opposition grouping. On Sunday night, Péter Márki-Zay conceded defeat, who could not help but criticise a huge imbalance when it comes to election spending and communication.

Péter Márki-Zay

Photo source: Reuters

 

“I don’t want to hide my disappointment and my sadness. We never expected this to be the result,” he said. “We knew beforehand that this was going to be an imbalanced fight. Yes, they’ve cheated too. But we’ve also said that since there is no democracy in Hungary and they’ve changed the whole system, the districts.”

During campaigning, the opposition’s catch-phrase was “Orbán or Europe”.

The opposition’s candidate, Peter Marki-Zay, argued that Hungary should join Poland, the UK and others in supplying arms to Ukraine. And if called upon, and only within a NATO framework, should even consider sending troops. The opposition complained that Fidesz had isolated Hungary from the European mainstream, and from consensual democracy, fairness and decency, reports a BBC analysis.

Orbán’s party has strengthened its hold on office through a favourable media ownership structure and changes to the voting system that critics say renders elections unfair, reports the Guardian.

During his victory speech, a beaming Orbán even went so far as to criticise Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky and the EU leadership, describing them as “opponents”.  “We never had so many opponents,” he said cited by AFP. “Brussels bureaucrats… the international mainstream media, and the Ukrainian president”, he said.

President Zelensky has repeatedly criticised Orbán’s ban on the transfer of arms to Ukraine, with which it shares a border. During a heated speech in front of the EU Council, Zelesnky urged Hungary to pick a side and stop playing both sides – cosying up to Russia, while also benefiting from EU and NATO membership.

One question that EU leaders in Brussels will have to face, now that Orbán has won another mandate, will be whether to sanction his government’s illiberal tendencies, meant at side-tracking democracy within the EU.

In his 12 years in power, Orbán has rewritten the constitution, filled the top courts with his appointees, and changed the electoral system to his advantage.

A self-styled illiberal democrat, Hungary’s leader has repeatedly clashed with Brussels over rule of law issues such as press freedom and migration.

viktor orban

Photo source: Flickr

 

And, Moscow has been a constant point of contention between the Budapest government and Brussels. Even though prime-minister Orbán, who has close ties with Moscow, has condemned the Russian invasion, and taken in half a million refugees since the war began in February, he has been severely criticised for not doing enough to assist Ukraine.

Orbán is famed for his warm relations with Vladimir Putin. He signed up to Western sanctions, but he has refused to supply Ukraine with weapons, and has been the only EU leader to openly criticise president Zelensky.

With Hungary becoming increasingly isolated in the EU and NATO, prime-minister Orbán is well aware that, while the West may not want to ostracise him, it definitely wants to teach him a lesson. With Orbán managing to get another mandate, his fourth, this would open up a thorny, unpredictable and complicated path forward for Europe in reconciling and dealing with its less obedient member states.

 

Photo source: Flickr

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