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Orbán is headed for victory at Hungary’s elections. So what comes next?

Whatever the result at Sunday’s polls, the winner faces a grim economic reality, marred by the Ukraine war and EU funding disputes

Daniel Nolan
1 April 2022, 12.00am
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán is seeking a fourth consecutive term in office
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Xinhua / Alamy Stock Photo

On 15 March, in the midst of Hungary’s election campaign, Budapest got a new museum. The Money Museum – the brainchild of Hungarian national bank governor György Matolcsy, known for his unorthodox economic policies – promises to take visitors on “a carefully constructed experience journey around the world of money”, at its new location in the basement of a central bank building.

For Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, who is seeking his fourth consecutive term in office at the national elections on Sunday, the unveiling of an emblematic building has often played a key part in his campaigns.

In 2002, when Orbán was still a vehement critic of Russia, it was the Terror House, which mainly documents Soviet crimes against Hungarians after the Second World War. In 2014, it was the newly renovated Várkert Bazár, which Orbán opened to media fanfare as his campaign reached its climax, only for it to close for more work the day after the election.

The Money Museum’s opening ceremony – accompanied by a new 100-forint coin engraved with pictures of the building – was more low-key, however, perhaps due to the Hungarian currency having slumped to historic lows against both the euro and dollar the previous week, and way beyond its regional peers. “Freedom, independence and self-sufficiency are connected by the golden thread of wealth,” Matolcsy told guests at the event.

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As political scientist András Bíró-Nagy of Budapest-based think tank Policy Solutions noted this week, issues related to democracy and the rule of law are not the main priorities for voters in Hungary. “The issues for Hungarians are the increasing cost of living, low salaries, the state of health care and low pensions – so you can really see that Hungarians are really really concerned about their economic situation,” he said, citing a number of surveys.

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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.

Divided country

Whatever the result on Sunday, the winner will wake up to a grim economic situation on Monday. Most voters think Hungary is in the midst of an economic crisis, and slightly more than half say the country is in dire straits, pollster Závecz found recently. The poll also reflected Hungary’s highly polarised society: while 93% of opposition supporters think the economy is in a bad state, 61% of Fidesz supporters say it is doing well and only 18% perceive a crisis.

Whatever the public perceptions, the government has halved its 2022 growth forecast in recent months, and Orbán’s finance minister admitted this week that Hungary’s post-election reality will include challenges from the Russian-Ukrainian war, EU funding disputes and demographics. “We need to prepare for an economically much more difficult period because of the war in Ukraine,” Mihály Varga said, adding that the Hungarian state budget will have to be revised after the elections. The war “will shake everything up”, Varga said in an interview on Thursday, and conceded that “it is difficult to estimate the impact of sanctions on Hungarian economic actors”.

As Lenin once said; there are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks when decades happen – and as Europe faces the reality of war in Ukraine, Orbán’s proximity to the current Russian leader, president Vladimir Putin, has threatened to derail his campaign.

Orbán claimed to be on a peacemaking mission when he and Putin held five hours of closed talks in Moscow in early February, after which the main announcement was that he had secured an extra billion cubic metres of Russian gas for Hungary.

Rising tensions

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine around three weeks later saw Orbán's Fidesz party struggle to recalibrate its campaign.

Orbán’s years of posturing as a geopolitical realist, and even the EU’s bridge to Russia, lost credibility as reports surfaced that Russian state nuclear company Rosatom was pulling out of its €10bn project to expand Hungary’s only nuclear plant at Paks, which produces around half of the country’s electricity. Given EU sanctions against Russia, the project has become “unrealisable in practice”, Hungarian energy expert and former MEP Benedek Jávor said.

Election week kicked off with another embarrassment for Orbán. Two of Hungary’s partners in the regional Visegrad Four (V4) group of Central European nations pulled out of their planned summit in Budapest, in protest at Orbán’s refusal to provide military aid to Ukraine or allow weapons to be transported there through Hungary.

Most scathing was Czech defence minister Jana Černochová, who tweeted: “it is not right for me to take part in the campaign. I have always supported the V4 and I am very sorry that cheap Russian oil is more important to Hungarian politicians than Ukrainian blood.”

Even Hungary’s closest EU ally, Poland, followed suit: Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the right-wing populist Law and Justice party, replied to a question about Orbán’s decision to take a neutral stance on Ukraine with: “if you ask me whether I’m happy, then no, but I will wait for the election – we will see after the election.” The Hungarian Defence Ministry said the V4 meeting will be held at a later date.

The following day, a report by Hungarian investigative website Direkt36 suggested that the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, including databases containing confidential NATO and EU documents, has for years been hacked by Russian state actors.

The six-party opposition alliance United for Hungary’s election agenda, released two weeks before the invasion of Ukraine, underlined peace, security and progress as priorities for Hungary. Presciently, it also called for the cancellations of the Paks nuclear power plant project, a reduction of Hungary’s exposure to Russian energy and the screening of Foreign Ministry employees.

The opposition’s joint programme also backs joining the European Public Prosecutor’s Office, establishing Hungary’s own anti-corruption agency, lustration, indexed pension hikes, a free university bachelor’s degree for all and salary hikes for the country’s underpaid and overworked teachers. The alliance would also hold a popular vote on replacing the constitution that Fidesz unilaterally put in place in 2011, to ensure that Hungary cannot leave NATO or the EU without a referendum.

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As the current opposition promised to bring peace and security, Orbán and government-friendly media repositioned his campaign to frame the election as a choice between war and peace. According to the Hungarian opposition alliance, however, the real choice is between Russia and Europe.

Given the warm, cross-party reception that United for Hungary’s prime ministerial candidate, Péter Márki-Zay, has received in Brussels, some of the country’s travails abroad – economic and otherwise – would likely dissipate after an Orbán defeat. According to 51% of respondents to the aforementioned Závecz poll, Márki-Zay could successfully negotiate the repatriation of EU subsidies, while only 36% back Orbán on this.

However, elections are won at home, not in Brussels. And after 12 years in power, Orbán has followed through on an earlier promise to create a ‘forcefield’ around the Hungarian Right.

On Wednesday, pro-Fidesz media were amplifying an unsubstantiated claim made by foreign minister Péter Szijjártó that Hungary’s opposition has made a secret deal with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyi to send arms to Ukraine. Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba rued on Facebook that Szijjártó “is ready to invent nonsense in the interest of short-term pre-election gain”. Orbán reiterated the claim in an interview published later: “If the Left wins, arms supplies to Ukraine would begin immediately and Hungary would join the war.” On Thursday, Orbán upped the ante in a Facebook post, writing: “the Left is offering blood instead of oil. The Left’s choice is the choice of war. We want peace!”

Meanwhile, a report by independent anti-corruption agencies revealed that Fidesz’s spending on billboards alone far exceeded the 1.17 billion forints (£2.7m) permitted for the entire campaign.

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For the first two decades after the 1990 change of regime in Hungary, a majority election win evaded Orbán. However, since 2010, when he secured a majority at his sixth attempt – and a constitution-changing one at that – Orbán has secured a grip on the country’s institutions, electoral system, and even public spaces, to the point of near unassailability. As Orbán put it: “you have to win once but win big.”

A disappointing night for the opposition on Sunday will not be due to a lack of effort from Márki-Zay, who has visited all of Hungary’s 106 electoral constituencies at least once, and 44 of them multiple times, as website 444 reported on Thursday.

A Fidesz win at the weekend – while Putin razes cities in the country next door, and old allies shun Orbán – would indicate that the plight of Hungarians would have to significantly worsen to convince a majority of voters that there is an alternative to Orbán and the regime he has constructed over the past 12 years.

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