Talking point

Why Viktor Orbán’s re-election is bad for Brussels and good for Putin

Orbán took 54% of vote, allowing him to start fourth consecutive term as Hungary’s PM

In his 12 years in power, Hungary’s PM, Viktor Orbán, has been ruthless in pursuing the ideology he calls “illiberal democracy”, said Rob Picheta and Balint Bardi on CNN (New York). He has changed Hungary’s constitution to favour his right-wing nationalist Fidesz party, tightened his grip on the judiciary, and seized control of much of the media. He has cast himself as defender of the nation against left-wingers, the EU and George Soros, the Hungarian-born Jewish philanthropist he accuses of plotting to flood Hungary with Muslim immigrants.

Yet even after all this tilting of the playing field, pollsters had still predicted a tight race when voters went to the polls last week. In the event, said Népszava (Budapest), it was anything but. Orbán’s Fidesz won a crushing victory, taking 54% of the vote and winning 135 seats, enough to retain the super-majority it needs to alter the constitution, and allow Orbán to start on his fourth consecutive term. The opposition United for Hungary alliance, by contrast, took just 34% and 57 seats.

Orbán has read his country’s mood brilliantly, said Dorottya Szikra and Mitchell A. Orenstein in Der Standard (Vienna). His tax breaks for families appealed to conservatives, as did his intolerance of gay rights (although a referendum targeting LGBT rights didn’t pass on polling day).

At the same time, he attracted voters across the social classes with his economic interventions. To offset the rising inflation caused by the “boom” he has engineered over the past seven years, he capped the prices of some food staples this year. And before the ballot, he declared a gas-price freeze, a 20% hike in the minimum wage and other giveaways. It’s true that opposition leader Péter Márki-Zay only got five minutes airtime on state TV during the campaign; but he also made the mistake of scoffing at Orbán’s policies while failing to offer a “strong alternative”.

It’s worth remembering, said Tomáš Brolík in Respekt (Prague), that although now an unabashed nationalist, Orbán started his political life as a liberal freedom-fighter. A bright young man from a rural family, he studied law in Soviet-era Budapest, where he became politicised. With his long hair and denim jackets, he had a distaste for communist conformity, and with fellow students he formed the ostensibly liberal Alliance of Young Democrats – a precursor to Fidesz. By 1988, he was calling for Soviet troops to leave Hungary as the regime collapsed.

But since then, instead of taking on dictators and autocrats, said The Economist, Orbán has cosied up to them. He has long had “friendly relations with Vladimir Putin”, for instance, and since the invasion of Ukraine he has argued strongly against EU sanctions on Russian energy exports. In his victory speech last week, he even went so far as to list Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy as one of Hungary’s “opponents”.

This refusal to fall into line with other Nato allies on Russia is just one of many reasons why Orbán’s win is bad news for the EU, said Lili Bayer on Politico.eu (Brussels). He has made no secret of his desire to “create an alliance of nationalist and far-right forces in Europe”, befriending the likes of France’s Marine Le Pen and Italy’s Matteo Salvini. He’s also crooked, and has diverted billions of EU regional funds to his supporters.

Orbán’s clashes with Brussels have already led the EU to block Hungary from accessing its Covid-recovery fund, said Martin Ehl in Hospodárské Noviny (Prague). And two days after his election win, Brussels upped the ante: in an unprecedented step, it triggered a measure that could lead to the rest of Hungary’s EU funding being cut off if Budapest continues to violate the rule of law.

In other ways, too, Orbán looks “isolated”: his stance on Russia has driven a wedge between Hungary and its ally Poland, which has been an unambiguous critic of Putin’s invasion. Yet for all that, one harsh truth remains: Orbán’s “overwhelming” victory means that, for the foreseeable future at least, the EU will have a state in its ranks that is “closer to autocracy than democracy”.

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