Two autocrats tested

While Europe’s most powerful autocrat, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, seems to be sinking ever deeper into a morass of his own making in Ukraine, Sunday will see major tests for two of the continent’s lesser autocrats. Both have recently tried to distance themselves from Putin, and both face an unusually united opposition.

Despite that, Serbia‘s Alexander Vučić looks to be set for re-election as president – and, with the parliamentary election being held on the same day, his party is on track to retain a large majority. It will not be as large as at the previous election, which most opposition parties boycotted, but it will maintain in place the regime that Vučić has led in increasingly authoritarian fashion since 2012.

His main opposition is a coalition called United Serbia, which brings together several rival parties from across the political spectrum. But many others have stayed out, and even in combination they are polling at most about 40% of the vote. Zdravko Ponoš, United Serbia’s candidate, is also well behind Vučić in the presidential race.

Serbia didn’t always look this predictable; after the embarrassment of the 2020 election there was serious dialogue with the opposition, and large-scale environmental protests late last year rattled the government. But with Ukraine crowding out other issues, and Vučić so far managing to avoid committing himself too far to either side, it looks as if incumbency will again confer a winning advantage.

In neighboring Hungary, prime minister Viktor Orbán has much the same advantages, but his election looks like a more close-run thing. The country’s opposition parties united last year in a single coalition, presenting conservative independent Péter Márki-Zay as their candidate for prime minister and pooling their vote for both proportional and single-member seats.

Márki-Zay is set to run it very close, but Orbán appears to be still holding a slender lead. At the last election, he won a third consecutive term with 49.3% of the vote; against a then-fractured opposition, that gave his FIDESz party (together with the Christian Democrats, who run on the same ticket) 133 of the 199 seats. The latest polls show the government with about the same level of support, with the combined opposition in the mid-40s.

Orbán also has had to temporise on Ukraine, but being that much closer to the front line than Serbia is, it’s a more difficult task. He has condemned the invasion and taken in Ukrainian refugees, but has refused to provide military aid and generally tried to avoid completely burning his bridges with Putin, his long-term ally.

Given the uncertainty of wartime, it’s still possible that Hungarian voters’ sympathy with Ukraine will be enough to produce an upset. But it’s also possible that the crisis will again work to the incumbent’s favor, even when he is one of those who has helped bring the world to this dangerous place.


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