Russia’s Vladimir Putin has had a much worse time of it than he could ever have imagined in his invasion of Ukraine, but this week at least he could boast of a victory. Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, Putin’s closest ally in the European Union, was triumphantly re-elected on Sunday for a fourth consecutive term (see my preview here), in what the media have fairly described as a “landslide”.
Since the polls had predicted a close race, this was a bad failure for them. Of course, opinion polling in authoritarian states can be a difficult business, but the error usually goes the other way: this time, for some reason, a lot of Hungarians wrongly told the pollsters that they were going to vote for the opposition, although the polls were correct in identifying the late trend in the government’s favor.
The error wasn’t so much in understating the support for Orbán’s FIDESz party – its 54.2% of the vote was only a few points more than the polls had tipped. (See official results here.) The big problem was the dramatic underperformance of the newly united opposition, which managed only 34.2%: more than ten points less than expected, and almost 15 points below its combined vote in 2018.
The other big surprise was the strong vote for Our Homeland, a far-right and Covid-denialist party that broke away from Jobbik after the latter embraced more moderate policies and joined the united opposition. It won 6.0% of the vote, the only other party to pass the 5% threshold for proportional seats (the Two Tailed Dog Party, a satirical party, was next with 3.2%). The party of the German ethnic minority, being exempt from the threshold, again won a single proportional seat for its 0.5%.
Orbán’s tailor-made electoral system amplified the difference. The proportional seats broke 48-37 government to opposition, plus seven for Our Homeland. But FIDESz collected 88 of the 106 single-member seats to the opposition’s 18, giving the government 136 of the total 199 – an increase of three on its 2018 result.
This is unquestionably a setback for the EU, which was enthusiastically supporting the opposition. But ultimately Hungary is just one relatively small country; the question is whether it’s an indicator of something bigger, and in particular of public attitudes to the war in Ukraine.
Orbán did not, of course, campaign as a supporter of Putin’s invasion. Indeed, Hungary has condemned the invasion and voted against Russia at the United Nations. But he has been a voice against stronger sanctions and military aid to Ukraine, and he campaigned (quite unfairly) on the basis that the opposition’s policies would involve Hungary in war for Ukraine’s sake.
The key to Orbán’s strategy is his exploitation of xenophobia: notoriously in his previous term in relation to the Mid-east refugee crisis, and now in relation to Ukraine. While in Poland, for example, the two have been treated completely differently, with enormous numbers of Ukrainian refugees welcomed with great generosity, Hungary now seems to have extended its lack of sympathy even to fellow-Europeans.
The point is not that Hungarians are bad people, but that their history gives them a different perspective that a demagogue can exploit. Poland’s government, although also on the far right, has always been anti-Russian; solidarity with fellow-Slavs in Ukraine was a natural progression. But Hungarians are not Slavs and evidently do not see Russia as a threat in the same way. Orbán has stepped back a little from Putin’s embrace, but he still finds much in Putinism to admire and emulate.
It’s also worth remembering that Orbán did not win power as a far-right leader: he took an established centre-right party in a new direction, bringing its existing conservative base with him in a way not unlike what Donald Trump did with the Republican Party. No-one in Europe has succeeded in getting the voters to embrace far-right policies from opposition, although Marine Le Pen is having another try at it in France this weekend.
More generally, peace is always a powerful message. Orbán is not the first to do well with a promise (sincere or not) to stay out of someone else’s war. The problem is that in a context of wanton aggression by one state against another, a call for peace easily becomes a demand that the victim stop being so violent as to defend itself.