April 3, 2020, Budapest. Viktor Orbán's delivers the victory speech. The banner reads: "Peace and security".
April 5, 2022
Orban’s comfortable win depicts how Hungary went further East than anyone in the West hoped
“Our win is so big that it can even be seen from the moon, but it definitely will be seen in Brussels,” taunted Viktor Orbán on Sunday as his Fidesz Party secured a fourth consecutive term in a landslide victory, signalling more confrontation with the European Union (EU) and NATO to come.
With almost 99% of the votes counted, Orbán has not only won but even increased his share, currently standing at 53.6%, while the opposition managed to round up 34.7% in Sunday’s vote. In 2018, Orbán’s Fidesz had 49.3% while the strongest of multiple opposition parties only managed to get 22.2%.
Hungary’s gerrymandered electoral system, which heavily tilted the playing field in Orbán’s favour translates this victory into a supermajority, that is a majority of more than two-thirds of the 199-seat parliament which would now enable Orbán to enact further constitutional changes.
Modelling from The Economist depicted that for the opposition, to gain a similar number of seats would have had to have won more than 66.7% of the vote, which shows the huge challenge they faced on Sunday.
Before the election, most analyses had explored the implication of a scenario under which the United for Hungary opposition block won, as this would have resulted in major geopolitical implications. However, the truth is that most polls pointed to Orbán’s victory while the opposition faced an uphill battle.
Yet, despite this, no pollster has predicted such a disparity in results – most had assumed that the result would be very close as this was the first time all opposing parties had grouped in an attempt to dethrone Orbán. Heading into last Sunday, the opposition may have been behind Orbán, and few were realistically expecting a victory of the opposition but a severe shaving of Fidesz’s supermajority was definitely on the cards. The near 20% difference in the final result was unexpected.
There is a global angle to the election in Hungary
There are several potential reasons why the polls were wrong and how, despite facing a stronger opposition, Orbán has increased his majority.
Firstly, many voters may had been ashamed to admit they intended to vote for Fidesz, but did so in the privacy of the polling station. Similar phenomena were observed in the case of the last two US Presidential elections and the Brexit referendum, with pollsters incapable of correctly estimating the support Donald Trump and the Vote Leave campaign enjoyed, respectively.
It is highly likely that when talking to those conducting the polls, many people did not want to admit that they intend to vote for Orbán, yet were themselves persuaded by the benefits of some of populist economic policies such as capping supermarket prices.
The pandemic allowed Orbán to increase the concentration on power in his hands, both practically and theoretically. Not only was he given near-dictatorial powers at one point in 2020 (whereby he could rule by decree), but anyone who dared to criticise his or his government’s actions were declared “on the side of the virus”. This further improved his authority, allowing him to present himself as a strong leader for Hungary. In addition, it has to be acknowledged that Hungary had one of the fastest vaccine rollouts in the world, in contrast to the EU’s initial slow and messy programme – which further added to prime minister’s arsenal.
Finally, what was to some degree surprising, was how the war in Ukraine has only added more grievances towards internationalism in Hungary. The rest of the EU and NATO have rallied to support Ukraine, with the eastern flank of NATO especially – nations such as Poland or the Czech Republic – being especially invested in deterring Moscow. Hungary, at the same time, displayed a very moderate response.
This signalled a degree of sympathy towards Putin’s Russia amongst Hungarians, a factor Orbán smartly employed to his benefit, playing into the fact that many in Hungary could have perceived Russia as a fellow Christian country being attacked by the forces of internationalism. That is the reason for Hungary’s weak response towards Russia – despite being a NATO member, Budapest proceded to ban NATO military equipment from being transported through the country to support Ukraine.
The president of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky singled out Hungary’s response in a speech before the European Parliament. Not at all bothered by it, during the campaign, Orbán claimed that the pro-European and international opposition would drag Hungary into the war, which was not in its interest – something best characterised by the “Peace and security” (Béke és biztongsag) slogan, under which Fidesz campaigned. Given the amount of pro-Russian feelings on the part of the Hungarian public, it was not too surprising that they chose the safer option.
Anti- or pro-Western, Hungarians look at Ukraine through the lens of their troubled history
Yet, Orbán was also clearly more worried about this election. As he faced a realistic threat for the first time, he campaigned much more rigorously than before and vilified the opposition, which in his view were portrayed as international leftists funded by George Soros, who would destroy the country.
The media supporting Orbán were ruthlessly deployed against the opposition – and as over 90% of the media is either state-controlled or under the control of Orbán’s cronies, campaigning was incredibly difficult for the opposition. Throughout the campaign, the leader of United for Hungary, Péter Márki-Zay, was only given five minutes of airtime on national television. Given the lack of access to independent news, it is unsurprising that people were indeed “brainwashed” (as Márki-Zay put it).
Orbán has also used traditional political tricks that every incumbent politician employs but the Hungarian prime minister did so with his trademark populist flair. In the run-up to the election, pensions were increased, taxes were cut, and supermarket prices were capped. And all of that, unsurprisingly, proved to be beneficial for Fidesz-leaning societal groups and received a positive reaction from Hungarians.
The Fidesz government went even further: people who signed up for booster vaccines with their email address had then discovered that these were used to send out government propaganda before the election.
Had Fidesz lost, there would have been global ramifications – but the same could be said after Orbán’s victory.
Despite recent defeats and being on the back foot, global populism is still alive and has a proven stronghold in Hungary, where one of its principal flagbearers is entrenched. Orbán’s victory shows that if run effectively enough, autocratic governments are very difficult to be unseated. Over time, a complex web of safeguards that protect those in power is developed which ensures their survival even when faced with a significant challenge.This result offers a warning to other countries about the consequences of having a leader with autocratic tendencies: eventually, it becomes very hard if not impossible to replace them, no matter how united and well organised the opposition is.
Hungary will continue to be the thorn in the side of the EU and NATO. There will be further disputes over the rule of law, EU funding, and supplying Ukraine with military equipment. When Orbán declared in his victory speech that the president of Ukraine was among “the enemies” he defeated, one could just about picture how far East has Hungary already moved – and how far East its future also lies.