Viktor Orbán has now spent a total of 16 years as Hungary’s Prime Minister but he has not lost his hunger for power. Energetically campaigning across the country, exploiting every advantage of incumbency, and excoriating the incompetent opposition, on Sunday he notched up his fourth landslide victory in a row. Crucially, he maintains the two-thirds majority in parliament that he has held since 2010, allowing him him to amend the constitution whenever he chooses.
Predictably, the opposition challenged the legitimacy of the election process even before the votes had been counted. They note that the lion’s share of the media supports Orbán. But this is an excuse, not an explanation. It was not just the medium but the message that gave Orbán victory.
Orbán's skilful handling of the Ukraine crisis obviously mattered. While the opposition assumed that he would be embarrassed by his friendship with Vladimir Putin, most voters seemed to value his experience, pragmatism and narrow focus on Hungary’s self-interest. Unsurprisingly, they appreciated the cheaper energy bills that came from Russian oil and gas imports and many regarded the opposition’s calls for a no-fly zone over Ukraine as opportunistic and dangerous. Volodymyr Zelensky’s late and clumsy intervention in the election, in which he compared Russia’s invasion with the murder of Hungary’s Jews during the second world war, likewise failed to resonate.
The opposition also incorrectly assumed that each of the six parties that joined the coalition against Orbán would retain the support of their previous voters. In fact, many former supporters of the right-radical Jobbik party, which in 2018 obtained 23 per cent of the vote, appear to have switched their votes to Orbán (or a new right-wing party called ‘Our Homeland’ that scraped into parliament). rather than support the coalition. It should be unsurprising that they refused to support this awkward mix of liberals and socialists, including such noxious characters as Ferenc Gyurcsány, who disgraced himself during his stint as prime minister from 2004 to 2009, but refuses to withdraw from public life. Riots broke out in 2006 after the leak of a private speech in which Gyurcsány savaged both his government and his country with manic vulgarity (‘we must change this fucking country’), while his attempt to buy the voters’ loyalty back with extra spending made the 2008 recession even more brutal. Exploiting that poisonous legacy, Orbán’s Fidesz party put up posters with Gyurcsány’s face next to Péter Márki-Zay, the leader of the opposition.
Márki-Zay’s own Catholic conservatism could not overcome the hostility to the left in Hungary which goes back to the polarising revolutions of 1918-1919, when Bolsheviks in Budapest briefly turned Hungary into the world’s second communist state and were blamed for the loss of three-quarters of historic Hungarian territory. The left was then judged guilty of imposing a communist dictatorship on Hungary in 1948 and for the corruption – both financial and moral – that erupted after communism collapsed in 1989.
Admittedly, even some of Orbán’s supporters believe his government has made mistakes. It has itself been tainted by corruption and has showered money on lavish building projects in Budapest while large swathes of the countryside remain mired in poverty (Hungary is desperately in need of its own ‘levelling up’ programme). Nevertheless, for many voters, these flaws matter less than Orbán’s unapologetic nationalism, defence of traditional, rural and Christian values and his promise of stability in a world that has been, in the last few years, repeatedly plunged into chaos and crisis.
Orbán’s triumph will embolden the wing of his party that regards Brussels as a threat and rejects the compromises necessary to restore the full flow of EU subsidies. He will also increase his efforts to build alliances with like-minded politicians wherever he can find them, in Europe, Asia or Russia. Even Poland, now furious about Orbán’s stance on Putin, will still cooperate against interfering Eurocrats.
Indeed, Orbán hopes that his own success will inspire others. As he put it in his victory speech on Sunday night, ‘the whole world has seen in Budapest this evening that Christian Democratic, middle-class conservative and patriotic politics has triumphed. We have sent a message to Europe that this is not the past, this is the future.’ In Hungary at least, he is correct.