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What Viktor Orban’s Landslide Win Means for the European Union?

Dr Swasti Rao is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • April 21, 2022

    Viktor Orban, the longest-serving head of government in the European Union (EU), won the national elections in Hungary for the fourth consecutive term on 4 April 2022. However, Orban’s victory speech created resentment throughout Europe where he hit out not only at “opponents”, but also took a dig at “Brussels bureaucrats” and Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky.1 His controversial speech seemed even more vexing because it came shortly after the West had reacted strongly to the Bucha atrocities in Ukraine.2  

    To add to the EU’s consternation, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered his congratulations to Orban, a long-term Kremlin ally, and pledged to further develop bilateral ties, despite Hungary’s support for EU sanctions against Russia.3 As a member of both North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the EU, Hungary has treaded the fine balance between condemning Russia’s invasion and backing EU sanctions. It is opposed to a ban on Russian energy imports and has agreed to pay for the same in rubles.4

    Orban’s fourth landslide win will have implications for how the EU retains its unity as a bloc while simultaneously co-opting fissures with countries like Hungary.5 Luxembourg’s representatives have previously stated that Hungary should not be in the EU anymore,6 which Hungary dismissed as ‘Hungarophobia’.7

    Orban’s Hold on Hungary’s Electorate

    Orban’s long political career is rife with allegations of corruption and suppression of democratic values. Despite such record, he has been able to win successive elections. It is interesting to note that for the first time, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) had deployed a full-scale mission involving over 200 observers to Hungary for the election.8 These international observers raised concerns regarding electoral conditions being tilted in favour of Orban’s government.9 In the 2022 elections, Orban’s party Fidesz (in alliance with KNDP), got 53 per cent of votes compared to the opposition coalition, which got only 35 per cent.10 Although some of the factors discussed below have put him in an advantageous position, they have also alienated Hungary from EU policies.

    Orban’s electoral base: Apart from Christian, conservative and patriotic values that Fidesz espouses, labour law deregulation and extensive social welfare schemes have helped Orban secure his electoral base among the middle and lower middle class.11  The government’s low corporate tax rates have attracted investment, which has helped reduce unemployment from 11 per cent when he took office in 2018 to 3.4 per cent before the pandemic.12

    Favourable Electoral System: Fidesz drafted a new electoral system after a two-third majority in the 2010 elections allowed it to make constitutional amendments.13   The Hungarian national assembly has 199 members out of which 106 are elected by ‘first past the post’ system in single member constituencies and the remaining 93 are decided by proportional representation system. This system gives advantage to larger parties like Fidesz at the expense of smaller parties, which has enabled Fidesz to win 68 per cent of the seats (135 seats) with just 53 per cent of the vote this time. Another factor that helps Orban is the support of the large expatriate Hungarian community to whom Orban has granted citizenship.14

    Media freedom in Hungary: State-owned media in Hungary is pro-government and private media is also in the hands of pro-government oligarchs.15 In 2018, Orban created the Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA), an organisation that brings together the main media in the country. In effect, Orban has created a media empire with hundreds of outlets that coordinates content in favour of the government.16

    Favourable Judicial system: Orban has also reshuffled the judicial system to his advantage by creating a parallel court system to deal with controversial issues like human rights, free and fair elections, refugee asylum and political protests, where judges are appointed by the government.17

    Weak opposition: Major opposition parties like MSZP, DK and Parbeszed formed a coalition pact in 2014 to challenge Fidesz, but won only 25 per cent vote then. The coalition expanded the alliance by adding the green party and post-communist left-wing parties but could not build consensus to navigate the country’s economic or foreign and security policies.18 The leader of the united opposition in 2022 was Peter Marki-Zay (a small-town mayor without party affiliation) who campaigned on a broad anti-corruption and human rights agenda based on furthering cooperation with the EU. His sole criticism against Orban was that the latter had driven Hungary to isolation within the EU. Orban, to an extent, reaped electoral advantages by showcasing his government as the saviour of Hungarian people by ensuring uninterrupted supply of Russian gas and oil by staying neutral. Hungary is hugely dependent on Russia for its energy.19 Hungary, for instance, decided not to send troops or weapons or allow for weapon transit to Ukraine, claiming that such a decision might put the country and its people at huge risk.20

    Fissures with the European Union

    Orban-led Hungary has been locked in a struggle with Brussels over its actions that according to the EU, undermine basic democratic rights. Orban’s crackdown on the media, NGOs, his government’s policies on migrants and the LGBTIQ community, as well as charges of cronyism and corruption, have generated concerns from the EU.21 The OSCE had described the 2014, 2018 and the 2022 Hungarian elections as not fair, even if free.22

    Two days after Orban’s win, the European Commission launched the EU’s new rule-of-law disciplinary procedure for the first time against Hungary.23 The hitherto untested conditionality mechanism, which was agreed by all 27 EU member states in 2020, is a new tool for protecting the EU's financial interests against breaches of rule of law inside a member state.24 The context was the economic pain inflicted on the EU economy by the COVID-19 pandemic for which a € 750 billion fund was set up to accelerate recovery. This fund, financed through common debt, was negotiated in parallel to the € 1.1 trillion seven-year EU budget.25 Countries like Poland and Hungary have been suspected of democratic backsliding and are currently also under the Article 7 procedure, which remains stalled as the two countries have promised to veto each other's file.26

    The European Commission also has long-standing concerns regarding Hungary's judicial independence and systemic corruption.27 European Anti-Fraud office (OLAF) ranks Hungary at the top in the list of countries exhibiting irregularities involving EU funds.28 These considerations have prevented the EU from approving Hungary’s national recovery fund, amounting to € 7.2 billion in grants. In a counter-measure, Hungary’s finance ministry has been quick to reach out to investors and announce that this mechanism would not make Hungary lose out on money.29

    Hungary’s Policy on China

    Hungary has built close ties with China through the "Eastern Opening" policy in order to attract investment and economic opportunities. The ‘Eastern Opening’, introduced at the beginning of 2010, was supposed to attract capital from China to counterbalance that from the EU but it has not delivered as per expectations.30 It must be noted that Hungary is also among China’s closest partners in the latter’s ambitious 17+1 format (now 16 +1). One of the reasons why Chinese investments in Hungary have not lived up to expectations is the underperformance of China’s 17+1 arrangement in Central Europe which got marred by unfulfilled projects.31 In 2020, Hungary formally questioned the capability of the EU and the West to provide adequate humanitarian aid, stating that China would be a better partner.32 In a bid to further appease China, Hungary became the first and the only EU country to approve Chinese vaccines.33 In a first-ever for an EU country, Orban’s government signed an agreement with Shanghai-based Fudan University in April 2021 to build a campus at a disputed site in Budapest, sparking fears that it will help Beijing increase its influence in Hungary and the EU.34 However, contrary to Hungary’s initial hopes and appeasement, the partnership with China has not become a viable alternative to the West and the EU remains the biggest trading partner for Hungary. Most of Hungary’s exports go to the EU and the share of EU members in Hungary’s exports has been more than 75 per cent in the last couple of years.35

    Therefore, both China and Russia have been additional foreign policy openings for the Orban government for balancing strained relations with the EU and countering the narrative of an isolated Hungary within the EU. Despite close economic ties with China, Hungary wants to pursue economic benefits flowing from EU membership as well. Hence, Orban’s government is treading the double path of wanting to benefit from the EU’s economic architecture, while pursuing close economic relations with China and also maintaining neutrality towards Russia—a policy that has often placed Hungary at loggerheads with the EU.36

    Conclusion

    Orban’s electoral victory will have implications for European politics and specially, EU unity. The Russia–Ukraine War is fundamentally altering the geopolitical and geo-economic landscape of Europe. Hungary’s relations with Slovakia, the Czech Republic and even Poland, which so far has been a staunch regional ally of Hungary,  have come under pressure over the last few weeks because of the clash of views over Russia’s war in Ukraine. The Czech Republic and Poland, for instance, cancelled their participation in the March 2022 defense ministers’ meeting between the Visegrád 4 nations over Hungary’s stand on Russia. Pressure will mount on Orban to mend ties with Central Europeans allies, to consolidate Hungary’s position within the EU with regard to getting their support on Article 7 proceedings.

    The Orban government’s foreign and domestic policies will continue to be under the EU’s scanner, as it seeks to ramp up pressure on Russia for precipitating the worst security crisis that Europe is witnessing after the Second World War.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.

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