Orbán warfare: Hungary in 2022

Hungary’s government faces a difficult moment this year. The election, however, is only half of it.

Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party has been in power for 12 years. In that time, it has gripped power like a nervous child at the front of a rollercoaster. Every public organisation has been Orbánised.

This year, it faces its most serious challenge since 2010. For many years, the opposition was hopelessly divided between a multitude of personality-led progressive parties on the one side and a nativist party, Jobbik, on the other. This year, they have all coalesced behind one candidate, chosen by a primary system. It’s the most bizarre coalition since Netanyahu was ousted in Israel. As in Israel, the only unifying feature is hostility to the Prime Minister.

It remains to be seen whether the coalition will hold. Their chosen Prime Ministerial candidate, Péter Márki-Zay, is a small town mayor. He looks and sounds very much like a Fidesz functionary, with the distinction that he has not personally benefited from being a part of the ruling clan. He is designed to appeal to habitual Fidesz voters, but sounds neither progressive nor nativist. The coalition will be stretched to its limits to retain coherence even up to the election, never mind afterwards.

That gives the opposition advantages as well as problems. Attacks on Viktor Orbán are coming from all directions. One hostile poster points out that it is Fidesz that has settled tens of thousands of migrants, not George Soros. Another claims that the Orbán clan aren’t worried about runaway inflation — “they’ve stolen enough”, it acidly argues. Meanwhile, Mi Hazánk, a far right party outside the coalition, is attacking the government’s handling of Covid-19 using the libertarian arguments heard among lockdown sceptics in the UK and the USA (their current poll ratings are on a par with Laurence Fox’s).

The government has not yet settled on its own line. Originally it looked as though the coalition’s candidate would be Gergely Karácsony, the mayor of Budapest, a progressive independent. Government posters pre-emptively portrayed him as the puppet of the still-unpopular former socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, with distinctly camp overtones. When Mr Márki-Zay unexpectedly won, the same poster was refitted with him in the Budapest mayor’s place. It was about as convincing as portraying Rory Stewart as Gordon Brown’s puppet and seems to have been dropped. The government’s current poster blandly exhorts “Hungary goes forward, not backwards”. It lacks pizazz, as you can see.

For all that, while polls are currently close, the government must be favourites to win again (smarkets price this at around 1.5, and that looks about right to me). It has institutional advantages from its control of the media and the government machine. The election will be free but not fair. Viktor Orbán can also rely on his record and experience. A lot of people have done well from his rule.

Casual visitors to Budapest, a large prosperous metropolitan city, often struggle to understand how Hungary could repeatedly choose such an authoritarian anti-immigrant leader (of course, most tourists never see anything outside the equivalent of London’s zone 1, giving them a distorted view). But even more than the UK is not London, Hungary is not Budapest. Rural Hungary is, with a few exceptions, not prosperous. Its east-west divide is more stark than England’s north-south divide. Ambitious young people in the country have for decades headed for Budapest or abroad. Those who remained at home are often poor, older, less ambitious, have limited contact with other cultures (save the Roma, who are pretty much universally unpopular) and worry about disruptive change. Even if they went to the countryside, visitors wouldn’t speak with these voters because most of them only speak Hungarian. But Viktor Orbán speaks to them.

Even if Viktor Orbán is re-elected, however, we are likely to see a shift in his policies, becoming less confrontational with the EU. This has nothing to do with electoral politics. Instead, this would be a product of machtpolitik.

Viktor Orbán has spent the last decade playing both ends against the middle. He has pocketed all the advantages of being in the EU (while using Brussels as a pantomime demon) and pushed to the limit and beyond his compliance with EU rules and norms. He has done so in part by making sure that others appreciated the faint possibility of a rapprochement with Russia instead.

Russia, however, is now changing geopolitics. Belarus is now under much closer control. Kazakhstan is heading that way. Russia is also threatening an invasion of Ukraine. The balance of power in the broader region is changing dramatically and Russia appears to be in the ascendant, wresting power back from neighbouring states that have been asserting some independence.

This is highly inconvenient for Viktor Orbán. Alexander Lukashenko kept his distance for many years from Vladimir Putin, but now is completely beholden to him. It seems likely that the Kazakh leadership, if they survive, will also need to be much more compliant to Russia’s wishes than before. Viktor Orbán will not wish to be a Russian puppet: nor would it be popular in Hungary. The older generation have vivid and sour memories of Communist rule, which many saw as a Russian occupation. In any case, the EU is a useful source of funds, and can offer far more than Russia, whose economy is smaller than each of Germany’s, Italy’s and France’s, and not much bigger than Spain’s.

So he needs a longer spoon. Hungary has only two basic choices: look west or look east. If looking east is less acceptable, looking west becomes more necessary. No explicit declaration will be made, and indeed the spoken declarations may become more pro-Russian as Hungary seeks to stay in its good books, but the yanking of Brussels tails will probably be sharply reduced. We have already seen a sign of something similar in Poland, where president Duda vetoed a controversial media ownership law — the price of upsetting the USA right now is too high.

A man is as faithful as his options, they say. Right now, Viktor Orbán’s options are becoming more limited. Just don’t understand any change of direction as a change of heart.

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Alastair Meeks

Alastair Meeks

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