Press play to listen to this article
BUDAPEST — Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán will be sticking around at the EU’s top table — meaning more clashes over the bloc’s core values and more pushback on taking a tough line with Moscow.
The right-wing populist leader won a fourth consecutive term in an election on Sunday, with his ruling Fidesz party set to take two-thirds of seats in the Hungarian parliament.
While Orbán was widely expected to win — not least due to his tight grip on the media, which his critics say is part of a broader pattern of undermining democratic norms — the scale of his victory shocked his opponents, who had united to challenge him.
When it comes to national list votes, approximately 53 percent of Hungarian voters chose Fidesz, while about 35 percent opted for a diverse six-party opposition alliance.
The election campaign was transformed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Hungary’s neighbor. Orbán was not damaged electorally by having nurtured a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and instead appears to have benefited by casting himself as a guarantor of Hungary’s peace and stability who would ensure the country did not get drawn into the war.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has attacked Orbán for taking a softer line with Moscow than other EU leaders. While Hungary — a member of both the EU and NATO — has condemned Russia’s invasion and backed EU sanctions on Moscow, it has opposed a ban on Russian energy imports and declined to bilaterally provide Kyiv with weapons.
Orbán’s victory means he is likely to pursue a similar stance as EU leaders debate whether to impose tougher sanctions on Moscow, particularly in light of reports of the massacre and rape of civilians in Ukrainian towns previously held by Russian troops.
In an extraordinary moment in his victory speech on Sunday night, Orbán mentioned the Ukrainian president as one of the opponents his party had faced in the election — along with many of his usual targets, such as “the left wing at home,” “the international left wing,” “Brussels bureaucrats” and Hungarian-American financier George Soros.
“We have never perhaps looked as good as we do tonight,” Orbán told supporters in Budapest, declaring that his party achieved “such a victory that it can be seen from the moon — but from Brussels for sure.”
But that victory came amid significant concerns from democracy experts and opposition politicians that the electoral playing field in Hungary is extremely uneven: Orbán’s party had designed the current electoral system, and controls — directly and indirectly — much of the media landscape.
Such concerns about democratic backsliding in Hungary will come to the fore once again for EU institutions, which have struggled for years to address the increasingly autocratic tendencies of the government in Budapest.
The European Parliament’s decision in 2018 to trigger the bloc’s Article 7 censure proceedings — a move undertaken if the EU’s core values are considered to be at risk — has done little to pressure Hungary to reverse course.
And while the EU has thus far withheld money earmarked for Hungary in the bloc’s coronavirus recovery fund, Budapest has faced few concrete consequences for undermining democratic norms.
In the weeks before the election, the European Commission was expected to trigger a new mechanism to cut budget funds to Hungary over rule-of-law concerns. But the Commission held off, in part due to the election. Now, calls will grow for Brussels to act.
Daniel Freund, a German Green member of the European Parliament who has been a vocal critic of the Orbán government, said that “there will be a long list of things that were unfair” in the Hungarian election and that he will continue to “pressure” the European Commission to act to cut funds.
On issues including LGBTQ+ rights, judicial independence, migration and media freedom, Brussels is now likely to clash again with the Orbán government — although a set of anti-LGBTQ+ questions put to a referendum in parallel with the election did not pass, as the ballot did not meet the required turnout threshold.
At the same time, the Hungarian leader’s electoral success could boost his ambitions to project influence abroad.
As one of Europe’s longest-serving leaders, Orbán tends to punch above his weight in European politics.
He has aimed to create an alliance of nationalist and far-right forces in Europe — befriending figures such as France’s Marine Le Pen and Italy’s Matteo Salvini.
The prime minister has also worked to forge relationships with Trump-friendly conservatives across the Atlantic, cultivating the support of U.S. media personalities such as Fox News’ Tucker Carlson.
And he has strived to project Hungarian influence across Central and Eastern Europe, cementing support among Hungarian-speakers in surrounding countries and investing in relationships in the Western Balkans. (Orbán’s close ally, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, also cruised to re-election on Sunday.)
In his speech, Orbán thanked Fidesz’s allies abroad. “It’s not just our victory,” he told supporters. “The whole world,” he said, could see that Christian Democratic and conservative politics “is not the past, it’s the future.”
While the war in Ukraine has somewhat disrupted his ambitions — putting a wedge between Budapest and its close allies in Warsaw — the prime minister is likely to return to attempting to boost his international profile.
Nevertheless, Orbán’s victory will fuel questions surrounding the future of the Visegrád Four, a club consisting of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, whose unity has come under growing pressure over the past weeks. Other members of the group have taken a harder line on Russia than Orbán does.
“We have to respect democratic elections in Hungary,” said Czech MEP Tomáš Zdechovský, a member of the center-right European People’s Party. But he noted the differences within the Visegrád Four on Ukraine and described cooperation in the group as “very difficult.”
It would be a “pity,” he said, if Orbán becomes “more and more” isolated in the European Union.