It’s not simply Putin. Hungary’s Viktor Orban is Europe’s different risk to democracy.



On Sunday night, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán received reelection for the fourth time — rising with management of over two-thirds of the nation’s parliamentary seats in defiance of shut pre-election polls. This fourth consecutive victory means he’ll stay the third-longest-serving present chief in Europe at almost 16 years in energy, behind solely Belarus’s Aleksandr Lukashenko (28 years as president) and Russia’s Vladimir Putin (23 years as president or prime minister).

That Orbán’s friends in longevity are outright dictators is suitable, as Sunday’s election was something however free and honest. For the previous 12 years, Orbán has systematically labored to show Hungarian democracy right into a sham: one the place elections appear honest, however happen on uneven taking part in floor. By means of ways starting from excessive gerrymandering to media management to unfair marketing campaign finance guidelines, he has made it unthinkably troublesome for the opposition to defeat his Fidesz get together on the poll field.

Sunday’s outcomes replicate this undemocratic actuality, along with his get together as soon as once more profitable sufficient seats to unilaterally amend Hungary’s structure.

“It’s uncertain that in free and honest elections, with a extra proportionate electoral system, he would win a parliamentary majority, not to mention such a big one,” Cas Mudde, an knowledgeable on European politics on the College of Georgia, writes within the New Statesman.

Orbán does have an actual constituency. Many Hungarians, particularly cultural conservatives outdoors of the capital Budapest, discover his political type genuinely interesting. His system is constructed on amplifying the affect of those supporters, convincing others to affix them by relentless propaganda, and ravenous his critics of the sources they should compete.

It shouldn’t be a shock that Hungary has been Putin’s greatest buddy within the European Union and NATO in the course of the Ukraine disaster, with Orbán’s regime broadcasting pro-Russian propaganda and banning arms transfers to Ukraine from Hungarian soil. In a really democratic system, this stance seemingly would have been an electoral legal responsibility: Hungarians have a vivid nationwide reminiscence of the 1956 Soviet invasion of their nation.

However Hungary is just not, in actuality, a democracy. And the sturdiness of its regime poses an issue for Europe — an insidious inner risk that compliments Putin’s extra brutal exterior one.

Why Hungary’s election was so unfair

The 199 seats in Hungary’s parliament are elected in a dual-track system. Ninety-three seats are proportionally elected, with events getting a proportion roughly equal to their nationwide vote complete. The remaining 106 seats work like American or British elections, with one member elected to characterize a selected legislative district.

It’s on this second sort of seat the place Orbán’s Fidesz get together actually ran up the rating. Although they received 53 p.c of the vote nationally, they received 83 p.c of the seats in single-member districts — together with a whopping 98 p.c of seats in districts outdoors of Budapest.

This displays stronger authorities assist within the countryside, but in addition gerrymandering. Earlier than the 2014 election, Orbán’s authorities redrew the single-district map to pack opposition supporters in a handful of districts whereas spreading their supporters throughout many. Since then, it has received greater than two-thirds of seats in three consecutive elections regardless of vastly smaller shares of the favored vote — 45 p.c in 2014, 49 p.c in 2018, and 53 p.c in 2022 (a two-thirds majority is important as a result of it permits Fidesz to amend the structure unilaterally).

That Fidesz’s share of the favored vote is rising can be no accident. Along with gerrymandering, Orbán’s authorities has more and more rigged the media surroundings and marketing campaign system towards his opponents — which means that fewer and fewer Hungarians ever hear what the opposition has to say.

After the 2010 victory, the Fidesz authorities used the facility of the state to stress personal media firms to promote to the state or to oligarchs aligned with Fidesz. Techniques included withholding authorities promoting {dollars}, selectively blocking mergers that might permit retailers to increase, and imposing punitive taxes on advert income.

By 2017, about 90 p.c of all media in Hungary was owned by both the state or a Fidesz ally, together with each single regional newspaper within the nation — however that also wasn’t sufficient. In 2020, Index — the preferred impartial information web site within the nation — was taken over by an Orbán ally, who fired the editor-in-chief (80 of its 90 journalists subsequently resigned in protest). In 2021, the opposition-friendly radio station Klubradio was taken off the air; its frequency was subsequently assigned to a pro-government outlet.

Viktor Orbán speaks to media after casting his ballots in the course of the normal parliamentary elections on April 3, 2022 in Budapest
Janos Kummer/Getty Pictures

The construction of election campaigns is equally biased. In 2020, the federal government took 50 p.c of federal funding from all political events to fund the coronavirus response. This might sound to have an effect on all events equally, however Fidesz has quite a lot of sources of marketing campaign funding impartial of state assist that its opponents lack. “Whereas Fidesz, the governing get together, has virtually infinite sources, this may put a large pressure on opposition events,” Hungarian journalist Szabolcs Panyi wrote on the time.

You possibly can see the useful resource discrepancy on show in the course of the present marketing campaign. A March 31 report from Hungarian corruption watchdogs discovered that the federal government spent over eight instances as a lot on marketing campaign billboards because the opposition; it displayed 12,171 marketing campaign billboards across the nation as in comparison with 1,564 for the opposition. The Fidesz marketing campaign really exceeded authorized limits on billboard spending, per the report, however they bought away with it by labeling marketing campaign posters funded by the federal government itself as “public info actions.”

The content material of the federal government programming itself is straight designed to enchantment to Fidesz’s strongest supporters in Hungary’s conservative countryside. The federal government stands up a collection of villains — Muslim migrants, the Jewish billionaire George Soros, LGBTQ activists — and presents them as existential threats to Hungary’s lifestyle. Many Hungarians authentically assist Orbán’s views on these subjects; relentlessly hammering these themes in pro-government media deflects from the corrupt and anti-democratic coronary heart of his regime.

In 2022, the opposition was extra united than previously: All the main non-Fidesz events, from the far-right Jobbik to the center-left MSZP, joined collectively in a united checklist. This implies they tried to pool their sources and never run a number of candidates in single-member districts, in concept countering Fidesz’s useful resource benefit and gerrymandering.

However the truth that this election wasn’t even shut, as pre-election polls urged it will be, exhibits simply how properly Fidesz’s machine operates. It’s designed to offer the Hungarians who authentically assist his views outsized affect within the political system by gerrymandering whereas suppressing the affect of those that disagree. It’s this mix of democratic and authoritarian options — a combination political scientists name “aggressive authoritarianism” — that permits Orbán to repress his opponents whereas convincing his supporters that they nonetheless reside in a democracy.

Why Orbán’s victory issues

In his victory speech, Orbán listed a collection of enemies that attempted to cease his reelection. The checklist, which principally consisted of Jews or stereotypical Jewish stand-ins, culminated by pointing the finger at Volodymyr Zelenskyy — the Jewish Ukrainian president who’s at the moment a hero in the remainder of Europe.

“This victory will likely be remembered for the remainder of our lives as a result of so many individuals ganged up on us, together with the left at residence, the worldwide left in all places, the bureaucrats in Brussels, all of the funds and organizations of the Soros empire, the international media, and ultimately even the Ukrainian president,” he mentioned.

Zelenskyy, who drew Orbán’s ire after criticizing his place on the struggle in a late March speech, can’t be pleased with Sunday’s outcomes. Vladimir Putin, in contrast, has been probably the most distinguished world leaders to congratulate Orbán on his victory — wishing for “the additional growth of bilateral partnership ties” regardless of “the complicated worldwide state of affairs.”

In actuality, these ties are already lots deep. Reporting by Direkt36, certainly one of a handful of impartial media retailers in Hungary, has uncovered a lot of favors accomplished by Orbán for Putin — starting from a sweetheart nuclear power deal to tolerating Russian spying actions in Hungary.

That is one motive why the Hungarian election outcomes are so vital, even for individuals outdoors Hungary. The liberal democratic order in Europe is below assault from with out, due to Putin’s invasion from Russia. However the Hungarian authorities is undermining it from inside, taking an successfully pro-Russian place that weakens Europe’s skill to cope with Russian aggression.

Orbán’s authoritarian mannequin is completely different from Putin’s. Whereas the latter has an extended historical past of throwing his opponents in jail (or worse), the previous usually permits them to talk however makes certain few can hear them. This shared antipathy to democracy, and their mutual hatred for liberal cultural values, binds the 2 leaders.


Putin and Orbán in Moscow in 2018.
Alexey Druzhnin/Sputnik/AFP

That is most clearly seen immediately in Hungarian propaganda concerning the struggle, which in some circumstances is indistinguishable from what you may hear on Russian authorities broadcasters like RT.

“To learn and watch state-linked information in Hungary nowadays is to catch a gentle stream of Kremlin-friendly framings, arguments and outright conspiracies concerning the struggle in Ukraine,” writes Politico’s Lili Bayer. “The CIA helped set up the present Ukrainian authorities in energy. The US prodded Russia into attacking Ukraine. Ukrainian arms could also be offered to ‘terrorists’ in France. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is behaving like Adolf Hitler in the course of the waning days of World Warfare II.”

Hungary’s pro-Kremlin tilt is on show in its actions too. Along with vetoing using its territory for offering arms to Ukraine, the Hungarian authorities has maintained financial linkages with Russia. It’s, for instance, the one EU nation that continues to be working with Russia’s Worldwide Funding Financial institution.

Whereas Orbán reluctantly signed on to the EU sanctions, he has loudly vowed to dam any restrictions on Russian oil and fuel imports — and has even hinted at blocking the present restrictions’ extension.

On this, Budapest is usually alone. The professional-Russia stance has cut up Hungary from its political ally Poland, the place the right-wing authoritarian Regulation and Justice get together has taken a staunchly anti-Moscow line. In late March, the Polish protection minister backed out of a deliberate summit with Hungary, citing their disagreements on the Ukraine invasion.

But even one dissenter in Europe issues, as key selections like European Council votes and the admission of recent states to NATO require unanimous consent. Consultants on Hungary warned, previous to the election, that an Orbán victory may pose a long-term risk to Europe’s skill to successfully reply to Putin’s aggression.

“If Orbán stays in energy past April, he’ll threaten the West by breaking the unity surrounding sanctions and utilizing them as a bargaining chip in future European Council selections, blackmailing his so-called allies with vetoes,” writes Péter Krekó, director of the Political Capital suppose tank in Budapest. “Hungary’s election will quickly resolve how for much longer the specter of Putinism will hang-out Europe.”

Krekó could also be overstating the case: Hungary is a small nation, with a inhabitants of roughly 10 million, with solely a handful of associates contained in the European Union. But in a continent whose collective establishments are premised on shared democracy, even one authoritarian state can create complications.

And in the USA, the place Orbán has a rising fan membership on the correct, his victory will function additional inspiration for a “postliberal” American future.