Does Orban’s Victory in Hungary Change the EU’s Calculus on Russia?

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Does Orban’s Victory in Hungary Change the EU’s Calculus on Russia?

Prime Minister Viktor Orban won a fourth term in elections where he enjoyed unfair advantages, presenting a thorny challenge for European unity on Russia and the rule of law.

What impact did Russia’s war in Ukraine have on this election?

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine in February threatened to derail Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s quest for a fourth consecutive electoral victory, given his close relations with Moscow. The united opposition—United for Hungary, led by Peter Marki-Zay—was quick to frame voters’ choice as either Orban and Putin or United for Hungary and the West.

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However, Orban and his Fidesz party lost little time in exploiting many voters’ fears of being dragged into a broader war. He framed the choice instead as between Fidesz and peace or the opposition and war, given what he said was their enthusiasm for North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces getting involved in the conflict. Orban agreed to Western sanctions and has let in close to half a million Ukrainian refugees since the conflict began, but he has refrained from criticizing Putin directly.

How could an emboldened Orban government affect European Union (EU) sanctions on Russia?

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First, it is important to understand that Fidesz did not win a free and fair election. Although election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) stated that the election process was managed very well (barring a few irregularities), they were also quick to point out that the playing field was heavily tilted in the government’s favor. Orban won 67.8 percent of the vote and 135 out of 199 seats in parliament.

Orban’s victory means he will continue to be an autocratic thorn in the EU’s side. He has opposed further sanctions against Russia, especially a ban on its oil or gas given Hungary’s heavy reliance on Russian fossil fuels. He’s also opposed transferring heavy weaponry to Ukraine through Hungarian territory; this led Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to openly criticize Orban for his pro-Putin stance. In exchange for his support for any new Western sanctions, Orban will likely demand EU restraint on punishing Hungary for rule-of-law violations.

What does this mean for EU attempts to discipline Hungary?

Orban is banking on the fact that the need for Western unity will trump the EU’s desire to rein in his illiberal excesses.

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In effect, Orban has constructed a party-state over the past dozen years. Fidesz has taken over not just all branches of the government, but also the commanding heights of the Hungarian economy, including swaths of industry and of the financial, cultural, and public education sectors. It is no exaggeration to say that nearly every school principal is a card-carrying Fidesz member. In this climate, it will be hard for the EU to do much.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks during the closing rally of his electoral campaign in Szekesfehervar, Hungary, on April 1, 2022.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks during the closing rally of his electoral campaign in Szekesfehervar, Hungary, on April 1, 2022. Bernadett Szabo/Reuters

That said, Brussels holds the power of the purse. Orban relies heavily on EU funds, all the more given the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. The EU has announced it will initiate Article 7 proceedings against Budapest, referring to the clause of EU law on breaches of core values, after suspending the process a few years ago. That could mean withholding funds and even stripping Hungary of its EU voting rights. However, unanimity among all other member states—including Poland, Hungary’s close illiberal ally since 2015—is required for that to happen.

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Does this portend a stronger illiberal bloc within the EU?

There is no doubt that the close relationship between Fidesz and Poland’s governing Law and Justice (PiS) party has been tarnished by Putin’s war in Ukraine, which Warsaw has condemned in the strongest terms. Prominent PiS politicians, including Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, have criticized Orban for his lack of support for Ukraine and his continuing close relations with Putin. However, Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of PiS, has so far refrained from doing so. It’s possible that Hungary will become increasingly isolated from both the EU and NATO, but it’s not guaranteed.

It is equally conceivable that Hungary and Poland will continue to work together in opposing the EU’s progressive agenda, despite their differences over Russia. Warsaw could decide that the risk of Article 7 being used against itself is too high, and hence could continue to side with Budapest on the rule of law and democratic principles.

Where does the opposition go from here?

Given that Hungary’s opposition was always a somewhat unnatural alliance—spanning the political spectrum, including old-school communists, modern social democrats, free market liberals, and members of the far-right Jobbik party—the most likely outcome is that United for Hungary will fragment and its members will return to the previous status quo.

With barely 28 percent of the vote and just fifty-six seats, the opposition alliance vastly underperformed compared to its performance in political polling, which had it running neck and neck with Fidesz. Though many opposition members of parliament have not completely given up hope in a democratic future for Hungary, there is a collective sense of disappointment and failure—a feeling shared in Brussels and other EU capitals.

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