The Hungarian Election: A Rude Awakening 

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, by European Parliament on Flikr

Déjà Vu

The Hungarian election results of 3 April made me feel as distraught as the 2016 EU Referendum results in the UK. I stayed up most of the night on both occasions and ended up mentally and, after a rude awakening, physically exhausted the next day. A feeling of utter helplessness came over me. How could a nation be so indoctrinated as to vote for the ruin of their own country and celebrate it as a victory? And sadly, there  are many similarities between the Leave and Orbán’s Fidesz party campaigns. 

Like in the Brexit vote, the capital Budapest and big cities in Hungary voted differently from rural areas. The big cities in the UK voted predominantly Remain. In Hungary they were the supporters of the opposition. In fact, the mayor of Budapest had declared that he planned to challenge Orbán himself. However, when the Progressive Alliance of six parties was formed, the mayor of a small town (Hódmezővásárhely) was chosen as the leader of the opposition alliance.  

Péter Márki-Zay, Mayor of Hódmezővásárhely
Péter Márki-Zay, Mayor of Hódmezővásárhely; Draskovics Ádám, licensed under the C C Attribution 4.0 International license

Both Orbán and Leave politicians targeted the poorer areas. Orbán speaks the language of the people. Like the Leave campaign, he used simple messages with keywords. “Get Brexit done!” Orbán put himself forward as the ‘man of peace’… while supporting Putin. People in those areas don’t care about ideologies and are more susceptible to populist propaganda if the message contains items that bring them immediate advantage at the time. 

Election results and analysis

Orbán came out of the elections with a two-thirds majority in Parliament. The election was free but not fair for several reasons. What made the elections unfair was that Orbán could take full advantage of his position as head of government. The OSCE observation mission published its report but it was not their role to declare an election valid or invalid. 

The PM was able to offer certain groups incentives, like paying a 13th monthly pension, and family allowances which left more money in people’s pockets. He was targeting the most vulnerable population with allowances paid out of the state budget. He used taxpayers’ money to give him an advantage in the campaign. People trying to make ends meet in poor areas in the country could not afford to risk having these benefits cut. Some employees also hinted that their jobs depended on voting for the right party. What they don’t realise is that Orbán will not be able to continue these costly perks in the long run and will have to cut the state support soon after his ‘victory’. 

The election was a David and Goliath situation. This is how Hungarian political scientist Gábot Török compared the two campaigns: A professional, strong team which has won an election twice already and has been ruling for 12 years, are playing against an amateur team. On one side there is the built-in media system. The other side had around five minutes of airtime on national TV. A bit like the LibDems and Greens on BBC during the Leave campaign. 

Illiberal democracy

And these are the disadvantages the opposition was faced with, without mentioning the electoral rules that favour Orbán’s Fidesz. Rules which Orbán has brought in despite protests by international organisations, the EU and the Council of Europe. Over the past 12 years, the Hungarian government has worked hard to build what Orbán calls an illiberal democracy. He repeatedly went against the rule of law and basic democratic principles, such as media freedom, independence of the judiciary as well as human rights, in particular of minority groups.

A clear example of the latter is the referendum on LGBTIQ+ issues that took place on the same day as the election. The latter was a thankfully failed attempt at bringing in homophobic laws dressed up as child protection. By implication, he put LGBT groups at the same level as paedophiles. Sadly, some of the Bills the UK government is trying to push through Parliament at present contain very similar restrictions on minorities, like  Orbán’s laws:  Anti migrant, anti-semitic, anti Muslim and anti gypsy laws.

Leveraging Putin’s War

Orbán also used the Ukraine-Russia war blatantly to his advantage. Hungary’s location neighbouring Ukraine naturally creates a lot of anxiety in people. Orbán played on these fears by stressing that he will not let Hungary get involved in the war. He says he is at the side of peace and security. That is his excuse for not letting weapons be transported to Ukraine through Hungary. He states that he wants to look after Hungary’s interest only. He says that two large neighbouring countries are warring against each other but it is not Hungary’s war. He accuses the opposition of not realising the seriousness of the war and wanting to involve Hungary.

In reality, a compliant Hungary isolated from its EU partners is much more at risk – especially if it continues on its present course of siding with Putin and is at loggerheads with Poland, an ally right through history until WWII. The opposition very poignantly pointed out that this time Hungary was again aligning itself with the wrong side. This reminded people that, after a leader who wanted to fight the Germans in WWII was simply executed, Hungary sided with the Nazis.

Disinformation

Recently, a planned meeting of the Visegrad (V4) countries was cancelled as Poland found Hungary’s stance unacceptable. During the campaign, Orbán made several contemptuous remarks about Zelenskyy. He said that his strategy is that of a clown, referring to the leader’s former acting career. Orbán’s media frequently spreads Russian conspiracy theories about Ukraine bombing itself and blaming it on Russia. People who only watch state TV will not see the atrocious scenes of mass executions of civilians by the Russian army.

The PM’s post election speech pointed out who in his view the enemy is: Zelenskyy, fascism in Ukraine and the EU. As Hungary is taking in a large proportion of refugees from Ukraine, I am not sure for how long the news of the war crimes committed there can be hidden from people. Also, despite Orbán’s rhetoric, his government needs EU money and the majority of the population view EU membership positively. He has to tread a careful line between Eurosceptic messaging at home and expecting EU support when the impact of the war on the economy starts to bite.

“Fake News!”

One of the opposition party’s spokesmen was asked during the counting of the votes what his first step would be if they won the election. He said he would immediately rush off to the EU to negotiate a new arrangement for the country. He  was obviously referring to the EU withholding funds from the country due to its bad Democracy ratings.

Sadly, none of the opposition party spokespeople got a chance to explain this issue on mainstream TV. Not that facts could persuade people who are led by Fidesz’s ideological mantra. See the Remain campaign being told they were scaremongering when predicting the impact of leaving a 40-year-old partnership with a Union where about 40% of trade was conducted.

Déjà Vu All Over Again

I am particularly upset about Orbán’s view on Ukraine. For me, it is personal. As readers know, I witnessed the 1956 revolution where the Russian army overran and occupied Hungary to beat down the fight of the population for democracy. My biological father fought the invaders and suffered torture after the uprising lost.

Thousands of people disappeared, just like now in Ukraine. They were abducted and most never returned. Hungary should, like Poland, remember Stalin’s war crimes and recognise the parallels with Putin’s methods. They should join the rest of Europe in the fight against this delusional tyrant wanting to subjugate Ukraine. And how can they not see that they might be next?

I fear for both Hungary, the country of my birth and my adopted country, the UK. The sunny uplands promised by the Leave campaign seem not to have materialised. How long will both countries take to say ‘enough’, when they wake up to the level of lies, corruption and  fake news which make them pariahs on the world stage?

Media reactions 

https://socialeurope.eu/orban-putin-and-the-prospects-for-democracy-in-hungary

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/apr/04/victory-of-putin-ally-orban-in-hungary-may-trigger-freeze-on-eu-funding

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-60981648

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-60978909