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The Maverick of Europe is Up for Re-Election

Due to the war in Ukraine, the geopolitical importance of Hungary has increased considerably and Hungary’s upcoming election is a much-awaited event. Although many in Europe and the current U.S. Biden-led government would appreciate a change of government in Hungary, the increasingly nationalistic, patriotic, and anti-immigrant trend in Europe suggests otherwise.

Cover Image for The Maverick of Europe is Up for Re-Election
Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán Photo Credits: The Week UK
Article byÁbel Bagdy
March 31, 2022

Hungary’s upcoming election is a much-awaited event. Donald Trump has already put his bet on a candidate. The fate of the prime minister of Hungary, the longest-serving EU head of government, the father of the European Council, and one of the most controversial politicians in Europe, will be decided on April 3.

Who is Viktor Orbán?

Hungary is a small Central European country with a population of 10 million founded over 1,000 years ago. The country lost two-thirds of its territory after WWI and was occupied by the Soviet Union after WWII. Hungary gained independence as recently as 1990. Though it would be easy to rant about the beauty and history of the country for hours, honestly, there is one reason why the whole of Europe and even other parts of the world are invested in this election: Viktor Orbán.

Viktor Orbán came to power in 2010 with a stunning electoral supermajority, and he won by the same margin twice more. Since Angela Merkel’s retirement, he is the longest-serving member of the EU’s main decision-making body, the European Council. He drastically transformed the political, economic, and cultural arena of his country, and over time increased his presence on the European scene. In 2014, he openly expressed his desire to turn Hungary into an illiberal democracy (with “liberal” basically becoming a swear word in Hungarian politics in the past 30 years). In 2016, he was the first head of government to endorse Donald Trump, but most importantly, in 2015, in the middle of the European migrant crisis, he was the loudest supporter of a closed border policy. He decided to build a fence on the Hungarian border to prevent illegal migrants from entering the country (note: the Hungarian government offered unconditional asylum for all people arriving from Ukraine). Protection of children from so-called LGBTQI+ propaganda is also high on his agenda. Through these policies, he became an important figure amongst European conservatives and far-right supporters.

At home, he has been actively pursuing to reach Hungarian majority ownership in “strategically important” sectors, such as energy, media, and banking. For his critics, this meant his taking over the country and exercising complete control. For his supporters, this implied his efforts to strengthen national sovereignty. Thus, nearly half of the Hungarian population believes he is an illiberal autocrat leading a kleptocracy, is a puppet of Putin and a servant of China, and is dangerous for the European Union and the Western world.

However, he has been elected Prime Minister four times—he also ran the country between 1998-2002—and even the prime ministerial candidate of the opposition party voted for him several times. Orbán introduced generous family support schemes, strengthened the economy, and shifted the European agenda from the liberal mainstream. Thus, many perceive him as the greatest Hungarian politician in centuries, the savior of Europe’s Christian identity, and a guardian of traditional family values.

Orbán’s Unchallenged Influence

The 2012 constitution changed the electoral system, forcing the opposition parties to cooperate and act as a united front. The opposition parties have managed to come up with a joint list—similar to Israel—including liberals, the green party, socialists, and the far right. The opposition coalition even organized a primary to choose their prime ministerial candidate. However, this candidate is deeply religious and has voted for Orbán in the past.

Figure 1.
Figure 1.Source: Politico, Poll of polls

As you can see in Figure 1, two years after the pandemic and six weeks after the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine, the most likely election outcome is for Viktor Orbán to stay in power. Nonetheless, even if he loses the election on April 3, Orbán will continue to be the country’s most prominent politician.

Geopolitical Implications of the Upcoming Elections

No major policy shift is expected as a result of the 2022 elections. In the past few years, the Hungarian government blocked all ministerial-level political meetings between Ukraine and NATO in protest of Ukraine violating the human rights of its ethnically Hungarian minority population. The Hungarian government refused to allow lethal weapons to transit its territory to Ukraine to prevent Hungary, and the westernmost part of Ukraine, which is home to over 125,000 Hungarians, from becoming a target of hostile military action in the future. Nevertheless, Hungary has completely backed all EU sanctions against Russia since the annexation of Crimea. Though widely criticized across Europe, even the opposition supported these decisions. Orbán and the united opposition front are also against imposing restrictions on the steady flow of gas and oil from Russia.

In tandem with the Polish government, Orbán blocked many European initiatives concerning the rule of law, migration, and LGBTQI+ rights. However, since the start of the Russian war against Ukraine, the relationship between the two Central European countries is strained. It is important to observe how this shifts the dynamics in the European Council in the coming months.

On the contrary, the victory of Viktor Orbán could strengthen some common European initiatives, such as the Eastern expansion towards the Balkans and the establishment of the European army. Due to the war in Ukraine, the geopolitical importance of Hungary has increased considerably. Although many in Europe and the current U.S. Biden-led government would appreciate a change of government in Hungary, the increasingly nationalistic, patriotic, and anti-immigrant trend in Europe suggests otherwise.

Another term of Orbán is unlikely to transform security and political national and regional dynamics but is expected to concretize conservatism in Hungary. Undoubtedly, Hungary has proved to be an accurate indicator of several developments in western democracies over the past decade. In Orbán’s own words, “Many criticize Hungary but can’t deliver any solutions themselves.”

DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent that of the IWAB platform.