The worst-case scenario: Orbán’s regime survived last Sunday’s elections

At Hungary’s elections last Sunday the worst-case scenario came about. The Orbán regime not only […]

Professor, Corvinus University of Budapest

At Hungary’s elections last Sunday the worst-case scenario came about. The Orbán regime not only survived but also received a two-thirds constitution-making supermajority again. This is a very bad news not only for Hungary, but also for the European Union since Viktor Orbán’s regime will continue its troublemaker role and will disrupt European integration both at home and abroad. 

Before the parliamentary elections on 3 April, public opinion polls had shown balanced support for the ruling party Fidesz and for the six-democratic-party opposition alliance Unity for Hungary (Egységben Magyarországért). But in the event, Hungary missed a historic opportunity for a ‘Return to Europe’, and now continues to remain in the chaotic situation between East and West. The reasons for the defeat of the democratic opposition are multiple and need to be presented from inside and out, from the domestic and international perspective.

Last Sunday’s parliamentary elections were exceptional in their international environment because the ‘intrusion’ of current international developments has not played an important role in previous elections. Of course, ‘Europe’ has always been high on the electoral campaign agenda for the series of free elections since the spring of 1990, but the situation changed drastically this time around with the Russian aggression against Ukraine – which determined the entire campaign debate. Indeed, the campaign for last Sunday’s elections turned out to be an absurd drama in political propaganda because Orbán, the long-time friend and ally of Vladimir Putin, successfully masqueraded as a true supporter of NATO. Alongside this, he accused the democratic opposition of warmongering. Indeed, since the beginning of Russia’s aggression Orbán had claimed that the opposition alliance would endanger the security of Hungary by involving the country in the war in its neighbourhood and by depriving it of its energy supply. 

The Russian aggression marked a turning point in Orbán’s foreign policy rhetoric. His usual ‘peacock dance’ worked again by attacking Hungary’s democratic opposition on the danger of war, and by putting the choice between war or peace into the centre of the political debate. Orbán realised that most of the Hungarian population wanted security and stability, and that in the situation of potential war, would seek and vote for the security offered by the strong government.

Yet this unprecedented situation of war in Hungary’s neighbourhood is not the main reason for Orbán’s victory and the defeat of his democratic opposition. Instead, the war can only be responsible for the ‘extra’ in the two-thirds majority election result. When looking for the explanation in the international situation, we find that the responsibility of the EU is much higher for the defeat of the Hungarian democratic forces than is the responsibility of the Ukrainian crisis. Orbán has systematically sabotaged democracy in Hungary and turned the country into a zombie democracy and perfect autocracy, as I describe it in a recent paper.

Over the last decade, the EU has not reacted to this process with any meaningful action, although the European Parliament has issued many serious warnings since the Tavares Report in 2013. This is a story of the constant postponement of decisions, with delay after delay and the marginalisation of Hungary’s sliding democracy situation by the EU’s crisis management. It is also a lesson about democracy for the whole of Europe because democracy cannot be reduced to some basic legal formalities without any real political and social content. The EU has neglected the Orbán regime’s constant undermining of democracy and the similar situation taking place in some of the other ‘new’ member states. It is now no longer just Hungary that is paying a high price for this neglect, but the EU too – the whole situation having been brought about by the ill-famed policy of Angela Merkel, with its dangerous mixture of benign neglect and soft support for the emerging autocracy in the Orbán regime. It is encouraging, however, that two days after Sunday’s elections, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen announced the EU will trigger the rule-of-law mechanism against Hungary. Hopefully this time the European Union will take the case of Orbán’s regime more seriously.

Yet the main reason for Sunday’s defeat of the democratic forces can be found in Hungary’s domestic developments because over the last 30 years Hungary has been half Europeanised and half de-Europeanised by the tragic polarisation of the country’s economy, society and culture. The integration of Hungary into the EU has produced a ‘low-wage, low-skill economy’, and accordingly, the most polarised society in the EU (as shown by recent public opinion surveys) with a fierce cultural fight between traditionalists-sovereigntists and Europeanists-integrationists. As a result, although most Hungarians – about 70-80 per cent – have constantly supported EU membership, the polarisation effect of EU membership and a cognitive dissonance means that half the population have been easy prey for Orbán. Indeed, he has been blaming the EU for everything and suggesting an ‘Eastern opening’ to balance out the situation. He has organised a quasi-monopoly of the media, almost totally controlling all sectors of public life – especially in the countryside. The consequence is that last Sunday’s elections might have been free as regards certain legal formalities, but they were certainly not fair as regards their social environment. The division of Hungarian society into two parts is crystal clear from Sunday’s election results because only the islands of Europeanised big cities – Budapest, Pécs and Szeged – elected opposition members of Parliament in their electoral districts, representing the relative winners, while people in the ocean of the absolute losers around them elected Fidesz MPs.

In fact, Orbán is also a loser, because his aggressive autocratic system has generated Hungary’s international isolation – as shown by the country’s current exclusion from the Visegrád Four on account of Orbán’s treacherous behaviour towards the Ukrainian war. Orbán’s turning an emerging democracy into a well-organised autocracy needs to sound alarm bells for the EU too, because this regime is not only a big burden for the Hungarian population but also threatens EU integration and EU crisis management. The European bloc must clearly give up its decision-delaying and conflict-avoiding strategy with regard to its new member states, because with his ‘successful’ autocratic regime Orbán has presented himself as the biggest enemy of European integration. The EU is currently financing systemic corruption in an undemocratic regime. It is high time, therefore, that the European Union switched from ‘dialogue’ to ‘decisions’.

Photo credits: Raketir/

Related articles:

At a time of war, the focus should have been on the needs of society, by Ágnes Kunhalmi

Hungary: why Orbán won again, by András Bíró-Nagy

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