The backdrop to this vote is a bad economy. Inflation is climbing, the currency is unstable and the EU is withholding billions of euros in COVID relief funds in response to Orban’s breaches of EU rules. Brussels says the Orban government has compromised the independence of courts and the media and refused to respect LGBTQ rights. Orban’s defense of conservative Christian social values and his government’s assault on European standards of governance defined his years in power.
Orban and his Fidesz party have significant electoral advantages. He has blown the government budget by raising pensions and public sector wages in recent months and offered tax cuts for families. In addition, “the Fidesz government’s overwhelming access to funds, control of most media and its willingness to use loopholes in electoral laws explain its lead in recent polls,” says Mujtaba Rahman, Europe expert at Eurasia Group. . Fidesz is also accused of redrawing Hungary’s electoral map in such a way as to ensure that the opposition must win by three or four percentage points to secure a parliamentary majority.
“Orban’s skilful political handling of the war in neighboring Ukraine has also helped his party,” Rahman adds. Voters who fear Vladimir Putin appreciate that Orban has backed EU sanctions against Russia and taken in a significant number of Ukrainian refugees, some of Hungarian origin. But he also declared his country “neutral” in the struggle, refused to send arms to Ukraine, or to allow others to send arms there via Hungary. And given his country’s heavy reliance on cheap Russian energy, he rejected any European boycott talk.
Yet despite all this, the latest polls suggest his party’s electoral lead remains narrow. That’s partly because his rivals have put aside their many differences to back Peter Marki-Zay, the self-proclaimed conservative Catholic mayor and anti-corruption fighter of the small town of Hódmezővásárhely. His social values appeal to socially conservative voters who are fed up with Orban-related dramas. His unmistakably pro-EU stance speaks to those who dislike Orban’s open admiration for Putin. “Orban is betraying Europe, Orban is betraying NATO, Orban is betraying the United States,” Marki-Zay said.
A loss by Fidesz of its parliamentary majority would bring about a change. Marki-Zay would end clashes with the EU over the courts, media independence and liberal social values, releasing the billions of euros in COVID relief funds the EU has withheld from Orban’s government, and he would fully support Ukraine and NATO. But in the most likely event that Fidesz could still form a slim majority, little will change. “Orban would continue his balancing act, seeking to stay in line with the EU’s condemnation of Russia while doing his best to limit the damage to his friend in the Kremlin,” Rahman said.
Finally, the election itself could become a new source of controversy. An election observation mission from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe – only the second time this has happened for a vote inside the EU – could raise questions about the fairness of the election. This would create a serious political headache at a time when Europe must project its unity in the face of Russian aggression.