Budapest Mayor attending a rally in support of Ukraine, Source: Gergely Karácsony on Facebook

War at the doorstep spurs Hungary to choose between East and West

War at the doorstep spurs Hungary to choose between East and West

Ruling Fidesz faces an unprecedented challenge in parliamentary elections on 3 April which coincide with a referendum on the anti-LGBT law

Amid the heart-wrenching horrors of the war in Ukraine and the refugee influx sweeping over bordering countries, a smaller-scale but just as decisive standoff in the very heart of the European Union may be slipping under the radar.

In less than a month, on 3 April, Hungarian voters will have to decide if the right-wing populist Fidesz party led by autocratic PM Viktor Orbán, which has ruled with a supermajority since 2010, steering the country away from democratic values and towards economic dependence on Russia and China, will retain its hold on power.

This time, Fidesz and its coalition partner KDNP are facing an unprecedented challenge from a six-party alliance bringing together liberal, conservative, green, and former socialist and far-right politicians, hoping to build on their 2019 local elections’ success in chipping off Fidesz dominance.

Balancing act

Orbán had initially planned to centre his election campaign on the anti-LGBT legislation a.k.a. the Children Protection Act (which forced the European Union to take legal action against Hungary and will be subject to a referendum coinciding with the parliamentary elections), but the outbreak of the war in Ukraine shifted the public focus.

Orbán, careful not to shoot himself in the foot in a country where many still have memories of the Soviet tanks crushing the 1956 Hungarian revolution, made a shrewd U-turn. He did not object to the harsh EU sanctions against Russia, opened the border to refugees (235 000 and counting) and backed Ukraine’s EU membership bid, thus sending a strong signal to both Brussels and Hungarian voters.

However, balancing his allegiances, he declined to offer any kind of military assistance to war-torn Ukraine, banned the transport of lethal military aid through Hungary, and government-controlled media continued churning out pro-Kremlin narrative replete with disinformation and false claims. A Fidesz minister went as far as blaming the historic slump of the Hungarian currency (1 euro traded for 382 forints on 13 March), on the EU sanctions against Russia.

Paradoxical surge of support   

Contrary to some predictions, the war proved to be rather a lubricant than a spoke in the wheels of the government’s election campaign. Before the Russian invasion, the united opposition lagged behind Fidesz-KDNP by just 5 percentage points in opinion polls, but the war seems to have doubled the support for the ruling party.

A survey conducted by the liberal-leaning and reliable pollster Medián between 22 and 26 February showed that 50 percent of all decided voters opt for Fidesz-KDNP while the opposition will garner 40 percent of support, with the rest of the vote likely to be scattered among minor parties. Median explains this surge of support with the psychological inclination of people to rally behind a well known, strong leader in times of crisis, choosing predictability over the risk of change.

Protests and promises

Hungary’s opposition has based its election campaign on the crucial choice between “Orbán vs not Orbán, East vs West”. The campaign slogan is Csak felfelé! (Only upwards!) and the  symbol of the opposition alliance – a blue ribbon, epitomizing its drive against “corruption, hatred, and (institutionalized) theft” can be seen attached to lapels, billboards and statues of national heroes across Budapest and elsewhere. After the outbreak of the war, the opposition has organized a series of anti-Russian rallies, attended by thousands of people, where Orbán and Putin are portrayed as bosom buddies.  

On 9 March, Péter Márki-Zay, the united opposition’s candidate for PM, presented their election programme. During the online event he said, as quoted by Hungary Today, that the EU funds currently withheld because of corruption levels and rule of law violations, would offer the swift way out of Hungary’s “almost hopeless economic situation of record deficit, record debt, and record inflation.”

Among the opposition’s election promises is following a foreign policy course based on Western values and loyalty to allies; implementing an energy policy that would prioritize energy security and curtail dependence on Russian fuel (the expansion of the Russian-built nuclear power plant Paks will be scrapped); reviewing the Budapest-Belgrade railway contract; raising pensions and salaries in the healthcare and education sectors; creating an anti-corruption agency, and introducing the euro within 5 years.

470,000 signatures greenlight Budapest referendum

Also on 9 March, the National Election Committee announced that the referendum initiatives on the Budapest campus of the Chinese Fudan University and the extension of unemployment benefits have each gathered the required minimum number of 200,000 valid signatures, so the plebiscite can go ahead. The referendum initiatives were submitted by Budapest Mayor Gergely Karácsony in individual capacity.

The referendum drive is aimed at preventing Budapest property earmarked for building a Student City with affordable accommodation from being transferred by the government to Fudan University for its first (and costly) campus in Europe. The second question concerns extending the job seekers’ allowance to nine months from the current three.

Due to procedural delays, the referendum cannot be held on Election Day, as the opposition alliance initially hoped, and is expected to take place later this year, most probably in October.

“But the will of the people is making its way, and there will be a real referendum on 3 April. For on April 3, we will finally judge those who do not care, or make their decisions over our heads!” the Mayor wrote on his Facebook page.  

Pyrrhic victory?

The approaching elections pose many questions that have no straightforward answers. Can the last-minute activation of undecided voters swing the vote? Will the escalation of atrocities in Ukraine tip the scales in favour of the opposition? Or will the economic situation deteriorate to the point of igniting a protest vote?

One thing is sure - no matter who wins, a two-thirds majority in the 199 seat National Assembly will be impossible to achieve by any coalition, meaning that the passage of cardinal laws (and amendments to the Constitution) will need hard bargaining by uncompromising adversaries.



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