A week before elections, Hungary's Orban remains the EU's enfant terrible

  Jan van der Made - RFI
Europe AP - Yuri Kochetkov
AP - Yuri Kochetkov

On 3 April, Hungary goes to the ballot box to elect 199 members of the National Assembly. The choice is between the Fidesz party of incumbent Prime Minister Victor Orban, whose populist policies have estranged him from Brussels, and a coalition of opposition parties led by Peter Marki-zay. Despite Orban's pro-Russian sentiments, he's leading in the polls – for now. 

"Orban is betraying Europe, Orban is betraying NATO, Orban is betraying the United States," Marki-zay said in a recent interview.

The Hungarian leader's sympathies towards Russia, and his visit to the Kremlin – the last one less than a month before Moscow's invasion of Ukraine – has given fodder to the opposition while leaving him with few friends outside of Hungary.

His standing abroad sank even lower after he rejected, on 25 March, an emotional appeal from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to support sanctions on Russia's energy sector – saying that they were "against Hungary's interests".

Sanctions, he added, "would mean the Hungarian economy would slow down and then stop within moments".

Orban argued that 85 percent of Hungary's gas and more than 60 percent of its oil came from Russia, adding that blocking Russian energy exports would force Hungarians to "pay the price of the war". 

Unlike other EU countries bordering Ukraine, Hungary has declined to supply its neighbour with weapons and has refused to allow weapons shipments to cross its border into Ukraine.

Candidate for 'peace and security'

When the Russian-Ukraine war started on February 24, the opposition started gunning for Orban's traditional support of Moscow. Orban paid some lip-service to EU commitments to sanctions, but didn't go all the way.  

But within a week, it was clear his rating wasn't affected at all. 

Opinion polls published by Politico on 24 February, the day that the Russian invasion started, show Fidesz leading with 49-44 percent against the United Opposition. A month later, Orban's party had increased the gap by 7 percent.

How did he manage it?
During a campaign rally on 15 March, Orban appeared to turn the war in his favour by saying that if he were to be elected, he would not allow the left to "drag Hungary into war".

Presenting himself as the candidate for "peace and security", he accused the United Opposition of having "lost their common sense" by supporting Ukraine, with a risk to "sleep-walk into a cruel, lengthy and bloody war".

But while Orban's message is universally printed and broadcast by the national press, the opposition has little chance to present its own program. 

'Would be' information police state

"Right now (media) have to give five minutes to all the parties," says Hélène Bienvenu, co-author of La Hongrie sous Orban, a book with a series of observations and analyses on Hungary's politics.

"The rest of the time, the floor is given to pro-Orban journalists," who write positively about Orban or attack the opposition, "portraying them as the ones who want to go to war over Ukraine". 

Hungary ranks no. 92 in the World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

After the Covid-92 outbreak, Orban imposed strict rules giving the government "almost unlimited powers to handle the crisis and threaten journalists with prosecution on charges of disseminating fake news" RSF said as it branded Hungary a "would-be information police state at the heart of Europe".

Fine line

Still, Orban is trying to walk a fine line in balancing Hungary's sympathies. 

Budapest is one of the few EU countries that signed up to China's multibillion dollar Belt and Road Initiative – to the dismay of Brussels, which branded China a "systemic rival" in a recent policy paper.

Included in the initiative is a Belgrade-to-Budapest high speed railroad, and a €1.3 billion Budapest campus of Shanghai's Fudan University – China's largest investment in education abroad. 

By far the largest foreign investment is the multi-billion Paks nuclear power plant, which is made with Russian technology and supported by a Moscow-backed loan of €10 billion.

Even within Orban's political circles, there's been no call for a "Hexit" or Hungary leaving the EU, Brexit-style.

"There's never been any question of leaving the EU, because Orban knows he has a lot to win," says Bienvenu, adding that Hungary "is one of the largest recipient of EU funds" which "reshaped Hungarian towns and cities".

Meanwhile Sergei Guriev, a Russian exile who co-authored the book Spin Dictators, told RFI the economic performance of  Orban's government, a growth of 2 or 3 percent per year, equalled the 3 percent GDP equivalent in subsidies that Hungary was receiving from the EU.  

"Orban has been a very skillful user of the European system, and it took years for the European Commission to wake up to this fact and to start to impose rule-of-law conditionalities into funding coming from Brussels," Guriev said.

"Some political scientists see Hungary as an 'electoral autocracy' or 'spin dictatorship'."

The methods of Orban are very similar to those used by (Hugo) Chavez of Venezuela or the early Vladimir Putin, Guriev added.

"He is bribing the elite, he's purchased the media, he uses (electoral) redistricting, and these are methods the EU commission is very unhappy about."