What Viktor Orban’s Win in Hungary Elections Means for Putin

His forces may be bogged down in Ukraine, but Vladimir Putin was handed a boost Sunday when Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban—the Russian President’s closest friend inside the E.U. and NATO—was on track to win a fourth successive term, with more than half of votes counted.

The polls were closed at 7 pm local time. Voting began with Orban, who is expected to win strong majorities of all 199 parliamentary seats. “We’ve won a victory so big that you can see it from the moon, but you can certainly see it from Brussels,” Orban told his supporters Sunday evening, nodding to tensions with E.U. leaders.

“We will remember this victory until the end of our lives because we had to fight against a huge amount of opponents,” he said, citing enemies including the international media, the Ukrainian president and the Hungarian left.

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It was an election that was supposed to be dominated by Hungary’s woeful healthcare system following a dire pandemic response—the nation suffered 5,217 COVID-19 deaths per million population, the second highest rate in Europe—but in the end turned on the war in neighboring Ukraine.

Peter Markiz-Zay (49), was a challenger who sought to bring the nearly 20 million people living in landslocked countries closer to the E.U. and highlighting Orban’s close historic links with Putin. Orban campaigned to keep Hungary from the Ukraine war completely. This would avoid, he claimed, most of the economic consequences that European countries are forced to bear for resisting tyranny. Orban was victorious, even though it looks difficult for the next generation.

“Orban is isolated and will have a very difficult time in Europe [following] the election,” says Andras Bozoki, professor of political science at the Central European University in Vienna. “Because everybody knows him, his pragmatism and opportunism, it’s not like anyone believes that he will be a better guy.”

Hungary is deeply divided. Less-educated rural voters tend to back Orban while more educated urbanites prefer the opposition. The final weekend was going to see who could mobilise their base and win the 15-20% undecided. The turnout was as high as 70%, according to some estimates.

Despite a population that is adamantly pro-E.U., Hungary’s government under Orban has strongly leaned toward the Kremlin. Whereas Orban international messaging emphasized Hungary’s neutrality, domestic state media has been parroting Putin’s justification for the invasion. Orban has refused to denounce Putin by name but instead only opposes “war” in Ukraine. He also refused to let NATO weapons be carried through his territory to Ukraine. Although Orban didn’t oppose E.U. He has pledged to stop any sanctions against Russian kleptocrats and institutions.

Orban poses a serious security threat to allies. According to an investigation by Direkt36, a Budapest-based non-profit investigative journalism center, Russia’s Federal Security Service had completely compromised Hungary’s Foreign Ministry computer network and internal correspondence by mid-2021 and the breach remained active during recent E.U. NATO crisis summits. Not only has Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó not publicly complained about the cyberattack, on Dec. 3 he received the Order of Friendship medal—Russia’s highest state honor for a foreigner—in Moscow on the orders of Putin himself.

“I am proud that, despite the extremely unfavorable global and regional developments … we have also been able to maintain our cooperation with Moscow based on mutual trust and in line with our national interests,” Szijjártó wrote on his Facebook page.

Still, Orban’s victory doesn’t mean he has the full backing of Hungarians when it comes to support for Putin. “Orban knows that the overwhelming majority of younger Hungarians are pro-E.U. and against Russian aggression,” says Carolina Plescia, assistant professor in the department of government at the University of Vienna. “So in a sense, Orban cannot push this much more than he’s already doing.”

To ensure that the ballots were counted and cast in an impartial and free manner, around 20,000 independent election monitors were deployed. But even before the first vote was cast, it was clear this would be an uphill challenge for Marki-Zay, a political neophyte whose only public role to date was as mayor of tiny Hódmezővásárhely—a city of 44,000 whose name translates as Beavers’ Field Marketplace—and ran as an independent backed by six opposition parties.

Marki-Zay was the victim of a stacked deck. He had worked previously in Canada as a door to door salesman and campaigned for Christian family values. While election rules usually allow all candidates equal time on public television, Marki-Zay was granted only five minutes of campaign coverage, while Orban broadcast his manifesto disguised as news reports.

Government information posters were also indistinguishable from campaign material for Orban’s Fidesz party. Orban allies have bought up very few television stations, newspapers and radio stations that are mainstream. “The media environment and campaign finances were extremely imbalanced,” says Professor Jennifer McCoy, a Eastern Europe specialist at Georgia State University.

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In Hungary corruption and nepotism are rampant. Orban is protected by an elite group of oligarchs, who have become obscenely rich thanks to government ties. Hungary’s richest person is Lorinc Meszaros, a childhood friend of Orban’s who had worked as a gas fitter in their hometown of Felcsut, but is today worth an estimated $1.4 billion. In 2017, his flagship company, Konzum Nyrt, was the world’s best performing stock thanks to a continuous stream of state contracts. “God, luck and Viktor Orban certainly played a role in what I’ve achieved so far,” Meszaros said in 2014.

Orban proposed populist policies that were even more in line with Marki-Zay’s campaign to end graft. In February, he reinstated a 13th month of income for pensioners—a key block of 2.5 million, or a third of voters. A 25-year old under-25-year-old was exempted form personal income tax. Parents with children received tax refunds, and soldiers and police officers were given salary increases of 10%. Members of a menial ‘public worker’ scheme for unemployed received a pay boost of €270 ($300) per month.

The University of Vienna’s Plescia said she was surprised how little role the economy played in the election given the gravity of problems coming down the pipeline. The nation’s budget deficit swelled to 8.1% of GDP in 2020 amid the pandemic, with inflation reaching an almost 15-year high of 8.3% in February. “Orban was effective at manipulating the media into not talking so much about economic problems, so that the Ukraine war became the number one issue of the campaign.”

Under Orban, Hungary has been ostracized and effectively kicked out of the European People’s Party (EPP) grouping within the European Parliament. His attempts to form an alternative right-wing bloc of populist parties with Poland’s PiS party and the Lega Nord of Italy’s Matteo Salvini also failed. He has even been sidelined by the Visegrád Group, a cultural and political alliance comprising the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to advance military, cultural, economic and energy co-operation. “He’s isolated within Europe,” says McCoy.

Putin would be devastated if Marki-Zay won. The opposition candidate stated that he will support any measures taken by the E.U. The decision was made to put into practice, possibly including the transport of arms. Also, he wanted to shut down Russia-backed International Investment Bank. It is a multilateral, development bank for Eastern bloc nations. It was established by Soviets in 1970, but moved to Budapest in 2019. This organization has been accused in espionage. After the Ukraine invasion, both the Czech Republic and Romania announced that they would speed up their planned withdrawal. Marki-Zay also said would review the planned expansion of the Paks Nuclear Plant, which is being funded by Russia’s nuclear power company, Rosatom.

Although good news for Putin, Orbán victory spells significant problems for Hungarians. In February, the European Court of Justice threw out a legal challenge from Hungary and Poland regarding a “rule of law conditionality” that links E.U. funds to member states’ respect for democracy. Due to Orbán’s self-trumpeted “illiberal” tendencies, Hungary is now due to lose subsidies equivalent of around 3%-6% of GDP at a time when its economy is facing serious headwinds.

For Bozoki, Orbán was “lucky that he can position himself as the defender of peace and safety at the time of war in a neighboring country. After the COVID-19 pandemic, Orbán will face a real enemy (after so many imaginary enemies): the shadow of economic crisis.”

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