Ukraine war overshadows Hungary's election as Orban seeks fourth term

Russia-friendly leader seeks to turn conflict in Europe to his advantage

Viktor Orban has refused Ukraine's pleas to supply weapons or block energy imports from Russia. AFP
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Hungarians will go to the polls on Sunday in an election overshadowed by the war in neighbouring Ukraine as strongman leader Viktor Orban tries to turn the conflict to his advantage despite his usually friendly relations with Moscow.

After 12 years in power, during which critics say Hungary has turned into an increasingly flawed democracy, the conservative Mr Orban is facing his closest race yet after six opposition parties banded together to name a single challenger.

The opposition has seized on a stinging intervention by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy — in which he bluntly told Mr Orban to decide which side he was on — to portray the prime minister as a stooge of the Kremlin.

Mr Orban, in turn, tells voters that the left-wing parties would drag the country into a war that his government is staying as far away from as possible by refusing to ship weapons to Ukraine or block fossil fuel imports from Russia.

“The answer to the question of where Hungary stands is that Hungary is on Hungary’s side,” said Mr Orban, who brushed off Mr Zelenskyy’s swipe as the theatrics of a former actor.

The usually migrant-sceptic Mr Orban has also used Hungary’s acceptance of more than 360,000 refugees from Ukraine to counter his government's image as the problem child of Europe.

Late polling shows Mr Orban with a narrow but persistent lead over the opposition front, but challenger Peter Marki-Zay accuses the ruling Fidesz party of dirty tricks to secure a fourth term.

An independent monitoring mission says media coverage is dominated by pro-government messaging, with other parties restricted to a five-minute slot on morning television.

Hungary has slid down global press freedom rankings and concerns have been raised about a change in electoral law that could open the door to voters being bused into different constituencies.

An admirer of former US president Donald Trump, who has gained a following among American conservatives, Mr Orban has angered the European Union with policies Brussels says are undermining judicial independence, discriminating against minorities and denying refugees a fair chance at asylum.

The European Commission last month won a court battle allowing it to suspend funds to Hungary over breaches of the rule of law, while the opposition is promising a new constitution if it wins.

Mr Orban brushes off such criticism and says western countries are unfairly trying to impose their policy preferences on Hungary on issues such as families and migration.

“We do not expect them to adopt Hungarian migration policy, Hungarian family policy or Hungarian foreign and national policy as their own,” he said of his EU neighbours. “But neither can they demand that we adopt theirs.”

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Mr Orban has been long regarded as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest ally in the EU, having sought closer economic ties and touting the country as another defender of the Christian faith.

Hungary was the first EU country to use Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine and only three weeks before the invasion of Ukraine, Mr Orban was holding talks on increasing Russian gas deliveries.

Treading a fine line once the invasion began, Mr Orban criticised the offensive in Ukraine without condemning Mr Putin personally, and did not stand in the way of EU sanctions but opposed an embargo on energy imports.

A meeting of defence ministers in the so-called Visegrad Group, consisting of Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland, was cancelled because of Mr Orban’s stance on the war.

“I'm very sorry that Hungarian politicians now find cheap Russian oil more important than Ukrainian blood,” said Czech Minister of Defence Jana Cernochova.

Mr Marki-Zay, a small-town mayor and father of seven, accuses his opponent of “choosing Putin instead of the European Union and Nato” and leaving Hungary isolated internationally.

But Mr Orban has sought to shift the debate to bread-and-butter issues, arguing he is protecting Hungarian households by opposing energy sanctions on Russia that would cut off the source of most of the country’s oil imports.

A pension bonus, caps on household bills and tax relief for young workers have also been offered as sweeteners as Hungary prepares to go to the polls, while the opposition is painted as disunited and unreliable.

Robert Laszlo, an expert on Hungarian politics, said in an analysis for the Heinrich Boell Foundation that the ruling Fidesz party had successfully turned an East-West debate into a supposed choice between war and peace.

The opposition is mainly speaking to better-educated voters who see Mr Putin as a threat while Fidesz relies on the simpler narrative of avoiding a war in an appeal to its rural base, Mr Laszlo said.

Mr Orban's opponents have used the war to stir memories of Soviet oppression during the Cold War, latching on to Mr Zelenskyy’s appeal to Hungarians to remember that experience.

Mr Marki-Zay accused Mr Orban of employing tactics from “the darkest days of communism” in a reported plot to smear him by leaking a dossier after he won a primary contest in October.

That ploy was thwarted when the rival party that received the dossier handed it straight to Mr Marki-Zay, he said, but the election campaign has tested the unity of that alliance.

The so-called United for Hungary group includes socialists, liberals and a party called Jobbik, which has neo-Nazi roots — a fact often mentioned by Mr Orban’s allies — but now positions itself as centre-right.

“The ruling party’s campaign is both more effective and better able to handle its own confusion and label its opponents because it has a machine dominating the public sphere with never-ending resources at its disposal,” said Mr Laszlo.

“Hungarian voters have been living in a permanent campaign for 12 years.”

Updated: April 01, 2022, 7:39 AM