How Putin’s War Influenced an Election

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Disclaimer: This post reflects solely the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors

I.  Introduction

Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, who has been in power since 2010, is infamous for his strongman politics, uneasy relationship with the EU and his closeness to Putin.

Hungary held parliamentary elections on 3rd April 2022. Orban, 4-time Prime Minister, and his party (Fidesz) faced United for Hungary (Egységben Magyarországért), an opposition alliance formed by six opposition parties. Although analysts and notable foreign newspapers predicted that the election was going to be a close one, in the end, Fidesz won the election with a two-thirds majority. This article looks at the effect the war in Ukraine had on the election results in Hungary.

II. How the Russian-Ukrainian war played a role in Orbán’s win

Orban’s historic win, giving his party more seats in parliament than ever before, is partly the result of the break-out of the Russian-Ukrainian war on 24th February 2022, after Russian troops invaded Ukraine.

1.  Fidesz: the Party of Peace

Foremost, it is widely held that in times of war, voters are less likely to change government, since they associate  security and stability with the current regime. Fidesz took advantage of this phenomenon. The messaging around the war heavily concentrated on painting Fidesz’s soft approach to Russia as the only way to guarantee Hungarians’ safety. The party decided to strike the balance between supporting Ukraine with the rest of the West and their Russia-friendly messaging that has been around for 3 consecutive terms, claiming they would not let weapons reach Ukraine through Hungary while also supporting economic sanctions against Russia in the EU and the UN. Orban explained that Hungary permitting weapons to be supplied through its territory to Ukraine would be equal to entering the war and “becoming the enemies of the country against whom the weapons are used”.

The correctness of the statement is questionable. In international law, relative neutrality is not likely to be broken just by supplying weapons, let alone by permitting other parties to transport weapons through the State’s territory. Even if supplying weapons meant entering the war, as in the strictest interpretation of the principle, coming to the defense of an unlawfully attacked State, in pursuit of reestablishing peace (which implies taking no sides) is legal in accordance with the principle of collective self-defense in Article 51 of the UN Charter. 

Regardless of legality, the point is moot. The shortest way to get the weapons to Ukraine would be through Poland anyway, so the supplies will reach Ukraine whether or not Hungary allows them to be transported through its territory. Furthermore, Hungary passed a law to allow weapons destined for Ukraine to be transported through Hungary as long as the weapons exit Hungary through a border with a country other than Ukraine (e.g., Romania), thus indirectly transporting weapons to Ukraine. 

Moreover, the EU, despite being heavily reliant on Russia for gas and oil, has decided to expand sanctions to gas and oil import. During the campaign, Fidesz sent letters to all Hungarian citizens on how they refuse expanding sanctions to include. They framed this as protecting Hungarian interests in the future (i.e., avoid increasing gas prices). Therefore, Hungary is not only guaranteed to be safe from being forced to participate in a bloody war right now but is also protected in the aftermath of the conflict between Russia and the West. All thanks to Orban, of course. Nevertheless, when the European Parliament voted on the resolution to immediately stop importing gas from Russia all Fidesz MPs voted in favour. It follows that Orban’s strong stance on these issues was more of a show for the Hungarian public than an actual message to the international community.

2. The Opposition is Pro-War

Secondly, the Orban campaign made the opposition look like they wanted to participate in the war. After Peter Marki-Zay, the opposition’s leader, made a comment about Hungary’s obligation to enter the war if the NATO decides to invade (an obligation that all NATO states have), Fidesz, using its elaborate network of propaganda media, spread the news of the candidate’s plans to send Hungarian soldiers to the front in Ukraine. Although Marki-Zay tried to clarify, the opposition could not overpower the obvious numerical superiority of government-friendly media outlets in the country. Orbán listed the Ukrainian prime minister amongst his “enemies” in his celebratory speech. During the campaign, Volodymyr Zelensky criticised the Hungarian PM for his reluctance to help Ukraine and after the back-and-forth between the two leaders, it is unsurprising that even a meeting with the Ukrainian politician would be equal to supporting Ukraine in the war in the eyes of the Hungarian media. After getting wind of Marki-Zay and Zelensky’s plans to talk, the Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Péter Szijjártó, theorized (and presented as fact) that the Ukrainian government was seeking to influence the results of the Hungarian election. Despite the fact that the meeting between Marki-Zay and Zelensky never actually happened due to a bomb alarm in Kyiv at the time, the United for Hungary coalition became the pro-war party in the eyes of the Hungarian electorate.

3. The Usual

Fidesz’s politics is built on fearmongering. In the 2018 elections, Fidesz was suspected to have worked with Cambridge Analytica (infamous for providing data from roughly 87 million Facebook profiles for election assistance, e.g., the 2016 Trump campaign) on a campaign that framed Middle-Eastern asylum-seekers fleeing war and Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros (who funds the remaining civic sphere in the country) as the ”foreign influence” from which Hungarians need protection. Much of the messaging of this campaign was reminiscent of the antisemitic propaganda of the 1930s Nazi Germany and Hungary: the threat of the proximity of people of a different religion (Muslims) and the wealthy, conniving figure secretly pulling the strings in the background (Soros).

It is hardly a surprise that the 2022 Hungarian elections involved similar fearmongering. The Russian-Ukrainian war provided a convenient situation that the experienced Fidesz campaign could manipulate to its advantage. On his Facebook page, Orban wrote, referring to Unite for Hungary: “The left has reached an agreement with the Ukrainians. If they win, they will start sending weapons, close the gas taps and ruin the economy”.

4. Other factors

Lastly, it is worth acknowledging the other factors at play, such as the unfair voting system, the errors made by the opposition, irregularities in the running of the election (e.g., the burning of mail votes cast for the opposition), gerrymandering in several constituencies (as observed by OSCE) and the aforementioned media landscape, which all played a part in Orbán’s win. All of these together with the messaging on the Ukrainian war won Fidesz the election.

III.  The implications

The election victory will likely not encourage Orban to change his politics in Hungary. However, it may have implications for his and Hungary’s place in the European and international political scene.

1. EU

“We have such a victory it can be seen from the moon, but it’s sure that it can be seen from Brussels” exclaimed Orbán at his campaign rally, after the results rolled in on the night of 3rd April. This not-so-subtle dig comes after 12 years of tension with the EU. Orban, the self-titled illiberal leader he is, has frequently clashed with the EU on rule of law and human rights questions. An analysis of the Hungarian PM’s speeches reveals that he often refers to “Brussels” as the danger from which he offers protection. Most recently, he proposed that the EU is trying to force the “LGBTQ-lobby” on Hungary and he needs the support of the Hungarian people in the upcoming referendum on a law that blurs the line between homosexuality and paedophilia, to protect the country.

Analysts predict that Orban’s victory strengthens his position in the EU, as the landslide win sends the message that there is no alternative to Fidesz in Hungary. Nevertheless, the EU still has the rule of law mechanism in its back pocket, which can deprive Hungary of billions of much-needed funds. Two days after the election, the European Commission triggered the Article 7 TFEU mechanism (which it had been planning to do for months) due to misuse of EU funds. Some argue that Orban’s victory may aid him in negotiating European restraint on Hungary for rule-of-law violations in exchange for unity over Russia sanctions (as he has been blocking further sanctions on issues like gas  imports).

2. Central Europe

Think tanks expect one of the consequences of the Hungarian PM’s politics on the Ukrainian war to be Orban’s isolation within the Euro-Atlantic area. Although disapproval from the EU and Western states was not the least bit shocking, the Hungarian Prime Minister’s soft approach towards Russia seems to have alienated even his Central European allies. Orban, who for years has been active in trying to strengthen the bond between the 4 Central European nations of Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary (“the Visegrád Group”), was forced to cancel the upcoming conference between the states. The Polish and Czech ministers indicated they would not be in attendance and thereby expressed their disapproval of Hungary’s stance on the Ukrainian war.

The Czech Minister of Defence, Jana Černochová, poetically declared she was not going to attend because “Russian oil is more important to Hungarians than Ukrainian blood”. The Polish Minister of Defence, Mariusz Błaszczak, echoed this sentiment days before the conference was going to take place. Moreover, after the Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki expressed his disapproval of Hungary’s good relations with Putin and lack of support for Ukraine, the Deputy Prime Minister of Poland, Jaroslaw Kaczyński, criticised Orbán for his failure to condemn Putin for the invasion of Ukraine and the massacre in Bucha.

Poland, whose government, similarly to Hungary’s, self-identifies as an “illiberal” democracy, has been the country’s main ally within the EU. As Article 7 has the ability to strip a country of voting rights and withhold funds if all other Member States unanimously vote to do so, Hungary might have a reason to worry if Orban’s stance on the Ukrainian situation proves a deal breaker for Poland.

3. Russia

Analysts have suggested Orban will not see a reason to change his politics, staying loyal to Putin, without having to veto any sanctions in the EU. Nevertheless, speaking at his first press conference since his election win, Orban stated he realises that Hungary’s stance on Russia “has to change after the war”. He did not detail what that means. The war is also likely to be long-lasting and some predict it may even escalate to involve more states. And if this is true, only time will tell on which side Hungary will end up.

By Lili Grosser,

A Law graduate of King’s College London, her main area of interest is the intersection of international law and international public policy.

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