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The Implications of Hungary’s Elections for Its Euro-Atlantic Partners

March 28, 2022
22 min read
Photo credit: BarMur / Shutterstock.com

Summary points

  • The war in Ukraine has led Hungary’s government into a superficial foreign policy realignment in the transatlantic direction, and its elections will determine whether there is a genuine U-turn.
  • There are five scenarios for how different potential elections outcomes could impact Hungary’s foreign and EU relations.
  • A narrow Fidesz victory would likely perpetuate the superficial realignment with “faked Atlanticism.” A landslide one would put on steroids Viktor Orbán’s multivectoral foreign policy of friendly relations with Russia and China and fighting against the EU.
  • Elections stolen by Fidesz would confront Hungary’s partners with a dilemma: recognize the results and kill the EU’s democratic credibility, or end up with a non-recognized government in the EU.
  • A post-Fidesz government attempting a constitutional revolution would challenge Hungary’s partners to accept procedural rule-of-law breaches to restore democracy. One muddling through instead against Orbán’s deep state might not last long enough to implement its constructive, Euro-Atlantic foreign policy.

Introduction

The outcome of Hungary’s elections on April 3 will determine the country’s short-term stability and long-term political direction, toward either more autocratization or re-democratization. The elections will also be of strategic importance for the European Union and Hungary’s transatlantic partners.

Over the past 12 years, the regime of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán transformed Hungary into the EU’s first non-democracy. Pursuing a multivectoral foreign policy, it also developed close ties to authoritarian great powers like Russia and China. In consequence, Hungary has become the Kremlin’s and Beijing’s geopolitical and geo-economic bridgehead in Central Europe and a safe haven from where to conduct covert activities within the EU and NATO. The Orbán regime also repeatedly questioned, threatened, or blocked joint NATO and EU positions, including the operations of the NATO-Ukraine Council and EU responses to the human-rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

The tectonic changes in the European security architecture and the transatlantic alliance triggered by the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine put significant pressure on Orbán’s multivectoral foreign policy, causing a superficial realignment in the transatlantic direction. However, the elections’ outcome will determine whether there is a genuine U-turn in Hungary’s foreign policy and the country can once again be a constructive and responsible member of the transatlantic community.

After reviewing the political state of play as the elections near and Hungary’s reaction to the war in Ukraine, this brief sets outs five scenarios based on different potential elections outcomes and their most likely foreign policy implications. The scenarios are the most likely Faked Atlanticism one, and four alternative ones: Stolen Elections, Multivectoralism on Steroids, Shockwaves of the Revolution, and Facing the Deep State.

The Electoral State of Play

For the first time since Orbán and his Fidesz party came to power in 2010 and put Hungary on a journey of autocratization, the outcome of the parliamentary elections is uncertain.

Learning from their election fiascos of 2014 and 2018, opposition parties have adjusted their strategies to the realities of the Orbán-designed election law and formed a united opposition bloc. Its six parties range from the left corners of social democracy (the Socialist Party—MSZP, Democratic Coalition—DK) to green (Dialogue—Párbeszéd, Politics Can Be Different—LMP), liberal (Momentum), and the former radical right (Jobbik). Demonstrating unprecedented coordination and determination, they organized a successful primary and agreed on joint candidates in all 106 constituencies and a joint countrywide electoral list with Péter Márki-Zay as candidate for prime minister.

The political competition this year is tight and real. As of March 18, Fidesz and the united opposition were polling at 48 percent and 46 percent respectively. The last-minute mobilization of undecided voters will determine the result. But the playing field is heavily tilted to favor Fidesz under the country’s “competitive authoritarian” system.

A 2013 reform created a highly gerrymandered electoral map. This dismembered urban constituencies that favored progressive parties and merged them with their rural neighbors that support the conservative Fidesz. As a result, the opposition needs 3 to 5 percent more in votes than Fidesz to win a majority of constituency seats in parliament. The media landscape is dominated by government-controlled outlets that spread centralized propaganda and serve as mouthpieces for Fidesz. The opposition receives no equitable treatment in these outlets. For example, Márki-Zay recently got five minutes of airtime, the legal minimum, on the public television channel that aired Orbán’s March 15 national-holiday speech nine times in 24 hours.

This legal framework means that, through stakeholders associated with Orbán, Fidesz can in practice massively outspend the opposition.

Campaign rules allow the Fidesz government to fund proxy civic and media initiatives and government-organized NGOs as well as political information campaigns. This legal framework means that, through stakeholders associated with Orbán, Fidesz can in practice massively outspend the opposition.

The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE-ODHIR)—Europe’s main electoral watchdog—labelled Hungary’s 2014 elections as “free but not fair” and after the 2018 ones concluded that a “pervasive overlap between state and ruling party resources” undermined “contestants’ ability to compete on an equal basis” and hindered “voters’ ability to make a fully-informed choice.” In light of the election-day irregularities—forged protocols, vote buying, intimidation of voters and poll workers—during the 2018 parliamentary elections and the 2019 European Parliament and municipal elections, this year OSCE-ODIHR has decided to send a full election observation mission with 200 short-term and 18 long-term observers to the country. This extremely rare decision in the case of an EU member state demonstrates the concerns of the international community with regard to the integrity of the elections.

The elections take place in a polarized social environment. During 2021, the share of undecided voters in the polls sunk from nearly 40 percent to 12 percent of the electorate. Over the past couple of months, the government introduced widespread spending programs, including tax exemptions for young people under 25 and large families, extra pensions, and wage increases in several sectors. It also fixed price of gasoline and some basic food products to mitigate the negative impact of skyrocketing energy prices and inflation. In February and March, weeks-long strikes by teachers resulted in frequent civic disobedience as their right to strike was practically suspended by the government.

On April 3, Hungarians will vote in referendum on the government’s anti-LGBTQ policies, which may mobilize the conservative electorate. By contrast, the referendum initiatives of the united opposition opposing the establishment of a campus of China’s Fudan University in Budapest and demanding the extension of unemployment benefits to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic were blocked by the National Election Committee.

The government’s “peace narrative” that emphasizes equidistance from Russia and Ukraine seems to appeal to large segments of the society and Fidesz has gained in the polls. Meanwhile, government propaganda accuses the opposition of irresponsible warmongering with its readiness to provide military aid to Ukraine.

The campaign strategies of the two camps have been heavily impacted by Russia’s war against Ukraine. Orbán’s close ties to President Vladimir Putin offered a political opportunity to the opposition. However, the government’s “peace narrative” that emphasizes equidistance from Russia and Ukraine seems to appeal to large segments of the society and Fidesz has gained in the polls. Meanwhile, government propaganda accuses the opposition of irresponsible warmongering with its readiness to provide military aid to Ukraine.

The war has also heavily downgraded the importance of the opposition’s anti-corruption agenda. Since the invasion, the united opposition has tried to frame the elections as a referendum on Hungary’s future geopolitical orientation. This may resonate with its core electorate, but it is difficult for this message to reach undecided voters due to the biased media landscape.

Hungary’s Reaction to the War in Ukraine

So far, Hungary has supported all EU and NATO positions and measures relating to the war in Ukraine. It has only delayed some of the sanctions steps, like cutting Russia off from the SWIFT payment system, for short periods of time. Some Fidesz-aligned pundits have started testing the public’s reactions to a narrative shift that would bring the government’s communication more in line with the Western mainstream.

Since the outbreak of the war, the Orbán regime has pursued a dual strategy. It has tried to present to the rest of the EU and NATO the image of a constructive team player to avoid negative repercussions from its previous pro-Kremlin policy. In parallel, however, it has refused to provide any military aid to Ukraine or even to allow the delivery of such aid through Hungarian territory, in strong contrast to Hungary’s Central European neighbors. Furthermore, pro-government media have maintained a rather Russia-friendly narrative that often downplays the tragedy of the war and the threat posed by Russia, as well as blaming Ukraine for the war or attributing the responsibility for it between Russia, Ukraine, and NATO.

At the foreign-policy level, the Orbán regime has struggled to understand the depth of the change that occurred in the security perception of Western European countries and thus at the EU and NATO levels.

This dual strategy is motivated by foreign-policy and domestic considerations. At the foreign-policy level, the Orbán regime has struggled to understand the depth of the change that occurred in the security perception of Western European countries and thus at the EU and NATO levels. In the first weeks after the invasion of Ukraine, the government aimed at a potential return to normality in Hungarian-Russian relations as soon as possible once the war was over, failing to understand that this would be impossible. It tried to keep relations with the Kremlin as good as possible by refusing to provide any military aid to Ukraine and keeping its Russia-friendly domestic narrative alive. At the level of domestic politics, any sudden shift in the government’s Russia-friendly discourse would have needed reflection on its past foreign policy course and its strong ties to Russia, which could have led to difficult questions in the elections campaign. To avoid any potential uncertainty in the Fidesz electorate, Orbán decided to firmly hold to the established communication course.

Faked Atlanticism

Elections Scenario

At the time of writing, Fidesz securing a parliamentary majority with 114–125 seats out of 199 appears to be the most likely outcome. Although the elections will certainly not be fair, election-day irregularities may fall short of clearly rigged elections. This would result in another stable Fidesz government but without a constitutional two-thirds supermajority (133 seats). But, since practically all state institutions have already been captured by Fidesz, a supermajority would no longer be essential for Orbán to proceed with a form of semi-authoritarian rule. However, this may diminish his ability to react to sudden challenges with the toolkit of constitutional engineering that has been the regime’s main modus operandi since 2010. The government could also face difficulties to keep filling the ranks of state institutions crucial to his rule, like the Constitutional Court, which may result in some compromises with opposition parties.

Furthermore, a reduced majority would make it harder for Orbán to proceed with a strategy of business as usual. Fidesz relies on the populist narrative that it is the sole representative of the Hungarian people and of the national interest, while the opposition parties are traitors and puppets of foreign powers. It would be increasingly difficult to sustain that narrative as credible, even with Fidesz’s core electorate, if it defeats the opposition by, say, less than 5 percent.

Such an outcome would put significant pressure on the Orbán regime to readjust its strategy and to broaden its electoral base. One way to do so would be to pursue a less divisive, more constructive foreign and EU policy.

Foreign Policy Implications

A narrower-than-before Fidesz victory would most likely result in the continuation of the recent limited and superficial realignment of Hungary toward its Western allies and Euro-Atlantic structures due to the external pressures created by the war in Ukraine. This realignment would face important structural constraints and not amount to more than “faked Atlanticism.”

Many observers expect that, if he remains in office, Orbán would abandon Hungary’s pro-Russia narrative. However, a complete abandonment of its multivectoral foreign policy is unlikely.

At the tactical level, there are red lines the government could not cross: ending energy cooperation with Russia and providing lethal military aid to Ukraine.

At the tactical level, there are red lines the government could not cross: ending energy cooperation with Russia and providing lethal military aid to Ukraine. These would severely undercut Orbán’s most important policy lines and strategies: the regulation of household energy prices and a peace-centered narrative that Hungary must refrain from any moves that may result in involvement in the war.

At the strategic level, Hungary’s autocratization and multivectoral foreign policy have gone hand in hand over the past decade. The regime’s close ties to Russia and China served as leverage with EU institutions. It used these connections to send the message to the rest of the EU that it had strategic alternatives if the EU institutions escalated or sanctioned the country for the regime’s systemic violation of the rule of law and democratic values.

In this scenario, in the short term, the concerns of EU and NATO allies about Hungary’s democracy and rule of law would be subordinated to retaining unity in the Euro-Atlantic structures in the context of the war in Ukraine. However, in the long term, there could be a strong desire to strengthen the democratic cohesion of the West, especially if the narrative of an emerging cold war between democratic and authoritarian great powers prevails. In that case, the violation of democracy and the rule of law by the Orbán regime would be back on the table for the EU after having been put aside for a couple of months.

Against that background, a genuine realignment by Hungary with the Euro-Atlantic structures would not be possible without its re-democratization and the abandonment of its multivectoral foreign policy. Neither would be a real option for Orbán, though, as they are irreconcilable with the semi-authoritarian nature of the regime that guarantees its survival.

Therefore, instead of a genuine rapprochement with Hungary’s Euro-Atlantic partners, the Orbán regime would fake a greater Atlanticism to avoid further isolation within the EU and decrease international pressure on itself. Orbán would support EU and NATO positions, unless they interfere with the Hungarian-Russian energy cooperation, but he would also keep Hungary’s unilateral approach to Ukraine. And, most importantly, he would try to keep his strong connections to Beijing to maintain a multivectoral balance in foreign policy.

In the short term, this scenario could represent an acceptable compromise for most of Hungary’s Euro-Atlantic partners, but in the medium and long term it may revive frustrations within the EU and NATO about its foreign policy and real allegiance.

Stolen Elections

Elections Scenario

In this scenario, Fidesz wins the elections narrowly but widespread election-day irregularities raise serious concerns about the legitimacy of the results. Independent election watchdogs and the OSCE-ODIHR monitoring mission conclude that the scale of vote buying, intimidation of voters, and other forms of election-day irregularities may have influenced the outcome in favor of Fidesz. Widespread protests start in the larger cities, fueled also by the perceived weakness of the Orbán regime and lack of popular support.

The claims of irregularities and election fraud make it impossible for parties of the united opposition to recognize the results and concede defeat. As the protest movement continues, they contemplate boycotting the parliament. In the short term, a political stalemate is unavoidable, with the looming threat of spontaneous political violence between the opposing camps while the consequences of political instability—a fast weakening national currency, downgraded credit and investment ratings—wreak havoc on the economy.

Orbán and Fidesz not accepting the elections results in case of a narrow opposition victory and refusing to give up power could be an alternative election scenario version of the “Stolen Elections” that would have very similar foreign policy implications.

Foreign Policy Implications

This scenario would confront Hungary’s Euro-Atlantic partners with the first significantly rigged elections in the EU and a dilemma. If the EU institutions and European governments were to recognize the results, they would deal another, perhaps fatal, blow to the EU’s already weakened democratic image and credibility. If they did not, in the worst case this could result in the ongoing presence of a non-recognized government at the head of one of the EU member states.

While Hungary’s European partners could mediate between Fidesz and the united opposition and try to convince Orbán to agree to new elections, their leverage would be limited. The reaction of the country’s Central European neighbors would be crucial, especially as in the past Central European solidarity played a key role in protecting Hungary from potential sanctions, especially in frame of the EU’s Article 7 procedure.

However, even if there would be readiness to sanction the Orbán regime for rigging the elections and remaining illegally in power, the EU’s toolkit would prove limited for applying the appropriate leverage on it. Freezing relations with the government, as EU member states did in 2000 with Austria, would be an option but would not have much impact. Member states would also not necessarily consent to withdraw Hungary’s voting rights in the Council of the EU. And, even if they did, a conservative reading of Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union would not allow imposing targeted sanctions against key stakeholders of the regime. That would require the suspension of the “mutual trust” principle with regard to Hungary and a creative interpretation of Article 7. The United States would be in better position to sanction regime members. But ultimately the non-recognition of the elections results by Hungary’s Euro-Atlantic partners could easily end in stalemate.

Such a scenario would only underline that the EU has even fewer options to challenge the autocratization of a member state if it is not slow and incremental but sudden and decisive.

This situation could push Orbán irrevocably in the arms of Russia and China, which would not hesitate to recognize his government. Caught between a rock and hard place, Hungary’s Euro-Atlantic partners would then face a situation in which they only have bad options. Such a scenario would only underline that the EU has even fewer options to challenge the autocratization of a member state if it is not slow and incremental but sudden and decisive.

Multivectoralism on Steroids

Elections Scenario

A sudden breakdown of the united opposition campaign or a greater mobilization of Fidesz voters in the final phase of the campaign could easily result in the party crossing the 133-seats threshold for a constitutional supermajority. This would be perceived at home and abroad as a landslide victory for Orbán. It would most likely lead to the disintegration of the united opposition, the vanishing of its smaller parties, and widespread apathy in the core anti-Orbán electorate.

Foreign Policy Implications

A landslide victory resulting in a new constitutional supermajority for Fidesz would be a confirmation of the popular support behind Orbán’s multivectoral foreign policy. In the context of the war in Ukraine, it would be interpreted as overwhelming support behind his “peace policy” that rules out any significant support to Ukraine, his friendly relations with authoritarian great powers, and his fight against the EU.

While this elections outcome would strengthen Orbán’s position, it may also raise the domestic costs of anything more than a superficial realignment with Hungary’s Western partners. Orbán could not risk the loss of face with his voters that abandoning his anti-Western narrative would be seen as an inexplicable withdrawal after a victorious battle.

Should Russia slowly get the upper hand in military terms in Ukraine, an Orbán reassured at home by a landslide victory would surely revert back to being the Kremlin’s main advocate in the West.

Should Russia slowly get the upper hand in military terms in Ukraine, an Orbán reassured at home by a landslide victory would surely revert back to being the Kremlin’s main advocate in the West. This would not only keep Hungary’s recent realignment with EU and NATO positions superficial but also limit it to a short period of time.

This scenario would not just see the reemergence of Hungary’s multivectoral foreign policy but put it on steroids. In the face of the ongoing threat from Russia, Orbán’s regime could ask for an even higher political price for its cooperative behavior from its partners, which would be well aware that the damage from blockades or vetoes by Hungary could be much greater than the cost of buying Orbán’s minimum cooperation. Lacking the will to challenge him in any credible way and fearing the consequences of a confrontation with Budapest, Hungary’s Euro-Atlantic partners could be tempted to accept its continuing autocratization and multivectoral foreign policy for some time. In practice, though, this would more or less mean the EU abandoning its democratic credentials for good.  

Shockwaves of the Revolution

Elections Scenario

Any late problem for Fidesz’s electoral campaign—an unexpected revelation, scandal, or communication crisis—could easily tip the balance in favor of the united opposition. This would see the latter winning a parliamentary majority, in spite of the uneven and gerrymandered playing field, but not a supermajority.

Even with a change in the government, though, the re-democratization of Hungary would be impossible without reversing the state and constitutional capture that Fidesz has achieved over the years by filling the ranks of institutions with its cronies. And, without a supermajority in parliament, the new government would not be able to reshape the country’s de facto constitution, the Basic Law, and key institutions in conformity with the procedural requirements for constitutional change, which is what Orbán did it after 2010.

Against that background, the new government could opt for a strategy of constitutional revolution. Leading figures of the united opposition—like its candidate for prime minister, Péter Márki-Zay, or Klára Dobrev, the lead candidate of the biggest opposition party, Democratic Coalition—have repeatedly spoken in favor of this option. Hungarian lawyers and politicians have discussed several potential legal venues for such a move that would aim to amend the Basic Law with a simple majority. Nearly all these legal arguments have one thing in common: they either constitute a clear breach of the Basic Law or their legality is at least highly disputable. The Constitutional Court, which has been firmly captured by Fidesz since 2013, would almost certainly rule them all to be unconstitutional.

In that scenario, Fidesz and its supporters would take to the streets, portraying themselves as supporters of the rule of law and the constitutional order against what they would call a constitutional coup. These protests could easily spin out of control, considering the higher propensity for violence of the radical right and football hooligan groups loosely associated with Fidesz.

Foreign Policy Implications

The scenario would pose a significant challenge to the EU’s rule-of-law enforcement policy. The EU institutions and member states, as well as the United States, would face a government that violates the Basic Law in a procedural sense in a way that the Orbán regime never did over its 12 years in power. This could not be ignored, especially as the European Commission has always reacted more harshly to procedural violations of domestic constitutional law in member states (for example, in the case of Poland) than to the kind of substantive violations usual for the Orbán regime.

The new government would argue that a constitutional revolution is indispensable to reverse Fidesz’s state capture and reestablish democratic institutions. It would emphasize that the EU’s inability to constrain Hungary’s democratic backsliding under Orbán significantly contributed to creating a situation that makes it necessary to deploy this weapon of last resort. The government would also underline that the Fidesz government was in obvious breach of EU values enshrined in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union and that a constitutional revolution would in fact reinstate Hungary’s compliance with EU law. All of these arguments would contain an element of truth.

The European Commission would face a dilemma. If it did not respond to the government’s violation of the rule of law, it could be easily accused of double standards. If it did sanction it, this would be punishing the democratic revival of a member state that has gone far down the road of autocratization but would like to return to the EU’s values. Furthermore, it would be punishing a government that would take its EU membership obligations seriously. The united opposition has said its government would be ready to join the European Public Prosecutor Office on its first day in office, to provide substantial support to Ukraine, including military aid, and to cut Hungary’s ties to the Kremlin and Beijing. The new government may also be committed to the introduction of the euro.

In this scenario, one would hope that Hungary’s Euro-Atlantic partners would see the worthwhile political goal behind the government’s breach of the rule of law and overlook it. After all, for them politics has also always trumped the rule of law over the past 12 years of Fidesz’s autocratization.

Ironically, the war in Ukraine could increase the chances of a post-Fidesz government getting away unpunished with a constitutional revolution, just at it could allow a reelected Fidesz government to continue on its path as in the previous scenario. In this scenario too, maintaining EU and NATO unity would be the priority for Hungary’s allies. The EU institutions could hesitate to get into a rule-of-law conflict with a Hungarian government that pursued a real realignment with the Western alliance. Hence, in this scenario the current international context may also increase the likeliness of such a development in case of an opposition victory.

Facing the Deep State

Elections Scenario

In this scenario as in the previous one, the elections produce a narrow victory for the united opposition. But here, the new government rejects the idea of a constitutional revolution, fearing the potential domestic consequences, like violent protests or a reaction by the armed forces, as well as widespread international condemnation and potential EU sanctions. Instead, it opts for a strategy of muddling through in the institutional and legal context it inherits from years of Fidesz rule.

Following the arguments of mainstream constitutional lawyers in Hungary, the government would thus try to use the judiciary as an instrument to reverse Fidesz’s constitutional and state capture. This strategy would be based on the assumption that a large number of Fidesz appointees would accept the fact of the government change and that they would act in good faith and in accordance with the laws of the country, and not as subversive political agents of an Orbán “deep state.” The validity of this assumption would become clear in the first weeks of the new government.

If the new government failed to pass next year’s budget, this would then automatically lead to the dissolution of the parliament, in accordance with the Basic Law, and to new elections in the spring of 2023.

In this scenario, the new government would face two possible paths. One would be a permanent political fight and difficult muddling through against the Fidesz opposition and its acolytes cemented in the institutions. This would most likely exhaust the government but could allow it to stay in office beyond its first year. The alternative would a total blockade of the government by the Fidesz-captured institutions, most notably the recently elected president, Katalin Novák, and the Constitutional Court. If they wish so, they could stop a new parliamentary majority from passing even a single act. If the new government failed to pass next year’s budget, this would then automatically lead to the dissolution of the parliament, in accordance with the Basic Law, and to new elections in the spring of 2023.

Foreign Policy Implications

This scenario would be by far the most comfortable for Hungary’s Euro-Atlantic partners. A new government would show strong commitment to EU values and the Western alliance. After 12 years of Fidesz rule, Hungary might once again play a constructive role at the European, transatlantic, and regional levels. In contrast to the previous scenario, in this one domestic developments would not put any significant burden on the shoulders of the country’s partners.

However, this scenario would be unsustainable. There is only a small chance that, without a radical approach, a new government could fight corruption and state capture, increase the quality of democracy, and maintain a successful economic and social policy that helps to preserve its popularity in the middle of a new economic and refugee crisis triggered by the war in Ukraine.

This scenario is a reminder that Hungary’s Euro-Atlantic partners share the responsibility in its autocratization over the past decade. If they are not ready to take some risks and bear some costs to support change in the country, any democratic revival there might be very short-lived faced with the coordinated opposition of a Fidesz elite and its deep state that is not interested in a real transfer of power, even after losing elections.