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Europe’s other threat to democracy

While Putin batters Ukraine, his ally Viktor Orbán just strengthened his hold on Hungary.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán meet in Budapest on October 30, 2019.
Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

On Sunday evening, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán won reelection for the fourth time — emerging with control of over two-thirds of the country’s parliamentary seats in defiance of close pre-election polls. This fourth consecutive victory means he will remain the third-longest-serving current leader in Europe at nearly 16 years in power, behind only Belarus’s Aleksandr Lukashenko (28 years as president) and Russia’s Vladimir Putin (23 years as president or prime minister).

That Orbán’s peers in longevity are outright dictators is appropriate, as Sunday’s election was anything but free and fair. For the past 12 years, Orbán has systematically worked to turn Hungarian democracy into a sham: one where elections seem fair, but take place on uneven playing ground. Through tactics ranging from extreme gerrymandering to media control to unfair campaign finance rules, he has made it unthinkably difficult for the opposition to defeat his Fidesz party at the ballot box.

Sunday’s results reflect this undemocratic reality, with his party once again winning enough seats to unilaterally amend Hungary’s constitution.

“It is doubtful that in free and fair elections, with a more proportionate electoral system, he would win a parliamentary majority, let alone such a large one,” Cas Mudde, an expert on European politics at the University of Georgia, writes in the New Statesman.

Orbán does have a real constituency. Many Hungarians, especially cultural conservatives outside of the capital Budapest, find his political style genuinely appealing. His system is built on amplifying the influence of these supporters, convincing others to join them through relentless propaganda, and starving his critics of the resources they need to compete.

It should not be a surprise that Hungary has been Putin’s best friend in the European Union and NATO during the Ukraine crisis, with Orbán’s regime broadcasting pro-Russian propaganda and banning arms transfers to Ukraine from Hungarian soil. In a truly democratic system, this stance likely would have been an electoral liability: Hungarians have a vivid national memory of the 1956 Soviet invasion of their country.

But Hungary is not, in reality, a democracy. And the durability of its regime poses a problem for Europe — an insidious internal threat that compliments Putin’s more brutal external one.

Why Hungary’s election was so unfair

The 199 seats in Hungary’s parliament are elected in a dual-track system. Ninety-three seats are proportionally elected, with parties getting a percentage roughly equivalent to their national vote total. The remaining 106 seats work like American or British elections, with one member elected to represent a specific legislative district.

It is in this second kind of seat where Orbán’s Fidesz party really ran up the score. Though they won 53 percent of the vote nationally, they won 83 percent of the seats in single-member districts — including a whopping 98 percent of seats in districts outside of Budapest.

This reflects stronger government support in the countryside, but also gerrymandering. Before the 2014 election, Orbán’s government redrew the single-district map to pack opposition supporters in a handful of districts while spreading their supporters across many. Since then, it has won more than two-thirds of seats in three consecutive elections despite vastly smaller shares of the popular vote — 45 percent in 2014, 49 percent in 2018, and 53 percent in 2022 (a two-thirds majority is significant because it allows Fidesz to amend the constitution unilaterally).

That Fidesz’s share of the popular vote is increasing is also no accident. In addition to gerrymandering, Orbán’s government has increasingly rigged the media environment and campaign system against his opponents — meaning that fewer and fewer Hungarians ever hear what the opposition has to say.

After the 2010 victory, the Fidesz government used the power of the state to pressure private media corporations to sell to the state or to oligarchs aligned with Fidesz. Tactics included withholding government advertising dollars, selectively blocking mergers that would allow outlets to expand, and imposing punitive taxes on ad revenue.

By 2017, about 90 percent of all media in Hungary was owned by either the state or a Fidesz ally, including every single regional newspaper in the country — but that still wasn’t enough. In 2020, Index — the most popular independent news website in the country — was taken over by an Orbán ally, who fired the editor-in-chief (80 of its 90 journalists subsequently resigned in protest). In 2021, the opposition-friendly radio station Klubradio was taken off the air; its frequency was subsequently assigned to a pro-government outlet.

War In Ukraine Looms Over Hungary’s Parliamentary Elections
Viktor Orbán speaks to media after casting his ballots during the general parliamentary elections on April 3, 2022 in Budapest
Janos Kummer/Getty Images

The structure of election campaigns is similarly biased. In 2020, the government took 50 percent of federal funding from all political parties to fund the coronavirus response. This might seem to affect all parties equally, but Fidesz has a variety of sources of campaign funding independent of state support that its opponents lack. “While Fidesz, the governing party, has practically infinite resources, this will put a massive strain on opposition parties,” Hungarian journalist Szabolcs Panyi wrote at the time.

You could see the resource discrepancy on display during the current campaign. A March 31 report from Hungarian corruption watchdogs found that the government spent over eight times as much on campaign billboards as the opposition; it displayed 12,171 campaign billboards around the country as compared to 1,564 for the opposition. The Fidesz campaign actually exceeded legal limits on billboard spending, per the report, but they got away with it by labeling campaign posters funded by the government itself as “public information activities.”

The content of the government programming itself is directly designed to appeal to Fidesz’s strongest supporters in Hungary’s conservative countryside. The government stands up a series of villains — Muslim migrants, the Jewish billionaire George Soros, LGBTQ activists — and presents them as existential threats to Hungary’s way of life. Many Hungarians authentically support Orbán’s views on these topics; relentlessly hammering these themes in pro-government media deflects from the corrupt and anti-democratic heart of his regime.

In 2022, the opposition was more united than in the past: All of the major non-Fidesz parties, from the far-right Jobbik to the center-left MSZP, joined together in a united list. This means they tried to pool their resources and not run multiple candidates in single-member districts, in theory countering Fidesz’s resource advantage and gerrymandering.

But the fact that this election wasn’t even close, as pre-election polls suggested it would be, shows just how well Fidesz’s machine operates. It is designed to give the Hungarians who authentically support his views outsized influence in the political system through gerrymandering while suppressing the influence of those who disagree. It is this combination of democratic and authoritarian features — a mix political scientists call “competitive authoritarianism” — that allows Orbán to repress his opponents while convincing his supporters that they still live in a democracy.

Why Orbán’s victory matters

In his victory speech, Orbán listed a series of enemies that tried to stop his reelection. The list, which mostly consisted of Jews or stereotypical Jewish stand-ins, culminated by pointing the finger at Volodymyr Zelenskyy — the Jewish Ukrainian president who is currently a hero in the rest of Europe.

“This victory will be remembered for the rest of our lives because so many people ganged up on us, including the left at home, the international left everywhere, the bureaucrats in Brussels, all the funds and organizations of the Soros empire, the foreign media, and in the end even the Ukrainian president,” he said.

Zelenskyy, who drew Orbán’s ire after criticizing his position on the war in a late March speech, cannot be happy with Sunday’s results. Vladimir Putin, by contrast, has been one of the most prominent world leaders to congratulate Orbán on his victory — wishing for “the further development of bilateral partnership ties” despite “the complex international situation.”

In reality, these ties are already plenty deep. Reporting by Direkt36, one of a handful of independent media outlets in Hungary, has uncovered a large number of favors done by Orbán for Putin — ranging from a sweetheart nuclear energy deal to tolerating Russian spying activities in Hungary.

This is one reason why the Hungarian election results are so important, even for people outside Hungary. The liberal democratic order in Europe is under attack from without, thanks to Putin’s invasion from Russia. But the Hungarian government is undermining it from within, taking an effectively pro-Russian position that weakens Europe’s ability to deal with Russian aggression.

Orbán’s authoritarian model is different from Putin’s. While the latter has a long history of throwing his opponents in jail (or worse), the former generally allows them to speak but makes sure few can hear them. This shared antipathy to democracy, and their mutual hatred for liberal cultural values, binds the two leaders.

Putin and Orbán in Moscow in 2018.
Alexey Druzhnin/Sputnik/AFP

This is most obviously visible today in Hungarian propaganda about the war, which in some cases is indistinguishable from what you might hear on Russian government broadcasters like RT.

“To read and watch state-linked news in Hungary these days is to catch a steady stream of Kremlin-friendly framings, arguments and outright conspiracies about the war in Ukraine,” writes Politico’s Lili Bayer. “The CIA helped install the current Ukrainian government in power. The US prodded Russia into attacking Ukraine. Ukrainian arms may be sold to ‘terrorists’ in France. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is behaving like Adolf Hitler during the waning days of World War II.”

Hungary’s pro-Kremlin tilt is on display in its actions too. In addition to vetoing the use of its territory for providing arms to Ukraine, the Hungarian government has maintained economic linkages with Russia. It is, for example, the only EU country that is still working with Russia’s International Investment Bank.

While Orbán reluctantly signed on to the EU sanctions, he has loudly vowed to block any restrictions on Russian oil and gas imports — and has even hinted at blocking the current restrictions’ extension.

In this, Budapest is mostly alone. The pro-Russia stance has split Hungary from its political ally Poland, where the right-wing authoritarian Law and Justice party has taken a staunchly anti-Moscow line. In late March, the Polish defense minister backed out of a planned summit with Hungary, citing their disagreements on the Ukraine invasion.

Yet even one dissenter in Europe matters, as key decisions like European Council votes and the admission of new states to NATO require unanimous consent. Experts on Hungary warned, prior to the election, that an Orbán victory could pose a long-term threat to Europe’s ability to effectively respond to Putin’s aggression.

“If Orbán remains in power beyond April, he will threaten the West by breaking the unity surrounding sanctions and using them as a bargaining chip in future European Council decisions, blackmailing his so-called allies with vetoes,” writes Péter Krekó, director of the Political Capital think tank in Budapest. “Hungary’s election will soon decide how much longer the specter of Putinism will haunt Europe.”

Krekó may be overstating the case: Hungary is a small country, with a population of roughly 10 million, with only a handful of friends inside the European Union. Yet in a continent whose collective institutions are premised on shared democracy, even one authoritarian state can create headaches.

And in the United States, where Orbán has a growing fan club on the right, his victory will serve as further inspiration for a “postliberal” American future.

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