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BUDAPEST — Russia’s war in Ukraine has upended Hungary’s election campaign for Moscow-friendly Prime Minister Viktor Orbán — but not in the way you might think.
Orbán’s close relationship with President Vladimir Putin has come under scrutiny since the vengeful Russian leader moved to attack Hungary’s neighbor Ukraine. And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called Orbán for not offering stronger support to his beleaguered country.
In many European countries, the position of Prime Minister could mean the end of a political career.
This is not the case in Hungary.
Ahead of Sunday’s legislative elections, Orbán avoided the campaign becoming a referendum on his history with Moscow. Instead, his message boils down to a simple idea: he will keep Hungary out of the war, his adversaries will not.
Never mind that the Hungarian opposition is not advocating for Hungary to send troops to Ukraine, Orbán used state resources and a friendly media echo chamber to suggest otherwise.
His team mined a government coronavirus email database to blast talking points and blanketed the country in taxpayer-funded posters proclaiming, “Let’s preserve the peace and security of Hungary!” next to the image of Orbán. Pro-government media and Orbán’s own foreign minister even accuse the Kyiv government of supporting the Hungarian opposition alliance.
Polls suggest the tactic is working: Orbán is leading in terms of popular support.
“I am not responsible to the Lord for the Ukrainian people, but for the Hungarian people,” the prime minister said in a radio interview last weekend. “Hungarian politics,” Orbán said, “is neither favorable to Ukraine nor to Russia: it is favorable to Hungary.”
A victory for Orbán would resonate throughout the EU.
While the bloc reacted with alacrity and solidarity in the first weeks of the war, imposing sanctions and approving funds to funnel weapons to Ukraine, cracks are beginning to appear and Orbán has firmly opposed more sanctions. strict against Russian energy. Another term for Orbán would also force the EU to finally face a difficult question: whether to cut budgetary funds in Budapest due to findings of democratic backsliding.
Orbán’s opponents have responded by stepping up efforts to shine a light on the prime minister’s relationship with Putin.
“The war in Ukraine and the Russian aggression have changed a lot of things,” said Klára Dobrev, a member of the left-wing Liberal Democratic Coalition who is running as candidate No. 2 on the united opposition list.
Dobrev, a member of the European Parliament, told POLITICO that the war “has increased the feeling of insecurity” among Hungarians.
Now, she said, Sunday’s election came down to a choice between “Orbán or Europe – it’s the vote.”
A different campaign
On Sunday, Hungarians will choose between Orbán’s right-wing populist Fidesz party – in power for 12 years – and a diverse alliance of six opposition parties and its candidate for prime minister, conservative provincial mayor Péter Márki- Zay.
While the campaign initially focused on issues such as corruption, the economy and an anti-LGBTQ+ referendum also planned by the government for this weekend, the dispute next door has changed the conversation.
“The war cast a shadow over the entire Hungarian countryside,” Orbán said in his radio interview.
“The issue of peace and security is now also part of the election stakes. And our message is clear: only Fidesz can create peace in Hungary, only we can guarantee the security of the Hungarian people,” said the Prime Minister.
Despite this rhetoric, Orbán has so far followed Western allies as they bolster their military presence in the region and fund arms shipments to Ukraine. Budapest allowed NATO to deploy troops in western Hungary and did not oppose an EU decision to provide 500 million euros for weapons and other aid to the army Ukrainian. Hungary has also backed several rounds of EU sanctions designed to separate much of Russia’s economy from the bloc.
But at home, Orbán’s message to voters is that Hungary itself should not supply Ukraine with arms and that Budapest will oppose further measures that could damage the country’s economy, such as than tougher energy sanctions. The government also does not allow the direct transit of arms across the Hungarian-Ukrainian border.
“We are giving the Ukrainians everything we can, maybe even beyond our capabilities,” the prime minister said. “But we will not comply with any of their demands that would destroy our national community – whether in a biological sense, with the death of our sons in someone else’s war, or with the ruin of the economy. Hungarian.”
Conflict is on voters’ minds: At a campaign event this week in Budaörs, a city outside Budapest, a voter asked about Hungary’s defenses and its relationship with NATO – an issue that would have been highly unusual in other recent campaigns, when local rallies tended to focus on issues such as health care and pensions.
Hungarians are deeply divided on how they assess Orbán’s foreign policy.
According to a survey carried out by the Publicus Institute between March 7 and 11, 64% of Hungarians believe that the invasion of Ukraine was more an “aggression” than a “defense” on the part of Moscow.
But this sentiment is heavily weighted by Orbán’s opponents. Ninety-one percent of opposition voters felt Moscow was the aggressor, compared to just 44 percent among Fidesz voters.
Similarly, while 90% of opposition voters said Orbán should condemn Russia more harshly for attacking Ukraine, only 8% of government supporters said the prime minister should step up his tone, according to the poll.
A separate study by pollster Medián found that 43% of Fidesz supporters say Russia has acted fairly in Ukraine.
Experts say Fidesz voters’ support for Orbán’s policies – despite a February visit he made to Moscow to brag about his cordial approach alongside Putin – is partly due to tight government control across much of the information landscape.
ELECTION TO THE NATIONAL PARLIAMENT OF HUNGARY POLL OF POLLS
For more survey data from across Europe, visit POLITICS Survey of surveys.
For weeks, state and pro-government media have been promoting Russian narratives of the war. Róbert László, an analyst at the Political Capital Institute in Budapest, called it the government’s “media empire”.
Orbán’s supporters “are in such a bubble of opinion,” he said, that “what he said six weeks or three days ago just doesn’t matter.”
It is a bubble reinforced by Orbán’s use of state resources, such as publicly funded posters or the email database used to solicit people with this message: an Orbán government “will not allow not that Hungarian families are paying the price of war”.
War of words with kyiv
Before the war, Budapest and Kyiv had a difficult relationship, arguing over the language rights of Hungarian speakers living in western Ukraine.
These tensions have come to the fore in recent days after Zelenskyy publicly berated Orbán, telling the Hungarian leader: “You have to decide for yourself who you are with.
In response, pro-government Hungarian media and social media accounts unleashed a torrent of personal attacks on the Ukrainian leader. Some media outlets supporting Orbán even accused the Kyiv government of helping to bolster the Hungarian opposition in the campaign, portraying Zelenskyy as a puppet trying to force Budapest into war.
On Wednesday, tensions rose when Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó publicly accused the Ukrainian government of essentially ingesting Hungary’s election. The minister claimed, without proof, that the opposition had promised kyiv that it would supply arms to Ukraine and that it would support new energy sanctions if it came to power.
Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, dismissed Szijjártó’s claims, stating that Ukraine does not interfere in Hungary’s internal affairs. Kuleba then added a pointed tip: If Szijjártó feels that an award he received from Russia is more important than his relationship with Ukraine, he should just say so.
The Opposition Project
Márki-Zay, the opposition candidate for prime minister, acknowledged that Russia’s invasion initially seemed to create a rallying effect for Orbán.
“At first,” he said, “we noticed that people want security and they expect Orbán to be able to protect them.”
Today, however, the opposition argues that Orbán is incapable of defending Hungary.
“Only NATO can protect Hungary, not Orbán,” Márki-Zay told POLITICO during a campaign stop in the town of Szolnok on Monday. “Orbán always wanted to stop Brussels, the EU. Now we all have to stop Putin to live in peace.
Hungarian Minister Gergely Gulyás, who is Orbán’s chief of staff, pushed back against the criticism.
“We are a loyal member of the European Union and NATO,” Gulyás told POLITICO on Tuesday, noting that Budapest “condemns Russian aggression” and supports sanctions.
The difference of opinion, according to the minister, boils down to the opinion of the Hungarian government that the sanctions should penalize “the Russians and not Europe”.
For Gulyás, the government’s foreign policy could help in the upcoming elections.
“I think the Hungarian government’s decision is popular,” Gulyás said. “I think if it influences the election, it will be good for the government.”