In this episode of the Liberal Europe Podcast, Leszek Jażdżewski (Fundacja Liberté!) welcomes Dr Péter Krekó, the Director of the Political Capital Institute, based in Budapest, and a Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. They talk about the forthcoming election to the National Assembly in Hungary, the possible outcomes in the current geopolitical situation, and their implications for the region.
Leszek Jażdżewski: The Hungarian election takes place on Sunday. What happened since October, when the polls showed that the united opposition (United for Hungary) can beat Viktor Orbán? Now, almost all the polls indicate that Orbán will win, and perhaps with a big margin.
Péter Krekó: This is a crucial question because it is not determined that ‘Orbán has to win’ the election in Hungary. During the primaries, when different candidates for the challenger of Viktor Orbán held open debates in Hungary. This mobilized the opposition electorate big time.
The primaries were held for both the prime ministerial candidate and the candidates who were to be the challengers of Fidesz in individual constituencies. This really gave a momentum for the opposition. Unfortunately, afterwards, the opposition failed to use this momentum to boost its popularity – there was a rather long pause in the campaign of the opposition.
Why was that?
First of all, you need to understand that the Hungarian opposition has a highly complicated structure. It is six parties having a joint party list. They are doing this because they have to. The Hungarian electoral system, which was modified by Fidesz after 2010, has a single-round in-person and postal electoral system. This means that in individual constituencies and at the party level, in the party lists, the parties need to be united to be able to challenge Fidesz. But it has been more of a marriage of convenience rather than one of love.
As a result of this, we can see that there is a lot of tensions on the opposition’s side. Moreover, the challenger of Viktor Orbán, Péter Márki-Zay, is an outsider – the seventh player on top of the six political parties. There is some reluctance from the opposition parties to throw all their weight behind the current candidate for the office of the prime minister. So, there are some rivalries between the opposition parties.
Nevertheless, we should not already bury the opposition’s chances – let us wait and see the election results. Indeed, all the polls predict Fidesz’s victory. However, there is a number of differences between various pollsters as to how big of an advantage is predicted.
What we do not know is how much the war has impacted the willingness of voters to express their preferences genuinely and sincerely to the pollsters. It is possible that there are some hidden opposition voters or instances of mimicry in the polls. Still, it seems that Orbán might win the second term – even if not with a two-third, constitutional majority but with a single majority.
Before we delve deeper into the campaign, the candidates, and the potential results, let me ask a question that seems to be on everyone’s mind: How is it possible that Viktor Orbán, the best friend of Vladimir Putin, is still holding his ground? He does not seem to be withdrawing his support for Putin – even if he appears to be less vocal about it. How is this support perceived in Hungary? In Poland, there is this view that Hungary suffered a lot in the 1956 and from the Soviet occupation. This memory should still be quite vivid in the memory of some of the Fidesz politicians – and in the mind of Orbán himself. A Russian alliance, especially now, seems extremely strange – especially since it does not have any impact on the polls. How is the war in Ukraine perceived in Hungary? And how can it influence the outcome of the election?
This is one of the reasons why Orbán is still leading in the polls. It is not only that retained his popularity, but even further boosted his advantage over the opposition block as a result of the war in Ukraine. It is not self-evident why this has happened. Let us highlight two main factors that may have contributed to this trend.
First of all, Orbán has been ‘educating’ his voter base since 2010 and teaching his voters to like Russia and to dislike Ukraine. Secondly, right now, what we can see is that since the beginning of the war the Hungarian pro-governmental media constitute the major source of disinformation about the Russian invasion of Ukraine and with narratives blaming the victim.
There is a whole spectrum of pro-Russian disinformation. For example, why did Ukraine not guarantee the security of Russia (which is absurd!)? There are fake news on how Ukraine was developing nuclear weapons. There is a lot of blaming the West – with questions of why NATO expanded so much, why it did not take into consideration Russia’s needs for security. The aggressor is being portrayed as the victim – with fabricated stories on a genocide in the Donbass being disseminated.
This disinformation techniques appear also directly in governmental communication. The speeches of Viktor Orbán himself are an infamous examples of this strategy. He recently said that ‘this is not our war,’ and that the ones who provoke the war – both on the east and the west – should put an end to it. He stated that Ukraine and Russia should negotiate their territorial needs, as if negotiations with Russia had been so successful…
If you have a significant dominance in the media – and the government has – your ability to shape the public opinion can override important historical experiences. Unfortunately, we can see that in the last twelve years, Fidesz has become the most pro-Russian political camp in Hungary. Interestingly, before Viktor Orbán came to power in 2010, the Fidesz voters were the most hostile toward Russia. This attitude dated back to 2008, at the time of the Russian invasion of Georgia, when Viktor Orbán himself said that Georgia and Ukraine should join NATO as soon as possible so as to avoid conflicts like this in the future. Later, there was a huge shift.
Orbán is a classical charismatic populist leader. He is able to change his voters’ opinions. However, it is important to remember that as a result of this very bizarre campaign – and, indeed, Hungary is an outlier in this sense – the average Fidesz voter is confused. According to a recent survey, approximately 43% of the Fidesz electorate believes that Russia is defending itself hence it is a justified war, whereas 37% think that the actions taken by Russia were an unjustified aggression on Ukraine.
If we take a look at the opposition camp or the general public opinion in Hungary, the majority (55%) claim that the war in Ukraine is unjust, they can see who the real victim is and who is the perpetrator. However, the government would like to relativize it as much as possible.
What we may now observe in Hungary is a social and psychological experiment on the whole country. If you dominate the public domain, the Hungarian public space becomes, in a way, Orwellian, and you have plenty opportunities to shape the public opinion to fit your interests.
Finally, Orbán now has two key messages which resonate well with his voter base, consisting primarily of pensioners. One, we do not want to go to war – It is the opposition who is the warmongers, the government consists of peacemakers, so let us vote for peace instead of war. Two, if you want cheap gas, vote for Fidesz, because if the government is not able to continue its work, then the opposition will abolish the cap on the gas prices, which would then lead to the prices skyrocketing. These two messages seem to resonate with the voters of the governing party.
It seems that in the time of crisis people chose less uncertainty – even if it is not the best option they have at their disposal. They tend to go for what they know. But does the situation you have just described change in any way the equilibrium between the East and the West, between the illiberal and liberal democracies? It seems that being on the outskirts of the European Union, with a border shared with Ukraine – a country ravaged by war – creates pressure to be more present in the mainstream: in the West. Meanwhile, Orbán is pretty much distancing himself from it. I am wondering whether the change of approach by Fidesz also changes the approach of the voters? So that even if Orbán wins, which is quite likely, he would have to change his course to be more in line with the mainstream European politics. What do you think about it?
Here, I must clarify one thing. Orbán’s rhetoric is way more problematic than the behavior of Hungary as a state. Most important decisions made by Hungary follow the Euro-Atlantic mainstream. Orbán has already supported in the European Council four rounds of sanctions against Russia. In some cases, Germany was even more hesitant than Hungary – for example, the swift sanctions against certain Russian banks. Also, during the last NATO summit, Hungary supported sending NATO troops inside its borders – an idea previously rejected by Orbán. Moreover, Hungary has symbolically supported the EU enlargement efforts to grant Ukraine a candidate status for EU membership. Finally, of course, Hungary welcomes Ukrainian refugees, even though there were some doubts of whether there would be no double standard in treating them. These are already important steps.
In terms of Orbán’s outlierism, Hungary has not left the International Investment Bank – it was a cover bank for the KGB before the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is still a rather shady institution located in Budapest. While the European countries such as Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic announced that they will leave the said bank, Hungary remains. Hungary is also the only member state that does not support direct weapons supplies to Ukraine.
So, when it comes to the big picture, Hungary has not blocked the most important EU decisions so far. However, at the same time, there are some antagonisms between Hungary and Ukraine. Hungary is probably the only member state that has not proclaimed President Volodymyr Zelensky a hero – instead, he is considered an enemy.
Right now, the minister of foreign affairs, together with other government officials, are spreading disinformation about President Zelensky allegedly cooperating with the Hungarian opposition, saying that Ukraine is interfering in the Hungarian election. They also try to persuade the public opinion that the opposition is in cahoots with Ukrainian president and that they agreed on direct weapons supplies to Ukraine and that they will cut off all Russian gas supplies if the opposition comes to power.
This is typical fearmongering, with Ukraine being used as a tool. It is difficult to imagine anything more destructive for Hungary’s diplomatic position than this. Hungary has, indeed, become isolated – not only among the Western countries, but also in the region. The Polish, Slovenian, and Czech prime ministers have all went to Kyiv, whereas our PM has not. He prefers to go to Belgrade. Then, the meeting of defense ministers in Budapest was cancelled, because the Polish and Czech counterparts announced that they will not come. At this point, the V4 practically became a V3 – without Hungary.
Hence, if Orbán stays in power, he should make some corrections in the Hungarian foreign policy course. He should change the minister of foreign affairs, the rhetoric, among others. It is very questionable whether Orbán will be able to do that because the path he has chosen is a one-way road. Even if he is good in terms of tactical corrections, he is not so good when it comes to strategic corrections of the pursued course.
Hungary is an outlier also in another sense. I am optimistic about the impact the Russian war in Ukraine will have on the West. The West has already become much more united than it was before. It seems that everyone wants to join the EU and NATO – these are the fundamental institutions for the survival of nations. Western liberal democracies will become stronger as a result of this war. And so, here, Hungary is clearly an outlier in this equilibrium.
You have mentioned the meeting of the defense ministers. I saw someone had posted on Twitter that this means breaking the Visegrad Group. This poses a problem for the Law and Justice party here in Poland to lose their major ally, Hungary.
I think it is, indeed, a problem for Law and Justice, but the party and the current Polish government now stands closer to the EU mainstream. Poland’s image has much improved when compared to two months ago. For Hungary, it has the opposite result – it becomes more isolated. It makes a difference even beyond breaking the V4.
I saw some crazy news about one of the Ukraine ministers accused Hungary of wanting to take over the Zakarpattia Oblast, which historically belonged to Hungary before and there are many Hungarians living there. It seemed rather serious. What was that about? Was Orbán ever implying that?
Let me be very clear here: I think it is a conspiracy theory and I give zero credibility to it. Obviously, you can say a lot of bad things about the behavior of Hungary these days, but there is no indication whatsoever that it could be a real plan. According to this conspiracy theory, there would be some ‘peace-keepers’ from Hungary and Poland, who would monitor entries to the Ukrainian territory. If one wanted to do that, first of all, one would have to support a military intervention to a certain extent. And if one it totally against it, even by rhetoric, it is difficult to imagine how to justify soldiers being moved to another country.
Secondly, the war in Ukraine caught Orbán by a complete surprise, he really did not expect it to happen. I do not think him to be such a good actor to be able to pretend that he was surprised. Everyone on the governmental side kept repeating that this is just an American or Ukraine hysteria and they could not conceive of Russia attacking Ukraine. This also goes against the idea that there is some kind of a secret deal between Putin and Orbán.
Furthermore, Orbán is anything but a fool. Yes, he has a bad track record in terms of his foreign policy moves, and he tends to overestimate his ability to wash away his sins that he committed in dealing with the was in Ukraine. Still, he would not go as far as to go against NATO’s position and move Hungarian military to Ukraine. Of course, there is also this nationalist rhetoric, when Orbán talks about humanitarian aid, he talks mostly Zakarpattia – even though Hungary sends humanitarian aid to Ukraine as a whole.
Overall, I do not think much of the speculations you have referred to. Even if Orbán once had big dreams about making history, he now realizes that it would be simply impossible.
I have also deemed it a conspiracy theory, and we need to be aware that it is very dangerous when they are disseminated. Treating it as serious news is, thus, playing into the hands of the Kremlin. Recently, the Political Capital and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union filed a joint complaint to the European Commission on the spread of Russian disinformation in the Hungarian public media and other Hungarian media outlets. What can the European Union and the Western community do to support liberal democracy in Hungary without it being perceived as an interference or the devil?
The reason why we first approached the Hungarian media authorities and then the European Commission was that we see the so-called ‘state-sponsored disinformation’ as a grave danger. So, yes, one can seize the broadcasts of Sputnik and Russia Today, shut down their websites, take their accounts off social media sites – which has been happening since the beginning of the Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. But what we do not have an impact on when introducing such measures is a situation when one member state is brainwashing its own citizens with Russian disinformation using state media. This is exactly what is happening in Hungary – conspiracy theories are spreading like wildfire. Even Russia Today would get jealous!
We filed this complaint because we would like the European public opinion to know that this is a problem in Hungary. When it comes to the steps taken by the EU and NATO against disinformation, these employ primarily a comfortable ‘head-in-the-sand’ strategy. These bodies talk about disinformation as if it was a marginal issue, governed by external factors. This is not true. The most pressing issue in many EU countries is domestic, home-grown disinformation – including state-sponsored disinformation.
This kind of disinformation requires political players who will disseminate these messages via their own infrastructure – using their own channels. This is a phenomenon that may now be observed in Hungary. If we see a crazy polls about how Fidesz electorate is blaming the victim, we must bear in mind that there had been a very significant brainwashing effort employed by the Hungarian government.
Needless to say, Hungary is not an exception in this respect. Maybe the scale of this trend is not so massive in terms of the state media elsewhere in the European Union, but in all member states there are political forces that use their infrastructure to spread pro-Russian disinformation. Therefore, this ‘elephant in the room’ must be addressed.
What are your expectations for after the election? What can liberals expect if Orbán wins again? Will the next several years be wasted politically? Does the cooperation between opposition parties give any hope for the future? What comes next?
I think it is wise to claim some level of political agnosticism when it comes to the forthcoming parliamentary election. The polls paint one picture, but we should wait for the results before we start making any assumptions. We should not forget that in the last election Fidesz gained a two-thirds majority, so if this does not happen again, it would be a great progress – to a certain extent.
Hungary is a hybrid regime; it is not a democratic country. This means that the people have a limited ability to evaluate the situation in the country. Europe should acknowledge the fact that while Putin is still outside of the European Union, ‘Putinism’ is already inside. This is a phenomenon we have to fight.
What is important is that even if Orbán wins one more election, even if the victory will be an obvious one, we shall not lose hope in Hungary. Because, according to all the polls, at least half of the Hungarians do not support Orbán’s regime. It is crucial to amplify the Hungarian voices that paint a different picture than the government – a strategy that is also very important for Poland. However, the difference is that Poland’s voice still matters.
We must keep up the peer pressure from other member states, including Poland, from civil society organizations, opinion leaders (both conservative and liberal). So, if Orbán wins again, the pressure from the Polish side will matter. Hence, building bilateral relations between Hungary and Poland beyond the state-level in the spirit of ‘two good brothers’ is key.
The podcast was recorded on March 28, 2022.
This podcast is produced by the European Liberal Forum in collaboration with Movimento Liberal Social and Fundacja Liberté!, with the financial support of the European Parliament. Neither the European Parliament nor the European Liberal Forum are responsible for the content or for any use that be made of it.