Orbán casts himself as safe choice as ‘cruel, bloody war’ looms over Hungary’s election | Hungary | #socialmedia


Until the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Hungary’s general election campaign was dominated by such ruling party preoccupations as “traditional values” and protecting children from “LGBT propaganda”.

Neither Russia nor Ukraine featured in the slogans of Viktor Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party or the opposition parties which have united to dislodge him.

But the war, the ensuing refugee exodus and the reshaping of Europe’s geopolitical calculations have dramatically altered the political context ahead of Hungary’s 3 April vote.

Warmly received at the Kremlin just three weeks before the invasion, Orbán has had to condemn it, distance himself, at least publicly, from a decade-long friendship with Vladimir Putin and join Hungary’s EU partners in imposing punitive economic sanctions on Russia.

Overt hostility to refugees has been a defining issue of Orbán’s rule, but on this too, he has had to fall into line with the EU by granting visa-free admission to those fleeing Russia’s bombs. More than 200,000 Ukrainians have sought refuge in Hungary.

The combined opposition now characterise Orbán as Putin’s shameless servant and his ties with Russia as a national security threat. Those ties have been so close that Orbán’s foreign minister, Péter Szijjártó, received a Russian Order of Friendshipmedal from Putin’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov as recently as December.

“Orbán and Putin or the west and Europe – these are the stakes. A choice between the dark or the good side of history,” Péter Márki-Zay, the joint opposition’s prime ministerial candidate, wrote on social media.

Refugees wait for accommodation offered by locals at a railway station in Budapest, Hungary. Photograph: János Kummer/Getty Images

Fidesz remains ahead in opinion polls. According to a mid-March poll from Nézőpont, which is close to the ruling party, 49% of voters would choose Fidesz against 41% for the united opposition.

However, a survey published on 21 March suggested that Fidesz’s lead had narrowed to just three points with the vote less than a fortnight away.

But after 12 years in office Orbán is counting on a counter-narrative on Ukraine to blunt criticism of his Russia policy and return him to power for a fourth consecutive term.

Only Fidesz, he claims, can keep Hungarians safe and clear of the conflict next door. Not only is a vote for his party a vote for peace – the government won’t send lethal weapons to Ukraine – but, Fidesz claims, the opposition is on the side of war.

“The opposition has lost its mind.” Orbán told supporters at a rally marking Hungarian national day on 15 March. “They would walk into a cruel, protracted, and bloody war and they want to send Hungarian troops and guns to the frontline. We can’t let this happen. Not a single Hungarian can get caught between the Ukrainian anvil and the Russian hammer.”

Márki-Zay a centrist conservative, has been smeared by Fidesz political ads, which repeatedly state that he “wants to send Hungarian troops to Ukraine”.

Election posters plastered on billboards around Budapest, are almost exclusively those of Fidesz, and most promise to “protect the peace and security of Hungary”, although some have been spray-painted over with the letter Z, to remind voters of Orbán’s close ties to Russia.

Orbán’s attempt to avoid taking sides in the conflict is contemptible as far as some younger voters are concerned.

Dániel, a 26-year-old systems engineer working in the capital said it brought “shame to this country that Orbán is trying to dance between Russia and Ukraine. The government has done absolutely nothing for the Ukrainians. The help that refugees get here is done by civilians almost entirely.”

Nevertheless the dominance of the Fidesz political machine gives it a massive advantage in promoting the “peace and security” narrative, analysts say.

“It did not even take Fidesz a week to come up with a new campaign that portrays Orbán as a peacekeeper and an assurance for safety,” said Lakner Zoltán, a political analyst and editor-in-chief of the Jelen news outlet. “Orbán has more resources and a much bigger platform to reach voters.”

Fidesz and its allies have effective control of most Hungarian media outlets, including state TV.

This grip on the broadcast media along with an online advertising budget that dwarfs the opposition’s reduces other parties’ ability to campaign fairly, they complain. Orbán’s national day address for example, was replayed on the M1 public channel nine times in a 24-hour period.

Péter Márki-Zay shakes hands with a supporter during a joint demonstration organised by opposition parties as Hungary’s National Day celebrations.
Péter Márki-Zay shakes hands with a supporter during a joint demonstration organised by opposition parties as Hungary’s National Day celebrations. Photograph: Márton Mónus/Reuters

Márki-Zay leads the United for Hungary (Egységben Magyarországért) a coalition of six opposition parties including socialists, social democrats, greens, liberals, and even the former far-right party Jobbik. Orbán’s close ties with Putin ought to have offered them an open goal for slogans such as “Hungary will not become a Russian colony” and “Putin or Europe?”

But the broad-spectrum nature of the opposition is also its weakness. Ágoston Mráz, chief executive of Nézőpont, said the war in Ukraine was helping the ruling party more than those promoting a change of government, because “people want to feel secure in a crisis”.

András, 31, a taxi driver in the capital, articulated this concern. “You know, I never voted for Orbán, I’m just not a fan of him and Fidesz,” he said. “But I am going to [vote for him] this time. I agree with his policies when it comes to Ukraine. This is not our war. We shouldn’t get involved in all of this.”

Péter Krekó, the director of the Budapest-based thinktank Political Capital Institute argues that Orbán’s 12 years fostering a close relationship with Russia has undeniably backfired.

The relationship has hardly evaporated since the 24 February invasion either with pro-government media maintaining a seemingly off-message pro-Kremlin tone.

Hours into the invasion, a pro-government security commentator Georg Spöttle said on state tv channel, M1, that it was “dangerous” for Volodymyr Zelenskiy to call on Ukrainian citizens to take up arms, and comparable to the actions of Hitler.

The government-controlled MTI (Hungary’s state news agency) initially toed the same line required by the Kremlin of Russian media, calling the events in Ukraine a ‘“military operation’” instead of a “war”.

Anna Donáth, the chair of the liberal Momentum Mozgalom party concedes that Orbán’s ties with Putin may not damage him reputationally at home. “It’s important to note how effective [Fidesz] propaganda is in Hungary.”

Yet, surprises can’t be ruled out. The Hungarian currency, the Forint, already hit by the fallout of the pandemic, has plunged to record lows recently and inflation has risen to 15-year highs.

For many Hungarians the economy is of more pressing relevance than foreign policy. Fear of the economic consequences of the war is behind a massive hike in pre-election government spending, Krekósaid.

“Everything is just getting worse and worse since Orbán is in power. They are stealing more and more from taxpayers’ money. I am going to be devastated if they win again,” said Gyula, a 67-year-old pensioner in the crowd at an opposition rally last Saturday in Dunakeszi, a city north-west of the capital.

Orbán addressing supporters at a so-called ‘peace march’ in Budapest.
Orbán addressing supporters at a so-called ‘peace march’ in Budapest. Photograph: Anna Szilagyi/AP

The government has capped prices of flour, sunflower oil meat and sugar as well as fuel. But Russia’s war on Ukraine also now threatens one of Orbán’s biggest appeals to voters: cheap gas and heating. With Hungary’s reliance on Russia for 95% of its gas reserves Orbán has ruled out EU sanctions on Russian oil and gas.

Whoever prevails on 3 April will inherit a situation unprecedented both in economic and geopolitical terms. Orbán’s campaign slogans include “Hungary is going forward, not back”, a reference to the dismal economic growth record of the pre-Fidesz Socialist-led administration.

In some places the opposition have trolled Fidesz’s billboards, replacing “back” with “to Moscow”.

In Miskolc, north-east Hungary, Anna, a 56-year-old teacher spoke for the undecideds, thought to make up a quarter of the electorate. She had, she said, “absolutely no idea” who to vote for.

“I agree with some of Orbán’s policies, and I voted for him before, but the things he is saying now are the complete opposite of his early promises. But Márki-Zay is also not someone I would like to lead this country. I think we don’t have good options here.”





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