Putin’s war in Ukraine seems to be rewriting everything in the Hungarian election campaign, except for the balance of power between the contestants – for now, at least. The ruling party remains the most likely to win the general election, but there is something else Orbán might also lose.
From military rhetoric to messenger of peace
The Hungarian Government’s communication chaos following the first days of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine seems to have passed. Viktor Orbán’s image as a politician with clear knowledge of global affairs who guarantees the country’s security was visibly questioned in the early days of the Russian aggression. It suddenly became evident that the PM’s trip to Moscow in early February was probably anything but a peace mission, even as Government-controlled media repeated up until February 24 that Russia would never attack Ukraine.
Even the Fidesz voter base might have been confused by PM Orbán turning against 12 years of his own pro-Russian policies in mere minutes and supporting all of the EU and NATO decisions on this issue as any responsible leader would. Meanwhile, the ruling side can still be characterized by confusion: Although some news reporting and political statements concerning the war are objective, opinion pieces still relativize Putin’s responsibility, narratives criticizing the West have not disappeared, and some Fidesz-friendly Facebook channels continue to spread openly pro-Kremlin propaganda, including those of the public broadcast media.
The governmental campaign machine seems to have stopped its chaotic communications of the first few days of the war. Fidesz-affiliated politicians have returned to their earlier “we are both inside and outside” rhetoric: The cabinet approves of everything at the EU and NATO, but back home they continue to rhetorically criticize the very same measures for which they voted, such as “Brussels’ sanctions policy”, as if Hungary were not part of the western alliance system.
The “East or West” question that arose after the war began has been successfully transformed by the ruling party into the issue of “war or peace.” They depict the opposition as warmongers, just as they labelled them anti-vaxxers during the pandemic. The ruling party is thus responding to voters’ fundamental need for security, just like the opposition’s campaign seeks to equate PM Orbán with Vladimir Putin, but the “East or West” question is somewhat more complicated than that of “war or peace,” which puts the opposition at a disadvantage. The differences between the messages shed light on the differences between their target groups. The opposition, speaking mainly to better-educated, urban voters, considers it self-evident that the electorate understands the threats posed by the cabinet’s pro-Putin policies, while Fidesz, targeting less- educated, rural voters, is reacting to existential fears and depicting the opposition as a threat.
Without the existences of information bubbles, this would not be so easy. The ruling party’s campaign is both more effective and better able to handle its own confusion and label its opponents because it has a machine dominating the public sphere with never-ending resources at its disposal. Thus, Fidesz is able to keep its own voters within such a massive opinion bubble that neither the opposition’s messages, nor the Government’s own non-manipulative statements, can even penetrate it.
In addition to this media bubble, there is one more factor that makes the Government’s chances much better than the opposition’s: The Government can run a virtually unrestricted campaign under the guise of public service advertisements. Due to the near-unlimited public financial resources available to the cabinet, it can exploit the fact that there are no regulations in place on campaign activities outside of the 50-day-long campaign period. As a consequence, Hungarian voters have been living in a permanent campaign for 12 years. This seems to be more than challenging for the opposition to counterbalance.
Regardless, mostly as a result of the primaries held in autumn 2021, the opposition stands a chance to win the election, albeit just a slight one. In the last two elections, the opposition was so fragmented that Fidesz could gain a two-thirds majority despite the fact that the opposition parties altogether earned more votes than Fidesz (not counting votes cast abroad). This time they have common candidates in each of the 106 single-member constituencies and a common candidate for Prime Minister. These are the minimum criteria for standing a fighting chance.
Still, the most likely scenario is that Fidesz wins the election with a simple but significant majority. In such a case, the Orbán regime would continue functioning in line with its well-known nature. Consolidation is ruled out, conflicts and war rhetoric would remain key characteristics. Efforts to take over further economic sectors (e.g., retail chains), to restrict the public discourse even further, to channel public assets into Fidesz’s sphere of interest, and to step up operations against groups believed to pose a threat to the ruling party (NGOs, universities) would continue. The opposition cooperation most likely would fall apart, the parties would seek to focus on their own political agendas, and some could potentially cease to exist or merge with others. Silver lining: If Fidesz wins with a very small margin, and if both the voters and the PM assess the election result as a disappointment or a partial loss, then Fidesz would become more likely to make a mistake and could lose support quickly. The changing geopolitical environment and the economic downturn will narrow the room for manoeuvre anyway.
A slight majority for the opposition coalition cannot be ruled out, although the probability of this is considerably smaller. There are two potential scenarios in this case. First, the internal tensions of the opposition could become even more poisonous once in government - there would barely be any issues behind which they could muster a parliamentary majority, the perception of the new Government being incapable of governing would grow stronger, and a snap election would thus come quickly. Second, the opposition parties and Péter Márki-Zay could turn out to be up to the task, take decisive steps to investigate cases of corruption, Fidesz and its entourage would realize that Orbán really has been beaten, the results of its 12-year-long governance would be deconstructed quickly, and the Orbán loyalists, believed to be so entrenched for years, would start gravitating towards those in power. Whether the first or the second sub-scenario unfolds depends on key actors’ perceptions of the election results.
Last but not least, there is a possibility that neither of the large blocs earns a majority, so they would require the cooperation of a smaller party in Parliament (the Hungarian Two-Tailed Dog Party [MKKP], or the Our Nation Movement [Mi Hazánk]). The far-right Mi Hazánk, which has been exploiting COVID-sceptic sentiments, has the better chance of making it into the National Assembly. A Fidesz + Mi Hazánk forced marriage would create a new situation, regardless of whether it would be a coalition or a political deal stipulating that Mi Hazánk would support the fifth Orbán Government in opposition. The PM is no longer used to having to reach deals with anyone, and he would certainly do everything possible to create a majority for himself by slicing off parts of Mi Hazánk. Or, if the opposition coalition needed the former joke party MKKP’s support, then it would be even more fragile, and that could lead to a snap election sooner rather than later.
Beyond the election
All in all, Orbán still has very good chances to form his fifth Government. It is not necessarily the electoral competition that Orbán might lose. The war (so far?) has not worsened the Government’s electoral chances and might even have a beneficial effect for Fidesz. However, changes to the international environment can be more of a long-term threat to Fidesz. PM Orbán seems to be becoming more and more isolated, both in the Euro-Atlantic community and in the CEE region, even after pro forma supporting common decisions taken in these formats, since any pro-Russian political actions will not just be forgotten in a matter of mere days. This is about more than just Russia and Hungary: the years-long advance of autocracies could halt, and the unusually strong actions taken by western democratic states might not just put an end to Putin’s empire-building dreams, but to Orbán’s ideas of a new world order as well.