Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party.
Hungary goes to the polls on Sunday in the tightest election since 2006. Viktor Orban’s Fidesz has won the three elections since, exploiting divisions in the opposition to turn evenly-matched shares of the popular vote into two thirds majorities in the Parliament. This time the opposition have united to try and oust him, and opinion polls are within the margin of error.
Orban doesn’t fight fair. Though the effect of gerrymandering of constituency boundaries is often exaggerated, he uses state resources to give his campaign a huge PR boost. His party managed to obtain eight times as many billboard spaces as the opposition, and the opposition candidate, the centre-right’s Peter Markiy-Zay was allowed only five minutes of airtime on public television.
In 2018, a Government minister was taped organising the illegal bussing of voters from across the border in Ukraine so that they could cast ballots in constituencies where they didn’t live. To prevent this illegality happening again, the Government changed the law to legalise this fraud.
Orban came to power exploiting disillusionment with the financial crisis and the sleaze and division of the outgoing administration. In power ,he has continued to divide his opponents but he and his party have outmatched their predecessors in the matter of sleaze.
A justice minister had to resign for taking bribes, and a mayor was caught cavorting with a prostitute at on a yacht (he got re-elected but subsequently resigned). Orban comes from a modest background, yet his father has got rich enough to build a 500 square metre property on a 13 hectare estate, while his childhood friend, Lorinc Meszaros – a plumber, or gas-fitter, depending on the translation – has become Hungary’s richest man.
More sympathy might be due to the now former MEP, Joszef Szajer, who was found escaping naked down a drainpipe in Brussels from a gay orgy during lockdown. There is no suggestion that he was attending a work event.
Despite the liberal sexual behaviour of elected Fidesz officials, Orban hoped to base his campaign on a conservative culture war. As well as the parliamentary election, voters on Sunday will be asked to give their verdict on Hungary’s equivalent of the a homophobic Section 28-style measures for schools.
The questions include: ‘do you support the teaching of sexual orientation to minors in public education institutions without parental consent?’ This measure has two purposes: to get the Fidesz base, which is motivated by this kind of thing, out to the polls, and to divide the opposition, which stretches from the liberal Momentum movment to the formerly far-right and still pretty conservative Jobbik – with the left-leaning MSZP as divided on this as the Labour Party is on trans rights.
As the pandemic receded and the year came to an end, things looked set up for a classic Orban campaign focused on dividing and demonising the opposition. Then Russia invaded Ukraine.
Orban tried to use his strong ties with Russia (he leads the smallest Western country to have recently been granted an audience at the far end of Putin’s long table) to present himself as a peacemaker. He held out against financial sanctions, and is still blocking energy sanctions (though he’s not the only one doing the latter). He authorised new government billboards in which he posed in a windbreaker, like the country’s dad at a football match, promising to “protect Hungary’s peace and security.”
The country, however, seems to be having other ideas. When polled in February, 29 per cent of voters said Hungarian foreign policy was in Hungary’s interests; 53 per cent that it was in Russia’s. Hungary’s foreign minister, Peter Szjjartó, who received the Order of Friendship from Vladimir Putin last year, can pat himself on the back for a job well done.
Friendship with Putin’s Russia is now dividing Fidesz and uniting the opposition. Hungarians are clear: they want alignment with the West, but Fidesz’s own supporters are split: 49 per cent want to align with the West, but 40 per cent do not.
The pro-Russian stance has also infuriated Poland and the rest of the Visegrad group of central European countries who were to meet in Hungary this week as the V4, but cancelled in protest. A doodlebug summit is not a good look when cruise missiles are falling on Lviv.
Will this division hurt the Fidesz vote on Sunday? As constituted, the electoral system gives Fidesz a small advantage against a united opposition. On a uniform national swing from 2018 results, an equally divided electorate would give Fidesz a majority of about four.
They will pull out every trick in the book to tilt the result, but this time people are watching. Last time, the opposition lacked scrutineers in many rural polling stations, leading to questionable results. An NGO I chair, Unhack Democracy, is providing training for scrutineers this time, so the tally will be more balanced. The OSCE are sending on-the-ground observers to do spot checks on polling stations.
This election will go down to the wire.
During my first campaign in 2005, I remember Lynton Crosby stressing the importance of presenting voters with a choice. If the opposition can make the last few days of the campaign about whether Hungarians want to be in the West or under Putin’s little helper, they have a chance of pulling off a historic victory.