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Hungary’s Autocrat Orbán Fends Off Opposition Challenge

The leader beloved of American national conservatives has won re-election.
April 3, 2022
Hungary’s Autocrat Orbán Fends Off Opposition Challenge
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán delivers a speech on stage next to members of his Fidesz party at their election base, 'Balna' building on the bank of the Danube River of Budapest, on April 3, 2022. (Photo by Attila Kisbenedek / AFP / Getty)

There’s a joke Hungarians tell about their kinsmen from Transylvania (in today’s Romania), who are supposedly passive and dull-witted. A Transylvanian Hungarian is driving a horse and cart along the road when he comes across a traveler on foot. The traveler calls out, “Can you tell me, is it far to Kolozsvár?” “No,” replies the driver. “Might I have a ride?” asks the traveler. “Yes,” says the driver. The traveler climbs into the cart and the two set off in silence. After an hour, the traveler grows restless and asks, “Is it far to Kolozsvár?” “No,” replies the driver, and the two continue in silence. Two hours later, the traveler, who at this point has grown really restless, asks again, “Is it far to Kolozsvár?” “Now it is,” says the driver, “I came from there and it’s about four hours behind us.”

The joke might just as well be a parable about the fate of Hungary’s democracy. Hungary’s political opposition, having overcome their differences and organized in ways that were truly impressive, believed they were mounting a serious challenge to Viktor Orbán and steering the country back toward liberal democracy. The truth, however, is that Hungary left the democratic station long ago and is well down the road to competitive autocracy. In the lead-up to today’s election, the democratic opposition came together, coordinated candidate lists in local districts, ran a primary to select a common candidate for prime minister. None of it made a difference.

Today’s election produced a result almost exactly identical to the 2018 election, which produced a result almost exactly like the election in 2014. Once again Orbán has secured a parliamentary supermajority and will continue to have free rein to do in Hungary as he wills. Ever since Orbán came to power, elections in Hungary have been as predictable as the sunrise—or perhaps, the sunset.

For Orbán’s American fellow travelers—some of whom have been grappling awkwardly with their movement’s kind words for Vladimir Putin—Orbán’s victory will be taken as a confirmation that he is the man of the moment. Here, for example, is Rod Dreher:

Never mind that on the issue animating and uniting the West right now, Putin’s invasion of Hungary’s neighbor, Orbán has been very far from the Western mainstream. Never mind that, within Hungarian history, the populist (népi) tradition that Orbán claims to represent frequently saw itself at odds with the West—even in a time when no one talked about transgender issues.

Commentators will want to discuss the election results as if the contest had been a real one. They will look for immediate causes of Orbán’s victory. Maybe the war in Ukraine drove voters back to his party, Fidesz; maybe Orbán’s generous social spending over the last six months shored up support for Fidesz among its base. Maybe. These or other factors could have played some small role. But fundamentally the system is rigged. Orbán controls the media; he controls the educational system; he controls large segments of the economy; he controls regional politics through a system of patronage. Hungarians view Orbán’s rule as inevitable, and most of them are willing to accept it.

And one has to acknowledge that Hungarians do accept it. The final results of Hungary’s election are not clear as of this writing, but there’s a real chance Fidesz will win 53 percent of the popular vote. That would equal or surpass the vote share won by Fidesz in 2010. Admittedly, some percentage of those votes will come from ethnic Hungarians from neighboring countries to whom Orbán granted citizenship (including the franchise) in 2011. We should also wait for the report from OSCE election monitors to determine if Hungary’s elections were free from fraud. But even with those caveats, Fidesz’s victory is impressive and amounts to a landslide. Hungarian voters were not moved by the opposition. They decided to stay with the politics they knew.

The path forward for Hungary’s democratic opposition has become deeply uncertain. To capture the mood and character of a country is hard to do, even when the country is as small as Hungary, with a population under 10 million. That said, given the conditions in Hungary, I do not believe Viktor Orbán can be voted out of office, and I suspect the democratic opposition thinks the same. Orbán’s support is several layers deep. He has a solid base of true believers, which consists of Hungary’s small middle class that benefits from his social policies, and older voters who like his national politics. Another, softer layer of support comes from people who are dependent on the government for their livelihood in various ways, either because they are employed by the state or by institutions subsidized by the state. These people may not like Fidesz, but removing Orbán would create uncertainty and isn’t worth it. Another layer of support comes from Hungary’s sizable poor, who depend on the good will of the mayor or other local officials for various forms of welfare. These people are afraid to vote against Fidesz, but don’t see tangible benefits to voting for the opposition in any case. Another layer of support comes from those who view Fidesz rule as inevitable and view democratic ideals as just so much talk. Finally, in a bitter irony, Orbán’s support is growing in Hungary because, thanks to freedom of movement within the European Union, those who do not like his regime are leaving.

Poignantly, in his concession speech, opposition candidate Péter Márki-Zay told his followers that he and his family of seven children would not leave the country. Hungarians stayed in the country after the 1948 Communist takeover, Márki-Zay said, and they stayed in the country after the 1956 Revolution—and he, too, would stay in the country. But whether the democratic opposition decides to leave or to fight, Hungary belongs to Orbán. It will remain in his hands unless or until either geopolitical or economic events develop in a direction that slips out of his control. Sadly, Orbán’s downfall is likely to be caused only by the demise of his country.

H. David Baer

H. David Baer is the Pastor Gerhard A. and Marion Poehlmann Professor in Theology at Texas Lutheran University. Twitter: @h_david_baer.