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BUDAPEST â€” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor OrbÃ¡n will be sticking around at the EUâ€™s top table â€” meaning more clashes over the blocâ€™s core values and more pushback on taking a tough line with Moscow.
The right-wing populist leader won a fourth consecutive term in an election on Sunday, with his ruling Fidesz party set to take two-thirds of seats in the Hungarian parliament.Â
While OrbÃ¡n was widely expected to win â€” not least due to his tight grip on the media, which his critics say is part of a broader pattern of undermining democratic norms â€” the scale of his victory shocked his opponents, who had united to challenge him.
When it comes to national list votes, approximately 53 percent of Hungarian voters chose Fidesz, while about 35 percent opted for a diverse six-party opposition alliance.Â
The election campaign was transformed by Russiaâ€™s invasion of Ukraine, Hungaryâ€™s neighbor. OrbÃ¡n was not damaged electorally by having nurtured a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and instead appears to have benefited by casting himself as a guarantor of Hungaryâ€™s peace and stability who would ensure the country did not get drawn into the war.
Ukrainian PresidentÂ Volodymyr Zelenskyy has attacked OrbÃ¡n for taking a softer line with Moscow than other EU leaders. While Hungary â€” a member of both the EU and NATO â€” hasÂ condemned Russiaâ€™s invasion and backed EU sanctions on Moscow, it has opposed a ban on Russian energy imports and declined to bilaterally provide Kyiv with weapons.
OrbÃ¡nâ€™s victory means he is likely to pursue a similar stance as EU leaders debate whether to impose tougher sanctions on Moscow, particularly in light of reports of the massacre and rape of civilians in Ukrainian towns previously held by Russian troops.
In an extraordinary moment in his victory speech on Sunday night, OrbÃ¡n mentioned the Ukrainian president as one of the opponents his party had faced in the election â€” along with many of his usual targets, such as â€œthe left wing at home,â€ â€œthe international left wing,â€ â€œBrussels bureaucratsâ€ and Hungarian-American financier George Soros.
â€œWe have never perhaps looked as good as we do tonight,â€ OrbÃ¡n told supporters in Budapest, declaring that his party achieved â€œsuch a victory that it can be seen from the moon â€” but from Brussels for sure.â€
But that victory came amid significant concerns from democracy experts and opposition politicians that the electoral playing field in Hungary is extremely uneven: OrbÃ¡nâ€™s party had designed the current electoral system, and controls â€” directly and indirectly â€” much of the media landscape.
Such concerns about democratic backsliding in Hungary will come to the fore once again for EU institutions, which have struggled for years to address the increasingly autocratic tendencies of the government in Budapest.Â
The European Parliamentâ€™s decision in 2018 to trigger the blocâ€™s Article 7 censure proceedings â€” a move undertaken if the EUâ€™s core values are considered to be at risk â€” has done little to pressure Hungary to reverse course.Â
And while the EU has thus far withheld money earmarked for Hungary in the blocâ€™s coronavirus recovery fund, Budapest has faced few concrete consequences for undermining democratic norms.Â
In the weeks before the election, the European Commission was expected to trigger a new mechanism to cut budget funds to Hungary over rule-of-law concerns. But the Commission held off, in part due to the election. Now, calls will grow for Brussels to act.
Daniel Freund, a German Green member of the European Parliament who has been a vocal critic of the OrbÃ¡n government, said that â€œthere will be a long list of things that were unfairâ€ in the Hungarian election and that he will continue to â€œpressureâ€ the European Commission to act to cut funds.Â
On issues including LGBTQ+ rights, judicial independence, migration and media freedom, Brussels is now likely to clash again with the OrbÃ¡n government â€” although a set of anti-LGBTQ+ questions put to a referendum in parallel with the election did not pass, as the ballot did not meet the required turnout threshold.
At the same time, the Hungarian leaderâ€™s electoral success could boost his ambitions to project influence abroad.Â
As one of Europeâ€™s longest-serving leaders, OrbÃ¡n tends to punch above his weight in European politics.Â
He has aimed to create an alliance of nationalist and far-right forces in Europe â€” befriending figures such as Franceâ€™s Marine Le Pen and Italyâ€™s Matteo Salvini.Â
The prime minister has also worked to forge relationships with Trump-friendly conservatives across the Atlantic, cultivating the support of U.S. media personalities such as Fox Newsâ€™ Tucker Carlson.Â
And he has strived to project Hungarian influence across Central and Eastern Europe, cementing support among Hungarian-speakers in surrounding countries and investing in relationships in the Western Balkans.Â (OrbÃ¡nâ€™s close ally, Serbian President Aleksandar VuÄiÄ‡, also cruised to re-election on Sunday.)
In his speech, OrbÃ¡n thanked Fideszâ€™s allies abroad. â€œItâ€™s not just our victory,â€ he told supporters.Â â€œThe whole world,â€ he said, could see that Christian Democratic and conservative politics â€œis not the past, itâ€™s the future.â€
While the war in Ukraine has somewhat disrupted his ambitions â€” putting a wedge between BudapestÂ and its close allies in Warsaw â€” the prime minister is likely to return to attempting to boost his international profile.Â
Nevertheless, OrbÃ¡nâ€™s victoryÂ willÂ fuelÂ questions surrounding the future of the VisegrÃ¡d Four, a club consisting of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, whose unity has come under growing pressure over the past weeks. Other members of the group have taken a harder line on Russia than OrbÃ¡n does.
â€œWe have to respect democratic elections in Hungary,â€ said Czech MEP TomÃ¡Å¡ ZdechovskÃ½, a member of the center-right European Peopleâ€™s Party.Â But he noted the differences within the VisegrÃ¡d Four on Ukraine and described cooperation in the group as â€œvery difficult.â€Â
It would be a â€œpity,â€ he said, if OrbÃ¡n becomes â€œmore and moreâ€ isolated in the European Union.