Following Viktor Orbán's dominant victory in Hungary's recent elections, Dr Sean Hanley outlines what his comprehensive election victory means for the future of Hungary and its already-strained relationship with the EU.

The re-election of Hungary's long-serving nationalist prime minister Viktor Orbán for a fourth consecutive term came as no surprise. Orbán's Fidesz party has dominated Hungarian politics since 2010, capturing public and private media; remaking the electoral system and constituencies boundaries in its own interest; and embedding itself in state institutions and the economy to such an extent that odds stacked in favour of the ruling party.

Indeed, observers now see Hungary's political playing field as so uneven that they categorise the country less a flawed democracy, than as an authoritarian regime with a degree of pluralism and competition.

However, while Orbán's return to power was expected, his margin of victory was not. Polls predicted that the main opposition United for Hungary alliance would run Orbán a close second. Instead, Fidesz retained the two-thirds constitutional majority it has held since 2010, winning 135 of the 199 seats in Hungary's single-chamber parliament.

Critics wondered about electoral manipulation. There were concerns about vote buying in poorer communities and vote burning in neighbouring Romania where ethnic Hungarians (given voting rights by Orbán) also went to the polls. But a more convincing explanation lies in the limitations of the opposition and Orbán's astute political footwork on the Ukraine war.

While the (now supposedly reformed) radical right party Jobbik threw its lot in with the opposition many of its voters did not, turning either to Fidesz or the extreme right Our Homeland movement, which entered parliament for the first time. Orbán also moved quickly to neutralise potential damage from his close ties to Vladimir Putin.

While the opposition framed the election as a value choice between "Putin or Europe", Orbán projected himself a source of stability, keeping Hungary out of a foreign war and ensuring access to cheap Russian oil and gas. This message, amplified by Fidesz's overwhelming media dominance, seems to cut through with voters.

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Domestically the election result leaves Orbán more dominant than ever. At home is likely to dig in, cementing his party's autocratic control of Hungarian society, eliminating remaining pockets of independent media, and extending Fidesz's crony capitalist control of the economy into further sectors such as retail.

But the transformed international environment since the beginning of the Ukraine war looks less favourable for him. Hungary has become isolated in Central and Eastern Europe. Poland's conservative-nationalist government, once Orbán's staunchest EU ally, has taken a strong pro-Ukrainian stance. with Poland emerging as the fulcrum of Western military and humanitarian support for Ukraine. Elsewhere Central European populists like Czech president Zeman or Slovene premier Jansa have hastily backtracked on the illiberal Putin-friendly rhetoric that once saw them make common cause with Orbán.

But much will depend on how EU priorities evolve. The tortuous Article seven process to sanction rule-of-law breaches in Hungary and Poland under EU Treaty had largely stalled, slowed by lack of political will and the prospect of co-ordinated Hungarian-Polish obstruction. It is possible that determination and speed of EU response to Russia's invasion Ukraine may translate into a new sense of urgency about the Union's rule-of-law crisis.

One tempting strategic direction may be to drive a wedge into the fracturing Budapest-Warsaw axis, targeting the more autocratic and Putin-friendly Orbán regime, while seeking accommodation with Poland. The European Commission has already made clear that it intends to use the new mechanism linking EU funds to the rule-of-law to block budget payments to Hungary, while nodding through the delayed release of COVID-19 recovery funds to Poland.

But it is equally possible that the Ukraine war may postpone, not accelerate getting to grips with democratic backsliding in EU's eastern periphery. New budget conditionalities are still relatively slow and cumbersome and, if implemented, there is no guarantee that cutting off the flow of EU funds to would not rebound and feed Orbán's narrative of resisting a 'colonial' EU. Moreover, the legal benchmarks set in response to Law and Justice 'reforms' of the Polish judicial system could be hard to set aside through a political deal.

If Orbán can hunker down, a highly unstable international environment may deliver shocks that again play to his agenda. Higher food and energy prices, surging inflation and the challenges of a long-term European refugee crisis will likely feed new populist moods elsewhere. Orbán's appeal to provincial nationalism and not-our-war message have potential appeal for populist elsewhere in Central Europe as early sympathy and solidarity with Ukraine fade. An unexpected victory by Marine Le Pen or the election of a Trumpian candidate in the US in 2024 could shatter the West's new found sense of democratic unity and purpose.

While Orbán's self-congratulatory rhetoric – and pretensions to European and regional leadership – may be overblown, the distinct autocratic system he has created in Hungary is likely to be a fixture of the European political landscape for some time.

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