Hungary's general election has returned Viktor Orban's right-wing nationalist Fidesz party to government in a free contest he would have won even if it had been fairer. Although turnout was down on previous elections, and Fidesz certainly benefited from changes in constituency and media legislation introduced by it, the opposition centre-left coalition failed to mount an effective challenge, coming in with 26 per cent of votes compared to 45 per cent for Fidesz and 20 per cent for the far-right Jobbik party.
The European Union faces a real problem over the next four years in coming to terms with Orban’s domestic authoritarianism and his foreign policy tilt away from Brussels and towards president Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Fidesz, in coalition with the minority Christian Democrats, will have a supermajority in the next parliament, allowing their government put through further constitutional measures to consolidate their hold on power. Sweeping changes in judicial, regulatory and media rules since 2010 loaded the political playing field against their critics and attracted increased attention from the EU and international organisations concerned with civil liberties.
The opposition socialists’ disastrous record in government from 1998 to 2006, combining corruption and cynicism with few positive achievements, was resurrected effectively by Orban in this campaign, notwithstanding his own opportunist bypassing of election laws. Along with the partial nationalisation of banks and slashing of energy prices, his nationalist rhetoric appealed to voters affected by falling standards of living and disillusioned with alternatives. He has also resurrected Hungary’s latent irredentism concerning Hungarian minorities in Romania and Slovakia, giving them dual citizenship and voting rights reflected in their 95 per cent vote for Fidesz. Recent energy deals with Russia have opened up a political courtship fanned by the Ukraine crisis.
Orban’s political skill in resisting criticisms from Brussels about reduced civil liberties and disregard for single market rules have helped consolidate his political base. Now that he is back in power so completely, the EU should deal much more firmly with such transgressions.