EU watchful to see if Hungary obstructs further sanctions on Russia

Orban’s ‘unfair’ election victory brings potential headaches for Brussels’ war response

The first to congratulate Viktor Orban for his re-election were the authoritarians. The Chinese foreign ministry offered warm wishes. Russia's Vladimir Putin sent a congratulatory telegram, his office announced, expressing hopes of strengthened bilateral relations "despite the difficult international situation". The Russian leader's erstwhile fans in western Europe, Italy's Matteo Salvini and France's Marine Le Pen, tweeted "Bravo Viktor!" and "félicitations".

EU national leaders were slower. It's no secret that most would have welcomed a defeat of Orban, a difficult member of the European Council who has deeply troubled the capitals by overseeing an erosion of democratic norms, the monopolisation of Hungary's media and the enrichment of allies at home.

The mood in Brussels was downcast after the result rolled in. Not only had the efforts of six opposition parties to unite under one candidate, Peter Marki-Zay, failed to dislodge Orban, but his Fidesz party had actually increased its majority in parliament.

It was the third Hungarian election in a row to be described by OCSE election observers as taking place in unfair conditions

Sounding a familiar anti-Semitic dogwhistle, Orban declared it a victory over "international leftists" and "Soros organisations", as well as "Brussels bureaucrats" and even Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who had accused the long-time Putin ally of sitting on the fence over the invasion.

It was the third Hungarian election in a row to be described by OCSE election observers as taking place in unfair conditions. Lines had become blurred between the right-wing Fidesz party and the state, observer Kari Henriksen warned. Campaign spending was unregulated, while skewed news coverage and a lack of election debates had "significantly limited voters' opportunity to make an informed choice".

Five minutes

When opposition candidate Marki-Zay appeared on state television for a five-minute slot on March 16th, the rarity of the incident itself made news. He thanked the station for giving "the opposition five minutes to speak in four years", Hungary Today reported.

A string of independent and opposition news outlets have shut down since Orban came to power. During the campaign, the monopolised remaining media organisations provided a heady diet of pro-Fidesz coverage and commentary, alongside Kremlin talking points about the war in Ukraine.

EU countries are now bracing for how much further electoral districts can be gerrymandered and civil society undermined in Orban’s next four years.

In the short term, diplomats are focused on whether Orban’s victory has implications for the EU’s policy towards Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as evidence of atrocities spurs momentum to impose tough new sanctions.

The fracturing of the Polish-Hungarian alliance is the subject of fascination in Brussels

Hungary is among the more hesitant states towards sanctions and opposes measures affecting Russian energy imports. But so far it has not wielded its veto to obstruct EU action, as it does in other foreign policy files to the advantage of authoritarian states.

Opposition Hungarian MEPs are likely to renew calls for the European Commission to use a new "conditionality mechanism" tying EU budget funds to respect for rule of law, which they hope could stop Orban from enriching allies to further entrench his hold on power.

Polish alliance

The issue may be complicated by the need for unity over Ukraine. Poland, which has its rule-of-law troubles, has argued for leniency in infringement proceedings now that it is host to so many Ukrainian refugees.

The fracturing of the Polish-Hungarian alliance is the subject of fascination in Brussels. Orban's relatively warm stance towards Russia has horrified the wary Poles, damaging a long-standing kinship. Some hope that Poland can now be persuaded to reset its democratic course.

This reveals the most pressing longer-term concern for the EU: whether, with an autocratically ruled country within its borders, the backsliding from democracy will spread.

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