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War in Ukraine Is Shaking Up Hungary’s Elections

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán told Hungarians this week the choice on April 3 is between "a pro-peace right or a pro-war left."

Hungary’s upcoming parliamentary elections on April 3 were already poised to be pivotal. Seeking reelection for his fourth-consecutive term, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of the Fidesz Party is facing his toughest challenge to date: the Peter Marki-Zay-led United for Hungary coalition, composed of seven minor political parties scattered across the Hungarian political spectrum. Hungarians will also be voting on a referendum to determine whether LGBT ideology will be allowed to be taught to minors. But with the outbreak of war between Russia and Ukraine just across Hungary’s eastern border, the elections have taken on another crucial dimension.

On Tuesday, March 15, Hungary celebrated Revolution Day in remembrance of the revolt against the Austrian Empire in 1848. Though the revolution failed, it set Hungary on a path that eventually resulted in its effective independence in 1867. The values embodied in the revolution remain fundamental to Hungary’s national identity. Hundreds of thousands of Orbán’s supporters recently packed the streets of Budapest. They marched across the Margaret Bridge before packing Kossuth Lajos Square in front of the Hungarian House of Parliament to hear the prime minister speak.

What they heard from Orbán was a message fit for the national holiday’s spirit: “Our interest is to avoid being a pawn sacrificed in someone else’s war. In this war we have nothing to gain and everything to lose,” Orbán told the crowd. “We must stay out of this war! Not a single Hungarian must be caught between the Ukrainian anvil and the Russian sledgehammer.” He continued:

Our history has taught us the nature of wars all too well. There are countries that want to achieve their goals through war; but we know that the best war is that which one can avoid. Russia looks to Russian interests, Ukraine looks to Ukrainian interests. Neither the United States nor Brussels will think with a Hungarian head or feel with a Hungarian heart. We must represent our own interests – calmly and courageously.

Orbán said his opponents on the left, and the right-leaning parties that have coalesced with them to bring the Fidesz government down, have “lost [their] sense of reality, and would sleepwalk [their] way into a cruel, protracted and bloody war.”

“The left wants to send Hungarian soldiers and Hungarian weapons to the front line,” the prime minister went on to say. “We shall not permit this; we will not allow the left to drag Hungary into this war! We shall not allow the left to make Hungary a military target, to make a target of Hungarians in Hungary and Transcarpathia. We Hungarians know very well who reaps the benefits of such wars. We are strong enough to resist the plans of the left and the warmongers behind them.”

Because of the Hungarian left’s willingness to go to war— a position in keeping with their affinity for Brussels— Orbán said the stakes for the elections in Hungary are the highest in recent memory. “We cannot exclude the possibility that on the day of the parliamentary election and the referendum, gunfire will still be roaring in our neighboring country. We have never had such an election,” Orbán said. “The stakes in the election are not diminished by the threat of war, but raised. Indeed, they are raised to the skies: a pro-peace Right or a pro-war Left; construction or destruction; forward or back. We say that we should preserve the peace and security of Hungary: whoever votes for peace and security votes for Fidesz.”

Balázs Orbán (no relation), a top advisor to the prime minister, told The American Conservative via email, “We condemn the Russian invasion and the Ukrainian people have our full solidarity,” which is why an “overwhelming majority” of Hungarians are “on the side of peace.” He added:

The historic wars were never fought in our interest but in turn we were the ones suffering. The Left fails to learn from this and made it explicit that they want Hungary to engage in the war. The opposition and their PM candidate Mr. Péter Márki-Zay said countless times that they want to send not only weapons but Hungarian soldiers as well to Ukraine. Hungary is a neighbor of Ukraine and about 130 thousand ethnic Hungarians live on the Ukrainian side of the border. Should the war escalate Westwards, Hungary will be immediately in the frontline and just imagine what would happen to the Hungarian minority. The same goes to the weapon deliveries: these are prime targets in a war, very likely exposing the Hungarians living in [Transcarpathia] to armed attacks. We think that the situation needs to be deescalated, and should definitely avoid any further escalation.

The diplomacy pursued over the prime minister’s tenure, Orbán said, reflects Hungary’s desire for peace. “While we have been a committed E.U. and NATO ally, we can also have had good relations with Russia on pragmatic and mainly economic grounds,” though, Orbán added, “the invasion of Ukraine makes it difficult to maintain these relationships.”

This balancing act between the West, Russia, and China has been difficult for Prime Minister Orbán’s government to maintain. It has grown more difficult as the U.S. and the E.U. have become more adversarial towards Russia, China, and Hungary itself. Nevertheless, Hungary, with the help of other E.U. nations, has managed to prevent E.U. sanctions on Russian energy to this point in the conflict.

“Introducing sanctions on energy imports would result in extreme price hikes, doing both harm to Hungary and the E.U.,” Balázs Orbán said. “This is the reason why the opposition’s claims to immediately stop the import of the Russian natural gas and halt the construction of Paks 2 nuclear power plant are irresponsible. They want to make the Hungarian people pay the price of the war, which is unacceptable.”

“Now is the time for promoting political stability in Central Europe,” Gladden Pappin, associate professor of politics at the University of Dallas, told TAC. “The west has pursued an adverse policy, pushing an adverse cultural agenda here in recent years. It’s obviously time for that to stop,” because “Central European governments have proven themselves to be forward thinking partners in NATO.”

Hungary’s desire for peace “is evident here” and “needs to be taken more seriously among western decision makers, whose comments often instead seem to be escalatory,” Pappin went on to say.

Though Balázs Orbán told TAC the war in Ukraine currently “dominates the public life not only in Hungary but in Europe and the U.S. as well,” issues that dominated the election prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, “such as protecting the Children from LGBT propaganda, are still high on the political agenda.”

Of course, Hungary is a free country. Adult people are free to act and live their life as they want to. What we find problematic, is the ideological indoctrination of children in schools, against their parents will. The Hungarian people will vote on this particular issue. The referendum on this issue will be held on the same day as the general elections, so we expect high turnout. To put this in a broader context, the safety and well-being of Hungarian families will be the biggest challenge of Hungarian politics in the next decade. Therefore, the Orbán Government simultaneously carries out a massive military development program, and is working on extending the already successful family support system of the country.

In addition to his stand on LGBT issues, the Ukrainian conflict has worked to Viktor Orbán’s electoral benefit. While Hungary has tightened its relationship with the Kremlin under Orbán, his opponent, Marki-Zay, “is mayor of a small city, and has been pretty bad on the campaign trail, making all kinds of rookie mistakes—all of which deepen people’s fears that it’s too risky to change horses in a time of national crisis.”

“The opposition to Orbán is a mishmash of different parties that would have great difficulty ironing out a coherent strategy with regard to Russia,” Pappin told TAC.

“I think that it’s clear that the experience in pursuing peace and stability of the current government seems to be appealing to Hungarian voters, and it seems likely that they will return the Orbán government to power in April,” Pappin said, “although anything can happen in the next few weeks.”

Despite the hodgepodge of parties that have coalesced under United for Hungary’s banner to unseat Orbán, polling suggests Orban’s Fidesz Party retains a four-point lead over its rival—a gap that has been constant since the start of the new year. Nevertheless, United for Hungary marks the biggest electoral test for Orbán since he returned to the prime ministership in 2010. Four of the five opposition parties Orbán faced in the last election have joined the United for Hungary coalition, though their 2018 combined vote-share total of 46.52 percent still falls short of Fidesz’s 47.89 percent.

As the world teeters on the brink of further war in Europe, the prime minister’s assessment rings true: The stakes have never been higher for Hungarian elections in recent memory, which is why I’m pleased to announce I will be on the ground in Budapest for The American Conservative when Hungarians go to the ballot box on April 3 to determine their country’s future in this pivotal moment.



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