Home>Hungary: A key country in the populist reshaping of the Old Continent


Hungary: A key country in the populist reshaping of the Old Continent

After fourteen years in power, Fidesz has admittedly lost some support in terms of vote share compared with 2019 (-7 points), but not in terms of the total numbers of votes cast. At 44.7%, this is a very limited, almost enviable (!) setback compared to the political upheaval suffered by the government in France or the defeat of the German coalition.

The real story of this election therefore does not concern the party in power, but the opposition, which has emerged transformed from this European vote, which was notable for its record turnout (almost 60%, compared with 43.5% in 2019). The breakthrough of a new party, the Respect and Freedom Party (Tisza), launched in March by Péter Magyar, with 30% of the vote, has given rise to a new opposition force whose political profile is still difficult to define. Magyar, who comes from the Fidesz party and is separated from his wife Judit Varga, who was the Minister of Justice and was going to be at the head of the Fidesz slate for the European elections, launched his movement in a highly unusual context following the granting of amnesty to an accomplice of a convicted paedophile. This decision was deemed indefensible for Fidesz, a conservative party that claims to promote family values. The scandal forced the resignation of the Minister of Justice and even of the President of the Republic, Katalin Novak. Péter Magyar went on to condemn the hypocrisy and corrupt, clientelist practices of Fidesz (which he knew well from the inside).

As a result, Magyar’s new party did not campaign on European themes, although at a rally at the end of the campaign he called out to the crowd: “Do we want to head East?”, to which the crowd replied, “West”; then, in the same vein, “Fidesz or Europe?”, to which the audience responded “Europe”. For the moment, it is difficult to define Tisza’s political profile, but the fact that it has joined the European People’s Party (EPP) group in the European Parliament, replacing the expelled Fidesz, provides some indication.

However, this ultra-rapid breakthrough by a new opposition force did not come at the expense of the Fidesz electorate, but, for the most part, at the expense of the traditional opposition (liberal or left-wing): the Democratic Coalition led by former socialist prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány won 8% of the vote (compared with 16% in 2019), while Momentum, the small anti-Fidesz liberal party, failed to break the 5% barrier. Jobbik faded away but a new far-right party, the Our Homeland Movement, took its place (with one EMP).

The old opposition still holds sway in the major cities of Szeged, Pécs, Győr, and above all Budapest (where the very narrow victory of incumbent mayor Gergely Karácsony is being contested), as shown by the results of the municipal elections, which were held at the same time as the European elections. However, after losing three legislative elections in a row, it gave the impression of powerlessness and is no longer able to embody an alternative to Orban. This is why even former liberal dissidents such as Gábor Demszky, Bálint Magyar, and Miklós Haraszti endorsed Péter Magyar, who thus became a potential challenger to Viktor Orban – that is, if the old, fractured opposition can be brought together with the new one.

Reshaping Europe: Orban as a pivotal figure

While domestic politics dominated this election, there were two major themes in the Fidesz discourse with important implications for Europe. The first was Fidesz’s effort to present “the question of peace and war” as a major issue in this election. Orban considers that Ukraine cannot win the war against Russia and that it is therefore necessary to bring the conflict to an end (with, presumably, the acceptance by Kyiv of some territorial loss). A large “peace march” was organised in Budapest during the campaign. Orban’s position is not (as it is sometimes portrayed) a “pro-Russian” one. Neither he, nor the Hungarians in general, are Russophiles; they remember their history (1848, 1956). But Orban’s would-be Realpolitik has tapped into a widespread feeling in society (“let’s stay away” from this conflict, “it’s not our war”) and, at the same time, profited from the economic advantages to be gained from his open indulgence of Putin (supplies of oil and gas).

Viktor Orban in Prague, October 2022. (credits: Alexandros Michailidis for Shutterstock)

This makes it all the more difficult, of course, to formulate a European policy of strong support for Ukraine. Orban used his veto power as blackmail at the December 2023 European Council meeting to unblock €10bn of EU funds. He claims to be in favour of EU enlargement towards the Balkans (especially Serbia, where his alter ego, President Aleksandar Vučić, is practising a similar brand of illiberal democracy) but considers that it is “premature” to enter into negotiations with Ukraine, whose borders have not yet been settled.

In the short term, Orban is less significant for his obstruction to the enlargement of the EU to include Ukraine, and more for the role he wants to play in the reshaping of European politics, marked by the rise of right-wing nationalist and populist parties. His sympathies lie with two women politicians: “The future of the sovereignist camp in Europe, and of the Right in general, now rests in the hands of two women. Everything will depend on the ability of Marine Le Pen in France and Giorgia Meloni in Italy to cooperate”. Orban is close to Meloni’s conservative positions on societal issues, but closer to Le Pen’s more assertive posture on national sovereignty within the EU.​​

Having been ousted from the EPP, Orban’s Fidesz finds itself in the company of two other Central European “expelled” populist leaders: Slovakia’s prime minister Robert Fico, who has been expelled from the European Social-Democrats’ club, and Andrej Babis, who was victorious at home in the European elections and is likely to win the next general election in the Czech Republic, but is now at odds with the European liberals (Renew).

Fidesz is now at the crossroads of two groups in the European Parliament: the European Conservatives and Reformists group (ECR, including the Fratelli d’Italia, the Polish Law and Justice Party, etc.) and the Identity and Democracy group (ID, including Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom, etc.). Orban’s ambition is to bring these two groups together so that they can explicitly influence the direction of European policy in opposition to the alliance of conservatives (EPP), social democrats (SD), and the Renew Europe group, and, more generally, so that they can play a role in the political recomposition of Europe. This goal is the opposite of a hypothetical exit from the EU. When you receive 3% of your GNP in European funds you think twice before slamming the door, and furthermore the failures of Brexit (initially applauded by Orban) have provided a model to be avoided. The aim is to transform the EU from within, starting with a hoped-for European political realignment involving Orban as the “honest broker” among right-wing populist sovereignists, in the context of a relative weakening of the Franco-German “tandem”.

By Jacques Rupnik, Research Professor Emeritus at the Sciences Po's Center for International Studies (CERI).

This text was initially published in French as “Hongrie : un pays-clé de la recomposition populiste du Vieux Continent”, La Grande Conversation.

English translated by Sam Fergusson.