Orbán’s Critics Dropped Their Principles — and Lost the Election

Hungary's election was always going to be an uphill battle in the face of incumbent Viktor Orbán's overweening power. But the opposition's lack of a clear alternative meant it ran simply as an anti-Orbán front — and it failed to mobilize voters.

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and members of his Fidesz party celebrate the general election results. (ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP via Getty Images)

With a landslide victory on April 3, Hungary’s far-right premier Viktor Orbán has won another two-thirds supermajority and his fourth consecutive term. Seventy-six percent of the Hungarian parliament is now composed far-right assemblymembers, many with neo-Nazi and pro-Kremlin ties.

There are lessons to be learned from this catastrophic outcome. Orbán’s bid for staying in power was based broadly on claims of keeping Hungarians safe from the looming war in Eastern Europe and protecting them from EU austerity. Other than promoting “Western values” and hating Orbán, meanwhile, the opposition — the United for Hungary alliance, a coalition of six moderate opposition parties that intended to oust Orbán at all costs, led by conservative Péter Márki-Zay — struggled to offer a credible alternative to appeal to voters outside the cosmopolitan liberal bubbles of Budapest.

Mostly free elections still exist in Hungary, but the political playing field is unbalanced and rigged against opposition forces: Fidesz, the governing party, controls the majority of the media and spent eight times more on its reelection campaign than is legally allowed. These conditions alone, however, do not explain the united opposition’s failure. Instead, the abandonment of working-class values, the weeding-out of the radical left, and a staunch refusal to take a cautious position on the war are the factors that led to this embarrassing defeat.

Until February, the run-up to Hungary’s election pivoted around so-called gender madness and the need to protect children from supposed LGBT propaganda. June last year saw the adoption of a discriminatory law that bans the distribution of educational materials and content deemed to promote homosexuality and transgender rights in Hungarian schools. A referendum on this legislation took place alongside the general election, but failed to muster enough votes to be valid after dissenting voters were encouraged to spoil their ballots.

But the referendum only remained at the heart of Fidesz’s reelection campaign until the start of the criminal invasion of Ukraine. Despite Orbán’s embarrassing history with Moscow coming under renewed scrutiny — especially since Volodymyr Zelensky called out the premier’s reluctance to take a stronger stance on Vladimir Putin — the ruling party was once again able to spin the narrative to its own benefit. Orbán chose not take sides, promising instead to keep Hungarians out of the war: campaign posters featuring slogans like “Let’s preserve Hungary’s peace and security!” and “Only Fidesz can create peace in Hungary!” appeared across the country, along with a slew of online ads worth several million.

Orbán’s strategy — “Neither Moscow nor Kiev” — should be viewed skeptically, to say the least, considering the overlap among both business and foreign policy interests between Budapest and the Kremlin. Not giving in to the West’s escalation rhetoric might seem like a pragmatic decision, but Orbán’s neutrality may instead be motivated more by a positive attitude to Putin and Hungary’s overwhelming dependence on Russian energy imports.

Despite his claims of neutrality, too, Orbán has cooperated with the EU and NATO, choosing not to veto sanctions against Russia or additional arms shipments to Ukraine. His supposed antiwar position becomes even more problematic when one considers that his party has spent the period since the 2015 refugee crisis demonizing and criminalizing peace movements, and that, in 2021, when Israel’s brutal shelling killed hundreds of Palestinian civilians in Gaza, Hungary was the only EU member state to veto calls for an immediate cease-fire.

The opposition hoped that Orbán’s foreign policy history would weaken his election chances, but his faux antiwar tactic instead seems to have worked: Orbán has cast himself as the savior of Hungarians, their protector from the bloodshed next door — a characterization assisted by the smear campaign his government launched against the opposition, which accused them of warmongering and seeking to drag Hungary into a potentially nuclear conflict.

This campaign was spurred by attempts by the opposition — which was initially preoccupied with issues like corruption and the restoration of democratic institutions — to weaponize the war against Orbán. In response, Fidesz accused opposition leaders of collaborating with Zelensky to destabilize Hungary, and recycled old antisemitic rhetoric to characterize them all as part of a larger conspiracy by the “globalist elite.” Orbán personally singled out George Soros and “the international left” along with Zelensky in his victory speech, itself indicative of who he considers Hungary’s foes.

“Orbán and Putin or the West and Europe — these are the stakes,” claimed one of Márki-Zay’s campaign slogans. This line expressed the opposition’s desire, contrary to Orbán, to be part of an idealized Europe, one about to restore the moral credentials damaged by failed military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Such rhetoric was key to the opposition’s platform before the invasion of Ukraine, but the conflict saw the prevalence of the “East vs. West,” “clash of civilizations” framing increase sharply.

But while the opposition condemned the brutal assault against Ukraine, similar standards have not been applied to Syria, Yemen, or Palestine. Like Fidesz, the coalition failed to consider the “uncivilized” people outside the West worthy of solidarity and empathy, refusing, for example, to pledge to remove the barbed-wire fence on the Serbian border intended to keep non-European refugees out. The coalition also campaigned on the basis of Orbán being “too soft on migrants,” despite Hungary having one of the most brutal immigration policies in Europe.

The liberal camp longs for the mythical idea of Western wealth while ignoring the bloody imperial history that made it possible. This being the fantasy, the coalition also avoided even mild criticism of the Western corporations responsible for much of Hungary’s poverty (since Eastern European economies are less underdeveloped and more over-exploited). But this capitulation does not change the fact that EU-backed Western corporations intend to keep Orbán in power for as long as possible, because weak democracies with authoritarian tendencies make exploitation a lot easier.

And this speaks to another problem underlying the result. Beyond the East vs. West questions thrown up by the invasion, Orbán also promised to keep Hungarians warm in the face of impending food and energy supply shortages. This was where the united opposition ultimately fell short. Their campaign focused primarily on the restoration of democracy, with limited messaging around the economy — but a mass democracy necessarily requires improvements in the conditions of workers, strong trade unions, and the reduction of inequality to function.

As Hungarian political economist Tamás Gerőcs claimed in an interview published just before the election: “It’s okay to discuss democracy, but the extension of workers’ rights must be one of the key elements of the democratization process. It’s impossible to build a democracy by excluding workers, unemployed people, and others — because that would lead us back to illiberalism.” When our next opportunity to defeat an Orbán comes, this is a lesson to remember.