Mar 31, 2022 - World

Orbán's Putin ties under scrutiny ahead of Hungary election

A poster depicting Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, and Viktor Orban, Hungary's prime minister, during a Fidesz party freedom march in Budapest, Hungary, on Tuesday, March 15, 2022.

A poster depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungry Prime Minister Viktor Orbánime minister, during a Fidesz party freedom march in Budapest, Hungary, on Tuesday, March 15, 2022.

Hungary's foreign minister this week accused Ukraine of coordinating with opposition parties to interfere in parliamentary elections on April 3, further straining relations between Kyiv and the most pro-Russian government in the European Union.

Why it matters: Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, an icon for the global right who has transformed Hungary into a self-styled "illiberal democracy," faces his toughest election bid since returning to power in 2010.

  • Polls show his Fidesz party up by around 5% against a broad coalition of opposition parties that joined forces in a desperate bid to defeat him.
  • With support for neighboring Ukraine running high, Orbán's close ties with Vladimir Putin and spoiler role inside the trans-Atlantic alliance have come under new scrutiny in the final stretch of the campaign.

The big picture: Orbán has walked a tightrope by accepting EU sanctions on Russia and welcoming more than 360,000 refugees, but refusing to allow weapons to be transported across Hungarian territory and ruling out sanctions on Russian energy.

  • That led to a sharp rebuke from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who referred to Orbán's Hungary as a "Russian branch in Europe" while urging EU leaders to "stop listening to the excuses of Budapest."
  • "Our moral responsibility is not for Ukraine. I don't have to face the Lord for Ukrainians, but for Hungarians. I must consider the Hungarian interest," Orbán said in response to criticism.

Orbán's intransigence is isolating Hungary even from its right-wing allies in central and eastern Europe.

  • Poland has often aligned with Hungary in challenging Brussels, but is also deeply hostile to Russia.
  • A meeting of the Central European "Visegrad Group" was cancelled this week after Poland and the Czech Republic pulled out to protest Hungary's war response.

What they're saying: Polish President Andrzej Duda, an erstwhile Orbán ally, said this week that Hungary's approach to Russia's aggression was "hard for me to understand" and would be "very costly for Hungary."

  • "I think one of the main questions for this Sunday will be to what extent the Hungarian population understands how isolated Orbán has become," Dávid Korányi, a former Hungarian national security adviser who now leads Action for Democracy, tells Axios.
  • Orbán has doubled down despite the international backlash, accusing the opposition of "war mongering" for promising to supply Ukraine with weapons and painting himself as the "peace candidate."

Between the lines: While the Hungarian people generally have empathy for Ukraine's plight, Orbán's control of 80% of the national media will help his message cut through, says Anna Orosz, an opposition candidate running in Budapest.

  • The media landscape, together with gerrymandered constituencies and an election system that favors running up the score in individual districts, makes life "very difficult" for the opposition, Orosz tells Axios.

The bottom line: The opposition is still hopeful for an outright win on Sunday, but would also consider denying Orbán a parliamentary supermajority to be a victory.

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