Hungary elections 2022: What does another Orban term mean for freedoms?
The godfather of "illiberal democracy" - Viktor Orban - is fighting his fiercest election battle to date. What exactly is on the line when Hungarians head to the polls on Sunday?
01 Apr 22
Hungary Prime Minister Viktor Orban

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been ruling the country for 12 years, standing for national sovereignty and traditional Christian values. Photo: European People's Party/CreativeCommons/Flickr

LGBTQI rights. Gender equality. Media freedom. The fate of liberties in Hungary hang in the balance as the nation heads to the polls on Sunday. With a falling currency, a mismanaged response to the pandemic still fresh to mind and a stronger opposition under United For Hungary – a coalition of six parties spanning the political spectrum – the election campaign has been the closest in years. But the war in Ukraine, right on Hungary’s border, has changed its course in unexpected ways. Below we’ve picked the most important things to consider when it comes to the April 2022 elections.

Basic rights could worsen

Since his election in 2010, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has whittled away fundamental rights in the country to the extent that Hungarian activist Dora Papp told Index in 2019 free expression had no more space “to worsen”.

Orban’s main targets have been people who identify as LGBTQI. Last year, amid global outcry, he passed a law that bans the dissemination of content in schools deemed to promote homosexuality and gender change. Seeking approval for this legislation, Hungary is holding a referendum on sexual orientation workshops in schools this Sunday alongside the parliamentary elections.

Orban also takes aim at the nation’s Roma and immigrants, and has revived old anti-Semitic tropes in his attacks on George Soros, a Hungarian-born Jewish philanthropist who Orban claims is plotting to flood the country with migrants (an accusation Soros firmly denies).

As for half of the population, Orban’s macho-style leadership manifests in rhetoric on women that is dismissive, insulting and focuses on traditional roles. Asked in 2015 why there were no women in his cabinet, he replied that few women could deal with the stress of politics. That’s just one example. The list goes on.

His populist politics have seeped into every democratic institution and effectively dismantled them. The constitution, the judiciary and municipal councils have all been reorganised to serve the interests of Orban. Education, both higher and lower, has seen huge levels of interference. Progressive teachers and classes have been removed. Even the Billy Elliot musical was cancelled after Orban called the show a propaganda tool for homosexuality.

But the media can’t freely report much of this

In response to claims of media-freedom erosion, the Hungarian government likes to point out that there are no journalists in jail in Hungary, nor have any been murdered on Orban’s watch. But as we know only too well there are many ways to cook an egg. Through gaining control of public media, concentrating private media in the hands of Orban allies and creating a hostile environment for the remaining independent media (think misinformation laws and constant insults), the attacks come from every other angle. Orban has even been accused of using Pegasus, the invasive spyware behind the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi, to target investigative journalists.

It’s little wonder then that in 2021 Reporters Without Borders labelled Orban a “press freedom predator”, the only one to make the list from the EU.

As election day approaches the attacks continue. In February, for example, pro-government daily Magyar Nemzet said it had obtained recordings showing that NGOs linked to Soros were “manipulating” international press coverage of Hungary, a claim instantly rejected by civil society groups.

Ukraine War has shifted the narrative, for better and worse

Given Orban’s track-record on rights, it comes as no surprise that he’s the closest EU ally of Vladimir Putin. This wasn’t a great look before 24 February and it’s even less so today, as the opposition are keen to highlight. They are pushing Orban hard on his neutral stance, which has seen him simultaneously open Hungary’s borders to Ukrainian refugees and oppose sanctions and the sending of weapons.

But Orban is playing his hand well. Fears of becoming embroiled in the war appear to be stronger in Hungary than anger at Putin’s aggression, many analysts says. Orban is claiming a vote for him is a vote for stability and neutrality, while a vote for the opposition is a vote for war. He’s even tried to cast his February visit to Moscow as a “peace mission”.

And though he has condemned the invasion, he has yet to say anything bad about Putin himself. Worse still, Hungarian media is blasting out Russian propaganda. Pundits, TV stations and print outlets are pushing out lines like the war was caused by NATO’s aggressive acts toward Russia, Russian troops have occupied Ukraine’s nuclear plants to protect them and the Ukrainian government is full of Nazis.

 Anything else?

Yes. Orban met with a coalition of Europe’s far-right in Spain at the start of the year. They discussed the possibility of a Europe-wide alliance. What that looks like now in a post-Ukraine world is hard to tell. We’d rather not see.

Then there’s the fact that Serbia also goes to the polls Sunday. Like Orban, the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), led by president Aleksandar Vučić, has been unnerved by growing opposition. Also like Orban, they’re close to Putin and using the Ukraine war to their advantage – reminding people of the 1999 Kosovo war when NATO launched a three-month air strike. Orban and Vučić have developed close ties and will no doubt be buoyed up by each other’s victories should that happen on Sunday.

So will the Hungary elections be free and fair?

If the 2018 elections are anything to go by, they will be “free but not fair”, the conclusion of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), who partially monitored the 2018 election process. That’s the optimistic take. Others are fearful they will be neither free nor fair, so much so that a grassroots civic initiative called 20K22 has recruited more than 20,000 ballot counters – two for each of Hungary’s voting precincts – to be stationed at polling centres on election day with the aim of stopping any voting irregularities.

News from yesterday isn’t confidence-boosting either. Hungarian election officials reported a suspected case of voter fraud to the police. Bags full of completed ballots were found at a rubbish dump in north-western Romania, home to a large Hungarian minority who have the right to vote in Hungary’s elections. Images and videos shared by the opposition featured partially burnt ballots marked to support them. As of writing, no details have been provided of the actual perpetrators and their motives, and Orban has been quick to accuse the opposition of being behind the incident. Either way, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

By Jemimah Steinfeld

Jemimah Steinfeld has lived and worked in both Shanghai and Beijing where she has written on a wide range of topics, with a particular focus on youth culture, gender and censorship. She is the author of the book Little Emperors and Material Girls: Sex and Youth in Modern China, which was described by the FT as "meticulously researched and highly readable". Jemimah has freelanced for a variety of publications, including The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, Vice, CNN, Time Out and the Huffington Post. She has a degree in history from Bristol University and went on to study an MA in Chinese Studies at SOAS.