(CNN)Six weeks ago, Hungary’s election campaign looked and sounded very different.
The stakes were already high. Viktor Orban, the longest-serving national leader in the European Union, was seeking to extend his authoritarian premiership deep into its second decade. His rival, leading a united front of opposition parties, bluntly denounced Orban’s crusade against independent institutions and the rule of law.
But the political focus was resolutely domestic. When foreign policy took center stage, it was usually raised by Orban to tout his international credentials — such as on February 1, when he boasted of his political longevity while in Moscow, a few feet from his staunch ally President Vladimir Putin.
Now, everything has changed. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine later that same month has upended the race, recasting its protagonists and rewriting their pitches. It has left Orban, widely regarded as the EU’s most pro-Kremlin leader, walking a political tightrope. And it has shone a spotlight on a years-long entanglement between him and the Russian President, two strongmen whose political journeys bear some notable similarities.
“If you want to analyze the election campaign, you have to draw a line on February 24,” said Andrea Virág, director of strategy at the Republikon Institute think tank in Budapest, Hungary’s capital. “Since the war started, it’s completely different.”
The race — which will culminate in Sunday’s election — is now portrayed by the opposition as a crossroads between Hungary’s eastern and western horizons. “We only have one choice: we must choose Europe instead of the east,” opposition candidate Péter Marki-Zay, the man carrying the hopes of every Orban critic, told supporters this month.
Marki-Zay leads a united coalition of every major opposition party — a last-gasp and fragile effort that symbolizes how dramatically anti-Orban parties have been sidelined in recent votes.
War on Hungary’s border has also added urgency to what was already a thorny relationship between its government and the EU. While Orban has supported most of Europe’s sanctions against Russia, back home the political pragmatist — who has maintained relationships with dictators and democrats for years — has focused his pitch on keeping Hungary out of the conflict, and has dodged numerous opportunities to disavow Putin even as the Russian leader wages war.
Now, Orban’s political future rests on the success of his most complicated shapeshift yet — into a self-declared peacekeeper who won’t quit Russia.
The Putin critic-turned-admirer
When Putin, then serving as Russian prime minister, launched his first invasion of a neighboring country in 2008, Orban — at that time in opposition, following a first term as prime minister that ended in 2002 — clamored to condemn him.
But during his second, 12-year stint in power, Orban has embraced a friendly and reliant relationship with Moscow that has made him an outlier in Europe. In a 2014 speech setting out his intentions to build an “illiberal state” in Hungary, he cited Russia as an example; in their February meeting, as Russian troops massed on the Ukrainian border, Orban spoke glowingly to Putin of their bonds.
The relationship between the two strongmen is underpinned by economic reliance but also ideological similarities, according to Péter Krekó, the director of the Budapest-based Political Capital Institute.
“Orban’s Hungary is very far from Putin’s Russia — but Orban mentioned already that Russia is one of his role models,” Krekó said. “This anti-Western, ultra-conservative, anti-LGBTQ worldview … (and) an ideology based on state-sponsored information” is “quite similar” to Putin’s early moves as President, he added.
“Orban is the most pro-Putin prime minister (in the EU) and he did not expect the invasion at all,” Krekó said.
Meanwhile, as most EU countries have united in their support for Ukraine, Orban’s relationship with Kyiv has deteriorated over the years. He has impeded the country’s attempts to form closer relations with NATO, and has clashed with successive governments in Kyiv. On Wednesday, his foreign minister accused Ukraine’s government of coordinating with Hungary’s opposition parties, without citing evidence.
That dynamic has complicated recent EU efforts to punish Russia for its invasion. While Hungary has ultimately supported most sanctions unveiled so far, Orban has been adamant that measures are not extended to imports of Russian oil and gas. Most of Hungary’s oil and natural gas imports come from Russia, and 90% of Hungarian families heat their homes with gas, Orban said during a recent visit to London.
“If the sanctions are extended to energy, a situation will arise in which the Hungarian economy will find itself under unbearable pressure, and meanwhile this will probably not harm the Russians an iota,” a spokesperson for the Hungarian government told CNN, setting out Orban’s position.
In that context, most observers expected Putin’s war to harm his ally’s political fortunes. The opposition had long criticized Orban’s so-called Eastern Opening endeavor, which targets trade with authoritarian governments in Russia, China and Turkey.
“Putin is rebuilding the Soviet empire and Orban is just watching it with strategic calm,” opposition leader Marki-Zay said at a rally this week, Reuters reported.
Instead — thanks to his repeated claims that his rival would send Hungarian troops into Ukraine — Orban’s slight but significant lead in opinion polls has risen since the invasion. Marki-Zay has rejected those suggestions.
“The Prime Minister really shines in situations like this,” Virag said. “He really likes to position himself as the defender of Hungary — that’s why their campaign strategy has always been to create enemies, and dangers to Hungary.”
Hungary has taken in more than 350,000 Ukrainian refugees since the invasion, comparable to neighboring Slovakia but fewer than Poland, Romania and Moldova, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
In an independence day speech on March 15, Orban pledged not to send any weapons into Ukraine. He made no mention of Putin by name, and declined to cast Russia as the aggressor, instead framing the conflict as one between eastern and western powers, with Hungary “a piece in their game.”
“We’re helping those in trouble, but at the same time we’re not taking a single step that could drag Hungary into trouble,” a spokesperson for Orban’s government added to CNN. “We can’t help anyone while at the same time destroying ourselves — for example, by getting involved in a war that’s not our war, in which we have nothing to gain and everything to lose.”
That equivocation appears to have helped his electoral standing. But it is losing him yet more friends in Europe.
Poland’s President Andrzej Duda, the EU leader most sympathetic to Orban’s stances on social conservatism and the rule of law, broke with his ally to condemn his policy towards Ukraine last week. “Given the deaths of hundreds and thousands of civilians … it’s hard for me to understand this approach,” Duda told the TVN24 news channel. “This policy will be costly for Hungary, very costly.”
And in a speech to the European Council last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pointedly told Orban: “You have to decide for yourself who you are with.
“There is no time to hesitate,” Zelensky added. “It’s time to decide already.”
‘Hungary is a different country now’
Orban has comfortably seen off every electoral challenger he has faced in the past decade, helped in large part by a number of institutional reforms that have bolstered his grip on power and tilted the playing field against opposition voices.
“Hungary now is a completely different country than it was 12 years ago,” Virag said. “The whole structure of the state has changed; institutions act like part of the government.”
Orban has locked horns with EU leaders for years over his country’s hardline immigration policies and for clamping down on democratic institutions, including civic organizations, the media and education facilities.
His Fidesz party was suspended from the European Parliament’s main center-right bloc in 2019, and Hungary — along with Poland — recently lost a legal battle over the EU’s effort to block funding to the countries, in response to their democratic backsliding.
Hungary passed a law in 2017 that imposes restrictions on nongovernmental organizations receiving foreign funding. It prompted comparisons with Russia’s Foreign Agent Law, which has been used to crack down on opposition voices and independent media.
Meanwhile, university reforms ensured that facilities will now be run by foundations, whose trustees are to be appointed by Orban’s government, which critics said would extend the ideological imprint of Orban’s party into Hungary’s higher education classrooms.
And the EU has frequently taken issue with Hungary over rule of law issues. A 2018 law, passed soon after Orban secured a third consecutive term, created new courts overseen by the justice minister to handle cases concerning “government business,” such as tax and elections.
A government spokesperson told CNN that the country’s constitution, which was enacted in 2011 during Orban’s current stint in power, “stipulates that everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression and that Hungary recognizes and protects the freedom and diversity of the press.”
But for many Hungarians resisting the country’s illiberal trend, this election represents a desperate final push against governmental interference.
“There are parallel realities existing right now in Hungary,” said Szabolcs Panyi, an investigative journalist who said he was one of many Hungarian reporters whose phones were monitored by Pegasus spyware. “One half of Hungarian society, [which] is consuming state media, sees Orban as a savior who is protecting Hungary from the western global liberal elite.”
Panyi foresees a wider threat. “There’s a very viable possibility that this propaganda machine that has been tried and tested in Hungary could be exported to support like-minded right-wing leaders,” he said.
Those who consume government-friendly media networks in Hungary now frequently see a “pro-Russian narrative,” including suggestions that Ukrainian aggression sparked conflict, which have helped Orban land his anti-interventionist message, Panyi said.
“They have an enormous media empire,” Krekó added of Orban’s government. “There are opposition voices, but they are much more silent. And by default, (Hungarians) bump into the government’s messaging.”
The electoral process too has been targeted. A law passed in 2011 redrew the lines on the electoral map, in what opposition parties and the media criticized as blatant gerrymandering. A government spokesperson denied that claim, telling CNN it was “unfounded and implies a lack of knowledge about the Hungarian electoral system.” Last month, Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE), recommended a full-scale international monitoring operation at the April 3 poll — a rare move for an EU state — after assessing claims of “a general deterioration of the conditions for democratic elections.”
A political experiment
The far-reaching implications of Orban’s rule have led his critics to a last-ditch political gambit. “It took some time, but the opposition saw that their only real chance to have some success is to unite,” Virag said.
Now, all six significant opposition parties — from the Greens and Liberals to the previously far-right Jobbik — have put their substantial ideological differences on hold to unite behind Marki-Zay, a conservative small-town mayor who himself once voted for Orban.
Marki-Zay’s campaign initially focused on what he called Orban’s “corrupt dictatorship,” before Russia’s invasion forced a pivot. But Marki-Zay has since capitalized on the Ukrainian crisis too, painting Orban as a budding authoritarian following Putin’s model.
“European integration, democracy and market economy are highly important values … and the most important (issue) is to root out corruption,” he said at a rally in late March, Reuters reported.
Much of his message has relied on Hungarian fatigue with an increasingly powerful government. “What will decide this election is that the majority of people is fed up with the past 12 years,” supporter Sandor Laszlo told Reuters at another opposition rally. “Hungary deserves calm and peace at last,” a second voter, Maria Cseh, said.
But should he pull off victory on Sunday, Marki-Zay will face even greater difficulties in power. “It’s not an easy job to keep this coalition together; the six parties are very different,” Virag said.
Culture wars and a controversial referendum
Marki-Zay’s profile has itself posed a challenge to Orban. A Catholic father-of-seven, and mayor of the southern heartland city of Hódmezővásárhely, his victory in opposition primaries neutralized the Prime Minister’s preferred line of attack: that his opponents are out-of-touch, Westernized social liberals.
For years, anti-migrant rhetoric and policies were the hallmark of Orban’s foreign policy. But following the easing of the European migrant crisis sparked by the Syrian conflict, much of his attention has turned to LGBTQ+ people, a trend replicated in neighboring Poland.
That crusade is “very important” to the current government, Virag said, in order to “convince voters there is a danger to Hungary, but Viktor Orban is here to defend (them).”
On the same day as the election, a referendum will take place on Orban’s controversial law that bans the “teaching of sexual orientation” and gender reassignment to children. The government amended a law late last year that banned referendums being held on the same day as an election, ensuring his right-wing base is motivated to turn out.
“We are united and therefore we will also win the referendum with which we will stop at our borders the gender madness sweeping across the Western world,” Orban said during his March 15 speech.
The controversial LGBTQ+ education law, passed last year, bears similarities to Russia’s law against homosexual “propaganda,” which was similarly condemned by the West, and LGBTQ+ activists say its wording conflates them with pedophiles and further isolates them from Hungarian society.
“Around the world, governments are mobilizing tired and offensive stereotypes portraying LGBT people as a threat to children to drum up political support,” Ryan Thoreson, an LGBT rights researcher for global watchdog Human Rights Watch, told CNN in reference to the vote in Hungary. “Human rights shouldn’t be put to a vote.”
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has called the law a “shame” that goes against EU values, and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte went as far as saying Hungary “has no place in the EU anymore.”
But putting the issue to a referendum alongside a national election vote has been dismissed as a stunt by many observers. “The Hungarian population is not very liberal when it comes to cultural issues,” but it doesn’t have strong feelings about LGBT+ people, Virag said. “Even before the war it was a minor issue.”
Rhetoric around the referendum has been far eclipsed by the parliamentary vote, and it is possible it will not reach the threshold of valid votes from 50% of the electorate required to be deemed valid — the same fate that befell a similarly controversial 2016 referendum on EU migrant quotas. The LGBTQ+ education law is nonetheless already in force.
The results of the referendum, however, are unlikely to deter Orban if he claims the main prize of another four years in office.
A failure by the united opposition front would give further proof of Orban’s dominance over Hungarian politics, and if he claims a sizable majority, he would be expected quickly to move to consolidate his position further.
“With each election, Hungary is becoming more and more illiberal. The election is becoming more and more unfair,” Krekó said.
“If the opposition cannot reach a majority, or push Orban into a very tight majority, the next time will be even more difficult.”