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Hungary's EU, Local Polls Are A Test For Orban's 'Sovereignty' Clampdown

Populist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been in power since 2010. (file photo)
Populist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been in power since 2010. (file photo)

For more than a decade, Hungary's right-wing leader Viktor Orban has had little trouble sticking to a script. Vilify the left to promote his "illiberal" political vision. Castigate aloof EU officials preoccupied with perceived wokeness or imposing immigration. Blame a cost-of-living crisis on warmongering Russia-haters.

Such national populist appeals resonate with many Hungarians longing for stability and predictability, judging by Orban's ruling Fidesz party's dominance down to the lowest levels of government. Unpleasant surprises in elections are much less likely with parliamentary supermajorities, a coterie of loyal billionaires, and a captured media.

But scandals this year over the pardon of an accessory to child-sex abuse, corrupt prosecutors, and the apparent cover-up of a Russian hack have sent Orban scrambling. They have also contributed to the sudden defection and political rise of a longtime party insider who has spent weeks traveling the country to energize his emerging Respect and Freedom (Tisza) party's bid to dismantle the Fidesz juggernaut.

"I can't bring down the governing elite [by myself], but what I can be is the spark that ignites it all," said Peter Magyar, a lawyer, onetime husband of a justice minister, and Fidesz fixture in his own right, as he introduced Tisza in April.

Simultaneous Elections

Now Orban faces a twin test, with both European Parliament elections and local elections for mayors and other municipal officials being held on June 9. It will also be a test for the widely criticized Sovereignty Protection Office (SZH), which was established in February and has already waded into the campaign with its nearly limitless authority to publicly denigrate individuals and groups and even criminalize candidates over accusations of foreign funding and influence.

"This agency is all set up to prevent nasty surprises for Orban in the upcoming elections," Kim Lane Scheppele, a Princeton professor and expert on authoritarian regimes and Hungarian politics and law, told RFE/RL.

Its Fidesz sponsors have promoted the office as a way to curb alleged foreign meddling in Hungary's elections, and Orban himself has suggested it will strengthen democracy and has lashed out at U.S. criticism by telling Washington to "stop lecturing us."

But Scheppele has called it an attempt "to rig" this year's votes."In short, autocracy is becoming more and more obvious," said Scheppele, who coined the terms "autocratic legalism" and "Frankenstate" to describe Orban's alleged "dismantling" of Hungary's constitutional system.

She and other critics say the Sovereignty Protection Law from December 2023, which created the new office, follows a pattern of creeping encroachment on civil liberties since Fidesz won its first supermajority in 2010.

Opposition candidate Peter Magyar on the campaign trail ahead of the June 9 European and municipal elections.
Opposition candidate Peter Magyar on the campaign trail ahead of the June 9 European and municipal elections.

On April 19, nearly as soon as Magyar launched Tisza as a serious right-wing alternative to the ruling party, he was publicly branded a threat by Sovereignty Protection Office President and longtime Orban loyalist Tamas Lanczi over alleged "foreign funding attempts."

Then, on May 22, Lanczi's office issued its first official report, in which it accused a handful of more established and famously fractious opposition parties of being pawns of foreign interests dating back to the 2022 national elections.

The left-leaning Democratic Coalition (DK), the right-wing Jobbik, the pro-European centrist Momentum Movement, the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), and the Dialogue-Hungarian Greens (LMP) alliance were all alleged to have been "illegally" financed by a U.S.-registered network and were thus violating Hungarian sovereignty.

The office's accusations against the opposition followed closely on the heels of the scandals that put Magyar on the political map and put a dent in Fidesz's preferred image as a law-and-order party of Christian family values and the best safeguard against Russian or other aggression.

Edit Zgut-Przybylska, an assistant professor at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences who closely follows Hungarian affairs, said the Sovereignty Protection Law was part of a push by authoritarians "to silence critical voices under the guise of 'protecting national sovereignty' from foreign interference especially during elections."

But, she said, the "potential impact of the [Sovereignty Protection] Office could not dominate the electoral agenda as much as [Fidesz] wanted with this law because of the turbulent developments" surrounding its own scandals.

Orban and his party are hoping nevertheless to ride a predicted right-wing surge to improve on their 12 of Hungary's 21 seats in the European Parliament and grab key mayoralties in the local voting.

Tisza's prospects of stopping them appeared to rest almost solely on the charismatic, spiky-haired Magyar. As the party's other candidates for mayor and the European Union kept low profiles and Tisza spurned multiple requests for interviews with them, Magyar campaigned in dozens of areas where Fidesz has thrived.

National polling showed Tisza, soon after its launch, appealing to around 17 percent of voters in April and rising to an impressive 25 percent versus Fidesz's 48-percent support at the end of May. No other opposition party was reliably polling in double digits, and Tisza's gains seemed to come at the expense of the veteran Democratic Coalition, whose leftist leader Ferenc Gyurcsany is a favorite Fidesz punching bag.

Still, after campaigning throughout mostly rural Hungary at well-attended rallies, Magyar appeared to lower expectations by describing this weekend's elections as a "prelude" to national elections two years from now.

Rise Of Magyar

While he has made overtures to longtime opposition voters, Magyar has aggressively targeted Fidesz's base with measured EU criticism alongside pledges to reanimate the economy and dismantle the corruption that has sprung up around Orban.

Daniel Hegedus, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, said Lanczi's quick framing of an ascendant Magyar and the rest of the opposition as "traitors and enemies of the Hungarian nation" could limit support among potentially disaffected Fidesz voters who respond to patriotic appeals. "Obviously, considering the media dominance of Fidesz, it resonates," Hegedus said.

Hegedus added that Fidesz appeared to have been caught by surprise by the sudden rise of Magyar's movement and there was initially a slight decrease in Fidesz support, but the consensus is that Tisza "mostly attracts opposition voters and will first and foremost reshape the opposition landscape." That trend "won't threaten the stability of the regime," Hegedus said. "I think it will rather serve as a wake-up call for the 2026 national elections."

In a sign that Fidesz might regard Tisza as useful in splitting the vote in a crowded opposition field, Hungary's state broadcaster aired a preelection debate for the first time in 18 years. It featured Magyar alongside candidates from 11 parties jockeying for the country's 21 seats in the European Parliament, including some polling far below the 5 percent election threshold.

Gyuri Palfi, a financial professional in Budapest, said he was curious as to whether the elections would hinge on "propaganda" or the economic slump since Fidesz's triumph in the 2022 elections.

But he said he hadn't heard much about the Sovereignty Protection Office's accusations against the opposition. "It wasn't in the center of the current campaign," he said. "It will be interesting, if Tisza and the opposition parties are popular [in the voting], how Fidesz and the office will respond."

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden. 

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