What now for the European Union’s most challenged and compromised democracy? The scale of Viktor Orbán’s fourth consecutive election victory in Hungary was crushing, comprehensive and unexpected. Faced for the first time with a united opposition alliance that put internal differences aside, predictions of a close race – or at least a competitive one – were confounded. On a high turnout, Mr Orbán’s Fidesz party actually won a greater number of seats than it held previously while Péter Márki-Zay, the opposition’s candidate for prime minister, failed even to win the local constituency he was contesting. Once again, resistance to Mr Orbán’s brand of authoritarian, conservative nationalism was largely confined to Budapest and other urban centres.
This is a result that will be mourned in Brussels and celebrated in the Kremlin. After pledging to keep Hungary out of the confrontation between the liberal west and Vladimir Putin’s Russia over Ukraine, Mr Orbán has a mandate to obstruct and disrupt EU attempts to impose further sanctions on Moscow. At a time when European unity is paramount, that is a problem that western leaders can do without. But at a still more fundamental level, the EU faces the acute dilemma of how to deal with a member state in which democratic norms have been flouted to such an extent that Mr Orbán’s autocratic rule appears unassailable.
Mr Márki-Zay did not fight a good campaign, as the opposition alliance failed to gel. But as he pointed out in a crestfallen election night address, this was anything but a fair political fight. During the course of 12 years in power, Mr Orbán has dismantled checks and balances to the extent that a proper hearing for opposition voices is now impossible in Hungary. Brazen gerrymandering of electoral districts – and a huge disparity in campaign resources – have grotesquely skewed the political map in favour of Fidesz. In 2018 the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe described the country’s elections as “free but not fair”.
Independent media have been forced out of business or taken over by government-friendly buyers, while state media barely go through the motions of presenting a balanced debate. Last month, one state television channel broadcast a 30-minute address by Mr Orbán nine times in the space of 24 hours. By contrast, Mr Márki-Zay was granted a total of five minutes’ airtime on state television during the election campaign. A corrupt clientelism, partly financed through EU funds, has made Mr Orbán’s friends and allies rich and entrenched his oppressive influence across civil society.
Confronted with a member state that risks becoming a democracy in name only – and where political opposition from within faces unacceptable obstacles – pressure from without must be more robustly exerted. The EU has frozen Covid recovery fund payments to Hungary, amounting to 5% of GDP, over corruption concerns. In the absence of a genuine commitment to reform in Budapest, that money should not be forthcoming. Brussels should also make it clear to Mr Orbán that a new law tying EU funds to compliance with democratic norms will be rigorously enforced. Belatedly, it must be made clear that a substantial price will be paid for treating the basic principles of EU membership with contempt. After the polls closed, Mr Orbán exulted at a win “so big that you can see it from the moon, and you can certainly see it from Brussels”. The EU should not allow him the last word.