Hungary's liberals brace for a torrid four years after Orbán's landslide

Crushing victory means PM has power to remould Hungary and possibly even the entire EU

Viktor Orbán embarks on another four years in power newly emboldened, as his crushing victory in a parliamentary vote on Sunday gives him the power to remould Hungary.

With most of the votes counted, a two-thirds majority looks likely for Orbán’s Fidesz party, which will allow the government to pass constitutional changes. The party won 49% of the vote in the national list and took the majority of constituency mandates, a far better performance than even Fidesz insiders were expecting.

For Hungary’s beleaguered liberals, who were unable to overcome internal divisions to unite against Fidesz and were trounced at the polls, a torrid four years are in store. Orbán is likely to brush off outside criticism that the vote was unfair and double down on his campaign against civil society and independent media.

“This is the absolute worst-case scenario,” said Zsuzsanna Szelényi, a former independent MP. “This new majority coupled with the high turnout will mean Fidesz feels more legitimate, and Orbán will be able to use this new strength in its dealings with Brussels.”

Over the past eight years, Orbán has been accused of backsliding on democratic norms, appointing loyalists to head previously independent institutions, and taking indirect control of much of the media market.

With Fidesz extremely strong in parliament, this is likely to continue. After a speech in March in which Orbán promised to seek “moral, political and legal amends” against his enemies after the election, nobody can say they were not warned.

“Orbán does not like to have islands of autonomy around him, and so in this new term we can see further moves against those that are remaining, including NGOs and the judiciary, which is still fairly independent,” said Szelényi.

Orbán will see the result as a resounding endorsement of the single-issue campaign he ran on immigration, using far-right rhetoric to claim the opposition would allow mass migration, and that this would bring more terrorism, rape and other crime to Hungary. The message was disseminated relentlessly by the state media and government-funded billboards. Now that he has won, it is unlikely that the rhetoric will be toned down.

First on the agenda could be the controversial “stop Soros” set of laws. Meant to combat the supposed nefarious plots of the Hungarian-American financier George Soros to undermine Hungary, they could be put before parliament in the coming weeks.

The bill would subject all foreign funding for immigration-related advocacy or support to a 25% tax, and would also give the interior ministry the right to close down organisations it believed were a national security risk.

The Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has used scaremongering tactics about migrants and refugees as the cornerstone of his politics in the past few years, but in classic populist style he has also required a shadowy, nefarious overlord to target. In Orbán’s case, that figure has been George Soros, who perfectly fits the bill as both insider and outsider in Hungary.

Soros was born György Schwartz to a family of Hungarian Jews in 1930, but his father changed their surname to make it more Hungarian. His family split up and lived under assumed identities to escape the Holocaust, and Soros left Hungary in 1947 to study in London. He later emigrated to the US, making billions as an investor and hedge fund manager. His Open Society foundations have donated billions to promoting civil society and human rights, particularly in the former Communist countries of central and eastern Europe.

Soros is a favoured target of rightwing governments worldwide, including in Israel. Hungarian officials have used criticism of Soros by Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to deflect allegations of antisemitism around their own anti-Soros campaign.

However, at times, the rhetoric appears to borrow heavily from antisemitic tropes. In a March speech in which he accused the political opposition of being “Soros candidates”, Orbán referred to his enemies as “not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money”.

“Many of those organisations who camouflage themselves as human rights groups that are trying to help people to get rid of their misery are actually helping to foster illegal migration,” said Orbán’s spokesman, Zoltán Kovács, before the vote.

Civil society representatives have said the bill is fundamentally different from previous pieces of legislation aimed at the sector, which were stigmatising but could be sidestepped.

Even before the official results were announced on Sunday night, Kovács told the Hungarian website Index that “organisations interfering with politics need to be shut down”. On Monday morning, a Fidesz spokesman said on state television that parliament would pass the law in May. At risk are the few remaining NGOs that offer legal or humanitarian assistance for migrants and refugees.

Ákos Hadházy, co-chair of the liberal LMP party, said he was stepping down after the vote. He refused to congratulate Fidesz or Orbán and said the election was neither fair nor honest. “There will be grave political and economic consequences to follow, and Hungary is close to no longer being part of the EU,” he added.


Shaun Walker in Budapest

The GuardianTramp

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