Elections in Hungary point to growing rift between East and West

Elections in Hungary point to growing rift between East and West

With the re-election of Fidesz party leader, Viktor Orbán for a third term, Hungary joins Poland and Italy in the rising tide of right-wing governments. Amidst a changing political landscape and intense fear of migrants, Orbán’s re-election is likely to have severe economic and political consequences on the relationship between the East and West.

Thus far, the European Union has been relatively successful in containing the rise of populism and the extreme right. However, the string of right wing governments that have been elected over the past few months may well jeopardize efforts to sustain EU liberal-democratic values. That may change, however, with the recent re-election of Orbán in Hungary. The election has a high likelihood of further undermining these efforts by deepening the rift between East and West due to various political and economic consequences.

The election

On April 8th, after a polarizing election campaign, Fidesz party leader Viktor Orbán was unsurprisingly re-elected for a third term with a two-thirds majority in parliament. Campaigning on a platform that focused on Euroscepticism and preserving Christian values by keeping migrants out, the Fidesz party swept away the opposition and stole 50 percent of the national vote (a significant increase from 44.54 percent in 2014). Culminating in a record voter turnout of 69 percent, Orbán portrayed himself as the defender of the nation against the danger of European integration and the invading immigrants.

Taking advantage of the fact that as of 2017, 62 percent of Hungarians believed that Hungary should stop all further migration from Muslim countries, Orbán was able to use his monopoly on the media and almost unlimited state funds to distribute his campaign message. Unsurprisingly, he was able to win over most rural constituencies and provincial towns, where their primary source of information is state owned television channels. In the end, the factor that ended up determining the outcome of the election was Orbán’s ability to construct a reality steeped in fear of immigrants and anger towards the EU.

While a little more than half of the population, most notably the youth, did not vote for him, it is the increase in the numbers that should be paid attention to. Given the increase in the percentage of Hungarians who voted for Orbán compared to a few years ago, the election is an ominous warning for the rest of Europe that populism and the radical right are not going to disappear anytime soon. If anything, what this election has shown is that anger and disenchantment with the EU has continued to increase, manifesting in larger portions of the population who support Orbán, and making it likely that he will only continue to obtain power.

Rift between East and West

Until now, EU countries such as Germany and France have been able to somewhat repel efforts by right-wing parties to dominate the political sphere, most notably by preventing the Front National and Marine Le Penn from winning the French election. This has allowed the EU to preserve liberal-democratic values and to push forward with their efforts for further European Integration.

However, with this election, it is almost certain that the rift between Eastern and Western Europe will become more pronounced over the coming months. With Orbán’s re-election, Hungary joins the rising tide of right-wing governments that is currently sweeping over Central-Eastern Europe. This is probably the most advantageous time for Orbán to come back into power, since he will most likely find a significant amount of support from the Polish government. While this is good news for Orbán, it is not so beneficial for the rest of Europe. It is extremely likely that Orbán will take more aggressive actions than usual right from the beginning of his term, with Poland likely following his lead. As a result. the EU should expect a lot of vetoing in future policy decisions, such as any potential recommendations to suspend Hungary’s voting rights in the trading bloc, since Hungary and Poland will most likely work together in the interest of opposing further EU integration.

Potential economic independence for Hungary 

In general, to stay in power, political parties need the approval of the public, which is often dependant on the leader delivering on certain key issues that are deemed to be most important to their nation. According to the PEW Global Attitudes Project, Hungarians place the greatest amount of importance on economic prosperity, with 84 percent of the population viewing this as more important than obeying democratic principles. Economic prosperity may indeed be something that Orbán is able to deliver on, especially considering that China is pursuing efforts to expand economically into Central Eastern Europe and Orbán has stated that he is more than welcoming of such a relationship.

If a trade relationship between China and Hungary is established, it is extremely likely that Hungary and the former communist countries may be able to break their economic dependence on the EU. If this happens, Orbán will not need to worry about economic backlash from the EU since he could just turn to China for economic support instead. This would mean that the EU would have very little leverage over Orbán with which to control his behaviour, resulting in a further separation between East and West.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Diana Anton

Diana Anton holds a M.A in in Political Science from Queen’s University with a specialization in comparative and international politics. During her time there, she spent three months on exchange at the Bundeswehr University of Munich. Diana focuses on the rise of right-wing public attitudes in Poland, Hungary, France and Germany, and is concerned with the impact that right-wing public attitudes and post-communist politics have had on European politics and the civil society-state relationship in Europe.