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20th Jan 2019

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Hungary's far-right party set to come second in EU vote

  • Orban's message to Brussels: Respect for Hungarians! (Photo: Klara Zalan)

With just two weeks to go until the EU vote, Budapest is marked by few EU election posters. The country is expecting to see an electoral repeat of April's general election, in which Viktor Orban's ruling Fidesz scooped the lion's share of the vote.

On one of the few election posters to be found – featuring a recycled picture of Orban – Fidesz's EP election campaign theme is clear: "Our message to Brussels: Respect Hungarians!"

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The centre-right party is looking to be rewarded at the polls for what it sees as its successful attempt at defending Hungary and its government against attacks from Brussels over the past four years.

Both the European Commission and the European Parliament have taken Budapest to task over questions of rule of law and media freedom.

While Fidesz will undoubtedly win the EU elections, far-right party Jobbik is also set to do very well in the 25 May vote.

"The surprise would be if they didn't come in second," says Csaba Toth of the Republikon Institute. He notes that Jobbik is continuing its push for the political centre, a strategy that already paid off at the polls in April. "Its strategic goal is to become an alternating party to Fidesz," he adds.

Jobbik is now retreating from its previous calls for a referendum on EU membership.

Party leader Gabor Vona has said the party's aim is to bring Hungarian wages up to EU level, and to clean up corruption associated with EU funds.

He has started to label Jobbik as "EU-realist" – a party that supports a Europe of nations rather than a united states of Europe. "They realised that not even their own voters are necessarily in favour of exiting the EU," says Tamas Lanczi of the Szazadveg Foundation.

Opposition leftist parties that ran on a united list in the parliamentary elections in April are running separately this time.

The hope is that votes cast for them will reveal the real support behind each party, and decide the balance of power between them. But this tactic will almost certainly prevent any of them from surpassing Jobbik in the polls.

Parties are also gearing up for municipal elections in autumn. Leftist opposition parties are careful not to attack each other, as they might need to run again together at the local level.

Attila Mesterhazy, the socialist party's leader said less fighting, more honesty and common sense would help Hungary better defend its interest in the EU.

He reminded voters in a speech on 1 May that 97 percent of public investments in Hungary are made with EU money. But he also criticised the EU for being too bureaucratic, too slow and too expensive. The socialists may end up in third place, which will probably lead to a leadership crisis within the party.

Overall the European elections could be very similar to the general elections in April as the main topics remain domestic rather than EU.

The leftist parties, conscious that they may run again together at some point, say little about anything, while Fidesz promises more of the same.

Analyst Lanczi says the real issue for Fidesz is to strengthen its position with the European People's Party.

Ildiko Gall Pelczne, a Fidesz MEP who is now heading the party's EP list recently said she expects Fidesz to get 10-12 of Hungary's 21 seats in the new EP (down from the current 14).

Third on the list is Laszlo Tokes, a vocal representative of the Hungarian minority in Romania.

Representatives of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine and Serbia could also make it to the EP via the Fidesz list, where they occupy respectively ninth and tenth place.

Trusted Fidesz-insiders are high on the party's EP list. They include Jozsef Szajer, who rallied support for Fidesz within the EPP when Hungary was being criticised by the EU, and Andras Gyurk, the party's campaign manager.

Future Brussels-Budapest relations

It remains to be seen if Fidesz will hit a more conciliatory tone with Brussels over the coming years.

Toth argues that the government has already achieved the main constitutional changes it wanted, so conflicts related to Fidesz's overhaul of Hungary's laws might be a thing of the past.

But Brussels-Budapest relations could hinge on the Ukraine conflict, he notes. Budapest has been equivocal about Russia which could lead to tensions if anti-Russia sentiment grows in the EU.

Lanczi says the relationship will depend on how Europe evolves.

He says Brussels needs to listen more carefully to member states and take their interests into account, particularly as people still tend to think within a national context.

"The Fidesz government's approach is rooted in realpolitik. The conflicts have worked for them. They achieved results in Brussels by standing up to it," he says, adding that Viktor Orban enjoys growing respect in the EU.

"European leaders have accepted that Orban is a strong leader and it is better to seek agreement with him," Lanczi says.

Eszter Zalan is a journalist with Nepszabadsag, a Hungarian daily.

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