17th Oct 2019

Orban scores at home, searches for home in Europe

Hungary's ruling right-wing Fidesz party won 52.1 percent of votes in the European election on Sunday (26 May) on a hardline anti-immigration platform - but the lack of a wider populist breakthrough in Europe means prime minister Viktor Orban's party is still searching for a new political alliance in Brussels.

Orban told his Fidesz supporters on Sunday night that he would cooperate with everyone in Europe who wanted to stop immigration.

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"The election victory means that Hungarians gave us the task of stopping immigration all across Europe," Orban said, after running an anti-migration campaign, aided by a heavily pro-government media.

Hungarians wanted Fidesz to "protect Christian culture in Europe", he added.

Fidesz and its centre-right political family, the European People's Party (EPP) agreed a compromise together in March to suspend the Hungarian party's membership, after months of EPP in-fighting over Orban's autocratic tendencies.

Orban then openly flirted with the idea of joining a possible new alliance heralded by Italy's far-right leader and interior minister Matteo Salvini, whom Orban welcomed in Budapest in May.

In March, Orban hinted he could also reach out to Poland's ruling Law and Justice party, which is now a member of the European Conservatives and Reformist (ECR) group to build a new alliance.

While populists and nationalists won the elections in Britain, France and Italy, it remains to be seen if a unified populist, anti-migration front can still be forged.

Salvini said on Monday that his League party, Marine Le Pen's National Rally in France and Nigel Farage's Brexit party in Britain together should control 90 seats.

He claims other populist parties could bring that number to 150 MEPs in the 751-seat European Parliament.

The EPP suffered a loss at the ballot box on Sunday, but still remains the largest political group in the parliament with a projected number of 180 seats.

This makes it difficult to Fidesz's 13 MEPs to leave the party family. They nevertheless faced continued criticism from mainly Nordic and Benelux members for curbing media freedom, judicial independence, and civil society.

Daniel Hegedus, a fellow with the German Marshall Fund told EUobserver that Orban's rhetoric in the days heading into the election showed he would prefer staying in the EPP.

But that might be no longer his decision to make.

With the EPP heading into coalition talks with the Socialists, liberals and greens, one condition of forging an alliance for those groups that criticised Orban's authoritarian rule could be for EPP to drop Fidesz.

ECR future?

Hegedus recalled that some of the more liberal-minded EPP members could still decide to join the enlarged liberal group, if Orban remains.

"Fidesz will end up in ECR," Hegedus predicted, adding, "the Law and Justice party will do everything to keep ECR going, which can have strategic advantages for both Hungary and Poland, in so far as they can represent a moderate right, and they will not be isolated."

Hegedus argued that such an ECR could be a partner for mainstream parties on topics such as the single market and EU budget, and could side with the populists on migration.

Hegedus said the election results of Salvini's possible party alliance scored below Orban's expectations, as smaller eurosceptic parties in the Netherlands, Denmark and in Germany performed less well than expected.

"There is no critical mass that Orban had expected," Hegedus said, adding that unlike within Salvini's alliance, as a member of the ECR, Orban could play a leading role in European party politics.

On Monday in Brussels, Hungary's foreign minister Peter Szijjarto declared that anti-migration parties did well in the European elections.

He also argued for Fidesz's place in EPP, by pointing out that the Hungarian ruling party is the third-largest party within the political family, and enjoys the largest voter support among EPP parties.

"It is not possible to isolate the debate on the future of the European People's Party from the fact that EPP's most successful member party is strongly anti-immigration," Szijjarto told reporters.

Szjjarto added that Hungary's position is that none of the lead candidates, including EPP's Manfred Weber, are fit to head the EU commission.

New liberal-left?

While it was no surprise that Fidesz came in well ahead of other parties on Sunday, new stars emerged on the fragmented opposition side.

The leftist Democratic Coalition (DC) came in second with 16.2 percent of the votes, clinching four MEP seats.

The surprise of the night belonged to the Momentum party, founded in 2017, whose lead candidate, Katalin Cseh, was part of the liberals' Europe-wide team of top candidates.

Momentum came in third with 9.9 percent, gaining two seats, only a year after failing to pass the five percent threshold to get into Hungary's parliament.

It could mean a restructuring of the Hungarian opposition, as the traditional big anti-Orban parties, the Socialists and nationalist Jobbik barely made it above six percent.

Csaba Toth, analyst with the Republican Institute, a liberal think tank based in Budapest, said the success of DC and Momentum signals that the "campaign matters" - as they had the clearest messages and good candidates.

They also did not shy away from controversial issues - an attitude that was rewarded by voters, Toth adds.

"Brave messages work, it is not true that confrontational messages spook voters," Toth said, giving the example that DC which campaigned for a federal "United States of Europe", while Momentum supports same-sex marriage.

Toth said the two parties' success also shows that Hungary is not isolated from the European trends, as voters seek new political actors upsetting the status quo, and younger voters are making their voices heard.

Orban edges closer to Salvini's anti-migrant alliance

Hungary's Orban has hinted at leaving the EPP for Italy's far-right Salvini, saying it will be difficult to remain in the centre-right political family if it allied with leftist parties after the European Parliament elections.

EPP suspends Orban's Fidesz party

In a compromise decision, Europe's centre-right grouping stops short of expelling Hungary's ruling party - which has been accused of rolling back democracy and the rule of law.

Centre-right EPP faces showdown with Orban

The EU's largest political alliance, the EPP, will try to put the 'Orban issue' behind it going into the European election campaign. Hungary's ruling party, Fidesz, could be expelled or suspended from the political family.

Hungary vote exposes EU rift on populism

MEPs will vote next week on whether to urge member states to investigate Hungary on EU values. Budapest calls it "liberal fundamentalism", with the EPP in a difficult position.


Orban-style 'media capture' is spreading across Europe

We hear a lot about the threats of social media and misinformation to our democracies. What we don't hear about is another anti-democratic disease that has already claimed multiple victims across the continent - 'media capture'.


Right of reply from the Hungarian government

A right of reply on behalf of the Hungarian government to the opinion piece "Orban-style 'media capture' is spreading across Europe" published on 6 June.

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