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Budapest and Brussels: more distant than ever after the 2018 Hungarian election

Close to midnight on April the 8th of 2018 in Budapest, after near-complete results, Viktor Orban, the current Prime Minister of Hungary and head of the political party FIDESZ, claimed his victory. He will again be in office for the next four years, after winning the national election in Hungary for the third consecutive time. The international media has portrayed him as xenophobic and authoritarian, and many influential political players in Europe have expressed their concern about this last election result. Yet Orban was elected democratically and according to the law. There were no major incidents during the campaign or on election day. What then is the reason for all this concern?

First of all, let us take a look at this man who seems to cause so many headaches in Brussels. Viktor Orban has long been a well-known political figure in Hungary. In fact, during his time in college in the late 80s, he played a key role in bringing democracy to Hungary. With many others, he called for free elections and the withdrawal of Soviet forces out of Hungarian territory. He is also one of the founders of FIDESZ (meaning Alliance of Young Democrats), which started as a youth political organization of liberal ideology as a counterpoint to communism. FIDEZ later developed into the largest political party in the Hungarian political scene, a position it retains to this day.

FIDESZ has been in power three times since the end of the communist regime in Hungary. Orban’s last two terms as Prime Minister were from 2010 to 2014 and from 2014 to this current year. This political party started off as a moderate liberal party, however, its ideology has gradually become much more conservative and nationalistic. In the European Parliament, FIDESZ is included in the European People’s Party (EPP), to which it contributes no less than eleven MEPs.

Over the past years, especially during the 2015 European refugee crisis, Orban’s anti-immigration discourse has been increasing. His main arguments are that migrants, especially those coming from Middle Eastern or North African countries, do not contribute positively to Hungary (and therefore to the EU), and that they make criminality increase, which fosters a breeding ground for terrorism. Furthermore, Orban also believes that migrants pose a menace to traditional Hungarian culture and values, and on top of that, he has strongly refused to host any of the refugees that have arrived in Europe in the context of the 2015 migrant crisis. He made Hungary withdraw from the EU plan to re-settle 12,000 migrants who had arrived to Greece and Italy in other EU countries. He has also shown a rather critical position towards the EU’s current policies and firmly opposes further taking place in other integration measures.

In the same way, Orban’s government has introduced some constitutional amendments that have been accused of being authoritarian by international organizations. Some of these included important reforms within the judiciary that jeopardize the independence of judicial power. His government also approved a controversial Mass Media Act, which has imposed limitations on freedom of speech. In relation to this, it is important to know that FIDESZ has enjoyed a broad majority in the Hungarian National Parliament since 2010, which allows it to easily approve measures and put into practice policies according to its own interests.

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In the European political sphere, there have been very different reactions to Hungary’s election results. While Guy Verhofstad, the head of the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) and the European Socialist Party have expressed their discontent with Orban’s re-election, other notable euro-skeptical European political figures, like Marine Le Pen or Nigel Farage, have congratulated and praised him.

At the same time, some international organizations, like the OSCE, have accused the Hungarian government of having used its resources to increase the chances for FIDESZ to win this last election. In this way, this has apparently caused the election not to be completely fair, since opponent parties did not play under the same conditions as the one in power. Some of the elements that have made the election to not be equal included excessive public expenditure on FIDESZ campaign, a relatively biased public media that mostly spread the government’s opinions and messages and made little room for fair debate, and an intimidating and even xenophobic rhetoric, according to the OSCE.

The re-election of Viktor Orban definitely reflects the outbreak of the nationalistic and euro-skeptical dimension that a growing number of EU countries, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, seem to be adopting. This definitely poses an obstacle to further integration among EU countries, and to the further development of the European project. Likewise, Orban’s speech and some of the measures taken by his government clash with some of the values that the EU has traditionally enhanced, such as freedom, tolerance, and solidarity.

However, we must not forget that this election’s outcome represented the will of the vast majority of Hungarian citizens (Orban’s victory was very close to the absolute majority). Those same citizens whom 15 years ago voted for Hungary entering the EU on a referendum (referendum that resulted in an 83.8% of the voters being in favor of Hungary’s entrance in the EU). Although there might be some doubts about the fairness of this election’s campaigns, they were carried out freely and lawfully. Therefore, Brussels has no option but to respect this outcome. No one really knows what the future will bring in the next years or decades. Will EU countries follow the upward trend that Hungary and other Member States are setting? Or will we see a U-turn in the rise of nationalism and discriminatory attitudes to make way for tolerance and solidarity, some of the most basic values that the EU professes to promote? Only time will tell. However, the recent election outcomes in many EU Member States in the last year have not been very optimistic so far.

Julia Vázquez Santiago

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