Sweeping victory for strongman’s Fidesz party in national elections Sunday, with 93 percent of the vote counted
BUDAPEST, Hungary: Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, who has set about transforming this former Soviet bloc member from a vibrant democracy into a semi-autocratic state under one political party’s control, appeared to have won a sweeping victory in national elections Sunday, with 93 percent of the vote counted.
By securing two-thirds of the seats in Parliament, Orban’s Fidesz party — along with its ally, the Christian Democrats — has the power to change the constitution and further bend the nation to his will.
“Hungary won a big victory,” Orban said in his victory speech to a crowd of supporters gathered on the bank of the Danube just before midnight. He added that there was still “a big fight ahead” but that the parliamentary majority would allow him to continue to protect Hungary.
Gabor Vona, the leader of Jobbik, the largest opposition party, conceded defeat while lamenting the tenor of the election, which he called “the hate campaign.”
“It was not easy to campaign with so many lies and attacks,” Vona said. “We failed,” he added.
“Fidesz will keep ruling the country.”
The results were not unexpected, given the divisions of the opposition and the uneven playing field on which they were forced to compete.
But they alarmed Western officials who view Orban’s style of government as a threat to values such as the rule of law and a free press.
Orban’s victory is likely to embolden other leaders who have used a similar playbook, including those in neighboring Poland, where the governing party has openly emulated his tactics.
Orban built his campaign on castigating Western nations as a hostile, multicultural force, where Muslim immigrants ran wild and where traditional family values were under constant assault.
Instead of looking to France or Germany for inspiration, Orban has talked fondly of the autocratic systems of Turkey and Russia.
Still, Hungary is a member of the European Union and deeply reliant on the funds the bloc provides, especially for projects like building roads, bridges and other critical infrastructure.
As Orban systematically co-opted the tools of the state — from the courts to the schools to the electoral system itself — Brussels has proved unable to effectively pressure him to change course.
On Sunday, it was the voters who got their chance to have their say.
Under a brilliant blue sky on a warm spring day, more than 70 percent of voters flocked to polling stations across Budapest, the grand capital city, with its stately boulevards lined with architectural treasures.
Across the country, it was a similar story, with thousands of voters waiting in line hours after the scheduled 7 p.m. end of polling to cast their two ballots — one for a national list of candidates and one for a local list.
Immigration was a major focus of the election, and throughout the day, state television replayed some of the most dramatic images from 2015, when the crisis of refugees and immigrants flooding into Europe from the Middle East and Africa was at its peak.
For Attila Boda, 48, an army reservist and dishwasher, the perceived threat to his country was persuasive. He cast his two ballots for Fidesz.
“We don’t want migrants to come to Hungary,” he said. “They are unwilling to integrate and they respect only their own laws. They want a war; they are brought to Europe by ISIS.”
Others expressed concern over the long-term consequences of Sunday’s vote.
Istvan Hegedus, chairman of the Hungarian Europe Society, a research institute, was an early member of Fidesz, at a time when Orban was a firebrand champion of democracy after three decades of communist rule.
But Hegedus left the party in 1994 and says he has watched with alarm as Orban has transformed himself from a centrist friend of the West into the leader of a crusade to create what Orban himself calls an “illiberal democracy.”
“At each step on this path, the European politicians have proven ineffective,” Hegedus said.
“I think the mistake they made was they viewed him as an enfant terrible, but someone they could deal with. They convinced themselves that we know this man and that there is really nothing at stake.”
Sunday’s election, he said, was the best — and perhaps, last — chance for Hungary to change course.
Jozsef Peter Martin, executive director of Transparency International Hungary, an anti-corruption advocacy group, said the election was conducted on an unfair playing field.
He compared the vote to playing soccer on a field set at a 45-degree angle.
“The whole institutional system is swayed to one party,” Martin said. From the state-controlled media to the gerrymandering of electoral districts to favour Fidesz, an already fragmented opposition found it hard to compete, he said.
Under the system, put in place in 2012, voters cast two ballots. One is for a national list, with parties awarded seats in Parliament based on the percentage of votes.
That accounts for 93 of the 199 seats.
The rest are filled by the winners of local elections. This is where Fidesz holds the strongest advantage.
In the 2014 election, Fidesz candidates were often able to win with as little as 40 percent of the vote because the opposition was split.
Nonetheless, in the closing days of this campaign, a grass-roots effort arose to promote “strategic voting.”
Using websites to help voters figure out which candidate had the best chance to defeat Fidesz, voters were encouraged to put their political loyalties aside to defeat the governing party.
Gergely Karacsony, the mayor of a district in Budapest and a leading opposition contender for prime minister, was placed at the head of an alliance between two left-wing groups — the Socialist Party and a Green party – in a partnership based more on need than political affinity.
Karacsony said Orban had largely “destroyed the constitutional order” and, in an interview before the election, he said he feared what an Orban victory would mean for the country.
Orban has cast himself as the only person capable of defending Hungary from threats seen and unseen. He has also tapped nationalistic sentiments by portraying officials in Brussels as meddling bureaucrats who are a threat to Hungary’s sovereignty.
As the election neared, his caustic rhetoric took a darker turn, vowing revenge on political enemies and demonizing immigrants.
“We do not want to be a multicolored country,” he said during a speech in February. If his point was not clear enough, he said he did not want Hungarians to interact with immigrants “in such a way that our color is mixed with others’ colors.”
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, denounced Orban’s remarks as racist.
“The security state is back and fundamental freedoms are in retreat in every region of the world,” al-Hussein said in a statement.
“Shame is also in retreat. Xenophobes and racists in Europe are casting off any sense of embarrassment – like Hungary’s Viktor Orban.”