Despite ties to Putin, Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán leads the polling field – POLITICO

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BUDAPEST — Russia’s war in Ukraine has turned Hungary’s election campaign for pro-Moscow Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on its head — just not in the way one might think.

Orbán’s close relationship with President Vladimir Putin has been put to the test again since the revanchist Russian leader decided to attack Ukraine, Hungary’s neighbor. And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called Orbán for not offering stronger support to his embattled country.

In many European countries, the prime minister’s attitude could mean the end of a political career.

Not so in Hungary.

Ahead of Sunday’s general election, Orbán has avoided turning the campaign into a referendum on his history with Moscow. Instead, his message boils down to a simple idea: he will keep Hungary out of the war, his opponents will not.

It doesn’t matter that the Hungarian opposition doesn’t advocate Hungary sending troops to Ukraine, Orbán has used state resources and a friendly media echo chamber to suggest the opposite.

His team has tapped a government coronavirus email database to spread talking points and plastered the country with taxpayer-funded placards proclaiming “Let’s keep peace and security in Hungary!” alongside Orbán’s picture. Pro-government media and Orbán’s own foreign minister are even accusing the government in Kyiv to support the Hungarian opposition alliance.

Polls suggest the tactic is working: Orbán tops the list in terms of popular support.

“I am not responsible before the Lord for the people of Ukraine, but for the people of Hungary,” the prime minister said in a radio interview last weekend. “Hungarian politics,” Orbán declared, “is neither pro-Ukraine nor pro-Russia: it is pro-Hungarian.”

An Orbán victory would resonate across the EU.

While the bloc responded with zeal and solidarity in the first weeks of the war, imposing sanctions and approving funds for arms shipments to Ukraine, cracks are beginning to appear and Orbán has firmly opposed tougher sanctions on Russian energy. Another term in office for Orbán would also force the EU to finally address a thorny question: whether budget appropriations for Budapest should be cut because of findings of democratic backsliding.

Orbán’s opponents have responded by redoubling their efforts to highlight the prime minister’s relationship with Putin.

“The war in Ukraine and Russian aggression have changed a lot,” said Klára Dobrev, a member of the left-liberal Democratic Coalition running as the No. 2 candidate on the united opposition list.

Dobrev, a member of the European Parliament, told POLITICO that the war has increased “a sense of insecurity” among Hungarians.

Now, she said, what matters in Sunday’s election is the choice between “Orbán or Europe – that’s the vote.”

Another campaign

Hungarians face a choice on Sunday between Orbán’s right-wing populist Fidesz party – which has been in power for 12 years – and a diverse coalition of six opposition parties and their candidate for prime minister, conservative provincial mayor Péter Márki-Zay.

While the campaign initially focused on issues such as corruption, the economy and an anti-LGBTQ+ referendum also planned by the government for this weekend, the conflict next door changed the conversation.

“The war cast a shadow over the entire Hungarian campaign,” Orbán said in his radio interview.

“The issue of peace and security is now also part of what is at stake in the election. And our message is clear: only Fidesz can create peace in Hungary, only we can guarantee the security of the Hungarian people,” said the Prime Minister.

Despite this rhetoric, Orbán has so far joined Western allies in increasing their military presence in the region and funding arms shipments to Ukraine. Budapest allowed NATO to station troops in western Hungary and did not resist a move by the EU to allocate €500 million in arms and other aid to Ukraine’s military. Hungary has also backed several rounds of EU sanctions aimed at severing much of Russia’s economy from the bloc.

But at home, Orbán’s message to voters is that Hungary itself should not supply arms to Ukraine and that Budapest will resist further moves that could harm the country’s economy, such as tougher energy sanctions. The government also does not allow the direct transit of arms across the Hungarian-Ukrainian border.

“We give the Ukrainians everything we can, maybe even beyond our capacities,” said the prime minister. “But we will not comply with their demands, which would destroy our national community – neither in the biological sense, with our sons dying in someone else’s war, nor by ruining the Hungarian economy.”

The conflict is occupying voters: During a campaign rally in Budaörs, a city outside Budapest, a voter this week asked about Hungary’s defense and its relationship with NATO – a question that would have been highly unusual in other recent campaigns when local gatherings on it tended to focus on issues such as healthcare and pensions.

polarized society

Hungarians are deeply divided over how they view Orbán’s foreign policy.

According to a, 64 percent of Hungarians say the invasion of Ukraine was more of an “aggression” than a “defense” of Moscow opinion poll conducted by the Publicus Institute between March 7th and 11th.

But this feeling is heavily weighted by Orbán’s opponents. 91 percent of opposition voters believed Moscow to be the aggressor, compared to just 44 percent of Fidesz voters.

While 90 percent of opposition voters said Orbán should condemn Russia more harshly for attacking Ukraine, just 8 percent of government supporters said the prime minister should escalate his tone, according to the poll.

A separate learn A poll conducted by pollster Medián found that 43 percent of Fidesz supporters say Russia has acted fairly in Ukraine.

Experts argue that Fidesz voters’ support for Orbán’s policies — despite a visit to Moscow in February during which he boasted of his warm attitude towards Putin — is partly due to the government’s tight control over much of the information landscape.


For more survey data from across Europe, see POLITICS poll of polls.

For weeks, state and pro-government media have been spreading Russian narratives about the war. Róbert László, an analyst at the Political Capital Institute in Budapest, called it the government’s “media empire”.

Orbán’s supporters “are in such a massive bubble of opinion,” he said, that “it just doesn’t matter what he said six weeks ago or three days ago.”

It’s a bubble, fueled by Orbán’s use of state resources, like the publicly funded posters or the email database used to target people with this message: An Orbán government “will not allow Hungarian families pay the price of war”.

Battle of words with Kyiv

Before the war, Budapest and Kyiv had a strained relationship, squabbling over the language rights of Hungarian speakers living in western Ukraine.

Those tensions came to the fore again in recent days after Zelenskyi publicly rebuked Orbán, telling the Hungarian leader: “You have to decide for yourself who you are with.”

In response, Hungarian pro-government media and social media accounts unleashed a spate of personal attacks against the Ukrainian leader. Some Orbán-supporting media even accused the government in Kyiv, to strengthen Hungary’s opposition in the election campaign and to portray Zelenskyj as a puppet trying to force Budapest into war.

Tensions rose on Wednesday when Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó went public accused the Ukrainian government to interfere significantly in the elections in Hungary. The minister claimed without evidence that the opposition had promised Kyiv that it would supply arms to Ukraine and support further energy sanctions if it came to power.

Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister, dismissed Szijjártó’s claims and stated that Ukraine does not interfere in Hungary’s internal affairs. Kuleba then added a sharp barb: if Szijjártó finds an award he has received from Russia more important than his relationship with Ukraine, he should simply say so.

The opposition plan

Márki-Zay, the opposition candidate for prime minister, acknowledged that the invasion of Russia appeared to have a rallying effect for Orbán at first.

“In the beginning,” he said, “we realized that people want security and expect Orbán to be able to protect them.”

But now the opposition is pleading that Orbán cannot defend Hungary.

“Only NATO can protect Hungary, not Orbán,” Márki-Zay told POLITICO on Monday at a campaign stop in the town of Szolnok. “Orbán always wanted Brussels to stop the EU. Now we all have to stop Putin to live in peace.”

Hungarian minister Gergely Gulyás, who serves as Orbán’s chief of staff, has resisted the criticism.

“We are a loyal member of the European Union and NATO,” Gulyás told POLITICO on Tuesday, noting that Budapest “condemned Russian aggression” and supported sanctions.

The disagreement, the minister said, stems from the Hungarian government’s view that sanctions should punish “Russians, not Europe”.

For Gulyás, foreign policy could help the government in the upcoming elections.

“I think the Hungarian government’s decision is popular,” Gulyás said. “I think if it affects the election, it will be good for the government.” Despite ties to Putin, Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán leads the polling field – POLITICO

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