I came of age during a turbulent time in the history of my home country, Slovakia. As they were headed for a parliamentary election in 1998, Slovaks were excluded from the first wave of EU and NATO enlargements. Already in 1995, Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar said, “If they don’t want us in the West, we’ll turn to the East.” His tenure saw an insider privatization facilitated by loans from state-owned banks to new Mečiar-connected “capitalists” (which would later precipitate a financial crisis), perceptible ties between organized crime and government, and even the use of violence to intimidate political opponents, such as the country’s president—a critic of Mečiar—whose son was abducted by intelligence services to neighboring Austria, drugged, and abandoned in a car trunk.
It took an extraordinary mobilization of Slovakia’s political opposition, civil society, and essentially everyone who wanted the country to complete its transition to democracy to vote Mečiar out of office. Even to my fifteen-year-old self, it was obvious that this was a make-or-break moment for the country’s future. While Mečiar’s party came first in the polls, the wide coalition of pro-democracy and pro-Western parties were able to secure a parliamentary majority. The coming years were characterized by a mixture of economic and financial firefighting and catching up to close the gap between Slovakia and its Visegrad neighbors.
With the upcoming parliamentary election taking place on April 3, Hungary finds itself in a similar predicament. This time around, the stakes are much higher both for Hungary and for Europe at large. In the largely benign late 1990s, the West could have coped with a “black hole” in the center of Europe (as former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once referred to Slovakia). Dealing with the authoritarian, pro-Russian, and pro-Chinese Hungary—already a member of the EU and NATO—at a time of hot war in the region has proven a greater challenge.
Like in Mečiar’s Slovakia, Viktor Orbán’s media has created a grotesque parallel universe: Hungary’s independence and democracy are not threatened by Vladimir Putin’s brazen aggression. Instead, they are under assault by dark forces of runaway Western liberalism, by the hubris of European institutions—which Orbán simultaneously implores to send money to his regime—and, of course, by George Soros. For a flavor, see a recent article in Magyar Nemzet, the leading pro-government daily, which lists the different types of “interventions” used by “liberal globalist networks” against Hungary, such as foreign-funded NGOs, international treaty obligations, or “financial sanctions” of the kind the country is currently facing in the EU. Casually, the article mimics Putin’s propaganda that the 2013–14 protest movement in Ukraine was an example of a “military-type intervention” that “[forced] the replacement and exile of the elected pro-Russian Yanukovych and the coming to power of the pro-Western, U.S.-pulled Poroshenko and his government.”
In some ways, Hungary’s outlook is more troubling than Slovakia’s in 1998. The EU’s regime of free movement has encouraged many young and educated Hungarians—the backbone of any pro-Western opposition movement—to seek opportunities abroad. With the country comfortably ensconced in the EU and NATO, it is easy to succumb to a complacency that was unavailable to the Slovaks in the 1990s, for whom joining Western institutions was existentially important. Orbán’s techniques of incumbent entrenchment have been far more sophisticated than Mečiar’s, including creation of a new constitution and a new electoral rules that make it extremely difficult for the opposition to compete on a level playing field.
Even if the opposition does manage to unseat Orbán, Péter Márki-Zay and his colleagues will have a hard time governing while also navigating the minefields left behind by Orbán’s Fidesz party. Over the years, hundreds of Fidesz loyalists have been appointed across the entire public administration, from the central bank, to the courts, to the prosecutor’s office, to nominally independent regulatory bodies. With long terms in office, the new government would not be able to just dismiss them. If the new government seeks ad hoc statutory changes to fire Fidesz loyalists, it renders itself vulnerable to accusations of “politicizing” the civil service itself.
To appreciate the magnitude of the challenge, consider the spending spree Orbán’s government has been on in the run-up to the election, amounting to €5 billion, or at least 3 percent of GDP, in new handouts and tax cuts. Enter the Fiscal Council, a supposedly independent body tasked with maintaining long-term stability of Hungary’s public finances; existing fiscal rules require the debt-to-GDP ratio be kept below 50 percent (currently it’s in the high 60s). If not, the Fidesz-controlled Council has the power veto budget proposals that it deems as failing to bring the debt burden down—a procedure that can eventually lead to a new election.
See the problem? A future Prime Minister Márki-Zay spends a year firefighting to rescue Hungary’s economy and receives all the blame for inhumane “austerity” measures. A year or so from now, at a time of Orbán’s choosing, he is brought down—before the united opposition had a fighting chance to undo the networks of patronage that buy the loyalty of Fidesz’ supporters.
The opposition is aware of this and similar traps. Yet, it does not have particularly compelling solutions. The idea of revising the Hungarian constitution has been floated in opposition circles in recent months, in order to undo the heavily partisan Fundamental Law adopted by Fidesz in 2011. If the putative new government lacks a supermajority in the legislature, as seems likely, it could put the new constitution or its amendments to a referendum, the argument went. But that would be extra-legal and extra-constitutional, amounting to a de facto regime change of a kind that was not even seen in Central Europe at the time of communism’s collapse (when, as a rule of thumb, communist legislatures duly amended existing statutes so as to allow for free and fair elections) or after Mečiar’s departure from office in Slovakia. Even if well intentioned, raising the stakes in what is already a fraught political environment is extremely dangerous and almost guarantees that Orbán will respond in kind whenever given the chance.
Another consideration is, of course, Russia. If the threat posed by the Kremlin was largely a hypothetical one in 1998 Slovakia, today it is very much a fact of life. The upside is that Orbán’s twelve years of coddling and accommodating Russia are a political liability following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Is it enough to change his political fortunes, however? If Orbán were genuinely concerned about the impact of his Russian ties on the upcoming election, he would try to perform a more convincing U-turn than the half-hearted condemnation issued in late February only days after his trip to Moscow, which aimed to secure Russian gas supplies to Hungary and finalize arrangements for the production of the Sputnik V vaccine in the country. Instead, he is ruling out any lethal assistance to Ukraine or even allowing Western aid to be shipped via Hungary, and doubling down on his ties with the pro-Russian government in Belgrade. In short, he is undercutting Hungary’s closest friends and neighbors—not to mention Hungarian citizens themselves—in an effort to keep corrupt linkages with the Kremlin alive.
It is time to start planning both for the possibility of Fidesz’ defeat, which would give a narrow governing mandate to the wide coalition of parties from the once-far-right Jobbik to the liberal, pro-EU Momentum, as well as for the contingency of its victory, perhaps involving a dose of underhanded tricks or voter fraud.
Should the opposition win, the West, particularly the EU, will have to help it shoulder the weight of the economic crisis that Hungary is heading into. Like in post-1998 Slovakia, the pro-Western forces will have one shot at demonstrating their competence at governing, with much stacked against them. By getting ready to quickly unfreeze EU funds and doubling down on its economic support for Hungary, the Western world should help set up the new government for success.
In the other, more likely scenario of Orbán’s victory, a difficult conversation will need to be had about Hungary’s future place in the West. Informed by Angela Merkel’s idea of “strategic patience,” the conventional wisdom for years was that it is better to keep Orbán inside the tent and pissing out, as Lyndon Johnson’s famous adage goes, rather than the other way around.
But that view is no longer sustainable amidst a war that the Hungarian government is actively helping Putin to wage against Ukraine and against the West. A fourth consecutive Orbán term would be an open wound on the bodies of the EU and NATO, requiring urgent cauterization. What that means, in practice and in legal terms, remains an open question. Yet, Hungarian voters should not doubt the historic significance of their decision on April 3.
Dalibor Roháč is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor of American Purpose. Twitter: @DaliborRohac
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