Europe’s Bad Boy Has a Fight on His Hands

The re-election of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban might not be a formality after all.
Updated on

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the self-styled godfather of the European populist boom that’s now upended Italy, isn’t used to defeats.

So when voters in a small agricultural city overwhelmingly voted for an opponent for mayor for the first time in 20 years on Feb. 25, it sent shockwaves through the political establishment. No poll had predicted such a rebellion by voters complaining of rampant cronyism, much less in a stronghold of Orban’s party.

Viktor Orban during the 2017 Judo World Championships in Budapest, also attended by Vladimir Putin.
Photographer: Akos Stiller/Bloomberg

The question is whether it marked a setback or sea change for Orban, a rare European ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, after dominating Hungary since returning to power eight years ago. It’s a month away from parliamentary elections that had been expected to be a formality. Defeat for Orban –- or even a narrow win –- would reverberate from Moscow to Brussels.

The opposition parties smell an upset if they can manage to work together, and politicians who have formerly ruled out cooperation are now huddling to bridge their differences. They held a meeting in parliament to discuss alleged government corruption on Wednesday.

Orban is on the offensive, with his Fidesz party doubling down on the anti-immigrant rhetoric that's previously given it a lift in the polls and offering handouts to pensioners and rebates on heating bills.

“The lesson is that Fidesz can be beaten anywhere if the opposition backs one candidate,” Peter Marki-Zay, the new mayor of the city of Hodmezovasarhely, said at his office days after his victory. “The dam burst here and for that to happen it had to happen in a place like Hodmezovasarhely where Fidesz seemed invincible.” He himself voted for Orban in 2010. 

Europe’s Rogue

Orban, 54, has made a name in the European Union selling his “illiberal state” as an alternative to the mainstream.

He backed Donald Trump for the U.S. presidency and his efforts to shut out refugees won plaudits from populist parties in western Europe and political bedfellows in Poland and the Czech Republic. He endorsed Silvio Berlusconi and hosted Giorgia Meloni, the leader of Brothers of Italy, a party with fascist roots that’s part of Berlusconi’s alliance now jockeying to form a government.

With Russia and Turkey as models, Orban used a two-thirds majority in parliament to unilaterally rewrite laws and dismantle effective checks on his power over EU objections. He appointed friends and allies to run the courts, central bank and audit office. He opened the way for the enrichment of a new class of wealthy businessmen with political connections to the ruling party.

Orban built a steel fence along the border with Serbia to keep out refugees.
Photographer: Atilla Kisbenedek/AFP via Getty Images 

Few places had been more loyal to Orban than Hodmezovasarhely, whose 45,000 population religiously backed Fidesz. In the historic city built on agriculture, men and women of all ages, professionals and farmers, cited a climate of fear and intimidation.

“Corruption is out of control and people are afraid to speak out,” said Ferenc, 46, pushing a bike across the city’s snow-covered main square that’s dominated by the soaring neo-Renaissance tower of city hall.

Hungary has slipped down the rankings in Transparency International’s annual survey of corruption. It was 66th last year, above only Bulgaria in the EU and down from 48th in 2014 when Orban won his third term in power. The government in Budapest said the results reflected bias against the two EU countries that opposed immigration and had built fences on their borders.

Ferenc said he quit the state-owned company where he worked because of the cronyism he saw around him and was now looking for a job. He declined to give his full name, fearing retaliation for his views.

Whether the disparate opposition can harness that kind of sentiment is a big ask. Those needing to cooperate range from liberal parties to Jobbik, which is rebranding itself from a far-right group to a pro-EU party.

Orban knows better than anyone that polls showing his party with a hefty lead -- some put Fidesz’s support equal to the six biggest opposition parties combined -- may mean little if those opposed to him back a single candidate in the country’s 106 electoral districts.

That’s where the majority of seats in the 199-seat parliament will be decided, with the rest based on national party lists. Orban, a former student activist taking on the communist regime, became premier for the first time in 1998 after he convinced parties opposed to the former communists to withdraw their candidates, most of them in his favor.

Orban called Hodmezovasarhely an “alarm bell” for Fidesz and predicted last week that opposition parties would overcome their differences to back a single candidate in all districts. A Bloomberg review of previous voting showed that Fidesz would have won just 20 districts in 2014 had all opposition votes gone to a joint candidate.

Still, an agreement to rally behind a single opponent of Orban everywhere is a long shot, according to Robert Laszlo, an analyst at Political Capital in Budapest. The government can also count on a resurgent economy to win over voters, with unemployment at a record low, economic growth at a three year-high and wages surging by double-digits thanks in part of a dire labor shortage.

Peter Marki-Zay in his office in city hall, Hodmezovasarhely.
Photographer: Zoltan Simon/Bloomberg

But that didn’t seem to sway voters in Hodmezovasarhely, who complained of the difficulty in making ends meet and pointed to the spectacular wealth accumulation they saw around them.

In one of his first moves as mayor-elect, Marki-Zay uploaded the municipal contract of a lighting company where the EU reportedly found evidence of fraud.

The company, Elios, was previously owned by Orban’s son-in-law and it was signed under the mayorship of Janos Lazar, now the minister overseeing the disbursement of EU funds. Lazar, who also heads the spy services, is the district’s parliamentary representative and is running for another term. Elios and Lazar have denied any wrongdoing.

A fresh poll published on Wednesday, the first since the Hodmezovasarhely result, showed a dip in Fidesz's support and a boost for opposition parties. As Laszlo, the analyst, put it: “It's a whole new ballgame.”


— With assistance by Andras Gergely, and Samuel Dodge

(Updates with poll in final paragraph.)
    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE