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Six Takeaways From Fidesz And Orban's Big Hungarian Election Win

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban waves to his supporters during a ruling Fidesz party event after the elections on April 3.

Election authorities in Hungary announced initial vote counts suggesting Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party achieved a runaway victory at the polls on April 3.

Because of the country's complicated voting system, numbers are still likely to change slightly over the next week. But the likeliest result is that the right-wing ruling Fidesz will control a two-thirds majority in the next parliament, which lets it govern virtually unchallenged.

Observers were surprised at the landslide victory after preelection polls suggested a tight race. And even as ballots were still being tallied from elections that saw turnout of around 70 percent of Hungary's 8 million eligible voters, the apparent margin of victory and other factors likely gave those monitors cause for concern.

"A 'stolen election' implies that somebody broke all the rules. And, you know, what Orban's so good at doing is inventing the rules he needs to win," Kim Lane Scheppele, a Princeton professor and author of an influential work on The Rule Of Law And The Frankenstate, told RFE/RL hours after the polls closed.

Here are six takeaways from the Hungarian vote:

1. A Much Bigger Win Than Expected

"We won a victory so big that you can see it from the moon, and you can certainly see it from Brussels," Orban crowed in his victory speech.

Most preelection polls were showing a gap between Fidesz and the united opposition of between 4 and 7 percentage points, mostly in Fidesz's favor.

That's a sizable margin under any conditions. And built-in advantages like gerrymandering and the single-round, twin-ballot voting system are seen to favor Fidesz.

By early on April 4, the preliminary numbers suggested Fidesz might already have 136 of the parliament's 199 seats in its pocket, allowing it to hang onto the two-thirds majority that lets it change the constitution and any other legislation it wants.

In addition, a new right-wing party, My Homeland, which is a potential ally of Fidesz and is thought to have eroded right-wing opposition party Jobbik's voter base, looks to have won another seven seats.

"This is a complete shock," said Scheppele, who spent years in Hungary studying postcommunist constitution processes. "Nobody, I think, would be surprised if Fidesz won. What's completely shocking is the magnitude of the victory."

Hungarian polls are not always accurate, and are even notorious for their biases. But with 98 percent of the ballots tallied, Fidesz was poised to win 88 of the 106 districts that use a first-past-the-post system.

Fidesz led the party-list vote with around 53 percent to the United For Hungary opposition's 35 percent. "No poll registered that," Scheppele said. "The polls have never been that far off."

Seat allocations are certain to change slightly as embassy and so-called "near abroad" ballots come in. But numbers like that provide "way too big a lead to go away," Scheppele said.

2. Not A Level Playing Field

Hungary's opposition finally joined forces. But even a unified opposition proved little match for a champion of "illiberal" government sitting on three consecutive terms of total dominance since 2010.

In that time, Orban has rewritten the constitution and key aspects of electoral laws, and consolidated allies' control of nearly every major media outlet in the country.

By almost all accounts before the voting, the opposition was better organized than in any other elections of recent years.

Under the banner United For Hungary, it managed to pull off a primary last year that chose Peter Marki-Zay, a little-known mayor whose conservative roots helped deflect Orban's efforts at a culture war. But by election night, Marki-Zay was flanked only by his family delivering a concession speech.

There were no opposition allies in sight.

Marki-Zay even looked set to lose his own district by around 12 points. He said the united opposition "acknowledge the victory" of Fidesz, despite the "cheating" and "brainwashing" carried out by Fidesz and its friendly media, which made it "an unequal fight."

United For Hungary comprised the Hungarian Socialist Party; the Democratic Coalition; the formerly extremist right-wing movement known as Jobbik; the liberal Hungarian Green Party; the green Dialogue for Hungary party; and the centrist Momentum Movement.

Scheppele noted that a Fidesz-dominated media landscape made it very hard for Marki-Zay and his allies to get its message out.

Instead of describing it as a failure in its efforts, Scheppele said, "I think what it tells you is that they have to play on an unlevel playing field."

3. Orban's Enemies Are Multiplying

Orban immediately boasted that "We won best when everyone came together against us."

He cited "huge international power centers and organizations," an allusion to familiar Orban foes like the European Union or George Soros's democracy-promotion efforts.

And of course, he continued to paint Marki-Zay as a puppet of Ferenc Gyurcsany, a former prime minister whose leadership collapsed the political left in 2010.

Jennifer McCoy, a visiting researcher at Central European University's Democracy Institute from Georgia State University in Atlanta, noted that the "strong negative partisanship...which we're seeing in polarized countries" is alive and well in Hungary. "People are voting more against the other candidate than they are for their own candidate," she told a roundtable.

But Orban also named Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who called out the Hungarian leader by name last month for his reluctance to join his NATO and EU allies in helping supply weapons to Ukraine since Putin launched a large-scale war there six weeks ago.

Orban described Zelenskiy as an "opponent" on election night.

Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe for the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, predicted that his "sweeping victory will embolden Orban further" to challenge the European Union generally and "left-liberal thinking," particularly if it's embedded within European conservative parties.

"Even more worrying," he said, "he will feel free to yet further befriend Vladimir Putin and other eastern autocrats."

"In short, Brussels should brace itself for new troubles, because everything that it found loathsome in Hungary's maverick PM previously will now certainly be intensified for at least the next few months -- but in all likelihood, for the next four years," Rahman said.

4. Possible Voting Irregularities

"It looks like a legally massaged election," Scheppele said as the early results came in. "This is how Orban operates," she added, "he makes legal everything he needs."

While Fidesz's overall victory is virtually assured, specific numbers and patterns -- and evidence of irregularities -- could still emerge.

Marki-Zay warned in his concession speech: "That this election was democratic and free is, of course, something we continue to dispute."

In addition to dual-track voting and other advantages that essentially require the opposition to outscore Fidesz by 4-5 percentage points in order to unseat Orban, analysts warned of the risk of "voter tourism."

That's because new legislation allows voters inside and outside the country to register in any district they choose. The change could allow votes to be mobilized, directed, or even transported to places where margins are tight, experts warned.

It could also deal a blow to one of the opposition's biggest achievements -- its ability to field joint candidates in each of the country's 106 single-mandate constituencies.

Hungarians are legally barred from acting as election observers. But the opposition managed to recruit some 20,000 volunteers to be present outside polling stations for what it called the Clean Vote project.

Widely shared images of vans dropping off groups of voters at polling stations hinted at an organized effort to move voters around. Clean Vote shared such videos on its Facebook page.

Scheppele says that she'll wait and see, but that Fidesz appears to have accrued 300,000 new voters. "And the question is: Who are the 300,000 new voters who didn't vote last time?" she said.

Those are the kinds of irregularities that could draw the attention of Hungary's election authorities in the coming days. But Scheppele says the National Election Office is under new leadership that is widely seen as "substantially closer" to Fidesz than in previous elections.

"This is something that we'll have to see," Scheppele said.

Meanwhile, a full-scale mission of outside observers is on the ground in Hungary.

For only the second time in its history, the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) requested a full observation mission to an EU member state, amid concerns over potential election fraud, media bias, and the use of state resources.

5. A Vote Overshadowed By War

Orban's response to the invasion and the 4 million refugees fleeing Ukraine has been grudging condemnation of territorial encroachment against that neighbor and joining Western sanctions, but also a firm refusal to directly help EU and NATO allies provide weapons and similar assistance to Ukraine and forces united behind Zelenskiy.

Over the years, Orban has carefully cultivated close diplomatic and trade ties with Moscow and Putin, including energy imports.

In February, with tensions high over tens of thousands of Russian troops on Ukraine's borders, Orban traveled to Sochi to see Putin and emerged with a deal to import additional natural-gas supplies from Russia.

Analysts blame an increasing reliance on Russian energy and a years-long feud with Kyiv over minority issues among ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine for his cautious hedging since the war.

"Hungarian society has completely turned around in connection with the war," Andrea Szabo, a political analyst, told RFE/RL's Hungarian Service.

Orban has spent years encouraging Hungarians to regard Russia and Putin as political allies in defense of traditionalist values, and his nonconfrontational position on the war, which could keep the gas flowing, appears to have resonated with many conservative voters. "What is surprising is that being perceived as being too supportive of Kyiv, not Moscow, is seemingly the greater political liability," Zsuzsana Vegh wrote for the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a German Marshall Fund institution, ahead of the elections.

6. Hungarian Democracy's Last Stand?

"We have heard a lot of nonsense recently about whether there is democracy in Hungary," AP quoted State Secretary Zoltan Kovacs as saying at an election-night event in the capital. "Hungarian democracy in the last 12 years has not weakened but been strengthened."

A Budapest-based conservative think tank, the Center for Fundamental Rights, called the April 3 vote "the most significant event of Hungarian democracy in the era following the transition away from communism."

It was historic, alright. But critics suggest it's for the wrong reasons.

On the cusp of a likely new term, Orban has already been in power for 16 of the past 24 years. That's a clear warning, they say.

"It's the kind of historic election that marks the end of democracy rather than a flourishing," Scheppele said. "When the government monopolizes the power of the media, when the government sets all the rules, when the government uses every aspect of incumbency to buy voters, when that works, that's not 'Three cheers for democracy.'"

She said that "to win by another two-thirds majority in the face of this is just only explainable by having monopolized all the crucial things that go into an election."

McCoy agrees. "I think it is important that all of those who believe in democracy watch carefully countries and leaders as they gradually erode democracy and entrench themselves in power," McCoy said. "It's a gradual process. And so it's often ignored, until it becomes very well entrenched, like this case."

Extreme gerrymandering, a lack of opposition access to the media, unregulated campaign financing, and the use of public funds in favor of the Orban candidacy were all important factors, according to McCoy.

"This election was almost unwinnable for any opponent, given the structural advantages that Fidesz had already created for itself," McCoy said.

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden.