As I write this on Monday morning (4 April) I’m waiting to hear Boris Johnson’s reaction to Viktor Orbán’s “victory” in Hungary’s general election, for it is surely time for the Prime Minister to choose.
Does he endorse an election which may have been free, in the sense that voters could choose which box to tick on their ballot papers, but was certainly not fair?
More broadly, does he continue to offer moral support to a hardline nationalist and shameless right-wing populist who denigrates the EU, cosies up to Russia’s Vladimir Putin and defends China? Or does he side with his other favourite eastern European leader, Volodymyr Zelensky, the embattled president of Ukraine, who considers Orbán to be beyond the pale?
Orbán has used his last 12 years in power to skew the electoral system grotesquely in his favour. He and his oligarch friends enjoy almost total control of the state and so-called independent media, and have used that control in recent weeks to pump out relentless pro-government propaganda and egregious lies about Péter Márki-Zay, the prime ministerial candidate of the united opposition parties.
Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party has shamelessly gerrymandered. It has extended the franchise to hundreds of thousands of ethnic Hungarians in neighbouring countries, along with pensions and other benefits by way of bribes. It took the email addresses of all the Hungarians who registered for Covid-19 vaccinations and used them as an electoral mailing list. In the run-up to the election Orbán raised the minimum wage by 20 per cent, eliminated income tax for the under-25s and capped the price of fuel and basic foods.
In a recent Zoom conversation with foreign journalists, Márki-Zay said he had been allowed just one five-minute election broadcast on state television (at 8am on a Wednesday morning) and had been barred from buying all but a bare minimum of advertising space on billboards.
More generally Orbán has used his years in power to turn Hungary into what he calls an “illiberal democracy”. He has destroyed the independence of the media, the judiciary, the education system and bodies such as the central bank, the prosecutor-general’s office and the election commission that are supposed to be politically neutral.
He has enriched his cronies and relatives. He has denounced Syrian and Afghan refugees as “Muslim invaders” and built a border fence to prevent them entering Hungary. He has demonised George Soros, driving the billionaire philanthropist’s respected Central European University from Budapest in a campaign with distinctly anti-Semitic undertones. He has sought to discredit, or expel from Hungary, foreign NGOs and human rights organisations that seek to hold him to account.
He routinely denounces Brussels while accepting billions of euros in EU aid. He has simultaneously cosied up to Putin, whom he has met a dozen times, and signed a long-term gas contract with Gazprom on very beneficial terms and a deal for Rosatom to build Hungary a nuclear power station with a $9bn Russian loan. In 2019 he vetoed closer ties between Nato, of which Hungary is a member, and Ukraine.
Orbán’s close relationship with Moscow explains his ambivalence since Russia invaded Ukraine. He went along with EU sanctions against Russia, and admitted Ukrainian refugees fleeing across the border, but he has refused to let the West send arms to Ukraine through Hungary or to consider an EU ban on Russian energy. His ambivalence has prompted Zelensky to call Orbán’s Hungary “Russia’s branch in Europe”, and to demand that he “decide who you are with”.
Zelensky urged Orbán to visit a monument to Hungarian Jews shot during the Second World War consisting of iron shoes embedded in the embankment of the Danube. “Get to your waterfront, look at those shoes, and you will see how mass killings can happen again in today’s world,” he said. “That’s what Russia is doing again today. The same shoes… Adults and children. Grandparents. And there are thousands of them… and you hesitate whether to impose sanctions or not.”
Even Poland, Hungary’s closest EU ally, cancelled a meeting of defence ministers from the Visegrád Group — Polan, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia — last week in protest at Orbán’s tepid response to the Russian invasion.
Johnson has long indulged his fellow populist, nationalist and eurosceptic. As foreign secretary in 2018 he congratulated Orbán on an election “victory” that was little fairer than this one.
Two years later Orbán reciprocated by calling Johnson “one of Europe’s bravest politicians” and saying that by voting for Brexit the UK had created a “fantastic door, a fantastic opportunity” for itself. He continued: “The whole world was against him: the liberal leftist media, the global Soros network and all the tools of the pro-Remain EU, but just because he and the British people believe in democracy they’ve done it.”
In 2021 Johnson welcomed Orbán to No 10, making him only the second EU leader after Micheál Martin, the Irish prime minister, to enter that famous doorway since Brexit. When it was criticised for giving Orbán respectability, Downing Street raised eyebrows by asserting that co-operation with Hungary was “vital to the UK’s security and prosperity”. Kim Darroch, a former British ambassador to the EU, remarked wryly: “I’m not sure Orbán is a massively useful ally on anything very much, given his current standing in Europe and internationally.”
In his election night victory speech yesterday Orbán goaded Zelensky. “We’ve never had so many opponents,” he declared. “Brussels bureaucrats… the international media, and the Ukrainian president.”
It would be nice to think that Johnson, who has been so robust in his support of Zelensky, would choose this moment to defend Western democratic values by cold-shouldering a nasty, corrupt regime that still accommodates Russia. It would be wonderful if he did the right thing for a change, and stopped shaming our country through his own brand of moral ambivalence. But I’m not holding my breath.