Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban at a news conference Image Credit: Reuters

On Sunday, the voters of Hungary head to the polls to elect a new National Assembly in Budapest.

Were the elections to be held even five weeks ago, the result would have been a foregone conclusion. They weren’t and it’s not.

But it was Sir Winston Churchill who once noted that “a week is an eternity in politics”. For the people of Ukraine, every passing hour at times seems like an eternity. And now, with events unfolding with each passing day, the playing field of Hungarian politics shifts, with the predictability of results far from certain.

The choice seemed straightforward enough, between the Fidesz party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. For more than a decade, the populist policies of the man who dominates his nation and its politics would have seen his party swept back to power.

Now? Well, the votes and results should be known in the small hours of Monday morning — and nothing is a certainty.

Orban has been in power since 2010 and the 58-year-old has long cast himself as a defender of Hungary’s cultural identity against migration into Europe and a protector of Christian values against Western liberalism. And those values, while popular at home, put him at odds with the values of the wider European Union, where freedom of association, freedom of the press and more liberal personal and sexual freedoms hold sway.

Hungary’s sovereignty

Barely six months ago, Orban stood, exalted by party delegates at its annual conference, vowing to resist Brussels’ attempts to “erode Hungary’s sovereignty.”

“After communist bureaucracy ... we don’t want new dictates this time from Brussels,” Orban told cheering party delegates, vowing to reject western liberalism.

Hungary has been a member of the EU since 2004.

“We will not give up the right to defend our borders, to stop migrants ... we insist that marriage in Hungary is between a man and a woman, a father is a man and a mother is a woman ... and they should leave our children alone.”

From his perspective, it is the EU that needs reform, not his nation — vowing it would remain a member and bring about pan-European change

Orban said the EU must be reformed and Hungary’s aim was to achieve change, not leave the bloc that it joined in 2004.

“We don’t want to leave the EU at all — they can’t get rid of us so easily,” he said. “We want to keep our sovereignty and we don’t want to find ourselves in a United States of Europe, instead of integration.”

Heady words indeed. But the events of these past weeks are equally heady, with Russian President Vladimir Putting sending his troops across the border into Ukraine — the second largest European nation by land mass and one that borders Hungary itself.

And for Orban, a leader who has made no odds in the past about his admiration for Putin, the conflict in Ukraine has suddenly switched the game plan like nothing else in the dozen years of his rule.

On Sunday, the choice for voters will be stark. Do they cast ballots for the prime minister or vote instead for the 49-year-old Peter Marki-zay, the provincial mayor of Hodmezpvasarhely who was selected last October to lead a coalition of six opposition parties in a unified list of candidates.

Impact of the Ukraine conflict

With Ukraine in conflict on his borders and the nation seeing tens of thousands of refugees seek shelter in its midst, Orban has doubled down on spending pledges, including a $2 billion income-tax rebate for families. And he’s also anti-immigration rhetoric.

For Marki-zay, the choice for Hungarian voters is simple. Orban is betraying Europe, Orban is betraying the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

Indeed, Orban’s last visit to Moscow came just weeks before the troops went into Ukraine, providing fodder to the opposition while leaving him with few friends outside of Hungary.

Sanctions, he added, “would mean the Hungarian economy would slow down and then stop within moments, adding that 85 per cent of his nation’s gas and more than 60 per cent of its oil come from Russia.

The events unfolding in Ukraine have unified the EU on foreign policy as never before. It has agreed to send defensive weapons to Kyiv and set aside €1 billion as a first tranche in aid for humanitarian relief. Budapest has, however, declined to supply its neighbour with weapons and has refused to allow weapons shipments to cross its border into Ukraine either.

Just weeks ago, the governments in Poland and Hungary were in lockstep in railing against the values of the EU. That partnership on the right has been fractured, with Poland playing a leading role in organising and coordinating EU measures after the military operations began in Ukraine.

It’s clear that Hungarians do indeed like a strong man — and Orban fits that image.

When the coronavirus pandemic struck, Orban imposed strict rules giving the government almost unlimited powers to handle the crisis, curtail reporting and bring in new laws over disseminating “fake news”. And yes, Brussels wasn’t impressed by the sudden concentration of power and control in the prime minister’s office.

Budapest is one of the few EU countries that signed up to China’s multibillion dollar Belt and Road initiative, which has also raised eyebrows in the Belgian capital — while Belgrade and Budapest will be linked by a China-funded high-speed rail and receive a €1.3 billion investment in a new university campus.