Hungarian Election Results Defy Easy Narratives | Opinion

For a certain segment of American media, every international development is interpreted as part of a grand ideological struggle. Freedom is either on the march, as was the case with the Arab Spring and the liberalization of Eastern Europe in the 1990s, or in retreat, as with the rise of Donald Trump in the United States, Vladimir Putin in Russia and now Viktor Orbán's reelection in Hungary.

In truth, global events are usually more complicated than these stories suggest. The Arab Spring begot political violence and an authoritarian backlash. The collapse of the Soviet Empire was a boon to Central Europe but yielded decidedly mixed results further East. Orbán's latest political victory, meanwhile, owes more to domestic politics than any global ideological clash between democracy and authoritarianism.

To be fair, some of these reactions have been inspired by Orbán's own grandiose pronouncements—he has suggested that Hungary's "illiberal democracy" is an alternative to Western leftism—and the Hungarian prime minister's ideological boosters (American conservative author Rod Dreher recently called Orbán "the leader of the West''). Although Orbán is a consequential figure, we should be wary of over-interpreting an election that was shaped by local political conditions.

Doomsayers in the Western press are not hard to find. According to former U.S. ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul, Orbán is a Putin export. The Atlantic's Yascha Mounk called the Hungarian election a "dark day for democracy." Just prior to the vote, another writer at The Atlantic lumped Hungary in with Venezuela, Iran, Russia and North Korea as sworn enemies of democracy.

The appeal of these explanations is obvious: a global ideological struggle is more exciting (and easier to explain) than Hungarian domestic politics. However, a closer look at Orbán's reelection campaign suggests that more prosaic factors played a decisive role. To put it in the simplest possible terms, a veteran politician prevailed over a neophyte against the backdrop of an international crisis.

Consider the quality of Péter Márki-Zay, Orbán's opponent. When Márki-Zay assumed leadership of the opposition, it seemed a canny move. The Catholic husband and father of seven first gained prominence by defeating a mayoral incumbent from the ruling Fidesz Party in the unpronounceable southern town of Hódmezővásárhely, a victory that suggested crossover appeal to the rural, conservative voters who make up Orbán's base. However, Márki-Zay's relative inexperience on the national stage was highlighted by a series of embarrassing gaffes. After war erupted on Hungary's eastern border, an inexperienced mayor with a tendency to put his foot in his mouth made for an unwelcome contrast with the veteran incumbent.

Márki-Zay was backed by an unwieldy alliance that agreed on very little except the importance of evicting Orbán. The coalition partners included several left-wing parties and Jobbik, a far-right outfit that has attempted to pivot toward the political center. By shifting in a moderate direction, however, Jobbik seems to have alienated many of its former supporters. The third largest vote-getter in the Hungarian election was Mi Hazánk Mozgalom ("Our Homeland Movement"), a far-right alternative to Fidesz that has supplanted Jobbik on the nationalist and conservative fringes. The defection of these voters highlights the difficulty of managing a coalition that encompassed the extreme left and the extreme right of Hungarian politics.

Orbán speaks
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán speaks at a press conference. ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP via Getty Images

The war in Ukraine was supposed to sink Orbán's candidacy by raising energy prices and highlighting his ties to Putin, but there is a considerable gulf between Western perception of Orbán's foreign policy and the priorities of a typical Hungarian voter. Often portrayed as a staunch Putin ally in the Western press, Orbán has opportunistically sought closer ties with Russia and China. However, the jibes about Orbán's relationship with Putin were aimed at foreign critics, not potential voters.

Once again, local factors help explain Orbán's foreign policy appeal. Rightly or wrongly, the existence of a substantial Hungarian minority in southwest Ukraine with grievances against the national government has made many Hungarians reluctant to wholeheartedly embrace the Ukrainian cause. Add in the prospect of an untested mayor taking over in the midst of a crisis, and you can understand why Orbán actually benefited from a war that many assumed would hamstring his reelection prospects.

Beyond specific issues, outside perception of Orbán is colored by the assumption that he has rigged the system to ensure his political dominance. But facile comparisons to autocrats like Putin miss the ambiguities of Hungarian politics. Yes, state-run outlets, print media and (to a lesser extent) television are dominated by Fidesz-friendly voices. However, the internet remains free and open and Orbán won two districts in reliably-liberal Budapest, a hotbed of opposition politics and a cosmopolitan, international city. The idea that these voters were brainwashed by a Fidesz media machine is simply implausible.

Here are the realities of Hungarian politics: Orbán is a canny operator who doesn't shy away from political hardball, including worrisome tactics like spying on journalists and massaging coverage from ostensibly neutral state media. He is also an effective prime minister whose positions on many issues, from immigration to the war in Ukraine, are closer to your average Hungarian voter than his most strident critics. Meanwhile, despite being neutered in Parliament, the opposition will continue to run Budapest and several other major Hungarian towns.

Hungary remains a conservative country with liberal enclaves, including its capital, and a political system that, while flawed, is a far cry from a one-party state. This is a less satisfying assessment than portraying the recent vote as the latest battle in a global holy war between liberals and authoritarians. It has the virtue, however, of being true.

Will Collins is a schoolteacher in Budapest, Hungary.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.