Viktor Orban About To Make West's Putin Problem Worse, Opponent Warns

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's decisive electoral victory earlier this month dashed the hopes of European Union and NATO leaders who wished to see the right-wing populist unseated and a significant thorn in Brussels' side removed.

Orban, the leader of the right-wing Fidesz party, secured a fourth term in the prime minister's office. He handily defeated an alliance of six opposition parties led by Hodmezovasarhely Mayor Peter Marki-Zay, the anointed challenger from the center-right who hoped to peel away enough fatigued Fidesz supporters and disillusioned non-voters to remove Orban from office.

The result was clear. Orban won some 53 percent of the popular vote to Marki-Zay's 34 percent. Fidesz increased its number of seats in parliament, securing a two-thirds majority.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said the poll was not a fair race, noting pro-Orban media bias, the lack of transparency in campaign financing, the "highly negative" tone of the race and the "pervasive overlap between the ruling coalition and the government."

The opposition accepted its defeat, although it has been clear that the playing field was always slanted in the incumbent's favor. Now, Marki-Zay tells Newsweek in an exclusive interview, Hungarians and their Western allies will have to deal with the consequences.

"He clearly rules Hungary, and he can do anything he wants in Hungary," Marki-Zay said. "There is no alternative." The mood among the opposition is grim, the defeated challenger explains.

"I don't believe that Fidesz can be defeated in elections. This election proves that is impossible. It's definitely not a functioning democracy anymore."

In response, a Hungarian government spokesperson told Newsweek: "On 3 April, Hungarian voters made it clear that they no longer want the left and its puppet, Peter Marki-Zay."

In the run-up to the election, Marki-Zay told Newsweek the result would have consequences for the people of Ukraine and their Western backers as Russian President Vladimir Putin devastates the country.

Orban has repeatedly undermined EU and NATO efforts at creating a united front to Moscow's aggression. The prime minister and his top officials have spoken against key sanctions, blocked arms shipments from transiting Hungarian territory and described President Volodymyr Zelensky as an "opponent."

Asked if Orban might become more openly pro-Russia given his electoral success, Marki-Zay replied: "Yes, I'm 100 percent sure."

"He will be more bold when he goes against European and American pressure," he said. "That's absolutely true...Now he is emboldened, and he can be more daring."

"He's playing this double game with Putin and the European allies and the U.S.," Marki-Zay said of Orban. "Unfortunately, he is truly Putin's ally."

Some observers have described Orban as Putin's prime "Trojan Horse" within the EU. "A Trojan Horse assumes it is hidden," Marki-Zay said. "It's not hidden at all. He's an agent."

Peter Marki-Zay on stage in Budapest election
Hungary's opposition alliance leader and candidate for Prime Minister Peter Marki-Zay delivers a speech at the election party of the United for Hungary alliance in Budapest on April 3, 2022. FERENC ISZA/AFP via Getty Images

Orban celebrated his latest electoral victory under the cloud of fresh EU measures against his government. The European Commission has begun a process to cut union funding for Hungary for undermining the bloc's rule-of-law standards. Hungary is the first EU nation to face such action.

The EC's decision followed months of deliberations, according to its president, Ursula von der Leyen. Brussels and leading members of the bloc have been concerned by Orban's changes to Hungary's electoral system; his party's influence over the judiciary, state media and education; and corruption.

But Marki-Zay said the EU's resolve is one of the few checks left on Orban's power. "He's emboldened, but he cannot afford to go against our allies on very important issues," Marki-Zay argued. "It all depends on the level of pressure that will be put on Orban."

Marki-Zay believes Orban's arm can be twisted on EU actions, particularly related to Russia and Ukraine. "I would not be worried too much," he explained. "If the EU and NATO puts any pressure on him, he will agree to any sanctions, he will participate in shipping arms, sending troops, whatever."

"Orban never vetoed any sanctions against Russia in the last five years either. So although he is the most loyal ally to Putin in the EU, he never dared to veto sanctions against Russia."

"Orban is clearly under the influence of Putin, but he's also not immune to pressure from European leaders and countries. At the end, eventually, he always reluctantly refrains from vetoing sanctions."

Hungary Viktor Orban celebrates election win
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and members of the Fidesz party celebrate their election victory on stage on the bank of the Danube River in Budapest, on April 3, 2022. ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP via Getty Images

Orban has condemned Russia's invasion and said last month that Hungary would not veto sanctions on Russia, citing the importance of bloc unity. But Orban has also said the EU will not sanction Russian oil and gas—a key Ukrainian demand.

Orban has even hinted at agreeing to Putin's decree for unfriendly nations—including all EU states—to pay for natural gas in rubles, an effort to strengthen the Russian currency in the face of unprecedented sanctions.

"If that is something that is really annoying or frustrating to European leaders, then he might not do it," Marki-Zay said. "If he sees that he can get away with it, then he will."

The invasion of Ukraine cast a long shadow over Hungary's election. Orban and Fidesz welcomed Ukrainian refugees, while still somewhat treading a diplomatic line between Brussels and Moscow. Fidesz also framed Marki-Zay and the opposition as warmongers for their more vocal condemnation of Russia and support for unified EU-NATO action.

"They told them one by one—in person as well, not only through the media—that if the opposition wins, then the next day their kids, their husbands, even grandfathers, will be taken to the army, regardless of whether they are trained soldiers or not, and taken to die in Ukraine in a foreign war," Marki-Zay said.

"The last nail in the coffin of the opposition was that huge campaign that they conducted in less than two weeks," Marki-Zay added. "This really tipped the election at least 10 percent—maybe much more—in favor of Fidesz."

"The Ukrainian people deserve our sympathy in their struggle," Marki-Zay added. "I also believe that if they don't stop Putin in Ukraine, then Putin's tanks and rockets will be at the Hungarian border. It's our national interest as well for NATO and the EU to defend Hungary and to help defend Ukraine."