Democracy Digest: Aftermath of Hungary Election

Following another overwhelming victory for the ruling Fidesz party, Viktor Orban continues his ‘peacock dance’ while the joint opposition, like Saturn, starts devouring its children.
Hungary is coming to terms with the fourth consecutive landslide victory for the prime minister, Viktor Orban, and his nationalist-populist Fidesz party.

For the opposition, the dramatic defeat – its worst result since Orban was elected in 2010 – has inevitably led to internal chaos, finger pointing and sober reflections on the need to make a fresh start.

The lead candidate of the opposition, Peter Marki-Zay, announced that he would not be taking up his parliamentary mandate, but would instead stay on as mayor of south-eastern city of Hódmezővásárhely. “I would like to avoid the impression that Hungary is a parliamentary democracy where the opposition can achieve anything in parliament,” he wrote in a Facebook post.

Marki-Zay blamed government propaganda on the dominant state-run media channels for the defeat of the opposition. Orban’s ruling Fidesz party argued during the campaign that the opposition would send young Hungarians to die for Ukraine and this seemed to have a huge effect on mostly undecided voters.

Yet the biggest opposition parties are blaming Marki-Zay for alienating voters with his often-unguarded statements. Analysts also underline that the opposition’s unity seemed only half-hearted and it was the former far-right party, Jobbik, which lost the most of its voters, many of them reluctant to follow the party’s leadership in a coalition with leftists and liberal forces. Some of them found a new political home in the new far-right party, Our Homeland, which managed to secure almost 7 per cent of the vote and make it into parliament.

The first snap analyses also indicated that the opposition failed to convince voters in the countryside and, paradoxically, even people living in poverty and deprivation. Though clearly not belonging to the winners of the last 12 years of Fidesz rule, this group regarded Orban and his government as the better alternative. “We led an elitist campaign and we ignored social issues. We could not convince voters that living will be easier under another government,” opposition politician Peter Ungar reflected on the defeat.

The election result also cements the notion that Hungary has become ideologically and culturally polarised between Budapest, where the opposition won all but two constituencies, and the countryside, which turned massively orange (the colour of Fidesz) again.

There is also a growing concern that the Orban-led government might not be defeatable in any democratic election due to the lack of a level playing field, based on their influence on the media, a huge differential in financial possibilities (using taxpayer money for campaigning criticised by the OSCE), and an electoral system which strongly favours the majority.

For Orban, he might now be the longest-serving prime minister in the EU, but his room for manoeuvre will be narrow, as already indicated by the European Commission’s announcement this week to trigger the rule-of-law mechanism against Hungary and the cracks opening up in his alliance with Poland over different approaches to the war in Ukraine.

At a rare international press conference on Wednesday, attended by BIRN, Orban tried to play down the significance of being isolated in Europe: he said the partnership with Poland is not “geopolitical in its nature”, but is based on an efficient cooperation inside the EU, which he believes will continue, despite the current tensions. “We have to strengthen our alliance with Poland because one cannot stand alone in the EU. For us, this is a strategic partnership”, Orban said.

He added that he would wait until after the French elections to move forward with his plans to forge a common parliamentary group in the European Parliament comprising of nationalist and far-right parties.

Orban reiterated his belief in a strong nation state, and said he sees a renaissance for the nation state in Europe. “The calamities are global in nature, but effective, rapid responses are always national and local,” he said, underlining that he will strengthen Hungary’s alliances with the EU and NATO.

In order to dispel doubts about Hungary’s EU membership, a trending topic in the international media, Orban said: “We continue to envisage Hungary’s future within the European Union, and we want to take an active part in the shaping of the future European Union. We will also remain a NATO member country.”

However, despite pledging allegiance to NATO and EU, he refused to take action against the Russia-founded International Investment Bank, based in Budapest, which is seen as a ‘spybank’ by most security experts, while insisting that Russia’s Rosatom would continue building Hungary’s next nuclear power plant.

It seems that Orban’s famous balancing act – the so-called “peacock dance” – is set to continue.

Slovak far-right trial draws mixed reactions; PM finally makes it to Kyiv

After a protracted trial marked by delays and farcical disruptions, far-right figurehead Marian Kotleba was finally found guilty by a Slovak court of supporting neo-Nazi views.

The Supreme Court handed Kotleba a suspended sentence of six months with an 18-month probation for the crime of expressing sympathy for a movement that suppresses fundamental rights and freedoms, the SITA newswire reported.

The leader of the notorious People’s Party Our Slovakia (LSNS), known for honouring and brandishing Nazi imagery and salutes, will not go to prison for the time being. He will only head behind bars in the event of breaching his probation and breaking the law during that period. He will, however, lose his seat as an MP, as the verdict is final and cannot be appealed.

The sentence is a watered-down version of the original verdict by the Special Criminal Court that sent Kotleba to prison for four years and four months after the far-right bigwig handed out vouchers worth 1,488 euros to three families at an event marking the founding of the Nazi-Germany inclined wartime Slovak state. The number 1,488 is a well-known Nazi symbol – the reasons too tedious and inane to detail here – spread by white supremacists around the world.

The reaction to the Supreme Court’s sentence for Kotleba, delivered in the absence of the accused and among unsubstantiated bomb threats on the day of the hearing, was lukewarm at best. Critics, such as the Institute of Human Rights, called the verdict a “joke”. “The fact that Marian Kotleba does not have to go to prison is a very bad signal in a very bad time,” the Institute’s Peter Weisenbacher said in a statement.

The liberal SaS party, part of the ruling four-party coalition, labelled the sentence a “feeble victory” for democracy over extremism. “The decision at least confirms that [Kotleba] is a neo-Nazi,” the party said in a statement.

Elsewhere, Prime Minister Eduard Heger will make a planned visit to Kyiv on Friday where he will meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Heger is set to travel to Ukraine alongside European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Joseph Borell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the Slovak Spectator highlighted. Slovak diplomats reportedly requested that Heger join the Brussels-led delegation, according to a report by the Dennik N daily, after the prime minister notably missed a high-profile trip of Central European Leaders to Kyiv back in mid-March.

The Slovak premier refused the invitation to accompany his counterparts from the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovenia citing security concerns. He later expressed regret over his decision and said it was a mistake.

With the Russian invaders having retreated ignominously from the Kyiv area, the visit this time will certainly be safer, Defence Minister Jaroslav Nad said. “We are taking all aspects into consideration, but in the end, it is the decision of the prime minister,” Nad said, as quoted by the SITA newswire.

Poland still desperately seeking EU money

After a few weeks of excitement over Poland’s strong support for Ukraine and warm reception for its refugees, this week looked more like business as usual in the Polish capital.

Poland is still haggling with the EU to get hold of its slice of the 750-billion-euro coronavirus recovery package, which has been frozen by Brussels until it sees progress on the issues it has identified over reforms that Law and Justice (PiS) have made to the country’s judicial system.

Some expected progress on unblocking the EU money due to Poland from the coronavirus recovery fund, worth 36 billion euros, given all the good will that Poland has generated in Brussels and beyond over its hosting of the refugees fleeing the Russian invasion.

Even before the war started, the Polish government had indicated it was willing to compromise over the rule-of-law conflict with the EU, with the governing camp filing several draft laws that would introduce the kind of reforms expected of Poland. And now Poland has welcomed almost 2.5 million refugees in just over a month, its need for cash is expected to add to momentum towards an agreement. Some had even speculated a deal could be announced ahead of EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s visit to Warsaw on Saturday to join a solidarity fund-raising event for Ukraine.

Yet this week both Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and von der Leyen said it was too early to say whether the recovery funds would be unblocked. Morawiecki said a deal was close and hopes it could happen later in April or even early May. In turn, Von der Leyen stressed three conditions that Poland still needs to meet to see the cash freed: commit to dismantle the Disciplinary Chamber at the Supreme Court, which has been used to repress critical judges; reform the disciplinary system for judges beyond that chamber; and reinstall unfairly dismissed judges.

This week, the Polish parliament started assessing the several draft laws on dismantling the Disciplinary Chamber filed by President Andrzej Duda, PiS parliamentarians and others. But several Polish media, quoting diplomatic sources in Brussels, claimed a deal this week was made harder by the fact that Poland had requested fines imposed by the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) over the issue, which amount to several million euros a day, be dropped as well.

Negotiations between Warsaw and Brussels are ongoing, however, and an announcement might still come over the next few weeks. In the meantime, Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro continues to play hard ball – he rejects any compromise with Brussels over the rule of law, which in turn threatens the stability of the ruling coalition.

Meanwhile, if some had been thinking that differing views on Ukraine could cause a split between PiS and the Hungarian government of Viktor Orban, they’d better not get their hopes up yet. Yes, key politicians from the Polish ruling camp, including PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski and President Duda, have distanced themselves from Orban over his pro-Russian stance. But upon his overwhelming victory in the latest election, the Polish government was conciliatory.

“No matter what attitude we have to Hungary, we have to pay attention to the fact that this is the fourth victory in a row and the biggest type of victory, a constitutional majority,” Morawiecki said in response to the Hungarian election result.

In reference to Orban’s ill-disguised pro-Russian stance, Morawiecki pointed out it was not Hungary that was blocking further sanctions against Moscow at an EU level: “In Europe, the situation is very clear. You see that in meetings of the European Council. It’s the Germans that are the main break against more determined sanctions.”

Czech tanks head to Ukraine

The Czech Republic this week became the first country to send tanks to help Kyiv repel Russia’s invasion – or at least the first to admit doing so.

Although not formally confirmed, officials in Prague confessed to sending the materiel after the local media jumped on a picture on social media of a train loaded with T-72 tanks and BVP-1 infantry fighting vehicles. The weapons were reportedly a “gift” from the Czech army, given with the blessing of NATO allies. Ukrainian crews are familiar with the Soviet-built tanks.

Defence Minister Jana Cernochova refused to discuss details of the Czech government’s military aid campaign. Czechia is sending “essential military materiel” to Ukraine and “will continue to do so” she said on social media, declining to give further details because Prague does not want to help the “Z killers” – a reference to the Russian invaders. The Czech military also declined to comment on the shipment.

However, Ondrej Benesik, chair of parliament’s Committee on European Affairs, appeared to confirm that the tanks are now in the hands of the Ukrainian army. “Deliveries of Czech BVPs and T-72 tanks were recorded,” he tweeted. “This is what the… Ukrainian army really needs. I believe that we will be able to continue these deliveries. Glory to Ukraine.”

The shipment left amid global revulsion over the discovery of Russian atrocities in towns and villages liberated by Ukraine. The US is now reportedly working with NATO allies on plans to swiftly supply weapons worth over 250 euros million to Ukrainian forces, including Soviet-era tanks, amid expectations of a renewed Russian assault in the Donbas region in the east of the country.

On top of the artillery already shipped, Prague plans to send 56 modernised armoured vehicles (PbV-501) after receiving German approval. Berlin’s consent is required for the re-export of any German-built weapons. The Czech military reportedly had 89 unmodernised T-72’s in its reserve arsenal before the shipment.

Prague is also mulling providing repair and maintenance services for Ukrainian military equipment. The country, which has a long armaments tradition, has since the end of the Cold War developed a specialisation in the refit and modernisation of Soviet-era weapons. 3D printer technology that could produce concrete barriers for use on the battleground could also be sent to Ukraine.

One of the first countries to start sending the Ukrainian forces defensive weapons, Czechia has thus far provided military aid worth nearly a billion koruna (41 million euros). Huge volumes of humanitarian aid have also been given while the country is hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the war.

Czech MPs also this week passed a resolution condemning the atrocities committed by the Russian army in Bucha, describing the mass killing of innocent civilians as a war crime and calling for Prague to take an active part in setting up an international tribunal to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators.

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