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The GOP has found a Putin-lite to fawn over. That's bad news for democracy.

Russia’s Ukraine war made Republicans think twice before praising Putin. But no such roadblock exists when it comes to Viktor Orbán.
Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest in 2015.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in Budapest in 2015.Akos Stille / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

At first glance, a recent tweet by Daniel Freund, a longtime critic of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and a member of the European Parliament from Germany’s Green Party, may come off as amusing. It reads: “Orban before elections: ‘We are super neutral. We want peace etc.’ Orban after elections: ‘Just kidding. Ukraine is the enemy.’”

But the situation it describes — a strongman who won re-election by claiming it was in Hungary’s interests to stay out of Russia’s war on Ukraine, only to call Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy an “opponent” the next day, along with “the international left” and “the Soros empire” — is all too serious.

Empowered by his solid win over the opposition, Orbán will likely become more repressive at home and enjoy an enhanced reputation abroad as a more palatable alternative to Russian President Vladimir Putin. That’s bad news for democracy, and not only in Hungary.

Orbán will likely become more repressive at home and enjoy an enhanced reputation abroad as a more palatable alternative to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s unsurprising that Republican luminaries from Donald Trump to Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene to Tucker Carlson rushed to congratulate Orbán on his victory, along with their far-right foreign counterparts, like Nigel Farage in the United Kingdom, Marine Le Pen in France and Matteo Salvini in Italy. Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine has made some Republican politicians think twice before praising Putin, but no such roadblock exists when it comes to Orbán. The GOP and its media allies, like Carlson, have long held up Hungary’s electoral autocracy as a model of politics they would like to implement in America. Carlson broadcast from there for a full week last year, fawning over Orbán, and the Conservative Political Action Conference is scheduled to convene there next month.

Hungary’s election was closely watched by those like me who study how to unseat autocrats. Six parties, including Orbán’s former allies from the right-leaning party Jobbik, came together to try to beat the incumbent. By including Jobbik and choosing a Christian conservative as its prime ministerial candidate (Péter Márki-Zay), the coalition hoped to attract voters from the right.

That backfired, showing how years of rule by a right-wing demagogue can polarize a population. Not wanting to move to the center, two-thirds of Jobbik voters abandoned their party and the coalition it joined. They instead voted for Orbán’s party, Fidesz, or for an even more extreme party, the neo-fascist Our Homeland. Orbán won’t only have a supermajority in the Hungarian parliament; 76 percent of the seats will be filled by right-wing politicians.

The opposition might not have prevailed no matter what it had done given the efficient electoral autocracy Orbán has created. This 21st century strongman approach entails keeping a veneer of democracy going while gaming the electoral system in ways that give it the edge. Gerrymandering, threatening voting officials and capturing the media and the judiciary make it difficult for the opposition to reach voters on television. Any legal challenges to victories by the leader and his candidates are defeated or dismissed.

The result, as David Baer, an expert on Hungarian politics, notes, is a political climate that makes it hard for any opposition to prevail. The deck is stacked against it before the election even begins.

Orbán’s victory matters because the longer authoritarian leaders stay in power, the more despotic they become.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which includes free elections in its mandate and sent a record number of monitors to Hungary, concurred. The election may have been well-managed, it found, with little visible evidence of fraud, but it was certainly not fair. The opposition’s lack of media meant there was “no level playing field.” Opposition candidate Márki-Zay, for example, had not been invited on national Hungarian television since 2019.

Orbán’s victory matters because the longer authoritarian leaders stay in power, the more despotic they become. He will now feel legitimated to intensify his crusade against an ever-growing roster of democratic enemies who, he claims, are trying to ruin the foundations of civilization and bring about the “collapse” of Europe.

That includes the LGBTQ population, the target of a referendum on Election Day that implicitly associated homosexuality with pedophilia and sought to manipulate parents’ fears about their children’s exposure to discussion of sexual identities in school. This may sound familiar if you’ve read any recent American headlines, which will inevitably include coverage of the so-called Don’t Say Gay bill recently signed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. A 2021 Hungarian law already outlawed any depiction or discussion of LGBTQ identities and sexual orientations in schools, television and advertising, but more repressive legislation is likely to come, and not only in this area.

Hungary depends heavily on Russia for its energy, and we can expect Orbán to remain loyal to Putin. Shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine, Orbán had declared 2021 the best year yet for Russian-Hungarian relations. He will take his distance rhetorically when he needs to, but his ideological alignment with the Russian president is firm. Right after the election, he broke ranks with the E.U., agreeing to pay for energy shipments in rubles.

Look for that discord with the E.U. to increase this year and beyond. Orbán relies on E.U. funding, but this autocrat, made even more arrogant by his victory, will be on a collision course with an E.U. newly resolved to hold him accountable. In December 2020, the European Parliament approved a “rule of law conditionality” that linked the availability of E.U. funds to member states’ respect for democracy. Poland and Hungary launched a legal challenge against it, but the European Court of Justice rejected the cases “in their entirety.” Now, alarmed by the election, the European Commission will move to implement the measure, which is why Orbán lashed out at “Brussels bureaucrats” in his celebration speech, along with Jews, the media and Zelenskyy.

Meanwhile, Republicans look at Hungary’s electoral autocracy like children in a candy shop. “I want that!” they greedily exclaim as they imagine a system that allows illiberal politicians to perpetuate themselves in power and dominate the media.

"Should we follow Hungary's example?" Carlson asked his audience in 2019, lauding Orbán and his “pro-family” policies. Orbán’s success will make that example more attractive for the GOP in the coming years. The affinities of Orbán’s Hungary and the Republican Party — from an electoral autocracy to xenophobia to anti-LGBTQ policies — bode ill for American democracy if the GOP returns to national power.