The Hungarian PM has the power to make significant constitutional changes
Viktor Orbán is more powerful in Hungary now than he’s ever been. Pollsters predicted a close election, but it turned out to be a landslide. A system combining proportional representation and first-past-the-post meant Fidesz’s 53% of the vote won it over two-thirds of the seats in parliament.
Keeping this parliamentary “supermajority” is key because it gives Orbán the power to push through constitutional changes. Some fear this will be used to keep skewing the democratic playing field in Fidesz’s favour. This is certainly possible, but constitutional tinkering would more likely be used to support Fidesz’s traditionalist social policies.
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In December 2020, the constitution was amended to affirm that the “family” is a unit in which “the mother is a woman, the father a man,” along with a provision that “defends the right of children to identify with their birth gender.” This change laid the groundworks for a law, passed in June 2021, that angered EU progressives. The “Child Protection Act” restricted the display of LGBT-positive content to children and forbade the teaching of what Orbán calls “LGBT ideology” in schools.
While voting in the election on Sunday, Hungarians were also given the option to participate in a referendum containing four leading questions related to the Child Protection Act. The number of spoiled ballots made the referendum invalid, but Fidesz will argue that election victory vindicates its social policies.
This means Hungary’s “rule of law” dispute with the EU will ratchet up a notch. Many in Brussels were open about their desire to see Orbán lose – indeed, some MEPs appeared far more interested in influencing Hungary’s vote than in serving their own constituents. Brussels has lost no time in making a show of strength: Ursula von der Leyen yesterday announced the triggering of the bloc’s rule of law mechanism for withholding funds from Hungary.
The bloc’s position will be aided by cracks in the Visegrád Four regional alliance appearing since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Orbán has become a relative pariah in the group due to his failure to send arms to Kyiv. Relations with long-time conservative ally Poland have turned frosty, while the Czech defence minister snubbed a V4 summit shortly before the Hungarian election because “Russian oil is now more important for Hungarian politicians than Ukrainian blood.”
This grandstanding may hurt those leaders in the long run. If other politicians want Hungary’s stance on Ukraine to alter, they’ll have to actually engage with Orbán.
A fraught recent history with Ukraine means Hungary won’t provide military aid to that country unless Russia and NATO go to war. Fidesz politicians have also made it clear that they see a shift away from Russian gas and oil as not just impractical, but actually impossible (at least for the foreseeable future). The headache presented by Hungary’s stance was illustrated when Orbán extraordinarily mentioned President Zelensky as an “opponent” at his victory speech on Sunday night.
Yet with four more years in power now secure, Orbán may try a balancing act between holding true to his pledge not to let the war affect ordinary Hungarians, and his need to restore some semblance of diplomatic credibility. This might make him more pliable on Ukraine — especially as he knows where he can pin the blame for any economic damage caused by measures formulated in Brussels.