Europe’s Populist Strongman Faces Judgment

(Bloomberg) -- Sixteen years ago, Viktor Orban refurbished a palace overlooking the Danube River in Budapest as a new office to mark his re-election as Hungary’s prime minister. Then a surprise defeat prevented him from moving in and he spent the rest of the decade in opposition.

The older, grayer, and heavier Orban is now the ringleader of Europe’s nationalist insurgence after regaining power in 2010. The man hailed as a “great hero” by U.S. President Donald Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon is bidding to win a third straight term on Sunday, and he’s spent about $60 million fitting out a former monastery to take up afterwards. The question is whether history will repeat itself.

Europe’s Populist Strongman Faces Judgment

Polls suggest that’s unlikely. They consistently put support for Orban’s Fidesz party at roughly equal to the entire opposition combined. But there’s growing disillusionment among many Hungarians over a culture of cronyism and the thumping victory expected just months ago now looks uncertain.

Orban already lost the two-thirds majority in parliament that allowed him to change the constitution and appoint allies to independent institutions, including the courts and chief prosecutor, after two of his lawmakers were unseated during his second term.

Further losses or the possibility of a bigger upset for the poster child of European populism and an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin would resonate across Europe and particularly in its increasingly volatile east.

“People are watching this election because Orban is seen as having provided the ideological and institutional template for populist movements throughout Europe,” said William Galston, senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. “If Orban's support falls significantly below 50 percent then people will take it that what he and his party represents aren’t irresistible.”

The April 8 election comes less than a month after Prime Minister Robert Fico in neighboring Slovakia was forced to resign in the wake of mass protests over the murder of a journalist investigating government corruption. Poland’s nationalist leadership, a key supporter of Orban, meanwhile is showing its first real signs of weakness in the polls.

In Hungary, the campaign by opponents has tried to nullify Orban’s anti-immigration rhetoric and focused on claims that politically connected oligarchs hold sway over the economy in what he calls his “illiberal state.” 

Europe’s Populist Strongman Faces Judgment

A mayoral vote in a small agricultural city in the southeast raised an alarm bell for Orban, 54, a month ago. People there cited rampant corruption and intimidation as reasons for rejecting Orban's Fidesz party for the first time since 1998, the year he first won power, in favor of an independent candidate.

“The main thing to keep in mind is that Orban may have re-invented politics in Hungary, but he's not immune at end of the day to the most fatal flaws of politicians,” said Tomas Valasek, director, Carnegie Europe in Brussels and former Slovak diplomat. “They just get worn out and the electorate just tires of them.”

Realistically, it would take a huge reversal to unseat Orban, who built an apparently unassailable support base and still gets tens of thousands of supporters out for party rallies.

It depends on a disparate opposition ranging from a former far-right party to liberals uniting behind a single candidate in key districts. Opposition leaders concede that it would take a groundswell to pull off an upset. That would mean turnout of more than 70 percent. The last time that happened was in 2002, the year Orban was ousted before he could move into his new palace. The next government then turned into the president’s office.

A bloody nose, though, might be on the cards. Tactical cooperation among the opposition parties in battleground electoral districts means it’s unlikely that Orban will win a third consecutive super-majority. Already in 2014, his share of the vote dropped but a fragmented opposition failed to coordinate.

Europe’s Populist Strongman Faces Judgment

If Orban loses significant ground, the result will resonate in other European capitals. His politics became a model for political bedfellows from Italian nationalist parties jockeying for power to the government in Poland.

The Hungarian leader put up a fence to keep out refugees and appointed friends and allies to run the courts, central bank and audit office. Since his last election victory, Hungary slipped to 66th place in Transparency International’s annual survey of perceived corruption, below only Bulgaria in the EU, from 48th in 2014.

Yet he also came good on promises to levy high taxes on large corporations to fill budget holes after previous governments opted to cut salaries. He extended energy-price cuts for households and reduced the country’s dependence on foreign debt. Economic growth was at a three-year high last year and wages grew by double-digits.

Hungarians must now weigh whether it’s a good trade off.

“History has shown that Hungarians don’t just want institutions they can trust but also charismatic leaders, whether kings, military chiefs, or strongmen,” said Peter Kaderjak, one of the founders of Fidesz in the 1980s who is no longer politically active. “Orban has always been predisposed to be heavy-handed. Hungarians will decide what's best for them in the long run.”

To contact the author of this story: Zoltan Simon in Budapest at zsimon@bloomberg.net.

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