Hungary’s Orban Spins His Party Suspension as a Victory

(Bloomberg) --

Hungary’s prime minister declared victory after Europe’s biggest political family suspended his party for eroding democratic standards, a bid to save face as he keeps open the options of repairing ties or joining like-minded populists after European Parliament elections in May.

Viktor Orban’s vast network of pro-government media -- a juggernaut of hundreds of print, broadcast, radio and online outlets run by a ruling-party loyalist -- portrayed Wednesday’s decision by the center-right European People’s Party to suspend his Fidesz party as his own voluntary act instead of political humiliation. A pro-Orban expert on state television called the rebuke a “huge victory” for defeating calls to have Orban ejected.

Both sides agreed to decide on future ties after the elections, making the ballot’s results crucial to whether he’ll lose his unique perch in the Christian-Democrat EPP. If the umbrella party garners strong support, it may be able to form a coalition with the Socialists, Liberals or the Greens without Orban. Alternatively, the EPP may need his votes remain ascendant in the face of even more euroskeptic forces who want to upend how the EU works.

The post-election decision on whether to suspend Fidesz will probably be weighed against "the risk that its continued participation may encourage the more liberal-leaning parties to leave the group or jeopardize the EPP’s chances to lead the European Commission,” said Otilia Dhand, a senior vice president at the political risk-consultancy Teneo.

The four-term premier has used his seat alongside the likes of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to legitimize his polarizing positions on issues such as immigration while lobbying for acceptance of his expanding control over state institutions, the media and civil society.

While his suspension signals greater resolve by the EU’s establishment to confront a euroskeptic ideologies that have fueled watershed decisions, including the U.K.’s planned departure, at home Orban portrayed it as a voluntary move by his party.

“The EPP made a good decision, because it salvaged unity,” Orban told reporters in Brussels.

Nationalist Movements

The suspension of Fidesz followed years of EPP efforts to paper over differences with Orban as he championed the creation of an “illiberal” state. It also had an immediate impact by denying Orban the chance to take part in a meeting of EPP leaders on Thursday in Brussels before an EU summit. Under the penalty, the EPP will create an “evaluation committee” to monitor Fidesz’s respect for the rule of law and other EU values.

“This is quite a strong rebuke of Orban even though it stops short of ejecting his party,” said Andras Biro-Nagy, co-director of Policy Solutions, a Budapest-based think tank. “But it also kicks the can down the road when it comes to a final decision by both sides on Fidesz’s membership.”

Orban said the result of the European Parliament elections will dictate his next move. Keeping the door open to leaving to join a more nationalist camp, he praised Italian Deputy Premier Matteo Salvini for his anti-immigration stance.

Movements like Salvini’s League party aim to make enough gains in the May 23-26 ballot to disrupt EU business, raising the stakes for the likes of Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. That helped re-focus attention on Orban, under whom Hungary was slapped with an unprecedented EU censure last year for democratic backsliding.

Some members of the bloc have also floated linking the billions of euros in aid -- of which Hungary is a large beneficiary -- to rule-of-law standards. Negotiations for the next seven-year EU budget will kick into high gear following the elections, and an ejection from the EPP would complicate Orban’s ability to negotiate a good deal.

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