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As Hungarians Head to the Polls, Will European Allegiance Suffer?

With Hungarians headed to the polls on Sunday to vote in parliamentary elections, most analysis of the country’s political situation has revolved around the country’s alleged turn away from Western-style democracy. Yet while the debate rages on at institutional and political parties level, public opinion research indicates that the reality is far more complex.

While many assume that the turn toward populism and warmer relations with the Kremlin under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is bringing Hungary into Russia’s orbit, a recent poll by the International Republican Institute indicates that the majority of Hungarians continue to support key transatlantic institutions like the EU and NATO.Alhough the key to the country’s political alignment ultimately remains in the hands of its national elite, the preservation of the status quo is to some extent up to the West, which must redouble its efforts to keep Hungary in the transatlantic fold. 

First, the good news: despite the presence of some undoubtedly alarming political rhetoric and rising Euroscepticism, Hungarians still largely prefer the European Union over Vladimir Putin. More than two-thirds of Hungarians believe that EU membership is a good thing, and the vast majority have a favorable view of NATO. In contrast, Hungarians reject the idea of adopting a Putin-style of authoritarian government by almost four to one. 

This indicates that despite growing frustrations with the way in which their problems are addressed by regional institutions like the EU, Hungarians believe that their national interests are best-served by remaining part of the transatlantic fold, and do not see the Russian model as something to emulate. Yet the data also confirms the existence of rising tensions that could leave this relatively young democracy vulnerable to backsliding and may drive them away from the West.

A majority of the poll’s respondents feel that Hungary is not treated fairly by the West. This perceived victimization may be rooted in historical memory, stretching back to the post-war 1920 Treaty of Trianon and beyond—but it is also likely motivated by dissatisfaction with certain EU policies. 

As reflected in the success of Viktor Orbán’s hardline stance on migrants, 20 percent of Hungarians are frustrated with what they perceive to be the European Union’s inability to regulate migration flows. This has exacerbated socioeconomic tensions in Hungarian society, and has the potential to fuel extremist conspiracy theories that a “great replacement” of indigenous populations by foreign (principally Muslim) populations is being engineered and imposed from the top.

Given this emotionally-charged context, it is perhaps unsurprising then that two-thirds of Hungarians see an alliance with the other Visegrád Four countries (Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic) as a way to protect their own interests. However, despite frustrations with EU or “Western” policies, it is clear that most Hungarians identify culturally and politically with the West–if only because the memories of Soviet repression and occupation (exemplified in the bloody invasion of the country in 1956) and the subsequent liberation from communism in 1989 occurred in living memory.

Yet in a region that has lived under no less than three empires in the past century, it’s clear that circumstances–and allegiances–can change rapidly. As such, it is vital that the political leadership in Brussels and other capitals take steps to secure this relationship in the longer-term. Ultimately, this also means showing Hungarian citizens that the EU is committed to addressing their concerns on issues like migration, so that the Hungarian people can have confidence in the capacity of the EU to protect their interests.  This will not only keep Hungary in the Western fold—it will help to shore up the EU’s institutional capacity and ability to withstand both internal and external challenges.

The data is clear—Hungarians want to remain part of the West. Whether or not this changes depends on Hungarians, but Brussels has a clear role to play in making sure they remain in the European fold.  

Thibault Muzergues is a Resident Country Director at the International Republican Institute.

Graham Scott is a Program Associate at the International Republican Institute.

 

 

 

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