BUDAPEST — Overshadowed by war in Ukraine, Sunday’s elections in Hungary and Serbia appear to have extended the terms of Europe’s two most pro-Kremlin leaders, both populist strongmen bolstered by their crushing control of the media and energy cheap from Russia.
With more than 60% of votes counted in Hungary, preliminary results indicated that Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister since 2010, and already Europe’s longest-serving leader, had won a fourth consecutive term despite opposition accusations that he allowed the Russian military assault. by dating Russian President Vladimir V. Putin for years.
“We have won a victory so big that you can maybe see it from the moon, and certainly from Brussels,” Mr Orban told a cheering crowd of supporters on Sunday evening, taking a dig at the European Union, which he has long accused of pushing LGBTQ and migrant rights in defiance of the democratic will of Hungarian voters.
The preliminary results dashed the hopes of Mr Orban’s political enemies that an exceptionally united opposition camp could break the increasingly authoritarian grip of his ruling Fidesz party on the neighboring Central European nation. from Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking early Sunday in his capital, Kyiv, described Mr Orban as “virtually the only one in Europe who openly supports Mr Putin”.
Asked about Mr. Zelensky’s record after voting in Budapest on Sunday morning, Mr. Orban replied curtly: “Mr. Zelensky is not voting today. Thank you. Are there any other questions?”
President Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia, also a friend of Moscow, has ruled Serbia since 2012 and was due for re-election after rallying his nationalist and pro-Russian base by refusing to join the European Union by imposing sanctions on Russia. Serbia hopes to become a member of the European bloc, but its application has stalled.
An unusually high turnout in Serbia of almost 60% forced officials to keep polling stations open until late in the evening in some areas. Amid complaints of foul play by the opposition, the central election commission in the capital Belgrade said it would not release results until Monday morning.
But exit polls indicated Mr Vucic would win another term as president and his Serbian Progressive Party would retain its grip on parliament, albeit with a reduced majority. The opposition said it had taken control of Belgrade’s municipal government.
Hungary and Serbia have very different histories. Mr Orban governs a country which, until he came to power, viewed Russia with great suspicion because of its past suffering at Russian hands, including when Moscow sent troops to brutally crush an anti-communist uprising in 1956 However, the nation – Slavic Christian and Orthodox, like Russia – has long seen Moscow as its ally and protector.
But under the leadership of the two strongmen, both countries have over the past decade drastically reduced the space for critical media voices, turning national television stations into propaganda megaphones and moving towards a regime authoritarian. Each has cultivated close ties with Mr Putin, who supported the Hungarian leader’s election campaign when he visited Moscow in February, shortly before the invasion of Ukraine.
Serbia has refused to impose sanctions on Russia while Hungary, a member of the European Union since 2004, accepted a first round of European sanctions but strongly resisted their extension to include restrictions on imports of energy from Russia.
Unlike the leaders of neighboring Poland, previously a close ally of Mr. Orban due to their shared hostility to liberal values, the Hungarian leader has also refused to let weapons destined for Ukraine pass through his country.
Ahead of Hungary’s election, Mr Orban hit back to counter opposition accusations that his policy towards Ukraine had betrayed not only foreign allies but also Hungary’s painful memories in matter of aggression by Russia. Mr. Orban has mobilized the news media, most of which are controlled by the state and by friendly tycoons, to portray his opponents as warmongers bent on sending Hungarian troops to fight Russia. The election offered a “choice between war and peace”, pro-government media warned.
The campaign seems to have worked, even among some older voters who remember the suffering caused by troops from Moscow in 1956. “Why should Hungarian boys fight for Ukraine? asked Janos Dioszegi, who was 13 at the time of the Hungarian uprising and whose father was imprisoned for 14 years by Soviet-backed authorities for his role in the anti-Moscow uprising. He said “of course” he chose Mr Orban’s Fidesz party when he voted in Nagykovacsi, a small town near Budapest.
Echoing a line frequently heard in Fidesz-controlled media, Dioszegi said there was no need to help Ukraine defend itself because it had provoked the war by becoming “a military base for America”.
Until Mr. Putin sent troops to Ukraine on February 24, the centerpiece of Mr. Orban’s election campaign was an incendiary referendum, timed for parliamentary election day, on whether young children were to be taught in school about the treatment of gender transition surgery, and exposed to unrestricted sexually explicit material.
The war next door in Ukraine, however, has derailed Mr Orban’s efforts to get voters to focus on transgender and gay people, forcing a reboot focused on painting his opponents keen to lead Hungary at war.
When hundreds of pro-Ukrainian Hungarians and Ukrainian refugees gathered in central Budapest on Saturday to denounce the government’s stance on the war, the main state-controlled TV channel M1 called the event a “pro-war rally”. Anna Olishevska, a 24-year-old Ukrainian from Kyiv who participated, praised ordinary Hungarians who she says helped her after she fled across the border. More than 500,000 Ukrainians entered Hungary in the past month, far fewer than the more than two million who entered Poland, but still a large number for a country where venomous hostility towards foreign migrants has long been the cornerstone of the often xenophobic attitude of Mr. Orban. political platform.
Although delighted with her welcome to Hungary, Ms Olishevska said the government had been so hesitant to condemn Russia’s invasion and help Ukraine defend itself, that she is worried about staying in Hungary if M Orban won another term.
“I can’t stay in a country where the government supports Russia,” she said, waving a hand-painted sign telling Mr Putin where to plant his rockets.
Some prominent supporters of Mr Orban’s party even accused Ukraine of shedding blood in 1956, with historian and museum director Maria Schmidt falsely pretend on Saturday that Nikita S. Khrushchev, the Soviet leader who sent troops to Hungary that year, was Ukrainian. He was Russian. Ms Schmidt misrepresented the origins of the Soviet leader in response to a tweet from British comedian John Cleese, who urged Hungarian voters to wonder if it was Russia or Ukraine that invaded Hungary in 1956.
The blizzard of distortions and lies in Hungary’s Fidesz-controlled media has left opposition supporters in despair.
“They just repeat lies over and over again, day after day,” said Judit Barna, 81, a doctor, outside a polling station in central Budapest, where she had just voted for a united opposition ticket led by Peter Marki Zay, a small town conservative. mayor.
Referring to Mr. Orban’s early political career as an anti-Moscow instigator who, in 1989, demanded the departure of Soviet troops, she asked: “How is it possible, after 40 years of occupation Soviet Union and 30 years of democracy, that the same guy who once shouted, “Russians, go home” can now say that Russia is waging a just war in Ukraine? »
Thanks to Fidesz’s stranglehold on the media, she added: “Half the Hungarian population swallows all these lies. It is the shame of Hungary.