Though Joe Biden will pay closer attention to Hungarian illiberalism than Donald Trump did, his election is unlikely to change Viktor Orbán’s behaviour drastically. Yet the Hungarian Prime Minister’s narrative suffered a major setback.
On November 7, after five days of counting, CNN, the BBC, and the AP news agency finally made the call. Joe Biden was elected President of the United States of America.
After the announcement, jubilant crowds swarmed major cities across the United States. The mood was similarly, if not even more, celebratory on this side of the Atlantic, too. Shortly after CNN’s call, various European leaders, including Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel were swift to send their congratulations.
The V4 leaders also congratulated the President-elect quickly, but with a notable exception. While Igor Matovic, Andrej Babis, and Andrzej Duda quickly put out a statement regarding Biden’s victory, Viktor Orbán waited until the next morning.
Does Viktor Orbán have a Plan B?
Though he eventually congratulated the President-Elect on his “successful campaign,” there was a significant delay in the Hungarian Prime Minister’s response. This is relatively unsurprising given that Orbán and other Fidesz politicians clearly endorsed Donald Trump before the election.
Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó even urged Joe Biden to explain his son’s alleged involvement in a Ukrainian corruption scandal after the Democrat criticised the authoritarian nature of the Hungarian and Polish governments. Viktor Orbán himself famously told Reuters that he did not have a Plan B in case Trump does not get reelected.
The Fidesz-affiliated media remained loyal to Donald Trump, even after it became obvious that he had lost. Broadcast channel TV2 and the moderate wing of the pro-government media apparatus, Mandiner, quickly started to push President Trump’s baseless claims of electoral fraud. While TV2 labelled the overwhelmingly Democrat-leaning mail-in ballots “suspicious,” Mandiner shared an article claiming to show the “three ways you can cheat in the US election.”
The most well-read pro-government news site, Origo, and the state media has also been pushing the same narrative. National broadcaster M1 stressed that there will be a recount in several states and that declaring a clear winner is premature. According to the conservative weekly, Magyar Hang, M1 journalists were specifically instructed not to call the election.
This coherent narrative across their media outlets makes it likely that Fidesz’s communications machine will exploit President Trump’s reluctance to concede in the next few months to further undermine the belief in liberal democracies.
If one only watches the Fidesz media’s coverage of the American elections, the United States comes across as a country where the liberal candidate won possibly by cheating, and even if not, a country that quickly descends into chaos after an election, unlike the calm and professional Hungary. The undermining of Joe Biden’s democratic legitimacy also serves the purpose of discrediting any potential criticism the new president may express regarding the rule of law in Hungary.
And that criticism is likely to come sooner or later.
More room for manoeuvre?
Although Joe Biden will have little room for manoeuvre to tackle Hungarian illiberalism, his administration will certainly be paying attention to Hungary. According to rumours, Biden is planning to appoint his advisor, Anthony Blinken, the son of a former Hungarian ambassador, who has Hungarian heritage himself, as either Secretary of State or White House National Security Advisor.
Therefore, if a concrete institution with deep ties to the American state becomes the next target of the Orbán regime, as was the case with CEU, it is likely that Joe Biden and his team would put up a more serious fight than their predecessors did.
Three years ago, the series of attacks on the American affiliated Central European University, that ended with the prestigious institution’s departure for Vienna, were largely successful in a huge part thanks to the complete indifference of the Donald Trump administration. The President could have put significant pressure on Orbán and would have likely been able to prevent the University’s departure had he wished to do so.
If something similar were to happen to, say, an American affiliated NGO, Biden would likely be more proactive than his predecessor and could secure minor but practical victories in Hungary.
Ultimately, it is highly unlikely that there will be a significant change in Orbán’s tendency to implement authoritarian policies in the wake of Biden’s election. After all, the underpinning ideology in his illiberalism is a rebellion against the western liberal establishment, which Joe Biden clearly represents.
Besides, if even the EU, which, in theory, would have legal ways to counter Orbán’s undemocratic decisions, was unable and often unwilling to stop Hungary’s descent into illiberalism, it is unlikely that the leadership of a country on the other side of the Atlantic, with various other foreign policy priorities, would do so.
It is nevertheless worth bearing in mind that, unlike Germany, the United States has little economic dependence on Hungary, therefore it would have more room to criticise authoritarian measures in the country.
Can right-wing populists be beaten?
Viktor Orbán was not the only Hungarian politician who followed the election closely. His opposition was also watching eagerly. Budapest mayor Gergely Karácsony may have been the first Hungarian politician to react to Biden’s election, stating that “Trump was good for the Orbán-government, Biden will be good for Hungary”, but two other opposition figures, József Pálinkás and Péter Márki-Zay were likely to have been the happiest.
As the United Opposition prepares to choose their Prime Ministerial Candidate next year, the two conservative politicians will likely claim that Biden’s victory shows that right-wing populism can be defeated by a moderate, centre-right or centrist candidate who is willing to show compromise. With or without Pálinkás or Márki-Zay, the Opposition might have found the final ingredient to their 2022 recipe by studying the American election.
And that is where Viktor Orbán’s greatest threat lies. For Orbán, Biden’s election is not bad news because of the new president’s commitment to liberal democracy. It is bad news because Donald Trump lost.
The Hungarian Prime Minister has consistently portrayed illiberalism not as a successful Hungarian version of far-right politics, but as a logical step in the intellectual history of international Christian Conservatism. In Orbán’s mind, he was the torchbearer at the forefront of the march of illiberalism across the globe, while Trump was the most prominent figure of the cause.
With the latter losing, the international conquest of illiberalism suffered a major setback. Now, the whole world knows that right-wing populists can be beaten. Worryingly for Orbán, that includes the people of Hungary as well.
By Ábel Bede
Ábel Bede was born in Budapest and is currently studying History at Durham University. He wrote his dissertation on early 20th century Hungarian politics and culture and published several pieces in prominent Hungarian newspapers. Feel free to check out more of his articles right here!