Hungary In 2024: Two Elections And An EU Presidency – Analysis

An improving economy and the chance to strut the European stage during Hungary’s EU presidency will give Orban a lift in 2024. The icing on the cake would be a Trump win in November.

By Edit Inotai

If 2023 was a year of survival for Hungary’s Fidesz-led government, then 2024 will test the opposition’s endurance – both politically and socially – as Viktor Orban enjoys the limelight.

In 2023, Prime Minister Orban’s nationalist-populist government endured hard times, challenged by skyrocketing inflation, economic stagnation and growing international isolation, though it did not have to contend with any risk to its tight grip on power. 2024 will show whether the opposition to Orban can make any inroads, or whether the country will slide even further in an authoritarian direction, with no reasonable alternative to the current regime.

Yet no matter how much Orban emphasises what he calls Hungary’s “sovereignty”, it will rather be major international developments that will have a more lasting impact on his real room for manoeuvre.

Hungary will celebrate 25 years of NATO and 20 years of EU membership in 2024, but the significance of these historic milestones will be downplayed by the government as they don’t fit into Orban’s newly coined vision of “connectivity” – an economic model that it claims offers an alternative to both the neoliberal world order and the model of globalisation based on international blocs.

The government will continue its crusade against the EU (and, to a lesser extent, NATO), arguing that Hungary should be a bridge between the West and the East, rather than a faithful member of such “blocs”. Orban is unlikely to distance himself from Russia or China, and even though Hungary is gradually reducing its dependence on Russian fossil fuels, no radical change in either foreign and energy policy is expected.

Two elections

There will be two elections in 2024 – local and European, both to be held on June 9 – but neither will pose much of a threat to Orban’s power structure.

Hungary’s opposition – crushed, divided and probably in its worst-ever shape – would sigh with relief if it managed to retain the few bastions that it conqueredin 2019. It will be the moment of truth for opposition parties, and the last chance to hammer out a strategy ahead of the 2026 general election – or succumb to Fidesz rule until 2030 (or perhaps even beyond).

The local elections are likely to further aggravate society’s polarisation and widen the gap between cosmopolitan Budapest and the countryside. In Budapest, the green-leftist mayor, Gergely Karacsony, is expected to be re-elected. Fidesz has so far not even nominated a candidate, a sign the ruling party is concerned over whether to expose any of its heavyweights to almost-certain humiliation.

Away from Budapest, the unity of opposition parties tends to crumble and the smaller the settlement, the higher the chances of a Fidesz victory.

A fierce battle could be fought out in the Fidesz stronghold of Debrecen, Hungary’s second largest city, which is the centre of the government’s ambitious reindustrialisation project and home to two controversial Chinese battery factories. Here, the formerly unbeatable Fidesz mayor Laszlo Papp could face an uphill battle to rally support from disappointed voters. An eventual loss of Debrecen could make a dent in Fidesz’s overall popularity and force the government to rethink its aggressive industrial policy.

No major surprises are expected in the European elections, which Fidesz will undoubtedly win (probably by a landslide), with opposition parties settling for one or at most two MEPs. Orban will once again claim to be Europe’s preeminent leader, in power for 13 years thanks to the uniquely unfair electoral system and lack of a level playing field in campaign finance.

The European elections are likely to redraw the political map of Europe, though probably not as much as Orban hopes. Although anti-EU forces may gain votes, no breakthrough is likely, with the biggest European party groupings – the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, with a fading Renew Europe – are expected to hold on to their majority.

The government is hoping for a strong shift to the far right, in which case Fidesz would consider joining the far-right Identity and Democracy grouping in the European Parliament (or, the less-radical European Conservatives and Reformists). It would be a big step down from being a member of Europe’s largest party family, the EPP, but sitting in the Non-Aligned Group – barred from holding office and with limited speaking time – does not fit well with Orban’s grand vision and only reinforces the notion of him being a European outcast.

EU presidency

The second half of 2024, however, presents Orban with a golden opportunity to stamp his mark on the EU: from July 1 to the end of 2024, Hungary will hold the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, putting it in charge of the EU’s policy-making process for six months.

The Hungarian presidency will be criticised and scrutinised as the country’s administrators and political heavyweights do their utmost to prove they can act as “honest brokers”.

Hungary will take over at a turbulent time, right after the formation of the new European Parliament and amid negotiations on the make-up of new European Commission. Yet most key decisions will still be taken in European capitals, leaving little room for Orban to interfere and undermine.

On an administrative and technical level, the Hungarian presidency will seek to deliver on its agenda while toning down its political differences with the bloc, but Orban will take every opportunity to put himself centre stage and punch above his weight. At the same time, his fiercest critics will seize any opportunity to try to tarnish the presidency’s image and boycott any event designed to boost Hungary’s image. It could get ugly.

Orban’s moment of truth in international affairs will come in November, when the US presidential election takes place. If, as seems increasingly likely, Donald Trump – Orban’s ideological friend and political ally – returns triumphantly to the White House, this would be a huge fillip for Orban on the global stage.

The corollary is that if Trump fails, it could necessitate a serious reassessment of Orban’s foreign policy and a desperate search for new allies: elections in Austria in the autumn could bring the far-right FPO to power and strengthen the Hungarian-Austrian axis, perhaps coupled with Slovakia, now led by fellow populist Robert Fico.

Orban will try to make gestures to rekindle the old Polish-Hungarian friendship and breathe life into the moribund Visegrad Group, or V4, but his efforts are expected to be largely in vein.

Economic woes to the fore

On the economic front, the country survived a major economic scare in 2023 as GDP in the first three quarters fell 1.2% year-on-year owing to very weak domestic demand and a deficit that is forecasted at 5.6% for the year mainly due to lower consumption tax revenues amid higher expenditure from inflation-related spending and the interest bill.

Yet this left Fidesz and its popularity surprisingly unscathed – and 2024 looks more promising for Orban: inflation has been tamed and growth is expected to return in 2024. With a third of the frozen EU funds unblocked in December, Orban should be able to launch some long-overdue projects, such as gradual pay rises for teachers and fresh investment into the ailing healthcare sector, although some experts worry it will be too little, too late to turn the tide.

The government will revert to its previous carrot-and-stick approach, rewarding those who are close to the government and punishing those who step out of line or openly criticise the system.

The new Sovereignty Protection Law will be put to the test, potentially stripping the opposition of funding and intimidating critical NGOs (perhaps even also the media) with accusations of ‘undermining’ sovereignty. The law will be challenged before the Court of Justice of the European Union and is likely to be found in breach of EU law – but until the verdict is in, it could have a chilling effect on critical voices.