This piece was written by Zsuzsanna Vegh and Bret Schafer with support from Logically AI.
Hungary is holding parliamentary elections on April 3 that will decide whether the Fidesz-led Orbán government continues in office for a fourth consecutive term, or if the now united, six party opposition wins the chance to form a government. With unprecedented polarization both in Hungarian politics and society, the election campaign was expected to be filled with political and ideological clashes instead of policy debates. Developments in 2021 already set the scene for narratives built around scapegoating, false accusations, and often blatant disinformation to shape public discourse in the run-up to the elections. Russia’s war in Ukraine, however, significantly altered expectations and dominated the political landscape from late February on, though some previously foreseen topics remain on the agenda, albeit with lower-than-expected intensity.
The War in Ukraine
Speaking to a crowd of supporters on the March 15 national holiday commemorating Hungary’s 1848 revolution, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán staked out his government’s position on the war. He stressed that the country should not become a pawn in “someone else’s war” that risks putting Hungarians between a “Ukrainian anvil and a Russian hammer.” As is often the case with Orbán, he danced between and around allegiances, stopping short of denouncing Russian aggression, while stating that “the United States and Brussels will not think with a Hungarian head or feel with a Hungarian heart.” Orbán’s appeal to Hungarians’ deeply rooted sense of victimization at the hands of external and historical forces should come as no surprise. It has long been a staple of his populist rhetoric to frame Brussels as a more existential threat than Moscow. But Orbán, ever adaptable and opportunistic, also defined an existential threat closer to home: the opposition.
In his March 15 speech, Orbán suggested that the “left wing”—a catchall used to describe the opposition despite its composition of small political parties across the political spectrum—had “lost their common sense” and would “sleepwalk” the country into a “bloody war.” This framing presented voters with a seemingly stark choice between what Orbán termed the “pro-peace right or pro-war left.” It’s a message that had clearly become the unofficial narrative of choice in public and pro-government media since the early days of the war, as Fidesz-friendly outlets sought to reframe the conversation from one questioning the wisdom of the government’s eastward turn over the last decade to one questioning the opposition’s alleged prioritization of an external agenda over the lives of Hungarians. To make that case, pro-government outlets and social media accounts under the Megafon umbrella—a pro-government network that claims to amplify the voices of conservatives on social media—repeatedly distorted comments made by opposition candidate Peter Márki-Zay, twisting his promise to fulfill Hungary’s NATO obligations into a desire to “plunge” Hungary into war. For his part, Márki-Zay lobbed counteraccusations at Orbán, mistakenly accusing him of already sending weapons to Ukraine.
The fact that a war in a nearby country has become a political football is hardly surprising. What is surprising is that being perceived as being too supportive of Kyiv, not Moscow, is seemingly the greater political liability.
LGBTQ+ Issues and the Referendum
The rising salience of gender issues in public discourse, orchestrated by the incumbent government to mobilize its base, seeded the ground for LGBTQ+ issues to take center stage in Fidesz’s campaign. In 2021, the governing majority adopted a law that originally was framed as anti-pedophile/child protection legislation. But with amendments added at the eleventh hour, the legislation took on homophobic undertones, as the language of the amendments blurred the distinction between pedophiles and the LGBTQ+ minority. A referendum initiated by the government and scheduled for election day now serves to further dramatize the issue and is being used by Fidesz as an opportunity to pose as the protector of children from the “LGBTQ+ lobby” that is allegedly promoting “ homosexual propaganda” and gender conversion to minors.
Supported by conservative family organizations and once seen as one of the dominant election narratives, its visibility declined in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine before surfacing again as a key campaign topic towards the end of March. Opposition parties overall have largely shied away from the topic of the referendum, leaving human rights organizations to advocate against the referendum and its discriminatory language.
The Return of Gyurcsány
In 2021, six opposition parties announced that in order to better their chances to oust Fidesz and avoid the fragmentation of the opposition vote in the elections, they would field joint candidates in the 106 electoral districts of Hungary and run on a joint national party ticket led by a common prime minister (PM) candidate. To facilitate this, the parties organized pre-elections in autumn 2021, where the independent Péter Márki-Zay was elected as the joint PM candidate. Despite this result, the governing parties—and the pro-government media under the umbrella of the Central European Press and Media Foundation—claim that the real leader of the opposition is Ferenc Gyurcsány, a former prime minister and leader of the Democratic Coalition party.
Fidesz refused a debate between Márki-Zay and Orbán, claiming that Márki-Zay is not the real leader of the opposition. This message was also promoted by a government-aligned organization, Civil Unity Forum (CÖF), via both an extensive video and billboard campaign in February depicting Márki-Zay as “mini Feri” (short for Ferenc and a play on the Austin Powers franchise) and a billboard campaign in March with the message that Márki-Zay is “100% Gyurcsány.” In March, it was also alleged that former prime minister Gordon Bajnai had hand-selected Márki-Zay as the joint candidate.
Fidesz and its media apparatus argue that an opposition victory would mean the return of the much-maligned Gyurcsány era of the 2000s. Various “influencers” funded on Facebook by the organization Megafon, the aforementioned pro-government network of social media influencers, also played a significant role in equating Márki-Zay with Gyurcsány and conducting a campaign distorting opposition messages in the weeks before the elections.
It is a contrived narrative, of course, but according to an analysis conducted by Logically AI, a technology company working to tackle misinformation and disinformation, it seemed to resonate: In the week after Orbán’s speech, the top narrative in online political conversations about the election was a fear of the socialists’ return to power.
Allegations of prospective foreign interference in Hungary’s elections started to appear in the governing party’s political discourse starting in late 2021. In November 2021, Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó claimed that the United States wanted to interfere int Hungary’s elections, and in February he reiterated that very harsh foreign interference is expected in the elections. After the OSCE ODIHR called for a full mission to be deployed to Hungary to monitor the elections, Justice Minister Judit Varga noted that the observers will witness clean and democratic elections so long as they do not interfere with it—hinting that it may be a possibility.
Meanwhile, the pro-government daily newspaper Magyar Nemzet ran a smear campaign against non-governmental organizations, journalists, and political and social analysts in February and March that claimed to showcase how George Soros—the bête noire of Orbán and his supporters-—is malignly influencing Hungarian politics through his network. Secret recordings shared to discredit opposition voices were apparently obtained under false pretext and were presented without context, as the investigative portal Átlátszó subsequently discovered. These pieces, however, were picked up not only by other pro-government outlets; even the government’s official channel amplified the message. The anti-Soros campaign continued with the release of a short movie on Soros by a Megafon influencer and reporter of the pro-government Pesti TV, Dániel Bohár, that claims to expose the true Soros for the first time.
As the war escalated in Ukraine and clashes between Ukrainian and Hungarian government officials over Hungary’s equivocation in its support for Ukraine became more frequent and harsher, a Fidesz politician claimed that Kyiv, not Moscow, was interfering in the elections. And on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Peter Szijjártó went as far as to allege that the opposition made a pact with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to deliver weapons to Ukraine if the opposition wins.
Coincidentally or otherwise, this rhetoric coincided with an exposé published the same day from independent Hungarian outlet Direkt36 that revealed that Szijarto, who was awarded the Order of Friendship by the Russian government in 2021, had known for years that Russian intelligence had hacked into and remained active within the IT systems of the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.