The vote — easily the most consequential since Hungary’s post-communist transition — was widely seen as a reflection on the state of democracy and the rule of law in a European Union member state that in recent years has been sliding toward autocracy. The result — coming in an election with high turnout — quashed any hopes of an opposition presence in a country that has essentially been a one-party state for nearly a decade.
In the past eight years in power, Orban — in two consecutive terms as prime minister — has enacted drastic changes to Hungary’s constitution, attempted to dismantle its system of checks and balances, and sought to silence his critics, notably in the Hungarian media.
On Sunday night, Orban appeared in Budapest to declare victory. “There is a big battle behind us,” he said, speaking at the Fidesz campaign headquarters. “We have won. Today Hungary had a decisive victory. We have the chance to defend Hungary.”
The election was a crushing defeat for left-leaning opposition leaders, who had rallied in recent weeks to try to curb Orban’s power in what polls had long predicted would be a win for a third consecutive term in power. They had hoped for a larger presence in parliament, which might then halt Orban's aim of transforming Hungary into what he has called an “illiberal democracy.”
“We are very happy for the high turnout. We hoped that it would help those citizens who want change, but looking at the final results, it has become clear they are below our expectations,” said Gergely Karacsony, the Socialist Party’s candidate for prime minister. “There is no defeat, no slap in the face, from which we cannot recover.”
As he cast his ballot, Orban couched the election in existential terms: “What’s at stake is Hungary’s future,” he said.
Orban’s reelection represented a victory for the European far right. Since the terrorist attacks of 2015, his central message has been the demonization of migrants. But his 2018 campaign also resonated on a more historical level: it was the first time since World War II that a European head of state ran — and won — on a platform that held a Jewish financier responsible for a nation’s perceived ills.
The central figure in Orban’s anti-migrant tirades has been George Soros, the Hungarian-born American billionaire and liberal philanthropist who has funded Budapest’s Central European University and many of the nongovernmental organizations the current prime minister seeks to close. A caricature of Soros’s face adorns negative campaign posters across the country, and Orban likened a legislative promise to crack down on the types of organizations the billionaire funds as the “Stop Soros” bill.
But the language Orban has used throughout this year’s campaign has gone far beyond the specific influence of Soros. His rhetoric has repeated word-for-word the anti-Jewish cliches that were once a mainstay of European political life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“We are fighting an enemy that is different from us,” he said in a March campaign speech in Budapest. “Not open but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world.”
Hungary is a society where the conspiracy theory remains a powerful concept, and Orban’s choice of Soros tapped into a deep reservoir of underlying suspicions, political analysts said.
“Hungarians are used to thinking that there are dark figures pulling the strings behind historical process,” said Kristóf Szombati, a political scientist and the author of a forthcoming book on contemporary right-wing politics in Hungary. During 50 years of communist rule, he noted, neither what was visible nor what was said could ever be believed, a memory that has lingered in the collective understanding.
“What’s going on is behind the curtains, and that’s what we have to be thinking about to understand our politics,” he said. “Orban plays into this with all his talk about Brussels, and the figure of Soros serves the same role, of bringing this kind of conspiracy back to life.”
Almost immediately after the results were announced, a climate of fear descended on Hungarian nongovernmental organizations and liberal actors—the same type of people against whom Orban had vowed during the campaign to “seek amends” if reelected.
On Sunday, government representative Zoltán Kovács told Index, a leading Hungarian news outlet, when asked about whether Fidesz would pass the “Stop-Soros” law package if it wins the majority: “Those organizations that want to influence Hungarian politics unlawfully need to be closed down.”
Following the results, Júlia Iván, director of Amnesty International Hungary, issued a statement of concern on the organization’s website.
“In recent years, the government has tried to pull back civil rights organizations as much as it could,” she wrote.
“However hostile the government propaganda is, whatever legislation they pass, we will keep fighting for a Hungary where everybody is entitled to the same respect and rights. We will continue to be loud critics of the government. . . . We won’t let anybody who raises his voice to be intimidated.”
Throughout the day on Sunday, voters waited in long lines to cast their ballots.
For some voters — even those who saw no viable alternative — the point was to limit the party’s power by any available means. To that end, this election — compared with Orban’s victories in 2010 and 2014 — was widely seen as a battle over the country’s democratic future.
“What they are doing with the rule of law, with democratic institutions, they’re taking everything away from the people,” said Frazsina Nagy, 28, a lawyer in Budapest, after she cast her ballot.
“The situation is terrifying,” said Lilla Szalay, 37, a psychologist, who stood with her young daughter after voting in a Budapest school. “Everybody wants to go abroad. If things stay this way, we will have to go abroad, too — and I don’t want to.”
But for many others, Orban’s reelection was a necessary sacrifice to protect a country — and a society — they see as under siege, even if they do not always approve of Orban’s bluster.
Gabor Csorba, 48, a church finance officer, said that he did not approve of certain aspects of Orban’s personality and rhetoric but that he voted for the incumbent anyway.
“It’s better this kind of society will continue or else there will be instability ahead,” he said after casting his ballot at the same polling place as Orban, a precinct on the “Buda” side of the Danube River.
“I don’t see any program from the opposition,” he added, noting that he has been a Fidesz voter since the 1990s, after Hungary’s post-communist transition.
For others, there is the enduring appeal of Orban’s strongman personality. “He is the only one who has some spirit,” said Zsuzsa Dessewffy, 68, a producer with Echo television, a channel owned by Lorinc Meszaros, an oligarch with ties to Fidesz.
“The other side has had eight years to find someone with that kind of spirit.”
Andras Petho and Blanka Zoldi in Budapest contributed to this report.