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Viktor Orban claims a 4th term and extends his autocratic rule in Hungary

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Hungary's prime minister, Viktor Orban, has won a fourth term in office. The populist leader faced an unprecedented challenge from a coalition of parties from the right and left that united to try to oust Orban from power. It did not work. NPR's Rob Schmitz is in Hungary's capital of Budapest. He joins us now. Rob, this election was predicted to be tight. Was it?

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: No, it was not. Orban's Fidesz party easily ran away with this, winning 135 seats in parliament, compared to just 56 seats for the opposition. In his victory speech, Orban said that Hungarians had voted with their hearts.

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PRIME MINISTER VIKTOR ORBAN: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: And, A, he's saying here that the victory will be remembered for the rest of their lives because they had to fight an overwhelming force - the left at home, the international left, the Brussels bureaucrats, the international mainstream media and even the Ukrainian president. And he's referring Volodymyr Zelenskyy's criticism of Orban for supporting Vladimir Putin at a time when the rest of the world is condemning the Russian leader.

MARTINEZ: Why was this such a landslide win for Orban?

SCHMITZ: Well, Orban's nationalist, far-right policies are popular throughout rural Hungary, which is home to the majority of voters. These are folks who attend church and see Western values as a threat to their traditional lifestyle. The other reason Orban won so easily was mentioned last night in a concession speech delivered by Peter Marki-Zay, the opposition candidate.

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PETER MARKI-ZAY: So we did everything right. And yet, the results show that after 12 years of brainwashing, Orban can always win any election in this country.

SCHMITZ: And he's referring here to how Orban and his party have gained control and influence over more than 90% of Hungary's legacy media. TV, radio and print news were essentially transformed into campaign instruments for Orban for the past couple of months. And many think this had a big impact on how people voted.

MARTINEZ: What does Orban's win mean for Hungary's future?

SCHMITZ: Well, it means that Hungary will continue to be Russia's best friend in the European Union. And it also means that Hungary will move further away from the EU. The EU is already cutting off some funding to Hungary. But Hungary still receives billions of dollars per year from the bloc. Political scientist Zoltan Gabor Szucs thinks this funding could now be at risk. But he's also concerned about what this landslide win will mean for Orban's hold on power.

ZOLTAN GABOR SZUCS: My biggest fear is that they will think that they should go on this road downward toward further autocratization. And if this is true, then they can carry on with their policies. And they can survive much worse economic situation.

SCHMITZ: And as it stands, Hungary's economy is suffering from Orban's relentless spending on new sports stadiums and big-ticket infrastructure projects. Russia's war next door in Ukraine and inflationary pressure could mean a bleak economic picture for Hungary.

MARTINEZ: How are people there in Budapest reacting to this news?

SCHMITZ: Well, yesterday, I spoke to a voter, Esther Myzovari (ph). She voted against Orban. But she told me she knew he was likely going to win anyway. Here's what she said she thought is now in store for her country.

ESTHER MYZOVARI: I think it means more people leaving the country, especially young people, less human rights, especially for minorities, women. But, yeah, definitely, we're going to move towards the East instead of West, I think.

SCHMITZ: And she says there that she thinks Hungary is going to move towards the East. What she means by that is that she thinks hunger will now align itself more with other autocracies, like China and Russia, and away from the democracies of Europe and the West.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Rob Schmitz joining us from Budapest. Rob, thanks.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.