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EU elections: No hard right turn in the east

June 10, 2024

Far-right parties in Eastern Europe did not do as well as predicted by the polls. Poland, Slovakia and Hungary delivered the biggest surprises, with Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban suddenly looking vulnerable.

A mass of cheering people hold hands with their arms upfifted while some Hungarian flags can be seen in the background
United against the Orban Machine: On Saturday, Hungarians showed up to cheer opposition leader Peter Magyar as he challenged Prime Minister Viktor OrbanImage: Bernadett Szabo/REUTERS

Austria, France, Germany, Italy and other EU member states all saw far-right parties making the biggest gains in Sunday's European parliamentary election. However, contrary to prevailing expectations, things turned out quite differently in the bloc's east — often seen as a stronghold of nationalists and right-wing populists such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and former Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

From the Baltics to Bulgaria, nationalists, right-wing extremists and anti-EU parties either lost votes or failed to meet projected outcomes. The only two countries, in which parties with ties to Hungary's Orban and his nationalist Fidesz party scored victories, were Slovenia and the Czech Republic.

The outcome of Sunday's vote was otherwise surprisingly diverse. In Hungary, Fidesz lost a substantial chunk of the vote for the first time in years, as newly minted challenger Peter Magyar took 30% of the tally with his Tisza party. In Poland, Prime Minister Donald Tusk's pro-European liberal-conservative Civic Coalition snagged first place. In Slovakia, a progressive party handily bested the right-wing nationalist SMER party of Prime Minister Robert Fico, who survived a recent assassination attempt. In Romania and Bulgaria, right-wing extremist and pro-Russian parties won fewer votes than expected or failed to pick-up new support.

A man in sunglasses, khakis and a white shirt (Peter Magyar) is surrounded by others as he holds a Hungarian flag
Newcomer Peter Magyar (center with flag) and his three-month-old Tisza party took 30% of the vote in HungaryImage: Bernadett Szabo/REUTERS

Hungary: Curtains for Orban in 2026?

The most notable result of Sunday's tallies were the losses suffered by Orban in the both the EU election and the Hungarian municipal elections. Sunday's was the first EU election, in which the right-wing nationalist alliance between  Fidesz and the smaller Christian Democratic People's Party (KDNP) failed to secure an outright majority — falling to 45%. Though Fidesz far outpaced all other parties, observers read the result as a slap in the face for Orban, who has been much more accustomed to success in the past.

Peter Magyar and the Tisza party, which was launched just weeks ago, grabbed 30% of the vote — by far the most votes for any opposition outfit since Orban came to power in 2010. Magyar, a Fidesz turncoat, spent years in well-paid jobs inside Orban's state apparatus before leaving the party and stepping into the public spotlight in February 2024. In many ways, he is staying loyal to Fidesz policies — for instance on migration — but he promises to execute them without the corruption and nepotism that have come to define the Orban machine, and has also vowed to cure the ills plaguing Hungary's health and education systems. And unlike Orban, Magyar is explicitly pro-European.

Orban was tight-lipped and defiant when commenting on the result. "We beat both the old and the new opposition and whatever the opposition of the day is called, we'll beat them again and again," he told supporters Sunday evening. Magyar, in contrast, predicted a change in power when Hungarian elections are held in 2026, proclaiming — "let the dance begin!"   

A suit and tie-wearing man with gray hair (Poland's Law and Justice Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski) puts a ballot in a ballot box as others, including journalists, are seen behind him
Sunday's vote result was a disappointment for Poland's right-wing nationalist Law and Justice Party and its leader Jaroslaw KaczynskiImage: Tomasz Gzell/EPA

Poland: PiS comes up short

In Poland, Prime Minister Donald Tusk's liberal-conservative Civic Platform (KO) defied expectations, taking 37% of the vote and securing a first place finish for the six-month-old governing coalition. Jaroslaw Kaczynski's right-wing nationalist Law and Justice Party (PiS), on the other hand, had to settle for second despite pre-election polls showing PiS — which governed from 2015 to 2023 — ahead.   

"We've shown that we are a ray of hope for Europe," said Tusk in the Polish capital Warsaw Sunday evening. "Over the next few months, Poland will decide what Europe will look like," added the prime minister, describing his country as a "leader in the EU." PiS boss Kaczynski was feisty after the vote, calling the result "a big challenge." Referring to Poland's national colors, he appealed to supporters to form what he called a "red-white front."

The poor performances put in by Tusk's smaller coalition partners, however, were a bit of a letdown for the prime minister. The centrist Third Way took only 7% of the vote and the Left only 6%; with both coming in behind the far-right nationalist alliance, Confederation Liberty and Independence, which won 13% of the tally, its best performance ever.

A seated man (Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico) looks into the camera as he speaks
Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico's far-right conspiracy theories blaming the opposition for a recent attempt on his life seem to have turned off votersImage: REUTERS

A Slovakian surprise

One of the biggest surprises of the night was the clear victory that the social-liberal Progressive Slovakia (PS) opposition party scored over Prime Minister Robert Fico's favored right-wing nationalist SMER party. SMER's negative rhetoric in the wake of the assassination attempt on the prime minister seems to have hurt its favorability among voters —  among other things, the campaign featured Fico spewing crazy right-wing extremist conspiracy theories blaming the opposition for the attack after he was released from the hospital.

In the Czech Republic, however, the liberal right-wing Action of Dissatisfied Citizens (ANO 2011) of billionaire former Prime Minister Andrej Babis, carried the day, winning 26% of the vote. ANO is part of Eastern Europe's right-wing nationalist camp, yet despite its predominantly anti-migrant bent it is not anti-European. Fast on ANO's heels was Prime Minister Petr Fiala's liberal-conservative, pro-EU governing coalition with 22%. Slovakia's right-wing extremist SPD only managed to convince half as many voters as it did in the 2019 EU and 2021 national elections, taking just 5% of the tally.  

A man in a blue suit (Bulgarian President Rumen Radev) casts a ballot as a group of people, many with cameras, observe him
Bulgaria was among a bloc of hard to define nationalist, yet pro-EU nations to cast ballots, as President Rumen Radev is seen doing hereImage: Lin Hao/Xinhua/IMAGO

Brussels won't be 'occupied' after all

In Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania, the victors were long-ruling parties and alliances whose outlooks can be extremely difficult to define. Although they are pro-European, they stake out conservative, nationally oriented positions. Among the winners, the Social Democratic Party of Romania (PSD), which entered an alliance with the National Liberal Party (PNL) for Sunday's vote. Although the right-wing pro-Russian Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR) managed to pick up votes, its 14% was far less than predicted. In fact, right-wing parties were unable to make electoral breakthroughs in any of the three countries.

Sunday's results generally show that there was no lurch to the right in Eastern Europe. And that the self-proclaimed leader of the region's "Sovereignists," Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, fell woefully short of achieving his goal of "conquering Brussels and turning it on its head" — not only because he and his party performed so poorly, but also because he simply has no weighty allies in Central and Eastern Europe.  

This article was translated from German by Jon Shelton

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Keno Verseck Editor, writer and reporter