Frum: And that united opposition included Jobbik, usually regarded in the United States as an outright neofascist party.
Petho: Yes, Jobbik also stood behind that candidate. Jobbik is a difficult case. In recent years they tried to reposition themselves as a more moderate party. Some of the hardliners were purged but there are still some radical members. Now even some on the left argue that in order to defeat Orbán, it is okay to work with Jobbik as well.
Frum: The larger question—to what extent is Orbán still checkable by electoral means? Or has he found the path to escape democratic accountability without going all the way to abolishing democratic processes?
Petho: The election in Hódmezővásárhely showed that Fidesz can still be defeated. That could have given optimism for those who were afraid that democracy was already over. We’ll see what happens during the upcoming election. We know that observers from OSCE (an international body overseeing democratic institutions in Europe ) had serious concerns at the previous elections in 2014. They are here again. We’ll see what they say.
Frum: If Fidesz suffers losses on April 8, will Orbán leave power? Or will external pressure be required to compel him to accept defeat?
Petho: He said several times that he lost elections in the past and he would in the future as well. That implied that he knows that he won’t be in power forever. Since the regime change, the transition of power has always been in order. I think everybody hopes that this would stay like that.
Frum: Yet the polls indicate Orbán is not likely to lose.
Petho: Yes, the electoral math is in his favor. The opposition is still very fragmented in most electoral districts and that is a huge help for Fidesz.
Frum: If Orbán rules four more years in the way he has ruled since 2010, how much further can he move Hungary away from democracy?
Petho: I don’t like to speculate but I don’t think that the current direction will change. At some points in the past eight years, some senior government officials sometimes said that okay, we went too far, we broke so many things, now we need to calm down and consolidate things. But this consolidation never happened. And I think the government entered a spiral with the rhetoric on refugees and migrants and also on Soros that it will be hard to get out from.
Frum: The United States formerly spoke against Orbán’s authoritarianism. That seems to have ceased, in private as well as in public. Has the presidency of Donald Trump enhanced Orbán’s feelings of impunity?
Petho: After the election of Trump, the Orbán government and its supporters definitely felt emboldened. Then it changed a little, especially after they saw the U.S.’s response to the government’s plans to shut down CEU, the Budapest-based university founded by George Soros. Lately, Hungarian government officials seem to be more upbeat about the relations with the U.S. But to be honest, I don’t know yet where it’s going.