How Ukraine Is Upending European Politics

The war is dominating elections in Hungary and France.

The Hungarian and French leaders address journalists
Antoine Gyori / Corbis / Getty

Europe is about to hold two major elections: In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has ruled the country for the past 12 years, and Hungarian democracy itself are on the ballot; in France, voters will decide between Emmanuel Macron and a new, likely more extreme leadership.

Under normal circumstances, such contests would be nationally focused affairs driven by domestic factors such as the economy, immigration, and the response to the pandemic. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has changed all of that. Suddenly, the French election has become about who can best lead the country through Europe’s first major war in decades. In Hungary, an election that would have determined the country’s path toward further autocracy or liberal democracy has been overshadowed by talk of war and peace and East versus West.

The war in Ukraine has entirely upended European politics: Germany is abandoning taboos against defense spending, Finland and Sweden are rethinking their stance toward Russia and NATO, and Poland is transforming itself from pariah to partner in Brussels. The two upcoming elections offer additional signs of how the continent’s residents—already affected by increasing energy prices and millions of refugees fleeing Ukraine—are responding to a war that seems unlikely to end anytime soon.

The most immediate outcome will be seen in Hungary, which goes to the polls today. For months, this election was largely framed as a referendum on Orbán, the greatest challenge to his rule in more than a decade. Unlike in previous elections, when he faced a mostly fractured opposition, this time Orbán is contending with a coalition of six parties that have banded together with the explicit goal of unseating him. In the opposition’s telling, this was an election about saving Hungarian democracy from Orbán’s autocratic impulses. For Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party, it was about preserving Hungary as a defender of traditional values and preventing interference from the so-called international left.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, kicking off a continental crisis and sending millions of Ukrainian refugees into neighboring countries, including Hungary, both Orbán and his opponents had to quickly adapt their messaging. “The war in Ukraine completely transformed the electoral campaign,” András Bíró-Nagy, the director of the Policy Solutions think tank in Budapest, told me. The opposition capitalized on Orbán’s status as Vladimir Putin’s last friend in Europe; the prime minister has sought to strike a balance between supporting the European consensus on Ukraine and not burning bridges with Moscow. As a result, Hungarian voters are now faced with “two competing narratives,” Bíró-Nagy said. While the opposition tries to characterize the election as a choice between aligning Hungary with Russia and aligning it with NATO and the West, “Orbán is desperately trying to reframe the events around the need for peace and security of the Hungarian people in such turbulent times.” The prime minister has ruled out supplying arms to Ukraine or allowing Ukraine-bound weapons to pass through Hungary, in contrast to many of his European partners. He has also rejected calls for an embargo on Russian energy supplies, citing a potential impact on Hungarian families.

These positions have made Orbán something of a pariah in Europe, and have isolated Hungary from its traditional allies in Poland and the Czech Republic, whose defense ministers refused to attend a meeting with their Hungarian counterpart last week over Budapest’s stance on Ukraine. Orbán’s careful balancing act even earned direct condemnation from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who challenged Orbán to “decide who you are with.” (The Hungarian government subsequently accused the Ukrainian government of seeking to influence the election.)

But as far as the election is concerned, Orbán’s strategy just might work. Fidesz has maintained a slim lead over the opposition, according to recent polls. The fact that the Hungarian electoral system is already gerrymandered in Fidesz’s favor (not to mention Orbán’s disproportionate control over the country’s media and state funds) makes the prospect of an upset unlikely. And because of the uncertainty surrounding the war, “people will choose the devil they know,” István Kiss, the executive director of Budapest’s conservative Danube Institute and a former Fidesz adviser, told me.

Ukraine is similarly dominating the electoral narrative in France, though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from being there. Although the first round of the contest is only a week away, “it feels like there is no presidential campaign going on in France right now,” Georgina Wright, the director of the Europe program at Paris’s Institut Montaigne, told me. Just as in Hungary, “Ukraine has completely overshadowed the election.”

Although French voters rarely go to the polls with foreign policy at the front of their mind, the war has managed to buck this trend, owing at least in part to the fact that France has played a leading role in the West’s diplomatic wrangling with Russia. Macron not only traveled to Moscow in the weeks ahead of the war, in a last-ditch (and ultimately fruitless) effort to stave off a Russian invasion, but he has since fielded dozens of calls from both Putin and Zelensky in pursuit of a diplomatic resolution. Because of Russia’s role as a major continental gas supplier, the war will have a huge impact on European economies. “The French are looking at who can lead them through this crisis,” Wright said, “and there’s a sense that Macron is probably the only person able to do that.”

It helps that Macron is perhaps the only viable candidate who hasn’t been seen as too sympathetic to the Kremlin or its talking points. Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader who has reprised her role as Macron’s main rival, has made no secret of her affinity for Putin or of his investments in her previous campaigns. Despite her condemnation of the invasion, a photo of Le Pen with Putin still features in her campaign brochures. Meanwhile, the ascendant far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has long advocated for France to withdraw from NATO, has had to walk back comments playing down the threat posed by Moscow.

Still, the polls are projecting a smaller margin of victory for Macron in a rematch with Le Pen compared with their 2017 runoff, which is indicative of how the French president’s appeal has worn off after five years in power.

Just as the war in Ukraine has affected these elections, their outcomes will invariably affect Ukraine too—specifically on how Europe responds to the crisis there, whether it maintains the status quo or shifts its policy. Macron winning would represent a victory for those who have advocated for a stronger Europe, a position of his that has largely been vindicated by the Russian invasion. And should Orbán retain power, as is likely, that would signal further challenges for European consensus on Russia, particularly when it comes to reducing the continent’s reliance on Russian oil and gas.