‘Waiting for Trump’: Viktor Orbán hopes US election will change his political fortunes

<span>Orbán with Trump at the former president’s Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida last month.</span><span>Photograph: Zoltán Fischer/Hungarian Prime Minister's Office/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Orbán with Trump at the former president’s Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida last month.Photograph: Zoltán Fischer/Hungarian Prime Minister's Office/AFP/Getty Images

Europe’s most isolated leader was beaming.

Standing in a hallway in Brussels, Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister, spoke excitedly about the politician he hopes will change his political fortunes – Donald Trump.

The longtime leader, who has been widely criticised for undermining Hungary’s democratic institutions and cultivating ties with Moscow and Beijing, has been busy building an international far-right network of political allies, from Brazil to Austria.

His strategy, experts say, centres on the bet that nationalist and far-right forces are on the rise. And at the core of his calculus is the wager that change is coming in Washington DC.

Approached by the Guardian this month as he was rushing after a meeting with Polish and French nationalists, Orbán, who rarely speaks to independent media, stopped to defend his foreign policy choices – and cheer for Trump.

Asked about his recent trip to the US – where he visited the former American president in Florida but did not meet with any US administration officials – Orbán said that “our strategy is connectivity”.

“We have to have good relations and friendship with everybody,” the prime minister insisted.

Addressing concerns that Budapest was very isolated, he dismissed the question as a “leftist interpretation of foreign policy which is totally fake”.

Pressed on criticism that the relationship between the US and Hungary was at a 30-year low, he enthusiastically responded: “Waiting for Donald Trump!”

Orbán’s embrace of the former US president – and conspiracy theories that paint Washington as meddling in Hungarian domestic politics – can be felt in the streets of Budapest, where people walk by billboards depicting opposition figures with dollar signs.

And the prime minister’s narrative about the US – echoed in government-controlled media outlets – is resonating with some voters.

Trump and Orbán are “big friends”, said László, a refuse collector, in Budapest’s city park one afternoon. “It’s exactly right, in terms of interests, politically,” he said. It was “clear” that a Trump presidency would be better for Hungary than a Joe Biden win, he added.

Related: US ambassador hits out at Hungary’s ‘unhinged anti-American messaging’

Sitting at a nearby picnic table, 79-year-old Ferenc also praised the former American president. Biden and his party “love the war”, he said. “That’s the business, they are pro-war.”

Orbán has repeatedly called for a ceasefire in Ukraine, accusing western capitals of prolonging the war and arguing that Kyiv cannot win.

In a study by the Globsec thinktank last year, Hungarians were asked which countries they consider to be Hungary’s two most important strategic partners. Only 17% of respondents selected the US.

Another poll, by the Budapest-based Political Capital Institute, found that 22% of Hungarians believe common disinformation narratives about America.

David Pressman, the US ambassador in Budapest, has raised concerns about the Hungarian government’s approach.

In a statement to the Guardian, the ambassador said that “Hungary is pursuing a relationship with the US – and a relationship with Russia and China – unlike any other ally”.

“With Hungary facing very serious issues – including a war next door and corruption challenges at home – the US will remain focused on advancing security and democracy, including by standing up for Ukraine as it is invaded by Putin’s Russia, and standing up for democratic institutions and independent voices upon which democracy depends,” Pressman added.

But despite facing anti-government protests, a new challenger and economic troubles at home, Orbán has been spending a significant amount of his time on his international image.

In Brussels, he spoke at a National Conservatism conference – co-sponsored by groups linked to the Hungarian government – which garnered international attention after a local mayor attempted to shut it down.

In April, Orbán will speak alongside conservative American lawmakers and figures including the Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders at the Budapest edition of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), a gathering whose organisers rejected the Guardian and other media outlets’ accreditation requests citing a “no woke zone”.

Péter Krekó, the director of the Political Capital research institute, said: “One of the essential elements of Orbán’s foreign policy is that he is not building bilateral relationships, but personal or party relationships.”

The Hungarian leader is looking for allies who are “anti-migration, anti-LGBT, anti-woke – and what is important, anti-international institutions”, Krekó said, adding that Orbán supported Trump because “he sees him as an isolationist who won’t say anything about what’s happening in Hungary”.

Trump, in turn, has welcomed the Hungarian leader’s friendship. “Viktor is a Great Leader, respected all over the World. Hungary is a Safe Country because of his Strong Immigration Policies, and as long as he is in charge, it always will be!” he wrote after Orbán’s March visit to Mar-a-Lago.

Asked about the aims of this year’s CPAC Hungary, Miklós Szánthó, the director of the government-linked Center for Fundamental Rights, which is organising the event, said in an emailed statement that “the goal is clear: to create a global alliance of anti-globalist forces”.

“At CPAC Hungary, we are the wokebusters and we will drain the swamps in Washington and Brussels,” he said.

The prime minister’s domestic opponents have raised qualms about the government’s foreign policy decisions.

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Klára Dobrev, a member of the European parliament and lead candidate of the opposition Democratic Coalition in the European elections, said: “The relationship between the US and Hungary began to deteriorate when Orbán ignored Washington’s concerns about the rule of law in Hungary and the rapidly worsening corruption.”

“This was compounded by Orbán’s increasingly open obstruction of his allies’ actions and his increasingly spectacular echoing of the narrative of Moscow and Beijing,” she said.

Márton Tompos, a member of the Hungarian parliament and vice-president of the opposition Momentum party, criticised Orbán’s public campaigning for Trump.

“I believe that this is the typical case of putting all the eggs in one basket, which is irresponsible and deeply concerning,” he said. “Hungary does not seem to have any kind of strategy, only the will of Orbán and a few people around him – and this is terrifying.”