WASHINGTON - China's bid to expand its influence in Eastern Europe could hit a snag if Hungary's controversial Prime Minister Viktor Orban is defeated in what is shaping up to be an unexpectedly close election next year.
Hungary under Orban has fostered ever-closer ties with China, which sees the country as a linchpin of its efforts to reach deep into Europe with elements of its global Belt and Road initiative involving infrastructure and cultural projects on several continents.
Among those projects is a new railroad running from the Hungarian capital, Budapest, to Belgrade, Serbia. Hungary is also the proposed site of the first overseas campus of Fudan University, one of China's top educational institutions.
In a letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping late last month which has since been made public, the mayor of Budapest and several other prominent Hungarian politicians pledged to terminate both projects if a new opposition coalition comes to power in next year's parliamentary election.
Until recently, that prospect would have seemed remote, given that Orban has retained power in three successive landslide elections and has steadily increased his control over the nation's media.
But six opposition parties joined forces in an anti-Orban coalition late last year and have been running neck and neck with the prime minister's Fidesz party in public opinion polls ever since.
Key to the coalition's prospects is an agreement to run a single candidate in each of Hungary's parliamentary districts, explained Zoltán Kész, a former member of parliament who spoke to VOA from Veszprém in western Hungary.
Kész said Orban is particularly vulnerable because of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more people on a per capita basis in Hungary than in any other country but Peru, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University.
"This is a very important thing. He couldn't handle the pandemic. We have 30,000 people out of 10 million who died, which is a huge number, proportionately speaking," Kész said.
The leaders of the united opposition parties spelled out their critique of the China projects in their June 22 letter to Xi.
"Whichever of us becomes Hungary's next prime minister, we will immediately stop investing in the construction of the Belgrade-Budapest railway line and the Budapest campus of Fudan University under current conditions," they wrote.
The letter argued that both projects lacked public support and would subject Hungarians to tremendous financial burden.
Gergely Karacsony, who defeated a Fidesz-backed candidate to become mayor of Budapest in 2019, was already an outspoken critic of Orban's outreach to China, which has included a move to block the European Union from criticizing Beijing's crackdown on individual rights in Hong Kong.
"EU cohesion on foreign policy is key to protecting our values and sustaining the EU as a global player. Time and again Viktor Orban sabotages that unity and protects in our Union the interest of autocracies," Karacsony said in a statement. Hungary's "next government will break with all that!"
Karacsony has already named streets in Budapest after the democracy movement in Hong Kong and in solidarity with victims of the Chinese Communist Party's oppression in Tibet and Xinjiang.
The Budapest mayor has also taken aim at plans for a Fudan University campus in his city, saying it "would put in doubt many of the values that Hungary committed itself to 30 years ago" after the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe.
Since Orban took office in 2010, Hungary has been widely accused of moving away from democratic principles. Even so, its membership in Western alliances, including the European Union and NATO, and the efforts of opposition parties have kept the Beijing-backed railroad and university project from advancing unchallenged.
During a conversation with Orban in April, Xi described the Budapest-Belgrade railroad as the "leading force" for closer ties between the two countries. But critics say the project, first proposed in 2013, is nowhere near completion.
The plan for a Fudan campus has also sparked public protests in Budapest, prompting the Orban government to suggest there could be a referendum on the project in the future.
Mareike Ohlberg, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and an expert on China's effort to influence foreign governments, told VOA that an opposition victory in Hungary next year would present a setback for Beijing at the EU.
"The Hungarian government has been the Chinese government's most reliable country to draw on repeatedly to prevent statements at the EU level, most recently a criticism of the National Security Law in Hong Kong," she said in a written interview.
Ohlberg added: "Even if the opposition does not do a 180-degree turn on China policy, it will probably be a less ready ally of Beijing's in Brussels."