Members of the European Parliament take a vote in Strasbourg, France, Sept.12, 2018.
Members of the European Parliament take a vote in Strasbourg, France, Sept.12, 2018.

European Union legislators took the unprecedented step Wednesday to begin process of imposing sanctions on Hungary for presenting a "systematic threat" to the bloc's Democratic values.

The European Parliament voted 448-197 to launch an Article Seven process, which could result in the suspension of Hungary's EU voting rights.

The vote dealt a serious blow to Prime Minister Viktor Orban, further isolating him from powerful allies in the midst of his ambitious effort to push Europe toward Hungary's version of an "illiberal democracy."

Orban managed during his eight years in office to deflect his critics, who contend Hungary's electoral system is irregular, media freedom and judicial independence are waning and refugees and asylum-seekers are abused.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto condemned the vote as "nothing less than the petty revenge of pro-immigration politicians." He also said Hungary was considering legal actions because the vote was tainted by "massive fraud" since abstentions were not included in the final count.

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban addresses th
Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban addresses the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, Sept.11, 2018, a day before the vote.

There were 48 abstentions, so the 448 votes in favor of the sanctions exceeded the two-thirds needed only because it was based on 645 votes.  If the abstentions were counted, there would have been a total of 693 votes.

Judith Sargentini, a Dutch politician who presented the European Parliament's report recommending the sanctions process, welcomed the results of the vote.

"Viktor Orban's government has been leading the charge against European values by silencing independent media, replacing critical judges, and putting academia on a leash," she said. "The Hungarian people deserve better.  They deserve freedom of speech, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice and equality, all of which are enshrined in the European treaties."

With European Parliament elections in May, the dispute over Hungary and Poland, which faces a similar sanctions process that was initiated by the European Commission last year, highlights tensions between nationalists and federalist camps on the continent.