Crisis for Hungary’s Viktor Orban as President and Minister resign | explained

The story so far: Five-term Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is facing his biggest backlash since taking office in 2010, as the nation’s President Katalin Novák resigned on February 10 over pardoning a man involved in child sex abuse. Along with Ms. Novak, former Justice Minister Judit Varga, who had also signed off on the pardon, resigned from Parliament, taking responsibility for the act.

With the exit of both Ms. Varga and Ms. Novak — the only two high-ranking women officials in Mr. Orban’s government — resentment against the Hungarian Prime Minister has increased, with several critics accusing him of shielding himself with the two women. Protestors have taken to the streets demanding Mr. Orban’s resignation as well.

After several days of silence, Mr. Orban issued a statement on February 17, promising several new laws cracking down on child abuse. He has accepted both Ms. Vagra and Ms. Novak’s resignations, stating that there is no room for clemency to child abusers. He also urged party MPs to urgently vote for a new President.

 Why has the President resigned?

46-year-old President Novak has come under fire for granting clemency to Endre Konya, former deputy director of a state orphanage who was jailed for helping to cover up sexual abuse of children. Mr. Konya had persuaded children to withdraw their testimony of sexual abuse against the orphanage’s director and was sentenced to a three-year prison sentence in 2022. He was also barred for a further five years from all activities and occupations involving minors.

In April 2023, Ms. Novak pardoned twenty-five people during a visit by Pope Francis, including Mr. Konya. The names of the pardoned individuals were made public on February 2, leading to an outcry. Around a thousand people took to the streets of Budapest on February 9, demanding Ms. Novak’s resignation. The call for her ouster was backed by Opposition parties, who pointed out that Ms. Novak’s ‘family-centric’ beliefs were in conflict with her actions.

A handout picture shows Hungary’s President Katalin Novak as she announces her resignation in the presidential palace of Budapest on February 10, 2024. Hungary’s President Katalin Novak announced her resignation on February 10, 2024 following outrage sparked in the central European country by a decision to pardon a man implicated in child sexual abuse case.

Ms. Novak, a mother of three, has staunchly advocated for a ‘family friendly’ Hungary, supporting traditional roles for men and women. As Mr. Orban’s Minister of Family Affairs, she had introduced several financial regulations aimed at mothers, large families and grandparents, highlighting the woman’s primary role as ‘child-bearers and caregivers.’

A practising conservative Christian, Ms. Novak has supported Mr. Orban’s anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion views, backing ‘traditional families’ (with male-female couples). After being elected as the first woman President of Hungary in 2022, Ms. Novak vowed to rule by ‘values predicated on Christianity’ and to ‘protect human life from conception.’

She stepped down as President on February 10, issuing a statement on state television. “I made a mistake … Today is the last day that I address you as a President,” she said, adding she had thought the pardoned individual had not abused the vulnerability of children under his care. “I made a mistake as the pardon and the lack of reasoning was suitable to trigger doubts over the zero tolerance that applies to paedophilia,” she said.

 Political backlash following Novak’s resignation

Immediately after Ms. Novak’s resignation, her fellow Fidesz member and former Minister of Justice Judit Vagra, who had signed off on the presidential pardon, resigned an an MP and retired from public life.

In a Facebook post, Ms. Vagra took political responsibility for her actions and wrote that she was ‘”resigning my seat as a member of parliament and also as leader of the European Parliament list.” The 43-year-old Fidesz MP was on the top of the list of leaders from her party to lead Hungary in the 2024 European Parliament election scheduled in June.

Both Ms Novak and Ms Vagra are long-time allies of Mr. Orban and have been at the forefront of pushing his conservative agenda. While Ms. Novak has been responsible for ‘softening’ Mr. Orban’s image domestically by pushing a family-focused, Christian agenda, Ms. Vagra is the face of the Fidesz party’s battle against left of centre European Union (EU) lawmakers.

Prior to being elected to the highest office, Ms. Novak had worked in the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Human Capacities and Family and Youth Affairs and was later elected as Vice President of Fidesz. She also served as Mr. Orban’s Minster of Families between 2020-21 before being his pick for President. Touted as a motherly figure, Ms. Novak was picked in a bid to woo female voters ahead of Mr. Orban’s re-election in 2022.

Judit Varga with Viktor Orban

Judit Varga with Viktor Orban

Meanwhile, Ms. Vagra, who speaks Hungarian, English, German, French, and Spanish, is known as a Orban loyalist with the necessary foreign experience to deal with Brussels. Apart from being Mr. Orban’s ally, Ms. Vagra has previously worked as an adviser for Hungarian members in the European Parliament (MEP) between 2009 and 2018, before being appointed as Minister for Justice in 2019. A vocal critic of the EU, she has taken the lead in defending Mr. Orban’s policies and negotiating with the EU to unfreeze funds marked for Hungary.

The departure of both women has created a vacuum in Mr. Orban’s all-male cabinet — the only such one in Europe — as criticism of Mr. Orban’s autocratic governing increases. Apart from the two women, Mr. Orban’s communications chief Antal Rogan and his personal adviser Zoltan Balog too are under fire for their role in the controversial pardon. Mr. Balog had allegedly lobbied for Mr. Konya’s clemency — a charge he has denied. Both men are still in office and are yet to comment on the issue.

Accusing Mr. Orban of shirking accountability, Hungarian MEP Anna Donath said, “Viktor Orbán was not ashamed to hide behind the skirts of two women instead of taking responsibility. That is why this matter cannot be allowed to close like this.” The Democratic Coalition, Hungary’s largest Opposition party, has called for direct presidential elections to replace Ms. Novak, instead of a replacement being appointed by the Fidesz lawmakers.

 What has Orban done in response?

To limit political damage, Mr. Orban has tabled a constitutional amendment which prohibits the President from pardoning crimes committed against children. However, according to analyst Dániel Hegedus of the German Marshall Fund, core supporters of the Fidesz were shocked by the resignations, questioning why the two senior politicians were made scapegoats in the scandal, despite their steadfast loyalty to Mr. Orban.

Mr. Hegedus claims that an internal polling by the party had revealed that the pardon did not sit well with conservative voters, threatening to alienate them. According to him, the two women leaders were made to step down, at the behest of Mr. Orban, to appease these voters. However, the move has not gone down well among Fidesz members, several of whom have criticised the callousness with which Ms. Novak and Ms. Vagra were discarded.

Peter Magyar, a top Fidesz leader and Ms. Vagra’s ex-husband has openly criticised the government and resigned from several state-owned companies. In a series of social media posts, he has questioned Mr. Rogan’s silence and accused several high-ranking officials, including Mr. Orban’s son-in-law Istvan Tiborcz, of being power-hungry and corrupt. Denouncing the Orban regime, he claimed, “I do not want to be part of a system for a minute longer where the real culprits hide behind women’s skirts,” adding that the regime was “a political product to conceal the operation of the power factory and to acquire enormous wealth.”

 EU elections in mind?

With the twin ousters, Mr. Orban seems to be refocusing his party’s efforts on the European Parliament elections in June. According to the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), with the rise in right-wing leaders across Europe, Fidesz is expected to retain a majority of the 21 seats in the European Parliament while the Opposition is likely to settle for one or two seats.

By consolidating his power in the EU, Mr. Orban is hoping that anti-EU groups will gain more votes, allowing him to push his pro-Russia agenda and obstruct EU sanctions against Moscow. He had also single-handedly delayed EU’s €50 billion aid to Ukraine before backtracking in February, and is holding up Sweden’s bid to join the military bloc NATO. Mr. Orban has batted for closer ties with Russia and China and projected Hungary as a ‘bridge’ between the East and the West, rather than being a faithful member of the European bloc.

As per BIRN estimates, groupings like the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), with a fading liberal Renew Europe, are set to retain power.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, right, talks to Finland’s Prime Minister Petteri Orpo, center, next to Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, left, during a round table meeting at an EU summit in Brussels, Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, right, talks to Finland’s Prime Minister Petteri Orpo, center, next to Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, left, during a round table meeting at an EU summit in Brussels, Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024.
| Photo Credit:
Geert Vanden Wijngaert

Mr. Orban’s party Fidesz, which was part of EPP till 2020, is currently part of the non-aligned group Non-Inscrits, which is barred from holding office and granted limited speaking time. BIRN claims that Mr. Orban is hoping for a strong shift to the right in the EU (several European nations have elected right-wing governments) and may join the far-right Identity and Democracy group or the European Conservatives and Reformists group in the European Parliament.

Moreover, Hungary will also hold the rotating presidency of the EU Council from July 1 to end of 2024, allowing Mr. Orban to spearhead the bloc’s policy-making process for six months. With Hungary being deemed an ‘elected autocracy’ by EU, and considering Mr. Orban’s strong anti-EU views, several member nations have questioned his ability to chair the council democratically.

Despite Mr. Orban’s efforts to douse the domestic fire, hundreds of protestors took to the streets in Budapest on February 15, demanding his resignation over the pardon.

In response, Mr. Orban made a statement at his annual state address inside the Castle Garden building, where only pro-government media were allowed. Promising a new package of laws, he informed that the government would also review staff appointments at state orphanages, where 7,000 children live, according to a BBC report. He has also relented on Sweden’s NATO membership, urging party MPs to elect a President soon to facilitate green-lighting Sweden’s NATO entry on February 26.

However, calls for his resignation remain strong among the people, signalling no end to Mr. Orban’s biggest political crisis till date.

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The tumultuous history of Northern Ireland | Explained

The story so far: On February 3, pro-Irish unity politician Michelle O’Neill from the Sinn Fein party made history by becoming the first Nationalist First Minister of Northern Ireland, after the opposition Democratic Union Party (DUP), the largest pro-U.K. party, returned to government ending a two-year long political deadlock in Northern Ireland.

What led to the political deadlock?

Northern Ireland is governed by a power-sharing agreement known as consociationalism as laid down in the Good Friday Agreement (Belfast Agreement) of 1998. This system believes that power should be shared equally between the various sectarian groups in a state, in this case, between the pro-Irish unity faction, called the Nationalists or Republicans, and the pro-U.K. faction, the Loyalists or the Unionists. Sinn Fein is the largest Nationalist political party, while the DUP is of the latter. The party that wins the largest vote-share will hold the First Minister position while the party with the second largest vote share will keep the post of Deputy First Minister. Of these two posts, one must be a Unionist and the other a Nationalist. Both positions hold equal weight and one cannot exist without the other.

In the 2022 elections, Sinn Fein finished first with a 29% vote share, while the DUP secured the second position with a 21.3% vote share. However, a government was not formed as the DUP exited Stormont (Northern Ireland’s Parliament) because it objected to the new border controls between Britain and the Island of Ireland, which came in the aftermath of Brexit. When the U.K. exited the EU, Northern Ireland became the only province to share a land border with an EU country (Republic of Ireland). The U.K. and the EU then came up with the Northern Ireland Protocol, which stipulated that the trade border, where goods are checked for compliance, would be shifted to the Irish ports, essentially making it a sea border. However, this was rejected by the DUP, which held that this was against the Good Friday agreement which sanctioned free movement of goods and people across borders. In protest, they exited the government and the political deadlock set in.

The U.K. and the EU then drew up fresh rules, called the Windsor Framework, which stated that on arrival at the border of Northern Ireland, goods will be demarcated into two. The ones which were entering the region would go into the ‘green lane’ with no inspections while those entering the Republic of Ireland (EU territory) would go to the ‘red lane’ for compliance checks. After assurance from the U.K. of Northern Ireland’s place in its internal market, the DUP has agreed to return to government.

How did Northern Ireland come into being?

Northern Ireland was the site of a 30-year civil war (1968-1998) known as ‘The Troubles’ between the Republicans and the Unionists, which killed over 3,500 people. It also had a religious aspect to it with the Republicans being mostly Catholic and the Unionists being largely Protestants.

Northern Ireland was formerly part of the Ulster province, which lies to the north of modern-day Ireland. Conflict between the Protestants and the Irish Catholics goes all the way back to 1609, when King James I started an official policy of migration wherein people from England and Scotland were encouraged to move to Ulster to work in his various plantations there. The religious war that was being waged in much of Europe at the time, between the Protestants and the Catholics, made its presence felt in Ulster as well. However, a much stronger resistance was brewing. Ireland at the time was under the rule of England. The growing resistance against the colonial English rule, especially after the Potato Famine of 1845 where over 1 million Irish people died due to disease and starvation, cemented these sectarian and religious differences. Finally, in 1916, in the middle of the First World War, during Easter week, Ireland rose up in arms against colonial rule under the leadership of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). After a bloody war, it was able to gain independence from England with the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921.

However, Ireland was split into two territories. As there was a protestant majority in Ulster, out of the 32 counties in Ireland, six remained with the U.K, forming the region of Northern Ireland.

What led to the Good Friday agreement?

Peace did not come easy in Northern Ireland. The years that followed were rife with discrimination and instances of sectarian violence. The Irish Republicans being the minority were often victims of discrimination when it came to housing and public service jobs. Moreover, there have also been claims that elections were heavily skewed towards the Unionists due to gerrymandering practices. In the late 1960s, various protests against the Northern Ireland government descended into violence with the IRA and the Unionist paramilitary forces taking up arms.

A civil war had officially started and the British Army was deployed to maintain peace. The Army was often accused of colluding with the Unionists against the Republicans. Walls were built between communities to segregate them, curfews were implemented and dissidents were being arrested without trial. However, violence continued and in 1972, in an incident known as Bloody Sunday, the British Army shot and killed at least 13 unarmed civilians during a protest march in the Bogside area of Derry. In its aftermath, the war spread to the mainland of the U.K. and Ireland, with attacks and bombings orchestrated in London and Dublin.

In the backdrop of the ever-increasing tit-for-tat violence between the IRA and the Unionists, in the 1980s, IRA’s political wing Sinn Fein started taking a more active role in the political landscape of Northern Ireland. It contested elections and played a part in governance. Peace talks were also being negotiated with the U.S. acting as a mediator.

The 1990s brought about a significant shift in the war. The public was weary of violence and wanted peace. Both parties agreed to a ceasefire and peace talks were in full swing. While decommissioning of arms was heavily pushed by the U.K., both the IRA and the Unionists at the time refused to give up their arms entirely. Therefore, talks took the ‘twin approach’ wherein peace and decommissioning was to happen in parallel as a treaty was being reached.

Finally, on April 10, 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was signed in Belfast bringing to an end the 30-year-old civil war in Northern Ireland.

What is the Good Friday Agreement?

The Good Friday Agreement is a unique peace treaty in that it conceded to most of the demands from both sides of the conflict. The treaty had three main aspects — that the Northern Ireland government would be formed on the sovereign wishes of both Republicans and the Unionists and that they would share governance equally; that the people of Northern Ireland could seek reunification with Ireland any time subject to a referendum; and that the citizens of Northern Ireland can seek Irish or British nationality or both. It also abolished border checks and encouraged the freedom of movement of people across the U.K. and Ireland.

However, tensions of the conflict still linger in the region. The power sharing system has not been smooth. Stormont has fallen multiple times before the completion of a term. The Assembly was suspended in 2000, in 2001, from 2002-2007 when Unionists withdrew from the executive and from 2017-2020. In February 2022, the government again collapsed as Unionists withdrew over border controls between the U.K. and Northern Ireland.

What next?

The significance of a Nationalist First Minister cannot be understated. Ms. O’Neill said as much when she remarked that “we are in a decade of opportunity” indicating the possibility of a referendum on the reunification of the region with Ireland in the next 10 years.

However, in a paper released by the U.K. government, it said that it “sees no realistic prospect of a border poll leading to a united Ireland,” citing recent polling. In a similar vein, Irish premier Leo Varadkar, whose government in principle supports a united Ireland, also said the question of reunification was “not for today.”

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An escalating dispute at major gas facilities in Australia could drive up European prices, analysts say

Liquefied natural gas (LNG) storage units at Grain LNG importation terminal, operated by National Grid Plc, on the Isle of Grain on August 22, 2022 in Rochester, England.

Dan Kitwood | Getty Images News | Getty Images

The looming threat of strikes at Australian natural gas facilities will keep global gas markets on tenterhooks, energy analysts told CNBC, with traders fearing that a prolonged halt to production could squeeze global supplies and send European prices higher.

U.S. energy giant Chevron and unions representing workers at the Gorgon and Wheatstone projects in Western Australia are in daily talks this week to try to come to an agreement over pay and job security. The Fair Work Commission, Australia’s independent workplace relations tribunal, is mediating talks between both sides.

If a deal cannot be agreed, the strikes are scheduled to begin from 6 a.m. local time Thursday. The long-running dispute escalated even further on Tuesday as a union alliance announced plans to strike for two weeks from Sept. 14.

“In response to Chevron’s [duplicitous] claim that our EBA negotiations are ‘intractable’, the Offshore Alliance is escalating Protected Industrial Action to [demonstrate] that our bargaining negotiations are far from ‘intractable,'” the Offshore Alliance said in a Facebook post.

“Offshore Alliance members are yet to exercise their lawful workplace rights to take Protected Industrial Action and our bargaining claims will look more and more reasonable as Chevron’s Gorgon and Wheatstone LNG exports dry up.”

In response, a Chevron Australia spokesperson told CNBC, “We’re looking to narrow points of difference with Gorgon and Wheatstone downstream employees and their representatives through further bargaining mediated by the Fair Work Commission.”

There is so little flexibility in the market that the slightest provocation will cause large changes to the prices.

Jacob Mandel

Senior research associate for global energy markets at Aurora Energy Research

Fears of strike in Australia, one of the world’s biggest exporters of liquified natural gas (LNG), have recently pushed up European gas prices — and analysts expect near-term volatility to persist.

Jacob Mandel, senior research associate for global energy markets at U.K.-based consultancy Aurora Energy Research, said the global natural gas market was currently “very tight” and “very little supply flexibility” means that strike action in Australia could send European gas prices higher.

“Prices have moved quite significantly on basically little bits of news on what’s happened to these two facilities because there is so little flexibility in the market that the slightest provocation will cause large changes to the prices,” Mandel told CNBC via videoconference.

He said that European gas prices could climb to above 40 euros ($42.9) per megawatt hour if the strikes go ahead as planned. The front-month gas price at the Dutch Title Transfer Facility (TTF) hub, a European benchmark for natural gas trading, traded at 33.5 euros on Tuesday.

The TTF contract rose sharply to around 43 euros last month. TTF prices have since pared gains, however, and remain well below last summer’s extraordinary spike to more than 300 euros.

“I think it is extremely unlikely prices will go anywhere near where they were last September, where they hit these massive record peaks,” Mandel said. “Prices reached those peaks under extraordinary circumstances, which in theory could have been replicated. However, in Europe, we’ve taken many steps that could keep prices from reaching such a high.”

“It doesn’t mean that prices could increase above this 40 per megawatt hour level and if something else happens — a sudden winter storm, or something like this — certainly this can push [prices] higher,” he added.

Kaushal Ramesh, head of gas and LNG analytics at research firm Rystad Energy, said looming industrial action at Chevron’s Gorgon and Wheatstone facilities suggested near-term volatility could continue until a resolution is reached.

“We still don’t think there will be a material impact on production,” Ramesh said, citing the resolution of other similar disputes. He noted that it may become difficult for Chevron to prolong the strikes if they do go ahead.

“Whatever monetary impact there may be to Chevron from giving in to the workers’ demands is likely a fraction of lost revenue if production were to be substantially impacted,” Ramesh told CNBC via email.

“Thus, these are political developments, and things can get irrational, but so far, Asian buyers have not been too concerned. This winter, Japan and Korea will have an additional 6 GW of nuclear power available compared to the previous year.”

Another ‘big question mark’ for Europe

Wild price swings in energy markets in recent weeks come as the euro zone continues to wean itself off Russian fossil fuel exports following the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Last month, the EU hit its target of filling gas storage facilities to 90% of capacity roughly two-and-a-half months ahead of schedule, bolstering hopes the bloc has secured enough fuel supplies to keep homes warm during winter. Nonetheless, the region’s gas market remains sensitive.

“Europe’s gas markets remain nervous, as seen in the jump in prices in August at the threat of an LNG worker strike in faraway Australia,” said Henning Gloystein, a director for energy, climate, and natural resources at political consultancy Eurasia Group.

“Real disruptions” are possible this winter, Gloystein said, including Norwegian winter storm outages or a cut of the remaining Russia gas to Europe. He warned that a stoppage of pipeline transit via Ukraine or a suspension of Russian LNG shipments were two notable risks for Europe.

One “big question mark” adding a risk premium to costs in Europe, Mandel said, is the future for the transit of Russian gas through Ukrainian territory, which is scheduled to expire at the end of next year.

Naftogaz CEO: We should discuss Russian gas transit deal with EU

Oleksiy Chernyshov, the chief executive of Ukraine’s largest oil and gas company Naftogaz, told CNBC in mid-August that the Russian gas transit agreement “is actually quite a complex issue.”

“I just wanted to make very clear Ukraine is servicing this transit actually in favor of European Union countries that are consuming Russian gas,” Chernyshov said. “We clearly understand that some of the countries cannot immediately get rid and stop consumption because they need it for the preparation for the winter.”

A spokesperson for the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, told CNBC that the gas transit agreement is “still a long way from now” and they cannot speculate on what the situation would like in 18 months’ time. “It is also not for us to speculate nor comment on the two parties’ interest for a renewal of such contract,” they added.

The spokesperson said under the EU’s REPowerEU plan, the bloc’s objective is to “completely phase out Russian fossil fuel imports as soon as possible.” They noted that Russian gas now represents less than 10% of the EU’s pipeline imports, compared to roughly 50% before the energy crisis spurred by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

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Turkey elections | Why Europe is watching closely

Turkey’s elections on May 14 are a key moment not just for the country itself but also for its European neighbours.

With President Tayyip Erdogan facing his toughest electoral test in two decades, European Union and NATO members are watching to see whether change comes to a country that affects them on issues ranging from security to migration and energy. Relations between Erdogan and the EU have become highly strained in recent years, as the 27-member bloc cooled on the idea of Ankara becoming a member and condemned crackdowns on human rights, judicial independence and media freedom.

Also read | Turkish candidate drops out of presidential race

Leading members of NATO, to which Turkey belongs, have expressed alarm at Mr. Erdogan’s close relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and concern that Turkey is being used to circumvent sanctions on Moscow over its war in Ukraine.

Erdogan’s challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, has pledged more freedom at home and foreign policies hewing closer to the West.

Whatever the outcome, Turkey’s European neighbours will use the election and its aftermath to assess their relationship with Ankara and the degree to which it can be reset.

Here are some key issues that European countries will be watching, according to officials, diplomats and analysts:

Election conduct

EU officials have been careful not to express a preference for a candidate. But they have made clear they will be looking out for vote-rigging, violence or other election interference.

Pedestrians walk past a giant banner of Turkish President and People’s Alliance’s presidential candidate Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and Turkish CHP party leader and Nation Alliance’s presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu, background right, at Taksim square in Istanbul on May 10, 2023.
| Photo Credit:

“It is important that the process itself is clean and free,” said Sergey Lagodinsky, a German member of the European Parliament who co-chairs a group of EU and Turkish lawmakers.

Peter Stano, a spokesman for the EU’s diplomatic service, said the bloc expected the vote to be “transparent and inclusive” and in line with democratic standards Turkey has committed to. A worst-case scenario for both Turkey and the EU would be a contested result – perhaps after a second round – leading the incumbent to launch a crackdown on protests, said Dimitar Bechev, the author of a book on Turkey under Erdogan.

Sweden and NATO

“Five more years of Erdogan means five more years of Turkey being with one weak foot in NATO and one strong foot with Russia,” said Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Turkey who is now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Europe think tank.

Erdogan has vexed other NATO members by buying a Russian S-400 missile defence system and contributing little to NATO’s reinforcement of its eastern flank.

An early test of whether the election winner wants to mend NATO ties will be whether he stops blocking Swedish membership. Erdogan has demanded Stockholm extradite Kurdish militants but Swedish courts have blocked some expulsions.

Analysts and diplomats expect Kilicdaroglu would end the block on Sweden joining NATO, prompting Hungary – the only other holdout – to follow suit. That could let Sweden join in time for a NATO summit in Lithuania in July.

Some analysts and diplomats say Erdogan might also lift his objections after the elections but others are unconvinced.

Relations with Russia

Although Mr. Erdogan has tried to strike a balance between Moscow and the West, his political relationship with Mr. Putin and Turkey’s economic ties to Russia are a source of EU frustration. That will likely continue if Erdogan wins another term.

If Kilicdaroglu triumphs, European officials would likely be content with a gradual shift away from Moscow, recognising that Turkey is in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis and its economy depends on Russia to a significant extent.

“With Russia, a new government will be treading very carefully,” Mr. Bechev said. However, Kilicdaroglu showed this week he was willing to criticise Russia, publicly accusing Moscow of responsibility for fake material on social media ahead of Sunday’s ballot.

Rule of law, Cyprus

If Kilicdaroglu and his coalition wins, the EU will be keen to see if they keep promises to release Mr. Erdogan critics from jail, in line with European Court of Human Rights rulings, and generally improve rule-of-law standards.

“You’re going to have a wait-and-see attitude from the EU,” said Mr. Pierini.

If there is a crackdown on graft, European companies may be ready to make big investments in Turkey once again, perhaps with backing from the EU and its member governments, he said.

Turkey – Syria earthquake | Why India’s relief efforts matter

Efforts to expand an EU-Turkey customs union to include more goods and grant Turks visa-free EU travel could also be revived.

But neither would be easy – not least because of the divided island of Cyprus. Its internationally recognised government, composed of Greek Cypriots, is an EU member, while the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state is recognised only by Ankara.

“This is of course the big stumbling block in our relations,” said European Parliament member Lagodinsky.

However, EU officials see little sign that Kilicdaroglu would change much on Cyprus.

“The big game changer for EU-Turkey relations would be Cyprus. Here the candidates’ agenda, however, does not seem fundamentally different,” said a senior EU official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Cyprus is one of many factors that make a revival of EU membership negotiations unlikely, officials and analysts say. EU leaders designated Turkey as a candidate to join the bloc in 2004 but the talks ground to a halt years ago.

“There are many other ways to strengthen the relationship, build confidence. There is already a lot of European money that has made its way to Turkey,” said a European diplomat. “I don’t know anyone in Europe who wants to revive EU membership talks.”

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