By Gergő Medve-Bálint (Centre for Social Sciences-Hungarian Academy of Sciences)
On 8 April, at 7pm sharp, voting at the 2018 Hungarian general elections officially ended. However, it was not until 10:55pm when the first results were announced by the National Election Office. Millions of voters were anxiously and later angrily waiting for the results that were withheld by the Election Office because in two voting districts in Budapest, where those voters cast their ballot who requested distance voting, thousands were still queuing in the line thus the polling stations had to remain open there. This episode also demonstrates that turnout was unexpectedly high, at the end of the day it climbed above 68%. Earlier, all the polling agencies had anticipated that a high turnout would be favourable for the opposition but the results came as a big and disillusioning surprise: by gaining more than 48% on the party list and winning the vast majority of the single mandate districts, Fidesz, the conservative right-wing governing party and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán have nailed another landslide victory and secured constitutional majority in the Hungarian Parliament for the third time in a row. In the end, Fidesz has secured 133 parliamentary seats from the 199: the party won 91 out of 106 single mandate districts and gained further 42 mandates through the party list. The opposition suffered a bitter defeat and faces a rather bleak future. What factors may have contributed to this, by all means perplexing outcome?
Pre-election political landscape: weak and fragmented opposition unable to cooperate
Relying on its constitutional majority, in 2012 Fidesz changed the electoral system which, although it has remained mixed, became more advantageous for big parties than before because the majority element (single mandate districts) gained significance over the proportional element (party lists). Out of the 199 mandates, 106 parliamentary seats are distributed in the winner-take-all single mandate districts and only 93 mandates are available through the national party lists.
Since 2010, Fidesz has constantly been the most popular party with usually twice or even three times as many committed voters than the second and third most popular contenders. The political landscape also strongly contributed to the convenient position of the ruling party. The left-liberal opposition has been divided along several small parties (MSZP, DK, Együtt, LMP, Momentum) whose severe ideological and personal conflicts rendered cooperation among them difficult at best and impossible at worst. The radical right-wing Jobbik, which recently has considerably re-defined itself and shifted towards the centre-right, emerged as the greatest rival of Fidesz. However, according to various opinion polls, Jobbik’s popularity has never sustainably reached beyond 25% and, because of their former extreme right views, the left-liberal parties for long excluded cooperation with it. The primary goal of Fidesz in the last eight years has been to maintain its stable and committed electoral base of roughly 2-2.5 million voters and conquer the political centre by also keeping the opposition parties fragmented. This would guarantee a comfortable majority for the governing party unless the opposition overcomes its internal divides and manages to coordinate.
In the months preceding the parliamentary elections, all the opposition leaders (except for Gábor Vona, Jobbik’s party leader) expressed a common view that without coordinating the candidates for the parliamentary elections and, potentially, the party lists as well, Fidesz could not be defeated. However, internal conflicts prevented the rise of a true cooperation. For instance, the socialists (MSZP) were busy with their own divides and struggled with finding a credible, charismatic leader: a few months before the elections they removed László Botka, their original prime ministerial candidate only to replace him with an ‘imported’ politician, Gergely Karácsony, who in 2012 left LMP and established Párbeszéd, a less than marginal party having a minuscule voter base concentrated in Budapest. The socialists and Párbeszéd entered into an electoral alliance and announced a joint party list of which success looked dubious from the outset. Meanwhile, Ferenc Gyurcsány, the former prime minister, leader of DK that split from MSZP in 2011 and since then balanced around 5% popularity (the threshold to pass for a parliamentary seat through party lists), urged candidate coordination among the left-liberal parties. While Gyurcsány insisted on cooperation after Botka, his bitter opponent left the field, he was also equally motivated to ensure his own political survival by securing mandates in the parliament for DK through the proposed electoral cooperation. Meanwhile, the left-green LMP committed to its strategy of keeping equal distance from Fidesz and the other opposition parties and therefore was unwilling to enter into dialogue with them. In sum, because of these deep ruptures the opposition was unable to offer a convincing alternative to Fidesz and failed to fill its “Orbán has to go” slogan with real political content.
Yet, a ray of hope for the opposition came somewhat surprisingly deep into the electoral campaign in the form of an early local government election on 25 February in the town of Hódmezővásárhely, which belongs to the most prominent Fidesz strongholds: never since the change of regime have any candidates succeeded there other than those nominated by Fidesz. The circumstances of the local election were exceptional: a single independent candidate, Péter Márki-Zay, who enjoyed the support of every opposition party, was running against the Fidesz nominee. Against all odds, Márki-Zay won by an unexpectedly big margin (57% vs. 42%). The result led the opposition parties draw the conclusion that Fidesz can be defeated in the single mandate districts but only if just one instead of several opposition candidates compete against the ruling party’s candidate. This, however, would have required massive cooperation among the opposition.
Because of the above detailed conflicts, negotiations about which oppositional candidates should withdraw from the contest and which ones should stand as the sole challengers of Fidesz in the 106 single mandate districts proceeded painfully slow. Partly the reason for this was that withdrawal of a candidate may be costly for the nominating party because of the so-called loser compensation: those votes that are cast on candidates that do not win their districts but their party passes the 5% threshold on the national party list are added to the list votes. This procedure increases the chances of the parties to gain mandates through the list but only if their candidates remain in the contest.
In a nutshell, the combination of a deeply divided opposition and the structural constraints posed on them by the electoral law resulted in a half-hearted coordination. In the end, last-last minute withdrawals took place in rather few electoral districts. Meanwhile, several civil initiatives (such as Közös Ország Mozgalom or Taktikai Szavazás) tried to educate opposition voters to cast a “strategic vote” on the strongest opposition candidates in each district. These attempts did not take into account that partisan attitudes in the electorate mirrored the ideological conflicts of the opposition parties. Consequently, the inclination of opposition voters to support an alternative candidate not nominated by their own party was rather limited. In addition, the very last minute withdrawals and the often contradictory communication of the leaders of the opposition may have confused their own voters. All things considered, the opposition failed to offer a convincing and credible alternative to Fidesz and thus did not succeed in attracting a sizeable portion of the undecided but active voters.
A brutal electoral campaign
In spite of its overwhelming media dominance, the agenda of the Fidesz government did not fully prevail during the campaign. This is because months before the election a major corruption scandal broke out that directly affected Prime Minister Orbán’s family. OLAF, the EU’s anti-fraud office found serious irregularities in public lighting projects awarded to Elios Innovative Zrt., a company co-owned by the son-in-law of the Prime Minister. Although the government-controlled national media and some commercial channels owned by Fidesz oligarchs consistently refused even to mention this case, opposition outlets managed to raise public awareness about it by making the OLAF report public. A further blow to Fidesz came in the form of a peculiar money-laundering case in which one of its most prominent party leaders, Lajos Kósa was accused of being the center figure. Lastly, Zsolt Semjén, deputy Prime Minister, was reported to participate in an illegal reindeer shooting in Sweden, financed by a Hungarian businessman whose companies won a large number of public procurement tenders in the past few years.
So far none of these issues have involved legal consequences but they clearly served the interest of the opposition. However, in light of the election results, the opposition did not benefit as much as had been anticipated because Fidesz was able to better mobilize its electorate through a brutal campaign building on racist and xenophobic attitudes while spreading a slogan – ‘Hungary first’ –, which may be familiar from Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Since 2015, the Fidesz government’s communication has relied on a single message, the complete and unconditional rejection of international migrants. The Fidesz party representatives and government politicians hand in hand portrayed migration as the most imminent and potentially fatal danger threatening the Hungarian nation. Therefore, so goes the government propaganda, migrants must not cross the borders and any organization that has even the slightest connection to migrants and migration bears grave risks.
The government pictured George Soros, a Hungarian-born American businessman and philanthropist, as the mastermind behind the current international migration crisis. Well before the campaign began, the Parliament adopted a law that discriminates against civil organizations that receive funding from abroad on the grounds that they represent security threats. The government portrayed these organizations as part of the ‘Soros network’ serving foreign interests. During the campaign, the government propaganda intensified and put migration in the forefront of communication. The government avoided commenting on any issues that could have potentially damaged its popularity and did not even communicate the otherwise good economic results of the past few years such as low and further declining levels of unemployment, stable albeit far from outstanding economic growth, good macroeconomic figures and declining state debt. Instead, Fidesz created a hysterical political climate in which it kept falsely accusing opposition leaders that they would remove the fence erected on the Southern border and would turn Hungary into a ‘country of migrants’.
The campaign thus raised anti-immigrant sentiments high but – as the nearly record-high turnout suggests – it successfully mobilized the electorate especially in the rural areas where Fidesz proved extremely popular. By winning 12 of the 18 single mandate districts there the opposition was able to show some considerable success only in the capital city of Budapest. But even there Fidesz reached more than 40 % on the party list and with this result it has remained the most popular party even in the traditionally left-leaning capital. Even though several opposition leaders and a huge anti-government demonstration held on14 April in Budapest expressed strong concerns about electoral fraud because of those unusual irregularities that were reported during and after the election day, the vast majority of observers agree that systemic fraud can be excluded and the discovered irregularities did not substantially affect the outcome.
Further backsliding of democracy ahead?
What are the immediate political prospects after the landslide victory of Fidesz? First, the opposition is now engaged in a blame game in which each opposition leader accuses the other for not being flexible enough to withdraw their candidates in favour of the most popular oppositional candidates in the single mandate districts. Although a full coordination would have certainly prevented the constitutional majority of Fidesz, the party would have retained its majority in the Parliament even in those circumstances. Second, the opposition is clearly in a crisis that may take a long time to overcome: having failed to mobilize a sufficiently broad electorate and also having been unable to attract a large portion of undecided voters, the presidents of MSZP and Jobbik and one of the co-presidents of LMP announced their resignation. Third, the number of media outlets critical with the government has declined just a few days after the elections: Lajos Simicska, a Hungarian oligarch formerly being a close friend now a fierce enemy of Orbán, decided to immediately shut two of his media properties, Magyar Nemzet, an 80-years old, widely acknowledged daily newspaper, and the Lánchíd radio channel. These developments further narrow the already limited space for conducting independent and investigative journalism in Hungary.
As for the triumphant government, heavy attacks can be expected on civil organizations and particularly those that the government considers to belong to the imaginary ‘Soros network’. A few days after the elections, a pro-government media outlet, the Figyelő magazine published an article about the ‘Soros-mercenaries’ in which it listed faculty members of Central European University, activists of civil organizations and investigative journalists as working for or benefiting from the network of George Soros. Several people named in this list had passed away years ago. The purpose of the published list is probably to intimidate the people named in it and it is also the most direct and most sickening attack so far on civil society. Nevertheless, this fits perfectly into what Prime Minister Orbán envisaged in his speech held on the national holiday on 15 March this year, when he promised to seek “moral, political and legal recourse after the elections”. Also, the new Parliament is expected to adopt the so-called ‘Stop Soros’ act among the first pieces of legislation after the Orbán government will begin his third consecutive term in early May. The proposed legislation will allow the government to ban those NGOs that support migration. Considering these developments, Hungarian democracy is likely to experience further backsliding in the future unless Orbán decides to consolidate his regime – something he is not willing to do without major external or internal pressures. Neither the former nor the latter are likely to happen in the short run.
Photo source: www.ujszo.com