By Bálint Mikola (CEU PhD graduate, independent researcher)
While for an external observer, it might have appeared as if this year’s Hungarian general elections would surely mean the end of 12 years of a semi-authoritarian regime that has become isolated within the EU, things looked very different from a domestic perspective. Even if the populist Fidesz party government faced unprecedented inflation rates and a military conflict that questioned the main axioms of its foreign policy, polls indicated a firm lead and another clear victory for Orbán’s cabinet that could almost be taken for granted. And so it happened: Fidesz secured its fourth consecutive constitutional supermajority and won a record number of mandates (135) in parliament.
The past electoral campaign period in Hungary has been both extraordinary from several respects and extremely unimaginative at the same time. None of the parties concerned managed to construct even a somewhat original narrative – the governing Fidesz party ran out of topics to set the agenda to the extent that it has initially built its campaign on a referendum initiative that mobilised voters in favour of a bill that purposefully conflated the protection of children from sexual abuse with homophobic appeals. Not even representatives of the governing party were convinced this was a platform worth campaigning for – until the war in Ukraine struck and forced parties to redesign their campaigns from scratch.
However, this was not the first time during the past year that the governing party was forced to rethink its main messages. Until last summer, Fidesz had a very comfortable off-the-shelf narrative at its disposal that could be deployed anytime: since fragmented opposition parties lacked an undisputed leader, extremely divisive former PM Ferenc Gyurcsány was a perfect target for a negative campaign, even though he clearly did not aspire for candidacy. Unlike his wife, MEP Klára Dobrev, and not-so-close political ally and mayor of Budapest Gergely Karácsony, who had both been likely candidates for PM of a unified opposition. However, in a least likely scenario, opposition parties managed to organize the country’s first nationwide primaries in a more-or-less genuinely competitive fashion, resulting in the selection of an unexpected candidate for PM: Péter Márki-Zay, a self-described Christian and conservative politician who had little to do with Ferenc Gyurcsány (of whom he had been openly critical). This was the least favourable outcome for Fidesz, who not only had to reconstruct their narrative, but were also faced with an unprecedented mobilization effort in the opposition which managed to involve approximately 600 thousand voters in a process that was completely new to the Hungarian electorate. Hence, in October 2021, both local analysts and international observers rightly thought that Fidesz was in trouble and a window of opportunity has just opened for the opposition, far wider than ever since Orbán’s party won its first two-thirds supermajority in 2010.
They couldn’t have been more mistaken. First, in the aftermath of the enthusiasm that surrounded the opposition primaries, most observers thought this would persist and grow into a very powerful electoral campaign. Quite on the contrary, opposition parties almost entirely disappeared from the agenda for the two consecutive months and were busy solving their own internal conflicts. Of which there were plentiful, not only because their coalition encompassed parties from pro-Atlantic liberals to deradicalized ethno-nationalist conservatives, but also because their voters – who have long demanded a unified opposition – managed to elect a candidate for PM who did not belong to any of the six parties concerned, upsetting the previously established and fragile balance they somehow managed to strike. If this would not have been enough, candidate for PM Péter Márki-Zay (and mayor of midsize town Hódmezővásárhely) seemed to have his own agenda and has shown a very volatile performance throughout his public appearances, making several mistakes that could easily be turned against him (including hints on the sexual orientation of Viktor Orbán’s son but also factual inaccuracies that embarrassed him). In terms of manifesto, the opposition ran with a somewhat generic platform that combined appeals for increased spending on healthcare and education, raising pensions and clearing taxes on the minimum wage, and a clear pro-Western and pro-EU orientation in foreign policy. However, opposition parties engaged in a delicate balancing act not to question policies that had been popular across the general population, including family welfare programs as well as anti-immigration policies. Fidesz demonstrated a surprising lack of imagination when it chose to keep up its anti-Gyurcsány platform, trying to conflate the image of the opposition candidate with the former PM he had very little in common with, portraying both together on billboards and in YouTube ads.
Therefore, the 2022 electoral campaign seemed the dullest in a decade until an unexpected event struck: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine questioned the strategy of all parties concerned. Both the opposition and the government chose a very simplistic master narrative: while the opposition portrayed Orbán as the most faithful ally of Putin and a traitor of the EU, Fidesz drew a false dichotomy between “war and peace”, the former of which it associated with the opposition thanks to a misinterpreted statement by Márki-Zay in which he said that Hungary would comply with NATO decisions, even if this meant sending arms to Ukraine. At the same time, the opposition had been slow to capitalize on several potential campaign topics, including a nationwide teachers’ strike in March to protest low salaries in public education.
Although the crisis situation has strengthened the role of the incumbent as the guarantor of stability, and as such, a slight increase in Fidesz’ popularity was also detected in polls, none of them predicted that governing parties would win by such a considerable margin as they finally did. Even Medián (one of the most reputable polling companies) which predicted a “firm and potentially significant” lead by Fidesz at the end of March estimated that the governing party would win 128 mandates – 7 short of what it finally did. Polls also failed to predict that Mi Hazánk, a splinter party that originally split from Jobbik following its centrist turn and preserved its far-right nationalist roots, would also get into the parliament and win 7 mandates. Despite a heavily tilted playing field that also made OSCE-ODIHR conclude that the elections did not provide equal conditions to all parties, Fidesz’ win is undisputable and significant: it received more than 53% of the national vote as opposed to 35% won by the unified opposition bloc, as well as 88 out of 106 single member districts in the country, despite a very poor performance in the capital where it won only 2 of 18 electoral districts.
This is a most favourable scenario to Orbán that not only independent observers but most probably Fidesz politicians did not expect either. Which also raises the question: can Hungary still be considered a democracy, be it liberal or illiberal, semi-authoritarian, hybrid or “defected”, if the same party alliance wins four consecutive elections by a supermajority, despite several different tactics used by the opposition to compensate the unequal access to resources and the majoritarian effects of the electoral system?
In certain respects, the answer is unequivocally “yes”. Despite a striking inequality in access to billboards, public television appearances and social media budgets, there has been a mathematical chance for the opposition to win, and most polls predicted a Fidesz victory by a relatively thin margin which would have given the opposition parties much more leeway. The opposition’s electoral campaign has not realized its full potential either due to the internal conflicts discussed above. Also, even though national politics have become extremely dominated by a single party alliance, local politics have become much more receptive towards democratic innovations such as participatory budgeting, and this openness is here to stay. Opposition parties and NGOs also successfully recruited 20 thousand delegates to stand as members of electoral committees at polling stations which not only served to ensure that electoral fraud would be detected, but also meant a new form of political participation to many. At the same time, the reality of a fourth supermajority by the same political force is sobering and might lead to the centralization or nationalization of further spheres of life (a restructuring of the banking sector is underway, while increasing the share of Hungarian-owned businesses in the retail market has long been a top entry on Fidesz’ to-do list).
Still, the road ahead will be bumpy for the next government, as it will face record inflation (foreseen at 7.5-9.8 percent for the whole year but a double-digit rate also seems thinkable), an ongoing military conflict that questions its past foreign and energy policy and disrupts former alliances (most notably within the “Visegrad 4” country group), an unprecedented budget deficit due to “generous” pre-election transfers, and an increasing pressure to raise the salary of teachers and nurses who have been historically underpaid.
The government will most plausibly be able to control most of these simultaneous crises, at least from a communications perspective, without losing substantial support, especially as the fragile alliance of opposition parties already shows signs of crumbling as previously suppressed infighting comes to the surface. A key question is how urban intellectuals who have been side-lined for more than a decade will react. Many are expected to join the more than 500 thousand Hungarians who already left the country in search of a better life, while those who stay will face a suffocating environment and a further centralization of resources. What remains to be seen is whether Hungarian politics still has any reserves (both intellectual and material) to build up credible alternatives which would restore some of the fundamentals of democracy – if nothing else, then a spirit of open competition and a mutual demand for a healthy public discourse would be badly needed.
Photo source: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/4/4/hungarys-orban-hails-great-victory-after-landslide-poll-win