With the elections held this Sunday, April 8, Hungarian democracy has arrived at an important turning point. After the overwhelming victory of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán—his third in a row—the outlook for Hungary’s opposition has never looked so grim. Despite some short-lived hopes of an upset before the election, Hungarian voters chose not to dismiss the right-wing Fidesz government, instead rejecting the opposition as a whole. The result will only further enhance the legitimacy of Orbán and his brand of exclusionary, populist paternalism for the foreseeable future, while the opposition will need to rebuild itself from the ground up. Bearing in mind the existing systemic advantage of Fidesz and the seriously uneven political playing field, it is rather questionable whether this can be done in the next four years—and it remains to be seen what can be preserved from the ruins of Hungary’s once-thriving liberal democracy.
Pre-Election: The Opposition’s Hope
The political prospects of the opposition looked fairly poor throughout 2017. Low electoral support went hand in hand with quarrels both among and within the main left-liberal opposition parties. The deep and overwhelming crisis of the opposition became manifest in October, when the Prime Minister candidate of the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), László Botka, resigned, leaving the Left’s biggest opposition party stuck in a leaderless deadlock.
Things started to change at the end of February, when an independent candidate supported by all opposition parties beat his opponent from Fidesz and was elected mayor of the southeastern Hungarian town of Hódmezővásárhely. The town was formerly one of the most reliable strongholds of the right-wing governing party.
The electoral results in Hódmezővásárhely appeared to be a game-changer. First, they offered a strategy to overcome Fidesz. It was coordination among all the opposition parties—the Left through the Greens up to the radical right-wing party Jobbik, all lining up behind one strong candidate—that allowed them to seriously compete with Fidesz. Second, the results suggested that there was a significant demand in the electorate for such full-fledged coordination to force a government change. Suddenly, opinion polls showed higher support for a new government than for the incumbents, and opposition supporters exerted significant pressure on their party elites to move toward more coordination. All conservative analyses began to predict a moderate Fidesz victory, with losses compared to their showing in 2014. There was even a faint hope that with effective coordination and high turnout, the opposition could win more than 40 out of the 106 constituencies, and thus deny a governmental majority to Prime Minister Orbán.
Both the government and opposition campaigns were largely monothematic. The former neglected nearly any references to important issues like health care, education, or even the prospective policy plans of the government. Instead, Fidesz’s messaging focused nearly exclusively on migration and its attendant threats, with repeated denunciations of the liberal “fifth column” of the investor and philanthropist George Soros, who was repeatedly accused of intervening in Hungarian domestic affairs. The opposition’s discourse, meanwhile, fixated on the systemic corruption of the regime. This topic initially appeared to resonate with the electorate, but the opposition parties failed to offers voters their own vision of Hungary’s future. And due to the dominant position of the government-linked media outlets, especially in the countryside, the left-liberal opposition parties in particular faced huge difficulties in reaching a large segment of the Hungarian electorate.
Nevertheless, the opposition parties’ inability to coordinate and the hidden mobilization capacity of Fidesz turned out to be the two decisive factors of the election. Even after several weeks of negotiations, there were ultimately only three constituencies where one candidate was supported by all the left-liberal opposition parties against their Fidesz and Jobbik counterparts. The voters could hardly keep track of the parties’ complex cooperation schemes and their confusing withdrawal of candidacies. Despite the optimistic predictions of some analysts, party elites greatly overestimated the electorate’s readiness and ability to embrace tactical voting.
Aside from the electoral alliance of the Hungarian Socialist Party and the small green party, Dialogue for Hungary (PM), and their coordination with the Democratic Coalition (DK) of former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, cooperation with other political players—including the major green party “Politics Can Be Different” (LMP) and Jobbik—remained sporadic. It remains a chicken-or-egg question whether the opposition failed to fulfill the electoral demand for strategic coordination among the opposition parties or whether that demand was exaggerated in the first place. The fact remains that ultimately neither the framework for effective coordination nor the electoral will for it materialized on election day.
There was a broad consensus among Hungarian political analysts that Fidesz had the most disciplined and easy-to-mobilize base, but that the party might struggle to effectively reach undecided voters, due to the diffuse but dominant anti-government sentiment among this part of the electorate. From this perspective, Fidesz’s advantages could have been overcome by the effective mobilization of the opposition and a turnout rate above 70 percent.
However, the cold figures of the election outcome clearly refuted this assumption. The by-election in Hódmezővásárhely set off an alarm bell for Prime Minister Orbán, and Fidesz was able to effectively mobilize undecided voters in the countryside. The high turnout, widely seen as the opposition’s silver bullet ahead of the election, was in reality a double-edged sword. Fidesz easily gained 300,000 votes more than it did in 2014, frustrating the mobilization advantage of the opposition. By the end of election day, Prime Minister Orbán’s party had exactly the same number of seats as it did in 2014: 133 out of 199, just enough for the constitutional two-thirds supermajority.
Capturing 91 out of the 106 individual constituencies and 48.49 percent of party list votes at a turnout higher than 70 percent, Orbán won a landslide victory that will grant him a strong mandate. The final results will only be released on April 12, due to the large number of ballot cast by mail or at embassies abroad, but only a slight change of one to three seats is expected from the election day tally. The only open question is whether Prime Minister Orbán will be able to govern with a new constitutional majority, allowing him to fill important vacant positions during the new legislative period and advance with his project of authoritarian state-building, or whether he will be forced to seek compromises with at least one party in the opposition rows.
Despite the monothematic messaging of his campaign, Orbán’s success cannot be explained by one single factor, be it xenophobia, fear of immigration, the economy, or anything else. The key is his flexible, magic formula of semi-authoritarian populist paternalism, predicated on the public’s subordination to a strong state that takes care of “the people” in both a material and psychological sense. Psychologically speaking, Orbán allows the people to express their innate, irrational fears, often tinged with xenophobia, greed, and outright hate. His politics are tailor-made for the attitudinal structures of post-Soviet Central and Eastern Europe. Orbán offers his supporters self-fulfillment by flattering their prejudices, while liberating the individual from the burden of his or her individual responsibility in a political, economic, and even a broader social sense.
Although the right-wing radical party Jobbik remained the largest opposition party, it suffered a strategic defeat in the April 8 elections. It lost its strongholds in northeastern Hungary and only won one single-seat constituency, ending up with 26 seats overall and receiving approximately the same number of party list votes as in 2014 (barely above 1 million ballots). Compared to the party’s 23 seats in the previous legislature, these results may not seem disappointing at first glance. In the light of Jobbik’s political ambitions, however, they most certainly are. Failing to deliver a promised change in government, party chairman Gábor Vona resigned in the aftermath of Sunday’s election. His departure also highlights the end of Jobbik’s mainstreaming strategy. To counter the significant losses among the party’s former traditional electorate, the new leadership will navigate Jobbik back to the radical Right segment of the political spectrum—which will shift Hungary’s political center of gravity rightward as well.
The political Left, constituted by the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) and the Democratic Coalition, also seriously underperformed expectations, earning 20 and nine seats, respectively, with their electoral support standing at 12.35 and 5.58 percent. The president of MSZP also resigned after the electoral defeat, leaving the party vulnerable to political and institutional chaos. The real question is whether the biggest party on the progressive Left can survive at all. Its overall disintegration is just as plausible as its being overtaken by Ferenc Gyurcsány and his Democratic Coalition. If the merger with DK happens, it might result in an overall deadlock for the progressive parties, due to the highly divisive character of ex-Prime Minister Gyurcsány, and may block the renewal of the Hungarian opposition for a long period of time.
The green party “Politics Can Be Different” (LMP) won eight seats and received 6.93 percent of the party list votes. On the one hand, LMP once again secured its survival without official coordination with the Left, which would have undermined the party’s moral integrity in the eyes of much of its core electorate. On the other hand, LMP is widely seen as bearing the chief responsibility for the failure of the coordination among the opposition parties. This could constrain the party’s opportunity to expand among undecided voters and doom LMP to a perpetual existence as a small, niche party.
The newcomer libertarian youth party Momentum, established in March 2017, was able to gather 2.84 percent of party list votes and is therefore entitled to public party financing. Although Momentum is also likely to face a leadership crisis, the new financial support can guarantee the party’s survival. The newcomers of Hungarian politics may thus be able to contribute to the future renewal of the Hungarian progressive spectrum, if they can overcome their internal political and personal struggles.
Considering his record of radicalization since 2010, the regime of Viktor Orbán apparently lacks any ability to moderate. It maintains its stability by constantly centralizing power while dominating the political agenda through the invention of new public enemies. There is no reason to expect any kind of self-moderation from the regime after the elections. The European conservative politicians who hope otherwise are engaging in wishful thinking, blind to the realities of Orbán’s past eight years in power.
In his March 15 national holiday speech, Prime Minister Orbán publicly threatened his opponents, mostly representatives of the critical civil society and media, implying he would get even with them after the national elections. Just one day after the ballot, the spokesperson of the Fidesz parliamentary group announced the intention to pass the “Stop Soros” bill in May, aimed at further restricting the functioning of foreign-funded NGOs associated with the Open Society network and introducing sanctions against their representatives and employees. If that happens, it will undoubtedly contribute to the increasing authoritarianization process in Hungary, which has set its sights on the country’s remaining checks and balances: critical civil society, the remnants of free media, and fundamental freedoms of association and the press.
Sunday’s elections should be a final wake-up call for Hungary’s Transatlantic and European allies to consider standing up against the erosion of liberal and democratic values in the West. The risk posed by Budapest within the European Union and NATO is not imminent, but it should not be underestimated either. The Hungarian government might seem flexible and ready for compromise when it comes to European and foreign affairs, but it can also play spoiler, increasing both the level of uncertainty as well as the transaction costs in the European decision-making process. Concerning the domestic developments, key international partners should reconsider whether the founding values of the NATO and European Union, like the rule of law or pluralist, fair democratic competition, play any systemic role in these organizations, and how a semi- (or even full-fledged) authoritarian system in the heart of Europe with strong, friendly ties to both Moscow and Beijing may affect the functioning of these organizations.
The words widely used to describe the current malaise of Western liberal democracies—rhetorical invocations of the “populist” or “illiberal” threat—fall far short of capturing the dire situation in Hungary. As the election monitoring mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) announced on April 9, the government “diminished the ability of voters to make an informed choice” due to “pervasive overlap between state and Fidesz party resources, undermining contestants’ ability to compete on an equal basis.” As this statement suggests, Hungary no longer has a rule of law problem so much as a very serious democracy problem. The country’s democratic political competition is being systematically undermined; any prospective deterioration of the situation in the future can only tend toward the authoritarian.
Key international partners might appear reluctant to influence domestic affairs in Hungary, but in spite of all their concerns they should remember that they have both the responsibility and the tools at their disposal to do so. The European Union possesses remarkable financial and institutional leverage over Budapest, while the United States has serious information leverage. According to reports published during the Hungarian election campaign, the FBI has significant intelligence about the structure and functioning of a Hungarian state-led money-laundering network, which allegedly transforms bribes paid for the political influencing of EU Cohesion Fund tenders in Hungary into legal fortunes, both in Hungary and abroad, via “hawala” transactions through Islamic banks. Disclosure of some part of this information could have a significant impact on the Orbán regime’s international reputation, and could have a catalytic affect prompting EU investigation into the case as well.
The Hungarian electorate, once responsible for pioneering the country’s democratic transition, has failed to halt the country’s slide into authoritarianism. Ultimately, it is now up to Hungary’s key partners to raise the red flag, and externally guarantee a minimum standard of rule of law and fair democratic competition allowing prospective changes in political power. They must be reminded that they have both the reasons and the means to do so.