Lessons from Hungary’s election — and challenges for its future

Guest post by Dániel Kiss


Last Sunday Hungary had a paradoxical election. Politicians and commentators had forecast that this vote would set the future direction of the country. It would determine whether prime minister Viktor Orbán and his nationalistic party Fidesz – Magyar Polgári Szövetség (Fidesz – Hungarian Civic Alliance), would be able to strengthen their hold on power, or the leftist opposition would run Hungary according to more mainstream ideals of capitalism and liberal democracy. In fact the election turned out to be something of a flop, with only 61.2% of the electorate casting their vote. Only one parliamentary election in the country saw a lower rate of participation since democracy was restored in 1989.Hungary Flag Icon

The results too were paradoxical. Opinion polls had forecast a major victory for Fidesz. Some commentators had chosen to disbelieve them, as they thought that a significant number of voters would not feel free to say that they would be voting against a party that is known to have punished its opponents. In fact the polls turned out to be correct, and Fidesz won by a broad margin. It is not yet clear exactly how many seats they will win, as some votes (including those of Hungarians living abroad) still have to be counted four days after the election. However, it is likely that they will take 133 of the 199 seats in parliament, or just over two-thirds of the total. That means that they will hold on not only to power, but also to their supermajority of two-thirds of the seats. This supermajority has enabled them to change every law of the country since 2010, and to enact a new constitution that came into power in 2012. The left-wing opposition have not only failed to bring down Orbán’s government, which had been their aim at the election, but they have barely dented his majority in parliament. Orbán celebrated what he called “a victory that shook the sky”.

In fact the results are less favourable for him than they might appear, and they hold risks for all parties concerned. In the previous parliamentary elections of 2010, Fidesz won 52.7% of the national vote. This time the party only won 44.3%, according to the most recent figures, despite the strong support of ethnic Hungarians living abroad, who were enfranchised by Fidesz in 2011. The left-wing opposition coalition, consisting of the Magyar Szocialista Párt (MSzP, Hungarian Socialist Party) and four recently founded small parties, won 26.2%, which is significantly better than the 19.3% won by the Socialists in 2010. The other large force opposing Fidesz, the far-right-wing Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom (Jobbik), also increased its share of the national vote from 16.7% to 20.7%, while the green liberal party Lehet Más a Politika (LMP, ‘Politics Can Be Different’)  saw its share fall from 7.5% to 5.3%, which is just above the threshold of 5% that is required to send deputies into parliament from the national list. Still, this is not a bad result, given that LMP split in 2013 and a number of its deputies founded one of the parties that has allied itself with the socialists.

The success of Fidesz can partly be explained by the continuing appeal to voters of its combination of nationalistic rhetoric with anti-market, statist policies. The party also managed to outmaneuver the Socialists in the run-up to the elections. The Fidesz government forced utility companies to lower their tariffs to private consumers twice by 10%, which met with considerable approval in a country where many people struggle to make ends meet. Moreover, in early February the right-wing daily Magyar Nemzet revealed that Gábor Simon, the vice president of the Socialists, held the equivalent of $1,000,000 in an undeclared bank account in Austria. Subsequent investigations revealed further misdemeanours by Simon, including his ownership of a false passport from Guinea-Bissau, and he was placed under arrest. If there is a way to counter a major scandal so soon before the elections, the Socialists certainly did not find it, and the story appeared to confirm their image as thoroughly corrupt. They were unable to score similar points against Fidesz, and they led a gray and undistinguished campaign.

However, independent observers agree that the Socialists were not playing on a level field. During its four years in power, Fidesz had come to control or influence many branches of the state. Most importantly, it had effectively taken control of public television and radio, which reach a broader public in Hungary than any other media. News coverage during the electoral campaign was consistently favourable of Fidesz. For example the story of the Socialist Simon and his secret bank account was reported in detail, but the public media remained silent about a similar scandal involving Antal Rogán, a prominent Fidesz politician, who turned out to own real estate in Budapest that was worth much more than his declared earnings. Thanks to its domination of the media, Fidesz has been able to set the terms of the political debate.

 No less important were the changes made by Fidesz to the electoral system. The previous system, set up in 1989, followed a German model. It was a mixed system in which citizens delivered two votes: one for a candidate in their local constituency, and another for a list of candidates fielded by a party in their region. A little under half of the delegates in Hungary’s parliament represented a constituency, about 40% were elected on regional party lists, and about 15% were chosen from national party lists following an add-up of votes for candidates who had not won. In local constituencies where none of the candidates reached 50%, all the candidates were eliminated except for the first three, and any others who had reached 15%, and there was a second round of voting. A threshold of 5% applied to the party lists, with the ostensible intent of keeping extremists outside  parliament. This highly complex system favoured large parties over small ones, it normally gave a large premium of seats to the group that won an election, and it encouraged deal-making between parties, who would tactically withdraw candidates in favour of each other between the two rounds of voting in the local constituencies. Fidesz used its supermajority to pass a new electoral law in 2011 that tweaked the system in a number of ways that worked even further in its advantage. While the number of deputies in parliament has been reduced, a slightly greater part of the seats are now awarded by constituency, which favours large parties. The regional party lists for which citizens had voted and the compensatory national lists where unused votes had flowed together have been united, with the significant difference that now the compensatory reckoning also involves unused votes cast for winning candidates, that is to say, all the votes that they received above the one they needed to come first in the field. Without this winner’s reward Fidesz would probably not have received a supermajority of two-thirds at the present elections. And most importantly perhaps, the second round of voting was abolished. This removed the possibility for allied parties to field candidates separately in a constituency, and to withdraw one of them between the two rounds of an election. Now the only way for parties to cooperate is by fielding joint candidates. This change put the leftwing and centrist parties opposing Orbán into a quandary. Either they would field candidates in the constituencies on their own, and very likely they would lose against a strong Fidesz; or else they would have to form a broad alliance, whereby they would risk compromising their independence. After much soul-searching, most of these parties decided to form an alliance, which Fidesz duly attacked as being the vehicle of the ugly faces of the past, such as the corrupt Socialists and the former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, a charismatic but highly divisive figure.

 Its comfortable victory will enable Fidesz to cement further its hold over the country. Instead of presenting an electoral programme, it simply promised doing more of the same. Major steps that it is planning include decreeing a third round of compulsory cuts to private utility bills and rescuing those who made debts in foreign currencies and got into trouble when the Hungarian forint plunged in 2008. Apparently it also intends to set up a national network of shops with the monopoly to sell alcohol (it set up a similar network for tobacco in 2012). Before the next elections it will probably campaign with similar determination, professionalism and ruthlessness. It will also be able to count on the deep pockets of its key supporters, some of whom have benefited from enormous government contracts during the past legislature. It is not in a bad position to fulfil Orbán’s declared intentions of dominating Hungarian politics during the coming decades.

Three threats outline themselves to this plan. One is that the political opponents of Fidesz should gain enough strength to cause real trouble for the party. This would be perhaps too much to expect from the Socialists, who seem to lack the ideas, the energy and the credibility to mount a vigorous campaign. A possible candidate for growth is Együtt 2014 (E14, Together 2014), the party set up recently by Gordon Bajnai, a technocrat who was prime minister in 2009-10 and is relatively well-regarded by the public. A rather different threat for Fidesz would be Jobbik, the far-right party that has been gathering weight gradually, especially in the depressed northeast and in traditionally right-wing areas of the countryside, where it is now the main opposition party. It is the question whether Jobbik will grow further – many regard its ideology as extreme and its programme as risky or foolish, but its vigour and frankness may appear attractive when compared to the mercenary grandees of Fidesz and the tired apparatchiks of the Socialists. Jobbik may not be likely to get a parliamentary majority, but it could well become even stronger than it is now.

It may be helped in that by demographics, which is the second major threat to the rule of Fidesz. In an aging society such as that of Hungary, pensioners represent a large part of the electorate, and politicians cater to their wishes. But the key to the future lies with the young – and polls show that today’s twenty-somethings in Hungary have very different political preferences from society at large. Most popular among them is Jobbik; it is followed by the green LMP. In this section of the population at least, the two protest parties have utterly beaten Fidesz and the Socialists, which receive minimal support. Will this generation mellow when they grow up, or will they cause Hungarian politics to shift further to the right?

But the greatest threat to Fidesz may well come from within. Its financial resources and its party machine are unparalleled within Hungarian politics, as a result of which it easily outguns and outmaneuvers its rivals. Where it falls short is in its sense of reality. This is the most apparent in the long series of picturesque errors that have been made by Fidesz appointees. Lajos Kósa, the mayor of Hungary’s second largest city, and Péter Szijjártó, the spokesman of the prime minister, caused the Hungarian forint to plummet when they declared in 2010 that the country could soon become bankrupt. The former chief of staff of György Matolcsy described in a book that when he (Matolcsy) was minister of economic affairs, he divulged insider information about an impending step of the government to Goldman Sachs executives, of which they clearly made use to bet on the rise of the forint. Matolcsy is a passionate enemy of “speculants”; evidently he was not aware that he was helping them. Since then he has been made president of the national bank. This cannot only be ascribed to the fact that in a highly hierarchical organisation such as Fidesz loyalty sometimes matters more than competence. It can rather be explained by an observation of the philosopher Ákos Szilágyi, who noted that Fidesz practises politics as a religion. Its creed is based on faith, and especially on daring and willpower, qualities that are often emphasised by Orbán. From such a perspective, even well-meaning critics can seem dangerous fools, who do not understand that the road to success passes through taking big risks. So far Fidesz has been able to confound the sceptics and to manage the risks it has taken on; but there is no guarantee that this will go on forever. Will it create one day a fiasco that will be too big even for its movers and shakers, its spin doctors and its political engineers? Will it cause a crisis that will be too big for it to manage? And if it will, who will pay the price?

Dániel Kiss is a postdoctoral research fellow in classics at University College Dublin. His hometown is Budapest. 

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