Could a united opposition knock Orbán off course?

By József Veress & Tamás Veress
12 March 2018
How does Fidesz – a party driven solely by the interests of its leaders and their oligarchs – remain the most popular party in Hungary after two terms in government?
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Hungary will hold its parliamentary elections on the 8th of April, 2018, with polls currently projecting the incumbent Fidesz (Hungarian Civic Alliance) to receive 53% of the vote, among those who are most likely to vote and have a preferred party. The projected runner-up is extreme right Jobbik (18%), while the rest of the votes are set to be divided among the so-called ‘democratic opposition’ – the Hungarian Socialist party (11%), the Democratic Coalition (9%), the Politics Can Be Different party (6%) and other small formations – like Together and Momentum – forecasted to grab around 1% each.

How does a government, solely driven by the interests of the Fidesz party leaders and their supporting oligarchs retain its popularity after two terms in power?

Hungary is a young autocracy. Since 2010, when Fidesz won the elections by a landslide, gaining a supermajority within the Parliament, the country has witnessed a systemic destruction of institutions fundamental to democracy. Without the need for consensus Fidesz law-makers moved fast, facing no resistance. In its first five years, the government passed more than 1000 laws, at least 88 of which took a week or less between their introduction and being voted upon. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was able to appoint his preferred candidates to lead Hungary’s main media regulators and with most of the media outlets in the hands of Fidesz allies (oligarchs), they are operating as disseminators of propaganda rather than journalism.

Checks and balances have been diminished to mere decorations. Former Fidesz politicians lead the state audit office and the state prosecution service; Orbán supporters control the national fiscal council; judges of the constitutional Court are also selected by Fidesz, as the party gave itself total power in selecting the candidates. At other levels of the justice system a longtime friend of the prime minister has final say over which judges are appointed to senior positions. Carefully tailored gerrymandering and new election rules that disproportionately favour the winner give the party the upper hand. Following the 2014 elections Fidesz – despite receiving 570,000 fewer votes than in 2010 – secured 67% of the parliamentary seats (by receiving 45% of the votes). “The election law does not correspond to democratic features,” said Imre Voros, a founding member of the Hungarian constitutional court, “and Hungary is therefore not a democratic country.” An interesting question to consider is whether if and when the nation reaches the point where Fidesz cannot be moved from power through democratic tools, would radical reactions – such as the boycott of elections – appear on the public agenda?

Devastating statistics in the spheres of healthcare, education and social policy, and a growing understanding of the extent of institutionalised state corruption, are either simply ignored by the government or presented to the public as a process of positive development. The institution of crony capitalism means the government, through its supporting oligarchs’ media establishments, dominates public discourse through publicly financed media campaigns like the STOP Soros and Let’s Stop Brussels operations. These campaigns are designed to legitimate the strong and ever-centralising state as a singular ‘line of defence’ against the ‘millions of immigrants’, supposedly descending on Europe from Africa and the Middle East through organisations financed by George Soros, the billionaire investor of Jewish Hungarian origin.

Fidesz systematically avoids producing a manifesto that proposes remedies for the everyday challenges experienced by the people. Instead, its strategy is to position itself as the ultimate patriot – in Hungary and also in Europe – able and willing to defend Christianity and conservative values, against the ‘immigrant hordes’. In the words of the prime minister, “the main question over the next few decades is this: will Europe remain the continent of the Europeans?” He has also claimed that “Brussels, which is under the influence of the Soros empire, opened fire on Hungary”. The influence of these hate campaigns cannot be understated. In December 2017, a Fidesz MP posted a photo of a group of people standing next to a slaughtered pig at their feet, “He was Soros” carved in its skin in metallic ink. When asked about the affair, Orbán replied that the government does not deal with pig slaughters. In September 2017, a group from the village of Őcsény threatened the life of a local guesthouse owner, slashed his tires, and vowed to do all they could to prevent him from providing shelter to refugee families. Orbán responded that he did not see anything wrong with the town’s actions.

Above average economic growth – fueled by a favorable international environment, high domestic consumption and, in particular, a booming (and dangerously overheated) construction sector – helps further boost Fidesz’s popularity. Family benefit schemes and a flat rate of income tax are of great benefit to the rich, while penalising the poor. A significant shortage of skilled labor has pushed wages up, with a palpable economic impact, although Hungary presents a lower level of growth than its neighbors. Fidesz has introduced a public employment scheme, formally intended to help the unemployed to find work. However, research by the Hungarian Science Academy shows the programme is failing in its aim to reduce poverty as the longer a person is employed within the scheme, the less likely he or she will be able to find work in the job market. What the scheme does ‘well’ is control the votes of those employed within it, while helping window dress national employment statistics.

What is going on among the opposition?

The second most popular party is the extreme-right Jobbik – a political manifestation of the now outlawed militia, the Hungarian Guard, which was founded by party leader Gábor Vona and known for terrorising Roma communities. It is worth remembering that Jobbik emerged by incorporating the ‘civic circles’ organised on the initiative of Viktor Orbán who, through these networks, was able to influence broad swathes of far-right voters. The strategy aimed to foster collaboration between like-minded parties, summarised with the slogan: “there is one camp there is one flag”. In recent years, Jobbik has moved to reposition itself towards the centre: it no longer publicly supports Hungary leaving the European Union, supports freedom of religion, and no longer clings to Hungary’s pre-Trianon borders. However, no statements have been made by party members to distance themselves from their established far-right identity. By tolerating and encouraging extremism, Fidesz fills up the political vacuum left behind by Jobbik’s ‘moderation’ efforts.

The ‘democratic opposition’ – a term covering all those political parties in opposition, excluding Jobbik – is fragmented. The legacy of two decades of liberal and centre-left governments still seems to be toxic: many who refuse to vote for Fidesz would also not select any of the alternative options. The alliance between the Hungarian Socialist party and Dialogue for Hungary is led by Gergely Karácsony, someone of whom even a quarter of Fidesz voters think positively. Opposition parties – including Jobbik – agree on introducing a national healthcare minimum and a common educational programme if elected, having reached consensus through multiple rounds of discussions, to which Fidesz representatives were invited, but never attended. These policies deal with some of the most depressing issues plaguing contemporary Hungarian society and could appeal to disappointed Fidesz supporters who refuse to follow Orbán to the extreme right.

Support for Fidesz has fluctuated in parallel with its hate campaigns. The party has become less popular among the relatively well educated and wealthier city-dwellers (who have access to alternative news sources beyond government propaganda), while gaining support in small, relatively poor towns (who are most vulnerable to the Fidesz media machine). A recent corruption scandal involving Orbán’s son-in-law and a $1.2m state contract awarded to a company belonging the prime minister’s father might further diminish the party’s voter base, following a two-year investigation by the European anti-fraud office (OLAF).

If the opposition manages to take advantage of this vulnerability and garner attention for policies designed to genuinely benefit the public, election day could hold surprises. In 2002, the polls indicated a clear majority for Fidesz, even up to the very last week before the vote. Voters decided to send them into opposition. Several labor unions, including Budapest public transport, health care workers and municipality employees have threatened to strike if the government does not meet their request for wage increases and improvements to working conditions. This dissatisfaction is reflected in the youth with a wave of student protests, as Fidesz struggles to appeal to the younger generation. On top of this, NGOs and grassroots groups are organising initiatives on social issues neglected by Fidesz, intended to raise public awareness and gain the strength to strong-arm the government – in many cases moving faster than the opposition parties. No single party is popular enough to challenge the government alone, so co-operation is necessary.

Hungary’s population is fairly evenly divided on whether the government should remain in power. Therefore, theoretically, if a single candidate faced Fidesz in every electoral district, a united and co-ordinated opposition could potentially even receive the majority of seats – not least because of an unfair electoral system that favours the winner.


Image: Prime Minister Viktor Orbán
Image credit: northfoto /