Against All Odds: Could Primary Elections Be Hungarian Opposition’s Fighting Chance?

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Hungary is the country in which 49,27% of the votes in the 2018 parliamentary elections resulted in a 2/3 majority in favor of the Fidesz party, now in power for already nine years. The Hungarian party system’s biggest party led by prime minister Viktor Orbán is now supported by a little over 30% of eligible voters, and 49% of active voters. As such, Fidesz is expected to dominate the upcoming European Parliament elections same as they did last year’s parliamentary election – If the opposition fails to mobilize their voters.

The Hungarian Opposition and the 2018 Parliamentary Elections

The conflict of interest of individual parties in Hungary proved to be the opposition’s great weakness, the 2018 election results illustrate this perfectly: The national electoral system was shaped by the 2010 Fidesz government to favor large parties, including winner compensation and different types of gerrymandering.

In such an electoral system the only way to contest the governing party is the cooperation of opposition parties and the coordination of candidates and/or lists. This is especially true because of the constituency candidates’ mandates; they grant the winner a great deal of parliament presence, and for these seats a candidate only needs relative majority in the constituency.

In the 2018 elections, the opposition’s strategy was to withdraw local candidates in favor of the strongest opposition candidate. But it was too little too late, and it was hard to negotiate interests between so many parties.

The ideological gap between these parties made it all the more difficult: The two strongest opposition parties are the Hungarian Socialist Party and Jobbik, a former far-right party that (even though lately it’s taken a more centrist approach) is still haunted by its far-right past. This made it hard for one party to resonate with the other’s audience, and brought more uncertainty.

As a result, the current parliament was elected and it gave the governing party great power, which they did not hesitate to use to further shape Hungarian politics to their image.

The Current Situation

The passing of the new “overtime bill”, also referred to as “the slave law”, in which the number of possible overtime hours that can be given to an employee was increased, caused public and media outrage in Hungary.

It was a good incentive for opposition cooperation. Opposition forces, including Jobbik and the socialists, liberal and green parties, joined each other in protests against the bill and against the methods of the Orbán-government in general.

This new situation helped the opposition organize itself, and had set the mood for the institutionalization of primary elections among opposition parties, which has already been in talks since last year.

Primary Elections: The Initiative

Before anything, it is important to note that the focus of political parties this year is actually divided between two elections: the EP elections in May, and the upcoming local elections this fall.

With the opposition parties more in unity, talks about primary elections (or primaries) for the 2019 municipal elections were initiated by MSZP (the Hungarian Socialist Party) in the form of a proposal to have primaries for candidates running to be lord mayor of Budapest, the capital city of Hungary.

The first attempt to institutionalize any form of primary election in the current political system, even though independent think tanks (like Republikon Institute itself) put forward the idea years ago. With the proposal, a lot of important questions were addressed such as “Who is eligible to vote in the primaries for Budapest, lord mayor?”, “Who would supervise the election?”, “Who could be trusted to count the votes?”, and so on.

This time, the proposal met with support from several opposition actors; several candidates stated that, should the pirmaries take place, they would participate and take the result as binding, and would offer their support to the winning candidate.

Following the negotiations between the actors, the first round of primaries already took place in early February: Former MSZP-P candidate for prime minister, Gergely Karácsony, faced socialist candidate Csaba Horváth, whom he beat by a landslide. He is set to face Róbert Puzsér, among possibly others, in the second round of primaries this summer, deciding who will go up against Fidesz supported István Tarlós, the current lord mayor of Budapest for nine years.

This election will be a crucial defining factor of the political field in Hungary for the next few years, as this battle for the position is symbolic in Hungarian common talk.

Primary Elections: Why Is It Significant?

At a conference organized by Republikon Institute with the support of Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom held this February, the invitees were discussing the first round of primaries and the chances for the future.

Invitees like Milosz Hodun from Warsaw and Zora Jaurová from Bratislava, among others, all emphasized the importance of cooperation, with examples of success from their home cities’ local elections, also discussing the Hungarian outlook in Budapest.

At the conference, the audience had their doubts about the primary election race between opposition candidates, saying that their programs are too similar and the competition between them might ruin the chances of a well-functioning cooperation down the road. To this, the conference’s Hungarian invitees – political analysts and researchers from different think tanks and research institutes – answered by saying the primary election is the best available tool for involving people in the decision-making. The candidates are not chosen behind closed doors, or during talks between parties that often prove to be more harmful than useful.

The invitees agreed that the institution of primary elections is a working formula, and a possible right answer to the unfairness of the current electoral system, it is only up to the opposition actors and parties to agree on using it, and the opposition media to cover it professionally.

Starting with the previously covered local elections this fall, and the Budapest lord mayor’s office especially, the first (baby) steps were taken, already resulting in about 7,000 votes, for Csaba Horváth, the first round’s losing candidate; votes that could have gone to him again in the local elections – and with that, possibly down the drain, to now go to another opposition candidate, when the local elections come.

Without knowing the results of the EP elections, and the effect it might have on internal politics, we can state that in any event, beating István Tarlós in the race for lord mayor’s office would be a huge win for the Hungarian opposition; what’s more, a proof that the institution of primary elections (in any election) can bring results eagerly desired by the Hungarian opposition after the 2018’s defeat.

Even If Tarlós wins in the end, or in case of a future parliamentary election, Fidesz wins in a close race, still the opposition will have done a good job by creating contest after nine years of uncontested Fidesz dominance.

Many undecided voters would see that there is an alternative for Fidesz; and creating competition, even If it isn’t enough in itself to overthrow the Fidesz government and their increasingly popular wartime rhetoric, creating competition in itself will force them to take the opposing opinions into consideration, which in the future will allow the parliament’s opposition to fulfill their role of keeping the government in check, as expected in a functioning democracy.

Not only that, but it would also inspire future opposition parties to create competition.

Marton Schlanger
Republikon Institute