Viktor Orbán’s right-wing populist Fidesz party won a third consecutive term in office with a two-thirds majority in the Hungarian parliamentary election of April 2018. Orbán is known for building an “illiberal state”, which he officially announced in the summer of 2014. Since his coming into power in 2010, Hungary has been awarded consistently lower scores in freedom and human rights reports, with the Human Freedom Index, the most comprehensive of its kind, ranking it last in Central Europe and the Baltics and 44th in the world in 2015, compared to 28th in 2010. Experts criticize the Orbán government for its systematic erosion of the rule of law, its control over large part of the media, and its excessive corruption; trends which are likely to continue with Fidesz’s new supermajority.
Although Fidesz dominated the election campaign with its anti-immigrant and anti-Soros campaign, the party’s landslide victory came as a surprise to most. Polls predicted the victory of Fidesz with an absolute majority, but few would have thought that Fidesz could win yet another two-thirds majority. It was conventional wisdom that Fidesz is overrepresented and the opposition underrepresented in polls, and pollsters considered Fidesz’s support base to be limited. As a result, high turnout was believed to benefit the opposition, so much so that some suggested that a turnout of over 70% could even endanger Fidesz’s absolute majority.
On 8 April, with a turnout of 70,22%, Fidesz received 48% of the popular vote and gained 133 of the 199 seats in Parliament. Far-right Jobbik came in second with 19% of the votes, followed by the parties of the left: the MSZP-Párbeszéd-Liberálisok alliance (12%), LMP (7%), and DK (5%). The results show that Fidesz could in fact expand its support base and mobilize hundreds of thousands more than predicted, while support for opposition parties more or less matched estimates.
The differences in the socio-demographic attributes of the parties’ support bases throw light on the dividing lines in Hungarian society. Fidesz is most popular among those over 30, the less educated, and those living in smaller settlements in the countryside. Democratic opposition parties, in contrast, attract almost exactly the opposite of this crowd: the young, the university educated, and the residents of Budapest and large cities. The socialist MSZP and DK, whose politicians have been in politics for much longer than those of the new, smaller opposition parties. These two parties are overrepresented among those aged 60 or older. Jobbik supporters fall between the two extremes: most of their voters come from among the young secondary-school educated who live in provincial towns, mainly in the north-east of the country.
Thus, on the one hand, voters are divided in terms of age: younger parties and politicians, such as Momentum and Jobbik, attract young people, and older parties, such as MSZP and Fidesz, appeal more to the older generations, whether they are left-leaning or right-leaning. On the other hand, there is a division between voters of the government and the liberal opposition: while the former is supported by those over 30, the less educated, and those living in small settlements; the latter is more attractive to the young, the university-educated and the residents of large cities and the capital. What could be the reasons behind such societal divisions and election results?
The Hungarian election system
One obvious reason is the election system that the Fidesz government put in place in 2013, most of whose elements benefit either the right or the biggest party – both of which are now Fidesz. In this system Fidesz won 67% of the mandates with only 48% of the votes.
Fidesz used his media influence for emotional politics
Fidesz could also mobilize its supporters better than any other party. Part of this mobilization success can be explained by the fact that much of the media is under the control of the state or persons close to Fidesz, which left little room for the opposition to communicate its message to its potential voters. What is even more important, Fidesz had a clear and concise narrative in which Orbán appears as the strong-handed leader who is the only person capable of protecting Hungarian people from the flood of migrants supported by Hungarian-American financier George Soros. This narrative is so well thought-out that the governing party seems to succeed in explaining any and all developments in the world with it, while it also presents Orbán as the only viable alternative.
The opposition had a programme, but not a vision
While the opposition parties, unlike Fidesz, each came out with a programme, they had no vision for the country beyond restoring the institutions of the very liberal democracy that is facing challenges all over Europe. What is more, the opposition was unable to react even to the government’s narrative about the threat of migration or to its campaigns against George Soros, the EU and the UN. Once Fidesz built a controversial fence along the southern border of the country to keep refugees and migrants out, opposition leaders were fast to promise that the fence would stand even if they won the election, claiming that it would be a political suicide to say otherwise what with the popular anti-immigrant sentiment and general fear. Most SSA opposition parties left the issue of migration completely out of their programmes, leaving possibly the most emotionally loaded, and therefore the most influential, issue of the campaign on the table.
The opposition has lost small settlements
Not only has the opposition left emotional politicking to Fidesz, they also gave up the countryside to the governing party. Since the MSZP government came into power in 2002, the socialist party has been gradually losing small settlements to Fidesz with its policies. MSZP’s failure to visit, understand, attract and mobilize these people continued into the lead-up to this year’s election, while newer opposition parties have so far been unable to attain significant presence outside Budapest, with the notable exception of Jobbik.
In small settlements where education, work and media access are limited, many feel that their more prosaic needs are not considered by the opposition and fear that the occasional support and the public works programmes that Fidesz introduced will be abolished if the opposition was to govern. Others are simply afraid of migrants and believe, not least thanks to the media close to Fidesz, that the opposition wants to allow them into the country. For those whose existential fears – be they of poverty, unemployment or migrants – far outweigh the problematic of governmental corruption and institutional malfunctioning, the opposition had little to offer in the campaign. Since the urban elite interested in the appeals of the opposition constitutes a very limited minority, the opposition failed to mobilize any voters beyond its usual support base.
The trap of coordination and strategic voting
Due to the nature of the Hungarian election system, a highly fragmented opposition had slim chances of winning, and some civil society organizations together with opposition media and sympathizers increasingly pressured opposition parties to cooperate in the election in some manner. Although full coordination was ruled out quickly, MSZP, Párbeszéd and Liberálisok agreed to stand for election together, and the alliance decided to coordinate its constituency candidates with DK so that together they would have only one candidate in every constituency. Since no agreement was likely to be reached about constituency candidates with other opposition parties, civil society started to push strategic voting, a tactic which posits that opposition voters should vote for the candidate most likely to win the constituency to minimize the majority of Fidesz and maximize the number of opposition mandates.
What all this resulted in was even more conflicts among opposition parties than there had been before, and little to no room to talk about anything but coordination when it came to the opposition. Moreover, the failed attempts at cooperation gave every opportunity for the media close to Fidesz to depict the opposition as petty and incompetent and hold it up for ridicule.
As the above analysis shows, the election system, Fidesz’s media control, emotional appeals and the opposition’s lack of alternative vision, presence and support in the countryside all contributed to the election results and the divisions in Hungarian society. So what is there to do?
Past example suggests that while Orbán considers popular sovereignty to be his primary source of legitimacy, of all the alleged threats to his power it is his very people that he is the most afraid of. In 2014 we saw hundreds of thousands take to the streets country-wide against plans to introduce an internet tax. In 2017, movement-turned-party Momentum organized the NOlimpia campaign against a bid to hold the 2024 Olympics in Budapest and collected over two hundred thousand signatures – twice the required amount – to bring the issue to a popular referendum. In both cases, the government backed down.
Could such protests mean the demise of the Orbán regime? Possibly, but the anti-government demonstrations underway since the election neither mobilize enough people, nor do they spread beyond the capital, or large cities at best. What is more, there seems to be a split between civil society and the opposition despite their shared goals, with mostly the former organising the protests. With many opposition parties lacking leaders and struggling with intra-party conflicts, opposition parties have a lot to do. Once they reach internal stability, a first step could be for them to expand their support base by actively engaging with the voters that have so far turned away from them in the countryside and offering them a viable alternative.
In addition, they would also need to mobilize these people and take them out to the streets to join those already demonstrating at the call of civil society. However, such protest so far have resulted only in the withdrawal of the proposal at hand, not the resignation of the government. Having seen recent international cases of successful anti-government protests, it seems that beyond country-wide mass protests over a sustained period of time, the other necessary ingredient is that the demotion start with MPs in the Parliament.