Political situation in Hungary after the parliamentary elections in 2018

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was reelected to a third consecutive term after his right-wing Fidesz party won 48 percent of the vote, enough for a two-thirds majority in the parliament. It was a decisive win for Orbán, who in recent years has clashed publicly with the European Union (EU), becoming a forerunner of the illiberal ultranationalism rising not only in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), but throughout the West, too. Orbán`s electoral manifesto consisted of one sentence: „We’ll go on as before.” His messages to Hungarians were: racist propaganda, xenophobia, no refugees, anti-Soros crusade, defending Europe`s Christianity, anti-communism. Orbán has not given interviews and participated in no debates. Orbán’s victory is a product of several factors e.g. the weakening of the liberal democratic system, the success of anti-migration platform, and the extremely big fragmentation of the opposition.

The composition of Hungary’s current parliament is: Fidesz-KDNP won 133 seats out of 199. Jobbik took 26 mandates, the Hungarian Socialist Party-Párbeszéd (MSZP-P) 20, former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Democratic Coalition (DK) 9 and Politics Can Be Different (LMP) 8. Together (Együtt) and the ethnic German minority is represented by a single lawmaker each. An independent candidate has also won a seat. This means that in the newly elected Hungarian parliament 159 seats are now in the hands of the far right (133 for Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz and 26 for the far-right Jobbik party in opposition).

Citizens largely received their information from Orbán’s extremely strong propaganda machine with a minority getting their facts from anti-Orbán social media websites and from communiqués issued by the squabbling and ineffective opposition parties. As a result more votes were cast against the ruling coalition than for it, but a faceless, indistinct mass society and the fragmented opposition provided no real barrier against the focused hate of Hungary’s populists.

The Hungarian electoral system is designed for two main blocs, which does not fit the political structure of the country, and there were seven „major” competing opposition parties, so the result was well-known in advance. Nearly half of the popular vote went to Orbán, the other half was split between small parties. Opposition party leaders (e.g. Gábor Vona of Jobbik, Gyula Molnár of MSZP, Ákos Hadházy Co-Chair of LMP, Péter Juhász of Együtt) have resigned and anti-Orbán demonstrations have sprung up, with EU and Arrow Cross flags demanding for new elections in vain. There were many signs of electoral fraud, but the parliamentary parties did not fight for the detection of fraud quite firmly.

As G.M. Tamás, famous Hungarian philosopher wrote recently in an article: the first legislative move of Orbán`s government has been „the adoption of the Stop Soros Act, which will force human rights groups to register as foreign agents and submit to regular police surveillance, fiduciary controls, and punitive taxes. Groups that have absolutely nothing to do with immigration — those looking after Hungarian citizens’ human rights, advocating education and prison reform, representing the homeless and ethnic and religious minorities, etc. — will be persecuted. And this comes on the heels of the shuttering of the biggest newspapers and radio stations and the shanghaiing of television and the largest-circulation internet journal.”

By the middle of 2018 a completely new political era has been consolidated in Hungary. A limited political pluralism has evolved over the past 8 years, a national radical, but superficial ideologized system, namely a racist and a corrupt one, but lacking a strong world view. Orbán`s regime is an opressive semi-dictatorial system. Modern-day dictators and autocrats, like Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan or Abdel Fattah el-Sisi impose their anti-liberal and antidemocratic rule by securing a majority of votes in general elections and legitimize their illegitimate power through the ballot box. Electoral gerrymandering, curtailing press freedoms and fearmongering create a toxic mix to consolidate rule over the people.

One of the important features of this above system is that politics has become a private one: on the one hand, legislatures and offices serve, in many cases, private interests, and on the other hand decisions are made by excluding the public. The stability of the system is best demonstrated by Orbán’s ability to overthrow the decisive players of political and business life without shock, so the centralized control is not restricted by internal competitions either. Nothing can happen in Hungary unless Orbán decides it should, and everything he decides happens. There is no counterpower, not even in his own party. His will cannot be challenged, his decisions are final, non-appealable, implemented by loyal bureaucrats.

The stability of this system will most probably depend on whether it will be able to respond well if Hungary`s slightly strengthening economy stops. It seems that the imitating bargain of the Kádár system is working well with a large part of society: a modest but steady rise in the standard of living can provide the necessary support for Orbán`s power or at least not have to deal with substantive resistance.

In order to keep the power Orbán needs to eliminate the possibility of resistance in time. This is partly achieved by the expropriation of state institutions and resources, partly by bribery, partly by the control of the press. That is why the ruling power acts hard against the smallest organization to exclude the principle of a viable, non-controlled movement.

In Hungary the bourgeois democracy has not just disappeared, but has gradually lost its reflexes and rules from the Hungarian public life. Attacks against the non-parrliamentary Left become more drastic. An excellent example is the case of Attila Vajnai, Chair of European Left Workers Party 2006 when an independent investigation found that the Hungarian Police violated six fundamental rights during an antifascist demonstration 8 months ago. Nowadays it is completely unrealistic to assume that it would be enough to adjust some undemocratic rules and Hungary became again a full-fledged bourgeois democracy.

The most important development of the Hungarian political scene nowadays is characterized by the fact that practically all of the significant opposition parties have been completely fallen apart, because they are occupied by quite absurd internal wars, their chairpersons are failing, their upheaval seems hopeless. There is only one stable opposition party, namely the Democratic Coalition (DK), headed by ex-PM Ferenc Gyurcsány, which is the only force that Orbán has a serious interest in.

The accountability and the control of the political leaders has virtually ceased in Hungary. If suspicious issues turn out, they will not have consequences. There is hardly any press, where such dubious matters might emerge, and the politics without any stake have made a full apathy.

The ideological superficiality of the Orbán system and the lack of ambition in public affairs are linked to the privatization of the policy. The main purpose of the current regime has become to promote the personal business interests of those in power. This is a self-excelling, circular process. With the acquisition of the country, the top management stabilizes its political power, so it can get more and more goods to further strengthen its political power.

This new Hungarian system is a political private enterprise, and not of some political community’s mission-mindedness.

The first factor in Fidesz’s repeated land-slide electoral victory in 2018 was a general disillusionment with the Socialist government austerity policy before 2010, as well as Fidesz` rewriting of the democratic rules adopting a new constitution, changing the country’s electoral laws, and asserting government control over independent media.

The second factor of Orbán`s victory is that migration was a winning issue. Since the European migrant crisis began in late 2015, migration has trumped all other issues in Hungary—in this respect, Orbán’s 2015 decision to close Hungary’s border and his continued defiance of EU requests to accept refugees have both been politically popular. Migration has proven to be an especially effective tool in mobilizing less educated voters, primarily in rural areas and in cities other than Budapest. Orbán has successfully persuaded his base that only he and his government can protect the country against the „Muslim invasion” and Brussels, George Soros, the Western liberals, and, most recently, the United Nations.

The third major factor behind Orbán’s victory is his own success in uniting the right at a time when the opposition is weak and divided. Orbán has held his camp together for decades, using both economic and cultural nationalism to cement support from the more than two million voters who constitute the Fidesz base. In 2009, Orbán laid out a vision in which Fidesz could remain in power for decades if it was able to establish itself as the „central political force” with the opposition divided into left-wing and far-right blocs. After the collapse of the Socialist Party (MSZP) and the rise of the far-right Jobbik during the 2006–2010 term of parliament, Orbán’s prophecy came true, and Fidesz became the only major party in the Hungarian political landscape.

Not only the opposition is divided between the left and the far right, but the Left itself is highly fragmented, meaning there is no single center-left party comparable to Fidesz’s position on the center-right. Hungary’s Left and liberal opposition parties learned nothing from their 2014 electoral fiasco, in which their failure to coordinate allowed Fidesz to win another supermajority, and this year they cooperated even less than at the last elections. For most of the 2018 campaign—and despite huge pressure from the majority of Hungarian citizens who wanted a change—left-wing and liberal parties competed with each other over who would dominate the Left in the future, rather than working together to replace Fidesz.

A clear indication of this division was the lack of an overarching electoral list that included all left-wing and liberal parties. These parties should have focused all their energies on offering a joint alternative to Orbán’s illiberal regime; instead, there was an intense competition between the socialist MSZP, the left-liberal DK, and the green LMP for the leading position on the Left. These parties joined forces only in a small minority of the country’s single-member constituencies, meaning that in many districts where a united opposition had a chance to win, the opposition vote was split among multiple candidates. Although Fidesz’s majority was never in doubt, the party’s ability to win another supermajority did indeed hinge on the Left’s lack of electoral coordination. Fidesz was therefore able to win two-thirds of the seats in parliament despite receiving less than half of the vote. In smaller settlements some of the anti-Fidesz voters did help Fidesz candidates because they were afraid of losing its support.

The key question now is how Orbán will react to his third consecutive victory. Nothing in the past 8 years suggests that reconciliation will be on the agenda. The weakness of the opposition is likely to keep Fidesz focused on its other enemies—to wit: Brussels, George Soros, the Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), the Central European University, and independent media. The government may also take steps toward further centralization by reducing the power of local governments. The judiciary, which has so far largely managed to preserve its autonomy (the packed Constitutional Court is one vital exception), is also a main target.

On the biggest festival for ethnic Hungarians in Transylvania at Tusványos last week-end, Orbán delivered his annual speech. He has launched the European Parlamentary campaign and considered Central Europe as a political force that makes his role inevitable. One of Orbán`s future visions is that Hungary will become one of the most competitive countries of the EU. The essence of his speech can be summarized in three points:

1.) Fidesz` governmental conquest will continue in all political, economic and social fields;

2.) In exchange of security the fundamental human rights, e.g. freedom must be given up;

3.) Orbán wants to play a leading role of a Putinian, far right EUP campaign. „We are the future of Europe” he declared. The next EU parliamentary elections will be decisive for the future of a „Christian Europe” and a battle against „liberal democracy” heralding the defeat of elites over immigration and a shift to the nationalist right wing he predicted.

Orbán extended this concept to a pan-European level by basically approving all the statements of Putin’s propaganda from the declining West to the paralytic EU, through the importance of abandoning Ukraine and the lifting of sanctions against Russia and the harm of fake news. Finally he repeated the favorite mantra of the Russian and Western extreme right, according to which the freedom of speech was lost in the West.

These are huge concerns for all Hungarians who disagree with Orbán’s politics. From an international perspective, however, the most important strategic issues are how far Orbán will go in his criticism of the EU and obstruction of common European policies and how much interference he will be willing to accept from Brussels, which has stepped up its criticism of his government in recent years. In last June at the EU leaders` summit Orbán announced a political tug-of-war on the sidelines, telling President Macron that Europe’s destiny would play out between the two of them, „the populist and the European”. Orbán told him that there would „only be two winners” from the EU elections next May – himself and the French President – but that he would be “the biggest winner of all”.

On the European side, the question is to what extent the continent’s leaders—especially those in Fidesz’s European People’s Party—will tolerate the Hungarian government’s increasingly authoritarian policies. If the EU’s powerful center-right alliance keeps on providing political cover for the autocratic rule of Orbán, Hungary’s democratic backsliding, dissemination of misinformation about Brussels, and misuse of EU funds will surely continue. The interest of the whole European Left is to make a joint action against Orbán’s regime in a definite defense of human rights.

Budapest, 17th September 2018.

Compiled by Matyas Benyik

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