István Tóth: Political Landscape in the run-up for the European Parliamentary elections in 2019

Demonstration in front of the Parliament building in Budapest on 8 December 2018.

There are noticeable differences to the 2014 EP elections. The general political trend in Hungary is charcterised by a definite shift to the right due to the semi-dictatorial Fidesz regime.

On 8 April 2018 PM 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. Right after the elections the party composition of the House: the Federation of Young Democrats–Hungarian Civic Alliance and the Christian Democratic People’s Party (Fidesz-KDNP) won 133 seats out of 199. The Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik) took 26 mandates, the election alliance of the Hungarian Socialist Party and the Dialogue Párbeszéd (MSZP-P) got 20, the former PM 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 were taken by the far right (133 for Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz and 26 for the far-right Jobbik party in opposition).

It was a decisive win for Orbán, who in recent years has clashed publicly with the EU, becoming a forerunner of the illiberal ultranationalism rising not only in Central and Eastern Europe, but throughout the West, too. Orbán`s electoral manifesto consisted of only one sentence: „We’ll go on as before.” His messages to the Hungarians were: racist propaganda, xenophobia, no refugees, anti-Soros crusade, defending Europe`s Christianity and 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. Orbán’s recent electoral success has strenghtened his position in Brussels, where Fidesz is part of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), the largest bloc in the European Parliament. While Orbán’s more provocative statements no doubt rankle EPP leaders, it is not lost on them that Fidesz’s eleven MEPs account for nearly half the EPP’s margin over the next largest parliamentary bloc, the Socialists and Democrats.

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, Co-Chairs of LMP, namely: Ákos Hadházy and Bernadett Szél, or 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.

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 was that migration is a winning issue. Since the European migrant crisis began in late 2015, migration had been ahead of 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 voters 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 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. For most of the 2018 campaign—and despite huge pressure from the majority of Hungarians 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.

By the middle of 2018 a completely new political era has been consolidated in Hungary. A limited political pluralism has evolved over the past eight 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. Electoral gerrymandering, curtailing press freedoms and fearmongering create a toxic mix to consolidate rule over the people. There is no counterpower, not even in his own party. Orbán`s will cannot be challenged, his decisions are final, non-appealable, implemented by loyal bureaucrats.

However, we can see a new kind of opposition since early December 2018, which is not an issue of initiative, unity and symbolic politicization. In the last twenty days, the attitude of the opposition to Orbán’s system changed fundamentally.

On 8 December 2018 a wave of mass demonstrations started by the trade unions to protest against the planned changes to the labor law dubbed as „slave law”, which include raising the maximum amount of overtime workers can put in a year from 250 to 400 hours and relaxing other labor rules. The legislation also gives employers three years instead of one to settle payments of accrued overtime. Another amendment allows employers to agree on overtime arrangements directly with workers, by passing collective bargaining agreements and the trade unions.

On 12 December the amendment of labor and other controversial laws amid scenes of chaos were also adopted as opposition MPs attempted to block the podium of the parliament and sounded sirens, blew whistles and angrily confronted Orbán. Hungary’s parliament was thrown into scenes of turmoil. The opposition claimed that the voting procedure was completely against the House Rules and was invalid.

Since 12 December the mass demonstrations have been going on continuously and every night, in average 30-50 people were arrested daily after clashes with the police which was using tear gas. The protests in Budapest and in other towns have never been so violent since Fidesz came back to power in 2010. The protests were led by the so far divided trade unions and opposition parties (including Jobbik) and students, which had been outraged at the reforms Fidesz recently introduced.

Jobbik will run for the EP elections, its programme is titled „Safe Europe, Free Hungary!” The key elements of Jobbik`s program include measures related to ensuring security, managing the migration challenge, focusing on reducing the wage gap, creating a real cohesion, joining the European Public Prosecutor’s Office, stepping up against fake news and protecting Europe’s endemic national minorities. Unlike Fidesz, which has clearly placed a strategic emphasis on inciting confrontation and leading Hungary out of the EU, Jobbik aims for a more seamlessly functioning EU while creating a more democratic and free Hungary; a country which ensures security and predictability in the daily lives of its citizens. Jobbik has started selecting the MEP candidates for its EP election list and the party hopes to publish it in early February 2019.

By mid-2017, a new nationalist coalition emerged on Hungary’s far right, comprised of Outlaw’s Army (Betyársereg), a militant nationalist group and self-described „patriotic sports movement,” along with two other groups, Érpatak Model Nationwide Network (Érpataki Modell Országos Hálózata) and Identitárius Association of College Students (Identitárius Egyetemisták SzövetségeIdentitesz). Given each group’s longstanding if informal ties to Jobbik, the coalition was seen as challenging the ex-leader Vona’s effort to move Jobbik leftward toward Hungary’s political center. The gap created by Jobbik’s recent changes needs to be filled, Fidesz seems to want the new extreme right-wing movement to become a party itself and weaken Jobbik in the national elections.

A new radical nationalist political force, Our Country Movement (Mi Hazánk Mozgalom-MHM), emerged from the dissatisfied Jobbik members as well as from the above mentioned radical nationalist groups. MHM founder László Toroczkai is a former Jobbik deputy chair and the mayor of Ásotthalom whom the party expelled in early June after a failed leadership challenge. Toroczkai was defeated in the ensuing party leadership vote held on 14 April 2018 by the leader of Jobbik’s moderate faction, Tamás Sneider, although by an unexpectedly slim (53.8% to 46.2%) margin. Toroczkai is a political opportunist and a radical nationalist. Launching the new movement, he called for a „White Hungary” and „the Tricolor instead of a muddied rainbow.” Toroczkai wants „answers to real social problems,” including Hungary’s declining birthrate as well as „the issue of immigration and emigration, the status of the EU and Hungary, and Hungarian-Gypsy coexistence.”

A former Jobbik vicepresident Előd Novák was also among the first to follow Toroczkai out of Jobbik as well as the former Jobbik Spokesperson Dóra Duró after she was excluded from the party’s parliamentary group, effectively stripping her of her parliamentary seat. After being expelled from the parliamentary faction, there was little doubt that János Volner, vice-president of Jobbik would announce his exit from the party together with István Apáti and Erik Fülöp. Neither of them has given back his parliamentary mandates.

It was only a matter of time before the trio would join MHM. In the announcement of his resignation, Volner reiterated that Jobbik had carried out an unacceptable „left liberal turn”. According to Volner, Jobbik’s „political focus” is still missing today. While the average person always knew about Fidesz’s focuses (migration in 2018, reduction of state costs in 2014), Vona’s party had never been able to make this message clear for eight years. He now claims that he has urged Jobbik to become a party aiming at the European convergence, in other words catching up Western Europe. Dúró has personally taken steps to amend the parliamentary House Rules which would make it possible to establish a MHM parliamentary faction that did not exist at the time of the Hungarian parliamentary elections.

Toroczkai at the moment poses little real EP electoral threat, save perhaps to Jobbik’s increasingly frantic leaders. But in a neighborhood where opposition to migration is a popular animating theme, he can say little that ultimately is more inflammatory than is said daily by Orbán (when not savaging the billionaire George Soros).

Budapest, 28 December 2018.

István Tóth, Correspondant of Hope not Hate Magazin

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