What Happened in Hungary’s Election?
Setting the stage
Viktor Orban’s Fidesz Political Party held ⅔ of parliamentary seats since 2010 giving it a ‘super majority’ allowing it the power to change fundamental laws in its favour, most notably the election laws - on April 3rd’s general election they secured yet another supermajority.
Aside from favourable election laws and rules, Fidesz held other significant advantages; its dominance of broadcast and print media, unlimited access to money, and leverage of state institutions to amplify partisan propaganda. All of which are well documented in an OSCE report on the elections. In addition to setting the rules, Fidesz used its incumbency position to its benefit during the elections (its predominance in the media, the unlimited amount of resources applied, the blending of government propaganda, and the Fidesz campaign, as described in the OSCE’s ODIHR report).
While there were calls to boycott elections not to legitimise the farce, the opposition ultimately decided to contest the election, attempting to do things differently with open and transparent primaries among six parties to nominate common candidates. That is how the United Hungary opposition coalition prepared for the national elections.
Prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, the Fidesz campaign focused on three key strategic and message tracks. It did not publicise, present or publish an electoral program, and Orban has not consented to a debate since 2010. Fidesz did not campaign on policy proposals but rather on negative attacks, fear-mongering, outright misrepresentation, and buying votes, using all the levers at their disposal including state media and institutions. Its pre-invasion strategy included:
- Negative campaigning targeting United Hungary: The ruling party repeatedly characterised the united opposition’s PM candidate, Peter Marki-Zay, as a puppet of a previous prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany. Gyurcsany has been the subject of Fidesz demonisation and character assassination for the past fifteen years.
- A hate campaign against the LGBTQ community saying that children need protection from the “gay lobby” that is determined to destroy traditional family values, pressure children to have ‘sex change’ surgeries, and other absurd accusations. Fidesz initiated a referendum with four poorly designed and confusing questions about LGBTQ issues; the referendum took place on election day.
Use of state resources to amplify the ruling party positioning. In February, for example, the government sent a tax refund to all families with at least one child. It was not targeted or means-tested in any way; all people raising children received back the entire amount of their annual tax payment, for which there is a single 16% tax bracket. The middle class benefited significantly from this refund, representing a massive expenditure from the state budget. While many in the opposition decried this as blatant vote-buying, Fidesz rejected the accusation and touted this as evidence of their pro-family outlook. They spun it as ‘Fidesz is protecting families while the opposition supports LGBTQ rights’.
The United Hungary opposition began the campaign with a platform addressing policies in all sectors; economy, education, social policy, etc. Its campaign themes and messages focused on:
- Anti-corruption measures, including Hungary’s accession to the European Union’s Prosecutor’s office.
- Rebuilding democratic institutions, the re-introduction of checks and balances in decision-making processes, the independence of the media, ensuring freedom of expression, the independence of the judiciary, freedom of the civil sector, etc.
- Strengthening Hungary’s engagement with the European Union, reaffirming core EU values such as the rule of law and prohibiting discrimination.
The war changed everything
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the 24th of February changed everything for the opposition and the ruling party in terms of campaign strategy.
While trying to paint Orban as an ally of Putin, the opposition demanded Fidesz make clear its position vis-a-vis the Russian invasion and unity on display in the rest of Europe. Despite Orban initially accepting the common EU position on sanctions and support for Ukraine, even accepting refugees, he also made it clear that this was not “our war, and we will stay out of it”.
Orban was able to pivot the messaging to suggest he was shielding or protecting Hungarians from being dragged into a war they were not involved in. In contrast, the opposition wanted Hungary in the war. Although Orban initially accepted the EU package of sanctions, he used Hungary’s veto to block enhanced EU sanctions on gas and supplying weapons to Ukraine. At an EU summit, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy singled out Orban — “listen Viktor!” — calling on him to reconsider. Zelenskyy compared the massacre happening in Mariupol to historical Hungarian tragedies, and appealed for solidarity from the Hungarian government.
Zelenskyy’s direct appeal to Orban was a significant fork in the campaign. Outside Hungary, people urged Orban to do more and get back onside with EU sanctions and supplying Ukraine, but he doubled down on his messaging. He cast Fidesz as on the side of peace and the opposition as on the side of war. His simple black and white message, while dishonest, worked. The Opposition failed to gain traction with their message of a clear choice between Europe in solidarity with Ukraine or with Russia and Putin.
A Personal perspective
I was naive enough (having lived in Orban’s Hungary and having experienced its brainwashing propaganda machinery) to think the choice was obvious: The opposition is standing on the side of the “good” with Europe, that solidarity with Ukraine must be the natural instinct. Surely no one would believe Orban’s lie about the opposition wanting war (“they want blood instead of gas”); it is beyond absurd. I was wrong.
As election day approached, opinion polls were unclear; some suggested that the opposition and Fidesz were neck-to-neck; others indicated a Fidesz lead of between two to ten per cent. Many analysts believed that pro-Fidesz sentiments were over-represented in polls; people in oppressive regimes do not feel comfortable saying they are not voting for the regime. Many sympathetic to the opposition and their European perspective found some hope in the opinion polls. The consensus (even among Fidesz activists) was that another supermajority (two-thirds of seats in parliament) was unlikely and that there was a slim chance of a bare win for the United Hungary opposition.
The turnout, slightly lower than in 2018, on April 3rd 2022, was 70% (approximately 8.2 million eligible voters).
The results were devastating for the opposition and their supporters. Keeping in mind the five per cent threshold, Fidesz got 53 per cent (their highest result), the united opposition got 35 per cent, and disturbingly the far right (homophobic, xenophobic, and racist) Mi Hazank (Our Country) got 6.5 per cent of the popular votes. The results translated into 135 out of 199 parliamentary seats for Fidesz, which won approximately 100,000 more votes in 2022 than in 2018.
Hungary is deeply divided
The united opposition managed to secure wins in Budapest and two other larger urban centres (Pecs and Szeged), and Fidesz dominated the rest of the country. The map above tells it all: A rural-urban split and a rich-poor split. There is even a significant division between diaspora or out-of-country voters; Hungarian emigrants living abroad (typically young, well-educated people) voted over 70% for the opposition, while 80% of members from Hungarian minorities living in neighbouring countries traditionally vote for Fidesz.
The landslide victory of Fidesz was unexpected even by many in Fidesz. Ultimately there is no single reason for the result; rather, it is a collection of deliberate actions and happenstance that Orban and Fidesz won. Here we will examine what we believe to be the most significant reasons the opposition failed to make any gains.
David tried, Goliath prevailed
First, the unlevel playing field hobbled the opposition out of the gates. It was up against all the state's resources, media, and money available to the ruling party. The opposition did not shrink and weasel out by boycotting to its credit. Opposition parties knew what they were going against, understood the challenge, and demonstrated commendable determination, creativity, and energy - but it wasn’t enough. David tried to defeat Goliath against the odds. However, the extent of Fidesz’s victory can not be (exclusively) explained by their dominance of the media or use of state resources for partisan purposes, or their unlimited access to financial resources, or their manipulation of electoral laws and regulations - because the opposition failed to consolidate opposition voters.
The strategy didn’t translate
While the unity of opposition parties worked in the Budapest elections, it didn’t work in the national elections. Many opposition voters didn’t vote for the United Hungary coalition as they did for the individual parties in 2018. The inclusion of Jobbik, the second-largest party in the 2018 parliament, did not result in their votes going to the united opposition.
In 2018, without a coalition, opposition parties collectively won more than Fidesz; this time around they lost 850,000 votes, suggesting the magic bullet agreed to by a united opposition did not work.
Orban characterised the coalition as a ‘swill’, a toxic mix of diverse actors and parties. Clearly, supporters of all of the six parties didn’t vote for the united opposition. Perhaps they disliked an individual candidate in their electoral district, a particular party or leader, or just didn't agree with the coalition as a concept. Political activists may have loyalty to their party but lose all vigour when asked to work for or vote for a party or candidate they fought previously. The coalition leadership did not manage to propel their supporters to the polls; they failed to convince them to hold their noses and vote.
Fear drove Orban’s voters to the polls
The “war or peace” campaign of Orban worked well. He played to people's fears, and the opposition failed to neutralise the simple choice. People are understandably scared about what is going on in neighbouring Ukraine and don’t want that visited upon them. Voters heard unrelenting propaganda suggesting the opposition would send their sons to war. While earning the scorn of the international community, Orban played Zelenskyy’s challenge to effect in Hungary — he did what many thought insane in criticising Zelenskyy - The Fidesz campaign and all its machinery amplified the message that “He (Zelenskyy) wants to drag us into war.” Orban dismissed the Ukrainian President by saying, “he is just an actor; I am a lawyer.” We note that Zelenskyy earned a law degree from the Kryvyi Rih National University, although he never practised law.
Fidesz’s stranglehold in rural Hungary
Fidesz undeniably holds a great deal of support from rural Hungary, despite seeming counter-intuitive. Rural populations are less wealthy and enjoy less access to health and services to which urban dwellers have ready access, so surely they would want change. However, rural communities tend to be conservative by nature, learn self-reliance and may be less tolerant of perceived special treatment afforded others (such as immigrants). Orban’s populist nationalism resonates and wins votes in rural communities.
The opposition message of Hungary in Europe resonated in urban centres where businesses, education, and intellectuals connect to Europe. But in rural communities, Europe is perhaps understood as ‘a distant place’, a foreign entity with values that rural Hungarians do not share. And as long as deep poverty and social exclusion exist to the extent that it does in Hungary, political parties will always exploit them. In other words, eliminating mass social exclusion is a condition of democracy.
What to expect
To put it simply: Orban received validation on April 3rd; People approve of what he’s doing and should continue doing it. If there is anything left to steal, this will give avarice licence to the small clatch of kleptocrats and oligarchs around Orban. They will use all means at their disposal, and with a ⅔ supermajority, everything is at their disposal to limit opposition, ramp up nationalistic rhetoric, and further erode democratic rights. Fidesz will receive encouragement and support from the extreme right party, Our Homeland, which split from the Jobbik party that was part of the coalition of parties in United Hungary.
Hungary may move even closer to the orbit of Russia (though, given the FSB’s access to the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, it is hard to fathom a closer relationship); most certainly Orban will continue his anti-EU rhetoric and may become isolated as a result. Once close allies in Poland are distancing themselves from Orban (and the other Visegrad Four countries) because of his public Russia-friendly position on the invasion of Ukraine. However, he will strengthen his friendships with old friends outside but on the periphery of Europe, such as Alexander Vucic, the newly re-elected president of Serbia, who regularly welcomes Orban with open arms.
The big question is how the EU will react and respond to Orban’s antics and obstinance. It will no longer be able to ignore, diplomatically criticise or accommodate, particularly given the united stance of all other member countries for Ukraine. A unified Europe is necessary to respond to Russian aggression on its borders, and having a Putin ally in the fold is difficult to countenance. The EU Commission has already announced that it will trigger the rule of law mechanism against Hungary. We will see what it means in practice.
The one, and perhaps only, silver lining in all of this: the referendum
Fidesz’s attack on the LGBTQ community, with its homophobic referendum to ‘protect children’, was defeated. A high number of spoiled ballots meant the 50 per cent threshold to pass the referendum was not met. However, the referendum did demonstrate that Hungarian folk art is flourishing once again; the ridiculous questions inspired thousands of people to draw on the ballots.