The more things change, the more Orbán stays.
Updated: Jun 9
How the political system in Hungary remained the same.
Viktor Orbán, Caption: “PEACE AND SAFETY” (Source: Blikk 2022)
by Philip Pollák
The 3rd of April 2022, marks yet another defeat for the Hungarian opposition. And what a defeat it was. Words as seismic, eradicating and excruciating have been echoed on panel discussions and articles across the political spectrum of the nation. This day, to be blunt, was not a good day. The question that has been begging every discussion since was a simple one.
Why have we seen what we’ve seen? Why couldn’t we achieve more? And why does this country, elect a leader that does not serve its interest? Let’s start by stating the obvious.
This election was not on any account a fair election. As observers of the OSCE have pointed this out in their report, the means by which the opponents faced each other on the battlefield were far from equal. On the one hand we have a gigantic machine, consisting of multiple magazines, news agencies, radio stations, billboard campaigns, social media adverts, and not to mention the State’s TV which has been gradually molded into a propaganda outlet for the government. On the other we find the dysfunctional and underfunded platforms of six parties which formerly campaigned against each other and that are currently led to arms by a small-town major, who’s preferred method of choice was to livestream every village appearance over the last months. The outcome speaks for itself.
(Source: Transparency International 2022)
The table above has been published on Transparency International and showcases the spending of the actors during their campaign. As we can see on the orange bar, Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party, has spent a stratospheric amount of money compared to the other parties. As a reference, the by far shorter turquoise green bar demonstrates the spending of the joint oppositional parties. It is a fight of 3095 million Hungarian forints (roughly over 8 million Euros), to 390 million HUF (a little over a one million EUR). In addition to this, Transparency also issues a fitted blue line. This line marks the technically legal amount of funds that can be spent over a campaign leading to the national elections. This amount is no more than 3 million euros.
The issues are self-evident. These elections took place after all on the back of a 12-year run of Fidesz’s supermajority rule over the country. Throughout their term, the Government introduced several laws and policies which would be more than questionable in a democratic state, opting the international media to typecast Orban’s regime as an Authoritarian style of statecraft.
(Source: Ian Bremmer, Twitter 2019) All of this goes to show the rather simple, but utterly crucial observation, that this was not your regular election. Instead, we are about to describe the take aways of one of the last institutions that is capable to provide a form of legitimacy to the fact we still refer to Hungary as a kind of democracy.
Six + one
During October 2021, the parties of the opposition finally come through on their promise to unite under one banner and to form a coalition to face off Orban in April 2022. Through this process, the actors agree to pick a candidate via prelections, in which each party delegates their chosen leader to represent them in a two-turn run off. At that time, the favorite was the major of Budapest Gergely Karácsony, who previously was able to win over the capital in a tight race against then incumbent István Tarlós. As fortune would have it, he did not end up securing the position. Instead, a rather unlikely candidate started to gain traction leading up to the first round. A fellow major by the name of Péter Marki-Zay seemingly charmed away the internet with his folksy, down to earth demeaner, which was able to provide audiences the approach they have been lacking from the opposition’s leaders. After coming in 3rd on the first round, Márki Zay entered negotiations with Karácsony, who ultimately decided to withdraw out of the second round to favour Márki-Zay’s chances against the candidate who came in on the top. This was none other than the wife of formerly disgraced prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, who is politically active with her maiden name Klára Dobrev. Her presence however was deemed to be a liability due to the unfavorable opinions towards her husband, and thus Péter Márky-Zay easily managed to come out as the victor in the second round. Thereby completing the formerly unthinkable and becoming the frontrunner of the six biggest oppositional parties in Hungary.
From left to right: Péter Jakab ( Party: Jobbik), Klára Dobrev (Party: DK – Democratic Coalition), Péter Márki-Zay (founder of MM – Everyone’s Hungary Movement), Gergely Karácsony (Party: MSZP - Hungarian Socialist Party and Párbeszéd -Dialogue party) and András Fekete-Győr (Party: Momentum), (Source: Telex 2021)
The pre-elections marked an unprecedented success for the opposition. For the first time in 12 years, these six parties were able to control the media narrative, putting Fidesz in a commentator’s seat to witness the unfolding spectacle. Furthermore, given that this was the first ever pre-elections hold in the country, and the voter turnout was also deemed to be admirable, the outlook to April seemed overall positive. This was also affirmed by the fact, that for the first time in over a decade the opposition was polling ahead of Viktor Orban.
As we all know by now, this tendency unfortunately didn’t last till spring. Instead of captivating the momentum gained by the high media coverage, the opposition, known as the United for Hungary coalition chose to shoot down its visibility and regroup. The main reason behind this was the unexpected victory of Márki-Zay, who was not a member of any larger party. This unfortunately led to a gridlock in discussions about the internal power dynamics. Additionally, not having a mandate for a party that would have represented a fixed set of goals and ideals further hindered the establishment of a campaign program. Given that all six parties vary in their approach to politics and society, it was not an easy task to find unilaterally represented talking points for the upcoming months. With Karácsony out of the picture, who probably would have had the most structured concepts behind developing a unified platform, the internal negotiations turned into chaos. In one of the most memorable disputes, Márki-Zay was pushing for his own fraction in parliament after the election and thereby making the Everyone’s Hungary – Mindenki Magyarországa movement (MM) into a party. The problem with that sentiment was that MM was formerly not part of the picture when the parties decided to nominate one candidate. This ultimately led to fallout of support behind his aim and crumbled support behind his persona as well.
All these events wasted important time for the opposition and cracked open old questions of doubt towards a potential success in 2022. Especially while considering that Fidesz regained the upper hand in dictating the pace of the news cycle and flooded the media with multiple allegations targeting Márki-Zay, which directed his focus away from the issues at hand.
(Péter Márki-Zay, Source: Media1, 2022) Péter and the Machine
The attacks have worked to Orban’s favour out of two reasons. Firstly, they stole all potential to establish an independent Márki-Zay narrative that could have built up its own image in front of the voters. Instead, the opposition leader got dragged into discussions about his perceived views over the past which have been snipped together into a bouquet of the largest possible damage. Secondly, Márki-Zay has adopted the persona of a center-right populist that would try to break through the ranks with often deliberately controversial statements in the hope to gain more airtime on Fidesz media. This bet however did not work out, as Fidesz stuck with their own display of Márki-Zay, while he actively fed Orban’s arsenal with further ammunition. The lesson: don’t try to out populist state-populism.
At this point we will have to acknowledge that the formerly mentioned Fidesz display of Márki-Zay also often saw him depicted in one of the most surreal political campaigns ever created.
From left to right: Ferenc Gyurcsány, Péter Márki-Zay (Source: Hungarytoday, 2022)
Remember the husband of Klára Dobrev, former PM Ferenc Gyurcsány? This is him on the left, photoshopped as Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers franchise. The captions to the left state: “The New Gyurcsány Show: THE BOSS HAS A NEW CLONE”, while on the right the poster continues with, “mini Feri” – with Feri being the Hungarian nickname to Ferenc.
This type of political warfare is evident of a new chapter in populism’s postmodern communication. As the injection of an augmented reality into the world of pop-culture references, is even a new development to the government that has done it’s last public outreach via emoji billboards. All surprises aside, this kind of messaging was nevertheless highly powerful to Fidesz’s claims that there are no new faces on the opposition.
On the 24h of February, the campaign took an unexpected and unfortunate turn. Sharing a border with Ukraine, the war has indirectly influenced the country’s priorities, and thus the political reality at hand. The government had to quickly adjust to the change of discourse and managed to do so at impressive speed. After years of establishing stronger ties with Putin and raging a constant alertness against the West, it was crucial to find a message that would not damage the erected image, and simultaneously manage to discourage the opposition’s efforts to do so. After a brief period of experimentation, Fidesz ultimately landed on the slogan “Peace and Safety” - “Béke és Biztonság”. These two words were able to articulate the passivity towards the EU’s and the Visegrad Four’s stance on Ukraine and convey the idea that the lack of support for Zelensky arises out of concerns for peace. In return, anyone who would disagree with this sentiment would be categorized as a warmonger and a potential risk to Hungarians. Thus, when Márky-Zay came out in support for potential military actions in Ukraine if NATO and its allies would choose to do so, the choice presented by Fidesz was framed as fight between chaos or stability.
The opposition vigorously tried to point out the government’s hypocrisy and threat to democracy but ultimately failed miserably. The protests and solidarity events had some of the lowest attendance rates in the region and could not form a spark like the ones seen in Germany or Poland. The Government remains till this day considerably hesitant in condemning Russia as an aggressor of the war, and the State tv’s broadcast seemingly bears more resemblance with that of Russia Today than to its European counterparts.
(Source: Wikimedia 2022)
The main take away from the map above is the opposition’s failure to mobilize their base. This is particularly true for the formerly far right Jobbik, as the support for the party has fallen dramatically over the years, and it has assumed milder set-in tones under the leadership of Péter Jakab. Jakab has formerly impressed with his appearances in Parliament, in which he staged compelling performances directed at Viktor Orban, but seemingly failed to impress as the figurehead. As a result, the far-right flank was left wide open, which has been quickly occupied by the former radical fraction of Jobbik. Namely, Mi Hazánk. The party’s name roughly translates into “Our Home” and under Covid regulations, it became the only political representation left available to anyone who would question vaccine mandates or curfew restrictions, and successfully channeled that in their campaign: “Enough of the Covid Dictatorship” – “Elég a Covid Diktatúrából”.
Founder and frontrunner László Toroczkai knew his crowd and provided enough of a pull factor with his charisma. Toroczkai was in fact able to deliver on nearly all fronts that Jakab was uncapable to do so as he stood with the base, organized larger events, and remained radical in his speeches, thereby successfully passing the parliamentary limit by 5,71 %. For Jobbik to remain silent on typically echoed social issues, and even siding with the left on some gender issues, became a bigger problem than expected.
In the middle: László Toroczkai, Captions:” HUNGARY BELONGS TO HUNGARIANS” (Sorce: Telex.hu 2022)
The effect of Covid-19 is however also visible at the political left. Bad luck, one of the best results achieved on municipal elections so far, happened just before the pandemic in 2019. This jeopardized representatives’ potency to govern and has disillusioned voters from the impact of their vote. However, it must be noted that local government was also heavily hit by Fidesz restricting their funds after the elections. Additionally, Orban’s parliament, through structural disputable maneuvers, managed to limit the physical access to govern in certain regions. This does naturally not excuse the opposition from all their shortcomings in this period, but the stipulation of power certainly must be taken into consideration while assessing their actions. On the other hand, some of the chances that have been generated, were also left on the table due to sloppiness and internal disputes.
Péter Ungár, one of the most prominent faces to the Green-Left party LMP, commented on the results by saying: “The mistakes were in our substance, the problems lay in what we have said…” (edit: “during the campaign”). Referring thereby at the lack of cohesion or concepts since October 2021. Indeed, the Márki-Zay methodology of at times incoherent populist phrases and Christian analogies in his speeches, together with a neo-liberal economic plan that made it nearly impossible for other actors involved to support him, made it hard to compose a universally accepted platform behind him, as neither his style nor worldview was really shared by the party frontrunners. The outcome de facto became an ostracized leader with a question mark behind, and a Fidesz propaganda machine against him.
All these occurrences combined lead us to the sad conclusion, that the formerly perceived win-win alliance, really turned into a loose-loose gridlock in which both sides failed to captivate their voters. For the highly disenfranchised left parties, who have had to sought out internal disagreements since 2010, the problems of cohesion run unfortunately far deeper than this election. Having acknowledged that, the lion’s share of lost votes has still occurred to the right. In total, nearly a million votes are missing from the opposition’s accounts compared to 4 years ago. Granting Fidesz its largest victory ever recorded (54,13 %).
Referendum Simultaneously to the national elections, voters were also asked to mark their X’s on a referendum about bogus, absurd accusations to the LGBTQ community. Four questions regarding LGBTQ visibility in schools and other educational facilities which include limits on sexual education and “Gay Propaganda”. Question number two for example read as: “Do you support the promotion of gender reassignment treatments for minors?”, suggesting that this would be a become a goal of the community. By constitutional definitions, the Referendum did not achieve the required participation rate to be legally binding. Having said that, the results of those who did fill out the question sheet still formed a substantial support for the government’s proposal, with more than 95% voting for the Fidesz agenda. The questions issued were deemed to be so ridiculous by the opposition that instead of voting against the Fidesz narrative, they encouraged their voters to cast the referendum invalidly, thus sabotaging the government’s totalitarian ideology and protest these types of referenda in the future.
Invalidly casted referendum votes (Source: Szeretlekmagyarország.hu, 2022)
What happens now? Parliamentary opposition will be bleak and most likely an impotent act of resistance during the upcoming cycle. For the long run, the lessons learned paint a rather dim picture. The opposition has inflated its relevance, has alienated former strongholds and is frankly out of ideas to reform itself. Judging by the votes in 2014 and 2018, a joint ticket would have casted them a victory.
From top to bottom: FIDESZ – KDNP, UNITED FOR HUNGARY, MI HAZÁNK – OUR HOME, GERMAN MINORITY REPRESENTATIVE. (Source: Telex.hu)
Now, in 2022, the results are worse than ever before.
To put it mildly, fundamental renovation is needed to even dare to challenge Orban by 2026 or 2030. To name just one example, with right wing ally Jobbik getting eradicated, the rural vote is technically bound to Fidesz for the foreseeable future. Outside of Budapest, the left is virtually non-existent on the map above, and this has been the case for the last decades. The establishment of a reliant infrastructure to combat Fidesz’s power in these areas will be a tough endeavor, and one that will not be possible to execute without significant finances (which the opposition is already in desperate needs off). This tends to unfortunately reaffirm the skepticism towards a possible regime change in the foreseeable future. To rekindle Gary Lineker’s eternal wisdom, one is tempted to look at democracy as a “simple game”. Eight parties compete every four years, and at the end Orbán always wins. Disclaimer: Since the writing of this article in April 2022, Fidesz has formed a new government - mainly intact with the others that have preceded it – and the opposition took their seats in the government. The newly-formed Hungarian government has then continued to block sanctions against Russia within the EU, and the government news empire continues to echo a narrative that is at times similar of its Russian counterparts.
Bibliography - https://vtr.valasztas.hu/nyito