Viktor Orbán. Photo: ATTILA KISBENEDEK, AFP, Getty Images 2018
Viktor Orbán. Photo: ATTILA KISBENEDEK, AFP, Getty Images 2018

Orbán triumphant. How to understand Hungarian 2018 elections?


The final results of the Hungarian general election are out. The governing Fidesz party scored an overwhelming victory. Viktor Orbán, the Hungary’s well-known right-wing populist leader, will have another four years to lead his illiberal regime. It is the first time after the fall of the communism in Hungary when a party will be governing for the third consecutive term. Let’s look at the country’s political landscape and try to find out what happened.

The circumstances of this general election matter and to understand themwe have to travel at least one and a half decade back to the past. Viktor Orbán had his first four years as a prime minister between 1998 and 2002, after which he lost the elections despite gaining more votes in 2002 than in 1998. The disappointment of his followers was at least as high as his own. Three socialist prime ministers followed him, overall with a terrible record, and Hungary alongside with Greece ended up among the countries that were hit the hardest by the 2008 economic crisis. These circumstances together with their changed political style unsurprisingly resulted in their crushing defeat at the 2010 elections. The Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) subsequently collapsed and fragmented into two parties. And the liberal party, with which the socialists were in the governing coalition, withered away completely. And that point, we saw the emergence of two new political parties: the far-right radical Jobbik and the green centrist LMP.

Fidesz and its pseudo-ally Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) gained more than the three thirds majority in the post-2010 parliament, which allowed them to change Hungary’s constitutional law. (Please note that I used the word “pseudo”, because KDNP behaves  more like a branch of Fidesz, rather than an independent political ally.) A new electoral law was adopted without the approval of the opposition parties. In the new system, the weight of individual mandates was strengthened and only a relative majority is now sufficient to receive a mandate according to the new law.

The situation for Orbán is simple: to remain in the political centre and divide the opposition into at least two groups (but the more the better). This is made easier with the new electoral rules: while Fidesz holds to proportionally the highest number of votes – and it does not matter if it is 35% or 55% – their electoral success is guaranteed. If the opposition wants to overcome them in constituencies, either they have to cooperate with each other, or one of them needs to be strong enough to beat Fidesz. Smart, but harsh, rules? Yes! Democratic? Yes, like in Athens in the antiquity. It may not be fair or nice, but it is perfectly legal. The notional cherry on the top was gerrymandering as which traditional leftist constituencies were watered down by being merged with more conservative electorate.

In the run-up to the 2014 elections, the opposition parties started to recognise the full consequences of the new electoral law and to mitigate it, they decided to form a coalition of “democratic opposition parties.” Their definition as democratic entailed the exclusion of Jobbik, which was in fact the most popular opposition party. The green centrist LMP was seriously divided on the issue of cooperation with this electoral bloc, especially since they had in their ranks many members from the former socialist governments, the catastrophic governing of which largely contributed to Fidesz’s two-thirds majority in 2010. Finally, a small majority in LMP voted against joining this coalition of parties, which led to further fragmentation as the losers (essentially half of the party) decide to leave the party. The group of the socialists and liberals thought they could create a popular front against Fidesz without Jobbik and the remnant of LMP. That they failed in this endeavour was not a huge surprise.

LMP started a fierce fight to recreate their party and the leadership of Jobbik embarked on a conservative turn, firing and downgrading their most radical members. Perhaps this might have created a successful alternative to the monolithic position of Fidesz. But two points needs to be emphasised at this point. During the peak of the migration crisis, Orbán successfully used the migration card as a political tool, or, so to say, “the Warhammer of Fidesz”. They started a constant – and very successful – agitation and propaganda campaign against immigration and refugees. While the opposition was hesitant, time passed and Orbán gained huge support during the last three years. The other factor was Jobbik’s volte-face: from a radical party, practically a pariah, it claimed to shift a moderate, conservative party. Whether their consolidation was a genuine effort of their party members, or more like a tactical maneuver does not really matter, as the 1-2 years since their turn could not have been sufficient to establish themselves as a genuinely modern and moderate party.

At the 2018 elections, the opposition parties once again used the “2014 scenario”  and forged an opposition alliance. As it carried all the weaknesses of the previous one, it was never really an exercise that raised hopes. LMP and Jobbik did not wish to get “their name tainted” by association with the former socialists (who made an offer to LMP to strengthen their ranks), but did not know how to approach Jobbik). The situation seemed hopeless until the municipal by-election in Hódmezővásárhely came into play. In this town, a traditional Fidesz stronghold, there was only one single opponent who ran against Fidesz – and he scored an unquestionable political victory. Suddenly, it seemed that revamping the idea of joining forces could be enough to beat Fidesz. As the parties still were not able to make official alliances, voters were often encouraged to practice “tactical voting”, i.e. vote for the most viable opposition candidate. A breakthrough was expected in some corners, but the Hódmezővásárhely experience not only stirred up enthusiasm on the opposition side. It also mobilised the governing party’s supporters.

Once again, leftist parties tried to create a popular front. They changed their tactics in some points. First of all, they Gyurcsány’s splinter party, the DK, or using the phrase of Monthy Python: spitter party, has created separate list.  Gyurcsány is a Machiavellist politician with high survivability skills, however he has also the worst possible reputation. The socialists drove themselves into a dangerous act, having created a joint candidacy list with the micro party Párbeszéd (P) – therefore they had to reach at least 10% of the popular vote in order to gain seats in the new parliament. They have barely managed that goal!

What are the conclusions? By itself alone, Jobbik (20,22%) is still too weak to to beat Fidesz. The socialists are melting down slowly, but steadily: with the tiny liberal-green ‘Párbeszéd’ Party they scored only 11,92%. Despite Ferenc Gyurcsány, former prime minister and his party, Democratic Coalition (DK) managed to get seats in the new parliament, yet only with the meager 5,41%. And LMP needs further internal restructuralisation, as they have received only 7,06%.

As a result, the so called “tactical voting” saw only minimal success. The opposition managed to get a majority in the Hungarian capital, Budapest, but it is clear the countryside is firmly behind the government: Jobbik managed to get only one seat in the town of Dunaújváros by gaining confidence of the leftist voters; and then there was one independent nominee (supported by the left) in the city of Pécs. In total, 15 seats of the 106.

Orbán’s ”National Consensus’ System” has another four years to govern, and the opposition will have to use these years to (re)gain support. All quiet on the Hungarian front!


Márton Balogh-Ebner

*Author is a member of the political party LMP


Featured image: Viktor Orbán. Photo: ATTILA KISBENEDEK, AFP, Getty Images 2018.

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