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Election in Hungary: An Attempt to Dismantle Orbán’s System

By Krisztian Simon

Hungarians are taking to the polls on April 8. After the opposition won an unexpected victory in the municipal election in the city of Hódmezővásárhely in March, there is increased optimism among the country’s progressives. The odds, however, are still in Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s favour.

In late February 2018, the independent candidate Péter Márki-Zay who was backed by all opposition parties beat the governing party’s candidate in a mayoral election in Hódmezővásárhely (garnering almost 57 per cent of the vote to the opponent’s 41 per cent in the city of 44 000 people). The victory was surprising, as the position of the mayor of Hódmezővásárhely has for the last two decades always been occupied by members of Orbán’s Fidesz party, and so created euphoria amongst those who would like to see Orbán’s government go in the next parliamentary election, due to take place on April 8. The opposition’s campaign is more about the promise of a change in government – and the end of the corrupt and illiberal ‘Orbán regime’ – and less about particular policies; we hear mostly vague promises that everything will be the opposite of the Orbán years: better education, improved public health facilities, less corruption and less poverty.

Nevertheless, in order to make the change happen, progressive parties still face a number of challenges. It is by now obvious that the majority of the Hungarian population wants a change in government (a number of polls have put the proportion of those who want to see Orbán go above 50 per cent), but the opposition is still fragmented while Orbán’s party stands united behind its leader. The election law of the Orbán government and state propaganda further strengthen the government’s position. Meanwhile, the opposition includes the far-right Jobbik party, which now tries to position itself as a centrist-conservative party although many of its most radical members still hold high positions in the party, making this change in attitude less believable. Some progressive politicians still label them Nazis in public statements and interviews.

Greens in Parliament

Among the parties that are most likely to make it into Parliament we find two Green parties. One of them, Dialogue for Hungary (PM) which was founded by the MEP Benedek Jávor amongst others, has teamed up with the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) in order to make sure it has its representation. PM’s co-president, Gergely Karácsony, is also the coalition’s candidate for prime minister. The unlikely coalition between a small Green party (with almost no chance to jump the five per cent threshold) and the former-governing party came into being after a number of internal conflicts have shattered the socialists, and thus they decided to improve their image with a fresh face from outside of their party. Together they have to get at least 10 per cent of the votes – a target which at the moment seems achievable. The other Green party running in the elections is Politics Can Be Different (LMP), a member of the European Green Party that has an MEP, Tamás Meszerics, in the Green Group. LMP has been represented in the Hungarian parliament since 2010.

The stakes are high

The Socialist-Liberal coalition government that governed Hungary between 2002 and 2010 lost the confidence of the voters due to a number of corruption scandals, a leaked recording in which the then Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány said that his government was “lying day and night”, its inability to launch reforms, and the economic crisis of 2008. In 2010, Fidesz won a two-thirds majority in parliament. “In Hungary, the stakes are much higher than in an election that would take place in a normal democracy. Hungary has turned into a hybrid regime under the eight years of the Orbán government, and today the question is whether we are going to let him push us further in the direction of a Putin-style system, or whether there is a chance to return to Europe”, said Bence Tordai, spokesperson of PM. In the last years, Orbán has reshaped the country according to his party’s interests. His government has eroded judicial independence, created a propaganda apparatus that is fuelled with taxpayers’ money, helped a number of loyal business people enrich themselves from EU subsidies, and rewritten the electoral law in a way that favours his party in the elections.

“The current election system pushes parties towards cooperation, and we have decided about a possible cooperation with this reality in mind. But even in the long run, we believe that a counter balance to Fidesz has to come from the Left, not from Jobbik. And the left-wing parties have a great responsibility as to whether they can provide a clear alternative to Orbán that the people are willing to vote for”, said Tordai, whose party is trying to coordinate as many opposition actors as possible in order to have a united opposition force against Orbàn. However, thus far the only major partner the MSZP-P coalition managed to secure is the Democratic Coalition, the party of former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, whose candidates will step down from candidacy in those districts where the MSZP-P candidates have a greater chance of winning (and vice-versa)

LMP, on the other hand, is reluctant to join such a cooperation, and prior to the elections only a handful of their candidates have pulled back from candidacy in favour of other opposition candidates. “LMP is not going to block a change in government, however, we believe that those politicians who try to recreate the failed Left Unity of the year 2014 (back then a cooperation between left-wing and liberal parties, that also led to a split in LMP, has managed to get 25.5 percent of the votes, while LMP who didn’t join the Unity got 7.5 percent) have a great responsibility in the opposition’s possible failure. Instead they should be building on the model of Hódmezővásárhely, where every important opposition party was involved. The coalition of the left-wing and liberal parties alone will not lead to a change in government. The mathematics of voting shows that cooperating with Jobbik is the only option” – said Péter Ungár, one of LMP’s candidates for this year’s election and a former member of the EGP Committee. Jobbik, however, doesn’t seem inclined to participate in such a cooperation, not to mention that many progressives have the feeling that the radical right-wing party’s ideology is not compatible with their own.

The parties of course don’t have to openly cooperate to be successful in the elections; they can also help each other with gestures, such as not running against strong opposition candidates, thereby increasing their chance of winning their districts (without partnering with a party that would be unacceptable for them or their voters). Bernadett Szél, LMP’s candidate for the position of prime minister, said in a recent interview with the online news site, Index, that there is still a chance that her party will pull further candidates out of the race in favour of others. In exchange, the party would expect similar gestures from others. Ungár, for example, is listed as the favourite for Budapest’s fourth election district and would greatly benefit if other parties granted him this favour.

Greens and their partners

With PM’s decision to form a coalition with a party that is a member of the group Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, there are, of course, many questions regarding the prevalence of green ideas. Not least because members of PM’s coalition party have been accused of being on the payroll of the government, the former MSZP prime minister candidate has, for example, publicly stated that “the well-paid beneficiaries and undercover people of Fidesz” are present in the Socialist Party. Nevertheless, Tordai assures voters that there is nothing to worry about at this point. “According to international press reports, the agents or observers of Fidesz are present in every Hungarian party. It is hard to prove or disprove this. However, this campaign is driven by our candidate, Gergely Karácsony, and not even his enemies have dared to label him a Fidesz collaborator. And thus far, the members of MSZP are standing behind him in a disciplined way.”

In addition, the socialist party has often taken positions that are not compatible with a Green party, amongst others in its support for nuclear energy. Nevertheless PM members believe that the cooperation is fruitful, and could even continue after the campaign. Karácsony mentioned in an interview with the weekly liberal magazine Magyar Narancs that MSZP has by now included in its programme the shutting down of the government’s Paks 2 nuclear powerplant programme (which is financed by a sizeable Russian loan), and can be seen as a credible partner for change. Moreover, MSZP, like most of the left-wing and liberal opposition parties, is a pro-European force, and would aim to repair the country’s shattered relations with other EU governments and the institutions in Brussels.

But even if it comes to a change in government, a complete break with Orbán’s legacy is hard to envision: the fence on the country’s border which promises to keep asylum seekers out of the country, and which became a symbol for Orbán’s prime ministership, will be left untouched. “We see that a great number of people believe that the fence will save them from all kinds of threats, and knowing this, it is probably better to leave this fence as it is (regardless what our members would privately think of it). We need to deal with other, more important issues in public health, energy, and education policy, as well as our international relations. We have lots of urgent tasks, and the fence is not among them”, Tordai said.

With a change in government, we might also experience a slight change in the country’s attitudes towards the EU. According to the recently published ‘Party EU-attitude Report Card’ study of the Hungarian Europe Society (HES),  Eurosceptic Jobbik has started to reposition itself since the Brexit referendum as a party that is more constructive on EU issues than Fidesz. Fidesz, in the meantime, has moved from ‘critical’ to ‘soft-EU-sceptical’. At the other end of the spectrum we find the progressive opposition parties. Among them, LMP and PM are seen as having a constructive stance towards the EU (for example, they support the cooperation of member states and would extend the EU’s policymaking competencies to additional fields, such as energy and the environment), while MSZP is seen as a pragmatist (a supporter of the status-quo that doesn’t support the creation of a political union).

However, since the new majority in Parliament may also require a cooperation with Jobbik, the formulation of a new, pro-EU stance may become somewhat tricky. “Reconciling visions on Europe in a left/liberal and Jobbik coalition government would be a major challenge, if not impossible. At the same time, they could likely agree on specific practical steps in the short-term, namely the withdrawal of the Lex NGO (the government’s anti-NGO regulation) and the Lex CEU (a law which would force the Central European University to leave the country), that could end two out of the three most prevalent infringement procedures from the past years, and also gaining some goodwill in the EU. Similar steps on the quota (Orbán and his government have declared that they are not willing to take in refugees who were granted asylum in other member states) are less likely”, said Zsuzsanna Végh, associate researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations and vice-chair of the HES.

An important event for civil society

With the election there is also a lot at stake for civil society organisations, as the governing party has created a shrinking space for NGOs, in which organisations who receive funding from abroad (approximately over 23 000 euros) are required to register as ‘organisations receiving foreign funds’, and a proposed new pack of laws, referred to as ‘Stop Soros’, would require NGOs who ‘support migration’ to obtain a security clearance and pay extra taxes. NGOs are seen by the government as actors that are driven by a political agenda, even though they are trying to stay as far away from party politics as possible. However, their efforts in strengthening the awareness of citizens and assisting those whose rights have been infringed have earned them the disinclination of the government. “Our main goal is to encourage as many people as possible in becoming active citizens, and actively participate in public life. Therefore, we have started a voting rights program, in the framework of which for instance we visited communities to provide legal knowledge to people about what else they can do besides voting,” explained Stefánia Kapronczay, director of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ). The organisation is among others providing information on how to stop politicians from campaigning in schools and kindergartens and from accessing private data for campaign reasons. It is also providing tools that help private citizens to organise or hold their elected representatives accountable.

“The question is whether and how democracy and civil liberties will prevail in the coming years. In our daily work, we are systematically criticising the current government, but our critique is not about party politics, but about the government’s activities when it comes to respect for civil liberties and democracy. We hope that the election (regardless of who is going to form a government) will have the kind of result which makes sure that these rights and values are taken seriously. Hungary has joined the EU and has ratified international agreements out of its own free will, as a sovereign state. None of these acts were imposed on it from the outside. Therefore, we would like to see a government that respects these values”, Kapronczay adds when it comes to the question of what is at stake with this year’s election.

TASZ doesn’t explicitly exclude the possibility of Fidesz forming a government in April that respects civil liberties and democracy, knowing that voters have become more conscious about the kind of state they want to live in. However, if someone believes that this respectful government can only come into existence if Fidesz loses its majority in parliament, there has to be at least a voter turnover rate of 70 per cent (according to political analysts asked by Magyar Narancs). Bernadett Szél of LMP is optimistic about this; in an interview with the online news site Index she said that there is so much tension in society due to the governing of Orbán that some opposition parties might fare even better than expected.

After the election

According to Peter Ungár, the goal is to prevent Orbán from gaining the majority of seats in Parliament. Once that is done, there is enough room for change. “All opposition parties have made promises that they wouldn’t support the formation of a new Orbán government, and if any of them changed this position, it would thereby betray its voters; therefore, a minority Fidesz-government cannot get the necessary support from MPs. The question is only how the opposition parties can make use of this”, adds Tordai. Ungár already has a possible scenario in mind: once the current opposition parties have gained the majority in parliament, he believes, the election law has to be rewritten (as the current election law has allowed Fidesz to gain 67 per cent of the seats with 45 percent of the votes), the legal institutions have to be changed, “and then, following the new election it will be possible to create a value-based government.”

Karácsony promised in an interview with Magyar Narancs that once he is in power, he would hold a referendum on the Hungarian constitution. If the voters say they don’t want to keep it, the current opposition parties would be able to dismantle Orbán’s system. As a further step, Karácsony promises to set up an anti-corruption prosecution to investigate the dealings of government-friendly business people. “I would be surprised if, based on the investigations of the anti-corruption prosecution, Orbán had nothing to worry about; since there is only one commonality between those people who have accumulated exorbitant fortunes in these years: their connection to the head of government.”

But to make all this happen, the opposition parties still need to improve their way of cooperating and coordinating their strategies without frightening away voters who dislike particular opposition forces (in the case of left-wing and liberal parties, this is mainly the far-right Jobbik which seems unavoidable, especially in the countryside). If they fail, we will see further confrontations with the EU institutions, propaganda against refugees, Muslims and liberal institutions, and even more corruption. Not to mention that another Fidesz victory will further encourage the Eurosceptic politicians of the region. Moreover, some analysts and politicians in Hungary anticipate that the domestic situation could turn even worse than it is now, following  a promise Orbán made in his speech on the 170th anniversary of the 1848 Hungarian revolution: after the election, he is going to take “revenge”. While what he means by that is yet unclear,  the message is sinister and has already led to some wild speculations.

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Election in Hungary: An Attempt to Dismantle Orbán’s System

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