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Tough Way Forward for Polarised Hungary

By Bulcsú Hunyadi , Eva van de Rakt

According to social scientist Bulcsú Hunyadi, there were four major factors that contributed to the election victory of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party in Hungary: an unfair institutional system, political rhetoric built around the demonisation of perceived or actual adversaries, a state-financed ‘fake news’ industry, and the failure of opposition parties.

The interview with Bulcsú Hunyadi was conducted April 13 2018 by Eva van de Rakt (Head of Prague Office, Heinrich Böll Foundation). The final, pre-official results of the parliamentary elections which took place April 8 were announced April 15.

Eva van de Rakt: The alliance of Orbán’s Fidesz party and the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) has, for the third time in a row, most probably won a two-thirds majority of seats in the Hungarian parliament. The final results will be announced soon. Based on the votes for the national party lists, Fidesz has managed to secure almost half of the votes. What are the reasons behind Fidesz’s countrywide election victory? What are the topics that have led to Orbán’s success?[1]

Bulcsú Hunyadi: Based on the preliminary results [this interview was conducted before the absentee votes were counted[2]], Fidesz has won a two-thirds majority, which allows them to make amendments in the constitution, with 48 per cent of those votes that were cast on the territory of Hungary, in comparison with the almost 53 per cent in 2010 and approximately 44 per cent in 2014. Compared to 2014, this means an increase of around 360 000 voters.[3] Jobbik got approximately the same number of votes on its nationwide party list as in 2014, while the Left-Liberal-Green opposition parties have shared the same number of votes as they did four years ago. Only the Green LMP party has managed to increase the number of its supporters – by 96 000 votes.

The immediate reason for the massive victory of Fidesz is the anti-immigration campaign of the party and the government, which has stirred up fears and hatred against refugees and migrants. Additionally, the government has managed to mobilise voters with simple messages and by emphasising that this election is a definitive event for the fate of the country. They even managed to gain new voters, especially in the countryside.

In addition, the country-wide victory of Fidesz is based on four factors: first, an unfair institutional system – including an electoral system and a media landscape – which is tailored to the interests of Fidesz and which restricts the leeway of independent actors; second, political rhetoric which is built on identity politics, conspiracy theories, and enemy images; third, a massive, state-financed fake news industry; and fourth, the failure of the opposition parties, which didn’t manage to cooperate with each other and offer a credible and attractive political alternative.

With its media imperium which functions as a propaganda network, the government has created, in some regions of the country and mainly in villages and small towns, downright information ghettos in which the only messages the people heard were those of the government’s campaign. Regarding the unfair institutional system, the electoral system favours the governing party. This is, however, only one part of the puzzle.

State institutions act these days as executors of the Fidesz party’s interests. Corruption cases related to the governing circles are not properly investigated by authorities, in particular by the general prosecutor. The Court of Auditors only punishes opposition parties for the alleged irregularities in campaign financing, and the electoral authority has, in recent years, prevented referenda by any means. These are just a few of many examples.

The second-strongest force, with more than 19 per cent of the votes, is the right-wing extremist party, Jobbik. However, the party won most probably only 1 out of the 106 direct mandates, and the party leader, Gábor Vona, has already resigned. Who voted Jobbik?

The electorate of Jobbik is largely made up of men who are below 40 years, have a qualification from a vocational high school, work as full-time labourers, live in small towns, and are not religious. All in all, Jobbik’s electorate has become much more varied in terms of demographics, since the party started positioning itself anew in 2013. This repositioning has allowed the party to present itself as a moderate conservative party. We have also seen a change in terms of the ideological background of voters: voters of Jobbik see themselves as less radical these days, less right-wing, and somewhat more liberal. They have become much more open towards other opposition parties and take a much more critical position when it comes to Fidesz.

At the same time, many key personalities of the radical right-wing scene started supporting Fidesz: among others, Krisztina Morvai, an MEP who made it to the European Parliament as a Jobbik candidate in 2014, and György Budaházy, who was sentenced to 13 years in jail at first instance for acts of terrorism against left-wing and liberal politicians and other people in 2016.

Three left-of-centre party lists have managed to get into parliament: MSZP-P (the electoral alliance of the Hungarian Socialist Party and the Dialogue Party), LMP (Politics can be Different, Green Party) and DK (Democratic Coalition). How would you rate the campaigns of these parties?

The distribution of votes shows that the left-wing and liberal opposition parties have gained almost no support in the Hungarian countryside. The Green LMP is the only democratic opposition party that has managed to get more than 50 per cent of its votes in smaller towns and municipalities. This is in part due to the media relations and the institutional barriers, which I have already mentioned.

Of course, these parties have themselves to blame for the election results too. First of all, in the last few years they didn’t manage to do political work on the ground, to deal with the problems of the people, to personally talk to the voters, and to build up an image of popular and credible candidates. These parties are barely present in the countryside of Hungary. Secondly, the opposition parties didn’t manage to present an attractive vision and worldview that could have served as an alternative to that of Orbán. And thirdly, the opposition parties were not honest with the voters.

They were mainly preoccupied with themselves, competing with each other while talking about the ways in which they wanted to govern following the elections – even though the biggest opposition party, the MSZP-P coalition, only had 13 per cent support according to polls conducted prior to the election. So, instead of honestly reconsidering their situation and talking to each other – as it was obvious that they only stood a chance as a united front – they only thought about their own interests, and hoped to get a larger slice of the same pie. Most likely because even they themselves didn’t believe that they could win this election.

Many commentators believed that a higher turnout could strengthen the opposition. However, in practice we have seen the opposite: Fidesz-KDNP have won more than 90 direct mandates – the only region where they didn’t fare well was the capital. From the 88 direct mandates that were elected outside Budapest, Fidesz has secured 85. Why did the centre-left opposition parties not manage to convince the voters outside of Budapest?

The election has split the country into the capital and the countryside. While the left-wing and liberal opposition parties almost disappeared from the regions outside of the capital, Fidesz has managed to gain further votes in the localities. The proportion of Fidesz voters decreased among those parts of the population that were highly educated, who had a higher social status and lived in the capital. At the same time, the popularity of Fidesz increased massively among voters who lived in villages and small towns, as well as among the older and less educated parts of society.

This is mainly the impact of the government’s campaign, which has almost exclusively focused on the threat of migration. Through its media network, Fidesz has created a parallel reality in many villages and small towns, where no other message has managed to reach the people.

What political consequences can the centre-left parties draw from the election results?

Those who want to act as agents of change have to rethink their whole strategy and their political toolkit. They have to work towards creating attractive visions, talk to people personally, and they have to build up local structures. One of the greatest challenges is Fidesz’s superior strength on the media landscape. A lot depends on the centre-left parties’ to break this media dominance, to enter information ghettos, and to objectify the current hysterical debate.

In addition, they have to find a way to better cooperate with each other, as a fragmented opposition will most likely face the same problem in four years: the electoral system favours the biggest party, while small parties that compete with each other are at a disadvantage.

What first steps should we expect from the government?

With the nationwide victory and the associated strong mandate of the government which Fidesz received from the electorate, there should be no change in their style of governing. The high turnout and the convincing majority in the National Assembly give the government the necessary legitimacy to complete the political system that they were building in the last eight years. The government will further decrease the space for independent actors, including independent media and civil society organisations. It will continue to use enemy images, conspiracy theories, and misinformation

What impact will the election have on Hungarian society?

Hungarian society is in a devastated situation. Poverty has increased, many people have no prospects of improving their lives, and, in many regions of the country, the population lacks work opportunities. The residents of impoverished regions have great worries and fears. Data shows that Fidesz’s campaign had the greatest resonance among these voters.

In the last years, the population was further polarised. People of opposing political camps have negative images of each other, and they believe the stigmatising messages of their parties. In Hungarian society, there is traditionally a lack of trust – both in regards to institutions and other people. This mistrust has further increased due to the last election campaign. Moreover, the government is demonising asylum seekers, migrants, activists, journalists, and many others.

All those who are unwilling to blend in, and especially those who have an impact on the public, will be stigmatised. During the week right after the elections, the pro-Fidesz weekly newspaper Figyelő has published a list of alleged ‘Soros agents’ in Hungary – among them many renowned academics (some of whom already died many years ago) and representatives of organisations that work for disenfranchised populations. In the long run, no society can make it through such a polarisation unharmed.

 

[1] Out of the 199 members of the National Assembly, 106 are elected in single-member constituencies by first-past-the-post voting, and the remaining 93 are elected from a single nationwide constituency by proportional representation – all together Fidesz-KDNP has won 133 of the seats.

[2] Absentee votes include those cast in Hungarian foreign representations and the ballots of those who request to vote somewhere other than their permanent residence. These were only counted after the interview had taken place.

[3] These numbers have changed since the interview was conducted due to the counting of the absentee votes. According to the final, pre-official results, Fidesz has increased its party list votes by around 465 000, Jobbik by 73 000 and LMP by 133 000.

Tough Way Forward for Polarised Hungary

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