A voter in Budapest receiving his ballot for Hungary's parliamentary elections. (OSCE/Thomas Rymer)

A voter in Budapest receiving his ballot for Hungary's parliamentary elections. (OSCE/Thomas Rymer)

Election Hungarian Election 2018. Nationalist rhetoric and foreign capital keep Fidesz-KDNP strong

Among decided voters, the overwhelming popularity of Fidesz-KDNP has been rather stable since 2015. The opposition tried to push topics other than migration - such as healthcare - that are still important to Hungarian voters, and where real progress during the past eight years of Fidesz-KDNP rule is questionable at best. Nevertheless the winner of the elections is the governing coalition of Fidesz-KDNP. Oppositionist leaders and candidates, including several (re)gaining their mandate in parliament, have been resigning one after another or plan to do so very soon.

Published on balticworlds.com on april 13, 2018

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The parties

Some called this year’s parliamentary elections in Hungary a referendum on whether Viktor Orbán should stay in power or not. Yet such a description would typically presuppose the existence of only two alternatives, in this case party coalitions. There were indeed some attempts among opposition parties to form such coalitions; but too late, and too few.

Since the first two-third landslide victory of the incumbent government coalition in 2010, the opposition to the left has become more and more fragmented. A wing of the old Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) split off under the leadership of former PM Ferenc Gyurcsány to form a new social liberal party in 2011 called Democratic Coalition (DK). Over the past years, a number of further centre-left parties have been established that turned out to compete for more or less the same voters. The oldest and largest of them is Politics Can Be Different (LMP), which has a centrist and green profile. One of the most recent ones is Momentum Movement, with centrist liberal pro-EU and anti-Russia policies. Others include social democratic Dialogue for Hungary (Párbeszéd) and social liberal Together (Együtt). The ideological differences between these parties is comparatively marginal. Instead, the main faultline between them is generational, where younger actors have for years claimed to reject the old establishment – including the opposition. Such a (self-)positioning is also reflected in the support base of the individual parties. The lion’s share of their supporters can be found among progressive, western-oriented, educated middle-class residents in especially Budapest.

Not long ago a radical nationalist far-right party, Jobbik has changed its image considerably over the past 4–5 years. Its gradual shift towards the centre is not without controversy, however: it was largely pushed by party chief Gábor Vona and heavily contested among a number of the party’s activists. As often in politics, it is hard if not impossible to know whether Vona’s orientation towards the center occurred out of personal conviction or as a tactical move perhaps even out of necessity: the government’s radical stance on migration for instance has after all left little space for anyone on the right. Yet what we do know is that Vona has on several occasions apologized for his party fellows’ earlier radical statements related to Jews, Gypsies, and others. At the same time, Jobbik has claimed to pursue a more consistent anti-immigration policy than the government – which will be returned to. Overall, then, it can be difficult to position the party vis-á-vis Fidesz-KDNP. Whereas both forces are more popular outside Budapest, Jobbik’s membership and support base tends to be younger than that of the governing parties.

In the meantime, the government coalition of Fidesz – Hungarian Civic Alliance and the Christian DemocraticPeople’s Party (KDNP) has been pushing it snational-conservative agenda. Based on public media one gets the impression that the government has become a single-topic political force, with migration-related issues featuring in about five out of six news. Following its second two-third victory in 2014, Fidesz-KDNP was losing support as a result of unpopular proposals such as raising tax on internet usage. It quickly needed a new topic around which to mobilise its support, and the emerging refugee crisis in 2015 turned out to be just perfect for that. Hungary indeed received 177,000 asylum applications that year, rejecting nearly all of them. The government raised a fence first along the borders to Serbia and later to Croatia, which indeed rediverted the flows of refugees and migrants. But this was in 2015, and there have been few persons trying to come to or through Hungary since then. The government has nevertheless through its increasing dominance over mass communication and public life maintained a sense of threat among wide segments of the population – and apparently with no little success.

The issues

Based on allegations of the opposition being supported by US-Hungarian billionaire George Soros, the government presented the elections as a choice between defenders of national versus foreign interests. It accused the opposition for wanting to demolish the border fence: during the campaign, short video clips from 2015 were shown in mass where some members of the opposition spoke out against building it. Considering the power relations in the media, it helped little that leaders of the opposition have on multiple occasions made clear where they could that since the fence is already there and it makes Hungarians feel safer, they will not pull it down.

In the eyes of the centre-left opposition, then, the choice was between a modern, progressive and more egalitarian Hungary fit for the 21st century on the one hand, and an inward- and temporally backward-looking society on the other. It has been pointed out that Hungary is not just lagging behind Western European but increasingly also neighboring countries. In addition, due to democratic backsliding and the government’s increasingly warm relations with especially Russian but also other Eurasian leaders, the election was also presented as a choice between East and West.

Much of the opposition tried to push topics other than migration that are still important to Hungarian voters, and where real progress during the past eight years of Fidesz-KDNP rule is questionable at best. One of these was healthcare, which has been plagued by massive emigration of the labor force as well as by years if not decades of under-investment. Perhaps less surprisingly, then, the government introduced a scheme for the gradual (though still relatively modest) increase of wages in the sector about a year ahead of elections. The other important theme was education, which was heavily centralised by the government, leading to inefficiencies in school supplies as well as a homogenization of the curriculum. According to the PISA-tests at least, the performance of Hungarian pupils has been worsening for years now. It is likely for such reasons that Fidesz-KDNP chose to focus so heavily on the issue of migration.

On those rare occasions when migration was not the main theme for the government, it stressed the economic achievements of the past years. Coming onto power following the 2008–2009 economic crisis by which Hungary was severely hit, Fidesz-KDNP has been very lucky to rule during years of global economic boom. Due to its particularly strong reliance on foreign direct investments (FDI), the Hungarian economy is especially dependent on developments in the world in general, and in western Europe in particular. Thus in spite of the nationalist rhetoric, the Orbán-government has partly pursued policies not very different from its more liberal predecessors, including tax exemptions for and partnership agreements with multinational companies. Just over a year ago, Hungary even introduced one of the lowest corporate taxes in the European Union (EU). At the same time, research and development (R&D) expenditures have been decreasing. Under such circumstances, it is unsurprising that the lion’s share of investments Hungary has been attracting tend to be low-skilled jobs in manufacturing/assemblage and in service centres/back offices. With the salary gap to western Europe remaining around 1:3 at best, it is also little surprising that the German-Hungarian Chamber of Commerce recently reported 95% of German businesses are happy with the economic situation. The editor-in-chief of the German-language newspaper Budapester Zeitungeven said that “If German executives could vote, 90 percent of them would go for Orbán. To be fair, such a strong integration between Central Europe’s East and West has had at least one important advantage to the former as well: unemployment rates in countries like the Czech Republic and Hungary are now among the lowest in the EU.

The election

Among decided voters, the overwhelming popularity of Fidesz-KDNP has been rather stable since 2015. The opposition has nevertheless not managed to display any serious sign of co-operation – let alone a common PM candidate – up until December 2017. Even then, only two parties managed to enter a coalition: MSZP that had a larger support but no strong candidate, and PM that had low support but whose candidate (Gergely Karácsony) had been popular. The other parties (except the government, which at least formally consists of two parties) all had their own candidates.

A sign of hope emerged for the opposition in late February this year, when the government’s candidate was beaten in local elections held in Hódmezővásárhely, a town of 28,000 residents that had long been a Fidesz stronghold. But the opposition’s main chance had been if it had stepped back for the most popular non-governmental candidate in each voting district (see below). As this only occurred in rather few places, opposition candidates ended up competing for more or less the same votes and were accordingly beaten by the respective governmental candidate.

The electoral system itself is important as it has been modified during the first two-third majority rule of Fidesz-KDNP (2010–2014) to largely benefit the strongest candidate. One element is that there is now no second round, which earlier enabled to vote parties that in the first round passed the strict threshold of at least 5%. The second and probably most important element is that apart of the party list, citizens have another vote on a candidate (to be sent to parliament) in their own electoral district, who – based on a majority principle – in case of winning gets compensated with further votes. Last but not least, Hungarian citizens across Hungary’s borders – i.e. without a registered address in the country – have been entitled to vote as of the previous general elections in 2014 (that year, 95% of them voted for Fidesz-KDNP).

The results

In spite of the above, the results speak for themselves: the clear winner of the elections is the governing coalition of Fidesz-KDNP. Despite “only” winning 49% of the vote on the party list, the majority system in the voting districts briefly mentioned above implies that Fidesz-KDNP has won 67% of the parliament mandates. Turnout was 67%, the highest in two decades. Oppositionist leaders and candidates, including several (re)gaining their mandate in parliament, have been resigning one after another or plan to do so very soon. In Brussels, MEPs have just demanded triggering Article 7 against Hungary. But one may raise the question whether it really is the right time for that (although it would likely have been even more counter-productive ahead of the elections).

The success of Fidesz-KDNP can also be explained by the double play that its leaders appear so talented at mastering. The apparently many Hungarian voters fearful of immigrants can feel safe at the same time as they are unlikely to notice (and even less likely to hear about in public media) that their government has actually been accepting refugees – in very similar numbers prescribed by the planned and heavily contested EU refugee quota. True, there is a difference: Hungary has been deciding over that number and no one else. Last but not least, foreign investors can enjoy reaping generous profits notwithstanding the government’s nationalist rhetoric. Full circle.

  • by Péter Balogh

    Péter Balogh’s research focuses on geopolitical narratives in Hungary and Central and Eastern Europe. He is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Regional Studies, CERS-HAS, where he is critically analysing how and why the notion of ‘Central Europe’ has been changing over the past years.

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