Election THE HUNGARIAN PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS 2014: ORBÁN SET TO CARRY ON
Despite the modest albeit important economic recovery in the past 2–3 years Hungary has a number of challenges that can harm its development already in the short and medium term, and these have hardly been addressed in the campaign. The Orbán-regime mostly plans to carry on with its earlier policies.
Published on balticworlds.com on april 8, 2014
Given the extensive attention on Hungary during the first two–three years of the incumbent Orbán-government, one might have expected a large coverage ahead of the elections taking place there on April 6. Yet the focus can be said to have been on parity with the size and economic strength of the country. This may be related to at least three reasons. One, more dramatic events have recently been taking place in (e.g. the crisis in Ukraine) and outside (e.g. Afghanistan preparing for elections held on the same day) the region. Secondly, critics of the Hungarian regime may to some extent have toned down by the country’s relative economic progress, with the economy growing by two per cent over the past 9–12 months. Finally, the only real question at stake has been whether the incumbent Fidesz-KDNP coalition would retain its two-thirds majority, or “only” win the elections with a simple majority.
Much has been done over the past four years to make even the former scenario a realistic one. One of the most criticised features has been the filling of posts by FIDESz party members or close allies of most public posts, on virtually all levels of society. Perhaps less known to an international (especially Western) public is that this practice has been widely adopted by all the previous governments as well, but given the two-thirds majority of the current regime the extent of this routine has no doubt been remarkable.
REFORMS IN THE ELECTION SYSTEM
Over the past four years a number of changes has been introduced in the election system. The less debated ones include a radical decreasing of the number of representatives from 386 to 199 – a figure comparable to the parliaments of similarly sized countries – as well as the abolition of two-round in favour of one-round elections. Also, the campaign-break – which is nowadays more difficult to implement due to the use of modern ICTs – was done away with. Somewhat more controversially, voting right is not anymore tied to a residence in Hungary meaning that Hungarian citizens (of which there are nearly 200,000 more than four years ago) in the neighbouring countries and elsewhere could participate. While just around 28,000 members of this group registered – at least successfully – to vote, they unanimously (95%) supported the Fidesz-KDNP coalition. Moreover, accusations appeared that the redrawing of electoral districts benefits the incumbent regime. Also, the reforms moved Hungary towards the Anglo-Saxon ‘winner-takes-all’ electoral system – this time at least strongly to the advantage of the governing coalition.
THE ISSUES AND LACKING DEBATES
The usual mud-throwing has unfortunately overshadowed serious debates on concrete issues and departmental policies to a great extent. Most remarkably, no face-to-face debate of the prime minister candidates took place during the entire campaign period. This is a new pattern that started with the previous election campaign in 2010 and stands in contrast to Western European political cultures, where at least one such an encounter per campaign has been institutionalised since the mid-nineteenth century.
Despite the modest albeit important economic recovery in the past 2–3 years Hungary has a number of challenges that can harm its development already in the short and medium term, and these have hardly been addressed in the campaign. Perhaps most crucially, the new wave of emigration that kicked off when the country joined the EU a decade ago has not slowed down but even been on the rise, amounting to around 500,000 persons since 2004 – or five per cent of the entire population. As usual, the young are strongly over-represented. While it is difficult to compete with Western salaries, the introduction of a market-oriented higher education system is believed to be a crucial factor behind this trend. Most areas of research and development are generally underfinanced. Further, poverty levels remain high, with 17% of the population – officially – living on less than around 200 euros per month. Finally, whereas the strong under-representation of women in politics and other key positions was at least raised in the campaign of 2010, the issue was as good as completely absent this time.
THE PARTIES AND CANDIDATES
The Orbán-government mostly plans to carry on with its earlier policies. One of its buzzwords is rezsicsökkentés, i.e. the decreasing of overhead expenses for households that has been implemented in four steps so far, with yet another one being planned for. The key element of this measure is decreasing the gas bills of households, which is a particularly popular measure among large groups of price-sensitive voters. Critics have questioned state subsidies to an environmentally unfriendly energy source. At the same time, it is widely acknowledged that the government’s “unorthodox economic policies” have shifted tax burdens away from the citizens onto large foreign corporations – although this is also seen to be ostensible. Over the past years, the government has focused on re-industrializing the economy and motivating foreign and domestic employers to create jobs in Hungary. Thus unemployment rates have to some extent been lowered, also by the introduction of so-called public works – i.e. state-subsidised, often low-paid and low-skilled jobs. As another sign of economic success the government highlights the country’s regained independence from the IMF, earlier loans from which have fully been repaid. In a similar vein, the state budget-deficit has successfully been minimised to meet the EU’s requirement to keep it below three per cent.
The opposition to the left has been relatively weak and strongly fragmented for much of the past four years, but managed to unite less than three months ahead of the elections. Their coalition has run under the name Kormányváltás (regime-change), comprising five parties: the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSzP), Together 2014 (E14), the Democratic Coalition (DK), Dialogue for Hungary (PM), and the Hungarian Liberal Party (MLP). The alliance is headed by Attila Mesterházy of MSzP, the main coalition party in the two governments during 2002–2009 then mostly headed by Ferenc Gyurcsány (the latter broke with his old party and went on to establish DK with some other former MSzP members). Mr. Mesterházy represents a mainstream (democratic) socialist line, which in the light of the party’s earlier neoliberal directions can be seen to represent a break with the past. Yet many have wondered whether his charisma as well as his comparatively modest experiences as a politician could constitute a serious challenger to current PM Viktor Orbán. Another oppositional party in Parliament during the past four years, the green-liberal LMP (Politics Can Be Different) has not joined the above alliance. As its name suggests this is an anti-establishment formation, which claims that the main feature of the past mandate period was a shifting of resources from one group of oligarchs to another.
Jobbik – Magyarországért Mozgalom (Movement for a Better Hungary) has concretized its main principles in the party’s Radical Change: A Guide to Jobbik’s Parliamentary Electoral Manifesto for National Self-Determination and Social Justice (2010). During the campaign for the 2014 parliamentary elections, Jobbik did not modify the top-objectives that have been set out in this document. It has been successful in molding a series of social grievances into support for the party. Some of these grievances revolve around the recent economic crisis and the discontent of a large percentage of the Hungarian electorate with symptoms of corruption in the governing structures. Jobbik has promised to strengthen the principle of accountability by lifting the immunity of MPs and introducing political crime as a separate category.
The party has also denounced FIDESz and MSzP for being subject to global capitalism and multinational corporations. In its platform of ‘Eco-social National Economics’, Jobbik has called for the renegotiation of Hungary’s foreign debt, the establishment of a banking system independent from the interference of multinationals, the state-ownership of sectors such as health and education and the long-term renationalization of various others (Jobbik 2010: 2–4). In its campaign, the party was aided by a certain feature of the Hungarian political system: the absence of a political spectrum to the left of MSzP that could undertake the critique against privatization and the activities of multinationals in Hungary. Jobbik’s more concrete emphasis on social issues and adoption of a ‘leftist’ platform on the economy has signified a major departure from the Hungarian Party of Life and Justice (MIÉP) and older initiatives of the Hungarian far right.
Jobbik has also capitalized on social grievances that do not necessarily interweave with corruption and the economic crisis. The party has introduced ‘Gypsy crime’ as a separate category and equates ‘Gypsy integration’ with ‘assimilation into society-at-large’ through ‘work and not welfare’ (Jobbik 2010: 11). Jobbik has been particularly active in these areas that it sees as threatened by ‘Gypsy crime’. The party’s grass-roots engagement has largely consisted in activities such as blood-donation and charity work. This has enabled Jobbik to establish a stronghold in Miskolc and other localities of northeastern Hungary. This is one of the least developed parts of the country, with a long record of friction between the local population and the Roma minority.
RESULTS, IMMEDIATE REACTIONS, AND IMPLICATIONS
When 99% of votes were counted, the Fidesz-KDNP coalition received 44.4%. This equals to about eight per cent less than in 2010, but the changed election system still enables the government a two-thirds majority (at the time of writing it was unclear whether this would materialize). The oppositional coalition received 26%, which is seen as a failure. The party that gained the largest increase – four per cent since the last elections – is Jobbik, earning just over a fifth of votes. LMP barely passed the threshold of five per cent, decreasing with more than two per cent as compared to 2010. All the other parties received less than one per cent of votes. The turnout was just 61% and lower than four years ago. It was highest in Budapest and lowest in the Great Plains. Only 19–20 female candidates are making it into the Parliament.
Immediately after the elections, Orbán said Fidesz had achieved a European record by being the party with the highest rate of support. The prime minister, who has also had several run-ins with the EU over some of his policies, added the vote means Hungarians have said no to exiting the EU if their country has a strong national government. This was a message to Jobbik, which advocates a referendum on membership.
Gordon Bajnai, prime minister during 2009–2010 and now leader of E14, commented that the oppositional alliance in its form was unable to make an attractive offer to Hungarian voters. He added the manipulated electoral system as well as the distorted media landscape as another reason for the coalition’s poor performance, thus seeing no reason to congratulate the winners. International observers said although parliamentary elections in Hungary offered voters a diverse choice, the ruling party indeed enjoyed undue advantage.
Although pre-electoral polls estimated a percentage of 16–18%, Jobbik garnered 20.5% of the vote in this month’s elections. This is a clear sign that the party has not only maintained its strongholds; it has also expanded its electoral base. Jobbik still manages to mobilize a series of social grievances against the ‘corrupt establishment’. What adds higher importance to the party’s success is that Jobbik won 20.5% of the vote as a political actor in its own right. The Socialists’ decision to form a coalition with smaller center-left parties helped MSzP to secure the second spot against Jobbik. Nevertheless, this does not provide an indication that MSzP has managed to brandish a new image to Hungarian voters or that the party has managed to reverse its loss of credibility over charges of corruption. Most importantly, comparative evidence from neighboring countries (e.g. Slovakia, Serbia) demonstrates how fragile and malleable such coalitions can be in the long term.
Looking to the immediate future, Bajnai called on supporters to start campaigning for the European Parliamentary elections in late May. At this point, however, sustained cohesion within the oppositional alliance is somewhat questionable, with MLP-leader Gábor Fodor expressing his doubts over future cooperation and even raising the option of him working independently in the National Assembly. Mr. Fodor was also the only party leader from the oppositional alliance to congratulate the winners.
Reactions from market analysts were relatively cool, with no major implications expected at least in the short run.
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- Landry, D. 2014, Poll, analysts agree on big Fidesz-KDNP election victory, April 4, Budapest Business Journal, http://www.bbj.hu/politics/poll-analysts-agree-on-big-fidesz-election-victory_78024.
- HVG 2012, Új magyar exodus? Az ígéret földje [A new Hungarian exodus? The promised land], December 19, HVG, http://hvg.hu/hvgfriss/2012.51-52/20125152_uj_magyar_exodus_az_igeret_foldje.
- MR1 2013, Híradó, December 28, 3pm, Magyar Rádió 1.
- Baumann, M. op. cit.
- Zalan, E. 2014, Hungary's Orban wins another term, Jobbik support jumps, April 7, EUobserver, http://euobserver.com/eu-elections/123762.
- OSCE 2014, April 7-last update, Although parliamentary elections in Hungary offered voters a diverse choice, ruling party enjoyed undue advantage, say international observers [Homepage of OSCE], [Online]. Available: http://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/117200 [2014, April 7].
- V.Z. 2014, Még nem tudni, hogy kihez csapódik Fodor, April 7, MNO, http://mno.hu/parlamenti_valasztas_2014/meg-nem-tudni-hogy-kihez-csapodik-fodor-1220165.
- Hír24 2014, Így értékelték Londonban a Fidesz győzelmét, April 7, Hír24, http://valasztas2014.hir24.hu/valasztasi-hirek/2014/04/07/igy-ertekeltek-londonban-a-fidesz-gyozelmet/.