ZOiS Spotlight 12/2018

Hungary’s parliamentary election: a bottom-up perspective

by Chris Hann 04/04/2018
Main square of the small town of Kiskunhalas: here, contrary to the similarly small town of Hódmezővásárhely where Fidesz lost the mayoral election on 25 February, the governing party easily won another election on the same day Chris Hann

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party is preparing to celebrate a third consecutive victory in the country’s general election on 8 April. Yet some observers at home and abroad are concerned about the health of parliamentary democracy in an EU member state that has attracted much criticism in recent years.

Hungarian socialist democracy reached its nadir with the suppression of the 1956 revolution. But in the decades that followed, reformists in the ruling party laid the foundations for a more social democratic vision that was compatible with multi-party politics. The renamed Hungarian Socialist Party may have lost the 1990 election, but its credentials were strong enough to confound predictions, resulting in the election of socialist-led governments in 1994, 2002 and 2006.

In recent years, however, the most vigorous opposition to the dominant right-of-centre Fidesz has come from Jobbik, a party that has positioned itself even farther towards the ethno-nationalist right wing of the spectrum. Parties of the left have largely lost their credibility, especially in Hungary’s provinces. Experts differ as to how far the responsibility for this collapse lies with incompetent and/or corrupt individual leaders or with structural changes in the political economy of a neoliberal EU that have reduced social-democratic options everywhere, above all in the post-Communist periphery.

Orbán’s march towards another triumph at the polls gained its most significant momentum following the migrant crisis in summer 2015. German chancellor Angela Merkel and other EU leaders have played into his hands ever since. His closure of the Western Balkan migration route through the dramatic construction of a fence was not only symbolically powerful. It also exposed the hypocrisy of Western European leaders, who breathed a huge sigh of relief when the numbers of migrants finally ebbed while continuing to assume the moral high ground in rebuking Hungary and its Visegrád neighbours for refusing to accept refugee quotas.

In the run-up to these elections Orbán has harped on these themes relentlessly. His main demon is George Soros, who in saturation media coverage is accused of having a plan, through the NGOs he finances, including his university in Budapest, to destroy not only the identity of the Magyar nation but also the civilizational values of Europe as a Christian continent.

A signal of change from the provinces?

All seemed to be going smoothly according to the Orbán plan until a surprise result in a mayoral election on 25 February in the Great Plain market town of Hódmezővásárhely. In a Fidesz stronghold, the party’s candidate was defeated by an independent.1 The Fidesz vote did not collapse, but the victor, Dr Péter Márki-Zay, won almost 60 per cent of the vote on a much-increased turnout. This charismatic economist/manager, returning to his hometown after years in North America, was able to attract the support of citizens who would normally have voted for very different parties. On this occasion, citizens united to defeat a governing party that was widely perceived to be shamelessly corrupt in exploiting its virtual monopoly of power at every level.

Could the result in Hódmezővásárhely bode for an upset at the general election? After all, corruption is an issue everywhere. But it is hard to unite Hungary’s anti-government forces, especially when Fidesz’s publicity demonstrates daily that its main political rivals are similarly bogged down in allegations of graft and sleaze.

On that same day in February, the Fidesz candidate won easily in another local election in the slightly smaller town of Kiskunhalas, which I have known since the 1970s. Though the surrounding countryside closed ranks behind Fidesz much earlier, Hungary’s dominant party did not assume control of the town hall there until 2014. The left has now fallen into disarray, and this year the socialists did not even bother to nominate a candidate. Many new opposition parties have been launched, but few have gained much resonance outside large settlements. In Kiskunhalas, the only vigorous opposition nowadays comes from Jobbik, whose parliamentary candidate is a leader of the party’s national youth movement. But the Fidesz candidate, rather like Orbán at the national level, has not been rattled. He declines challenges to debate in public with his main rival, confident that he can rely on his party machine to bring him the votes he needs.

He may also have other instruments at his disposal. Obviously, an opposition candidate can only win if s/he can also attract votes from other parties. The most promising possibility for Jobbik in Kiskunhalas is the LMP, Politics Can Be Different, a centrist-liberal-green grouping led by Budapest elites. Their local candidate is an attractive 22-year old aspiring model called Melánia, who lacks political experience. Melánia has stretched the meaning of liberális in ways previously unfamiliar in small-town Hungary: her appearances in scanty clothing in rap videos have given her a presence in the social media, but not all voters are impressed. Somehow, a recording of a telephone conversation in which the Jobbik candidate offered to cover all Melánia’s campaigning expenses to date if she would only withdraw from the contest became public. Fidesz issued a solemn communiqué declaring that its principal opponent had effectively disqualified himself from running for office. Responsibility for the leak was unclear, but some suspected that Fidesz itself must have been involved in dirty tricks. The dominant party is the main beneficiary of the incident, and who else can deploy this kind of power in Hungary today?

Another likely triumph for Fidesz

So the Hódmezővásárhely mayoral election was probably a one-off, not a rehearsal for the parliamentary election. Márki-Zay, the trustworthy new mayor, has continued his efforts to promote tactical voting, here and throughout the country. Digital technologies partly compensate for the opposition leaders’ incessant bickering. Nevertheless, it will be a surprise if Fidesz fails to win this constituency on 8 April. The party is sure to triumph in Kiskunhalas too, and in the Hungarian provinces overall.

Orbán has not visited the small town of Kiskunhalas so far in this year’s campaigning, but on 19 March he inspected his masterwork, the frontier fence, at the nearby border crossing to Serbia. This was an ideal occasion for the prime minister to step above the domestic fray and praise the work of his security forces in the manner of a European statesman: ‘This fence not only protects Hungary but all of Europe. . . . We built it, we paid for it, and we expect Europe to pay the costs of this to at least the extent to which it is also protecting them.’2

Chris Hann is director of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle and a member of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences.

(1) These events were extensively covered in the foreign press, e.g. on 24 February (before the actual election) by Jan Puhl, “Alle gegen einen”, Der Spiegel 2018/9, pp. 81-3. Excitement at the upset in respected foreign media was widely reported in Hungarian outlets: alfahir.hu/2018/02/26/nemzetkozi_sajto_die_presse_der_standad_le_figaro_marki_zay_peter_hodmezovasarhely_fidesz

(2) Quoted verbatim from the official report (where it is also possible to find the Prime Minister’s Facebook videopost marking the occasion): abouthungary.hu/news-in-brief/pm-orban-visits-tompa-on-the-hungarian-serbian-border-to-inspect-hungarys-border-fence-and-to-thank-police-and-soldiers-for-their-efforts/