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April 30th 2018 print

John O’Sullivan

Waiting and Yearning for the Cavalary

It used to be the case that an election determined which party or parties would govern a country for a constitutionally prescribed period. Today, however, when the fat lady has sung, a battle often breaks out about whether the election result was properly decided and so whether the government is a legitimate one. We saw that in the 2000 and 2016 American elections—remember “hanging chads” and recounts sought in Trump states—and in last year’s UK election when some Corbynites and Remainers (two factions rarely found on the same side) questioned the legitimacy of a Tory government being kept in power by the votes of the Democratic Unionist Party. Once the Tories regained their nerve, this attack fizzled out. But Trump is still embattled.

Given the fierceness of partisanship in Hungary there was always the possibility of a similar dispute breaking out in Budapest following parliamentary elections on April 8. Indeed, as I reported in this space last month, that possibility seemed to grow when the governing Fidesz party lost a mayoralty election to an independent candidate supported by the opposition parties in what had until then been a party stronghold. Opposition parties began to believe that an upset victory might just be on the cards—a hope that still tantalised them on election night.

The landslide for Viktor Orban that then occurred was—and this is not an exaggeration—a Niagara Falls of cold water over them. As with Hillary supporters, some opposition people refused to believe it could be true. One distinguished academic, friendly to the opposition but mordantly realistic, explained to me that his students were shocked and sceptical because almost everyone they knew hated Orban and had voted for one of the five opposition parties. That’s known in America as the “Pauline Kael Insight” after the distinguished New York film critic who doubted Nixon’s 1972 landslide because everyone she knew—and everyone they knew—had voted for Democrat McGovern.

A sophisticated version of the Kael analysis appeared in Washington’s Weekly Standard which interviewed Gabor Horvath, a prominent journalist and editor of an opposition paper, and asked if the election had been fair or fraudulent. He replied as follows:

For now, it needs to be clarified whether what took place was a centrally orchestrated, massive election fraud or only local mismanagement and minor cheating. Currently, election officials don’t seem to be forthcoming and cooperating with the media on transparency issues. For all we know, the newly purchased election software collapsed on election day and the National Election Bureau decided to return to the previous version with data not available for a few hours at the worst possible time on election night. Opposition parties presented partial evidence of hardly explicable local events, like having hundreds of votes for their individual candidates and zero on their party lists in certain precincts. We definitely need some clarity on technical and legal issues before we can accept the results. In all fairness, it would take an extraordinary level of manipulation and secrecy to commit a fraud with such overwhelming results. [My emphasis]

This is a superb exercise in doubt-sowing by throwing out heavy hints of a major election-rigging scandal from behind a stout barricade of plausible deniability. I particularly liked his final “In all fairness …” One can imagine Horvath nodding sagely, perhaps tapping out a pipe on an ashtray, as he delivered this thoughtfully balanced judgment. My guess is that this kind of thing would have been the standard election analysis from the political and media Left if the result had been either a draw or a slim majority for Fidesz. And since there is to be a march to Parliament in a few days to protest about irregularities, I shouldn’t foreclose that possibility. But as Horvath shrewdly conceded in his final sentence, an extraordinary level of manipulation and secrecy would have been needed to manufacture such a landslide. Hugh Hewitt, the US commentator, likes to say: “If we win big enough, they can’t cheat.” And the corollary holds: “If we win big enough, we don’t need to cheat—nor to worry about their cheating.”

That being so, as most observers acknowledge, negative interpretations have switched from the election process itself to the election campaign. Here the most authoritative criticism came in the preliminary report of the OSCE election monitors (invited to observe by the Hungarian government, incidentally) which can be read here https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/hungary/377410?download=true Their report is well worth reading: thorough, professional, and, as best I can judge, accurate (though afterwards you may feel you know more about elections than you wish). It embroiders the distinction mentioned above between the election (“the technical administration … was professional and transparent”) and the campaign (“animated, but hostile and intimidating campaign rhetoric limited space for substantive debate”). It is, in short, a fine example of old-fashioned, high-minded, middle-class, reformist mugwumpery that treats elections as a class in civics rather than as a struggle for power.

I have some sympathy with that ambition (and with some of the criticisms it generates), but it usually comes with its own biases. It smuggles in liberal policies camouflaged as pre-requisites for fairness: thus “there are no legal requirements to promote gender equality in the electoral context” (though it admits 30 per cent of the candidates are women and doesn’t discuss how the voters might deliberately elect a cross-section of the population to parliament). It is innocently remote from how real political battle is waged: “media coverage of the campaign was extensive, yet highly polarised and lacking critical analysis”. And even when it has a strong point, as in its criticism of the “pervasive overlap between state and party spending”, it fails to recognise that this fault is pervasive outside Hungary as well as in this campaign: thus the UK government spent about $15 million on the side of Remain in the Brexit referendum without exciting condemnation from the OSCE or any other international body.

It is sometimes said that a liberal is someone who refuses to take his own side in a fight. The OSCE report, despite its virtues, suggests that this might be because liberals have discovered it’s far more advantageous to be the referee. That is inadvertently illustrated by Horvath when he turns his attention to the campaign and asks rhetorically:

Just imagine what the US would look like if all media—from NPR to practically all the newspapers, television and radio networks, major news sites like Politico and even the Associated Press—were run by people like Sean Hannity or Bill O’Reilly, all of them owned by Jared Kushner-type figures, and only the New York Times, one of the big television networks and a handful of minor internet outlets remaining as independent news sources.

That would, of course, be alarming. Alas, Americans don’t need to imagine such a nightmare. They live in a country in which all the media—from NPR to practically all the newspapers, television and radio networks, major news sites like Politico, and yes! even the Associated Press—are run by people like George Stephanopoulos (formerly a Clinton aide), all of them owned by Punch Sulzberger-type figures, and  only the Wall Street Journal, one of the big television networks, and a handful of etc., etc. Does the overwhelming liberal dominance of the US media make the occasional Democrat election victory illegitimate? I don’t think so—though it means that Republicans (like the Coalition in Australia) usually face an uphill playing field, and that the UK Tories would do so if it were not for Rupert Murdoch (whose London offices, I notice parenthetically, have just been raided by the European Union “competition police”). If not, then the Hungarian elections were also legitimate—but, as was argued above, that legitimacy was more or less irresistibly established by the overwhelming nature of Orban’s victory.

He won 49 per cent of the popular vote, 134 seats in the 199-member parliament, and an almost clean sweep of the single-member constituencies outside Budapest. It is a landslide by any standards and as clear an endorsement as any government has received from an electorate. It simply cannot be explained away as the result of gerrymandering, since a 49 per cent share of the total vote would mean a landslide in seats under almost any electoral system. People heard both sides of the argument and chose Orban. He received an undeniable democratic mandate.

Though many people were surprised—including some of Orban’s own pollsters who couldn’t quite believe how favourable their polls were—they shouldn’t have been. If for no other reason, he would probably have won because of the broad economic success of his government. A week before the election a New York Times report (by Patrick Kingsley and Benjamin Novak) summarised that record as follows:

Government debt, as a proportion of Hungary’s gross domestic product, has fallen more than 6 percentage points since 2010. The country’s credit ratings have improved. The budget deficit has roughly halved. Growth has almost quadrupled. Wages have risen by more than 10 per cent. Though still high, deprivation has fallen by nearly half—not least in places like Siklosnagyfalu, where villagers benefit from their workfare wages. Officially, unemployment has dropped by nearly two-thirds.

Not every economist would agree, but that was how the voters saw it. And if that were not enough, they agreed with Orban’s opposition to mass migration, admired his leadership qualities, and were not attracted by a divided and quarrelsome opposition. The opposition parties, Left and Right, now in disarray, won’t recover until they address the real interests and opinions of Hungarians outside the Budapest “bubble”. And they won’t do that by fantasising about overturning a landslide election or relying on the European Union to arrive like the US Fifth Cavalry to save them from the voters.