As Goes Hungary…

About a month ago in Hódmezővásárehely, a town in the south-east of Hungary (population 47,019, local attractions include thermal bathing), there was a small political earthquake. A local independent candidate in an election for the local mayoralty, Peter Marki Zay, who was supported by all the opposition parties, easily defeated the front-runner from the governing Fidesz party by a healthy margin of sixteen points.

This was a surprise on every count: the polls had suggested an easy Fidesz win; the town was regarded as a stronghold of Fidesz—an earlier mayor, Janos Lazar, is now effectively the deputy prime minister—and the national opinion polls have been predicting a major victory for the Fidesz party and Prime Minister Viktor Orban in the forthcoming general election on April 8.

Was this upset the promise of a bigger upset? If so, it would be an international upset, since Orban is a symbol of the “populist” upsurge throughout Europe and thus a scare-figure for the international Left, the European Commission, and those who see the election of populists as a threat to “liberal democracy”.

At once there was an outburst of optimistic rejoicing among Orban’s many opponents along the lines of … a Fidesz triumph wasn’t a foregone conclusion … if the opposition parties united as they had done in Hódmezővásárehely … the mathematics for an opposition victory were there … and so on. International reporters are now making their way to Budapest; the caravan has moved in for the kill.

In Brussels Jean-Claude Juncker has crossed his fingers in the hope of an Orban defeat that would mark the second death for populism—this time perhaps a more permanent death than Emmanuel Macron’s slaying of populism in the French elections had proved before populism revived in the German and Italian elections.

Orban himself did not discourage this kind of speculation. Indeed, he voiced it himself. There’s no doubt that the opposition could win, he grieved. And his people have been wearing glum faces around town, shaking their heads mournfully, and regretting that Fidesz will probably not get the two-thirds parliamentary majority it won in the last two elections.

There’s calculation there, of course, on both sides. Orban runs a very efficient electoral machine in Fidesz, but after two successful elections in 2010 and 2014, its activists don’t have the missionary drive to “take back” Hungary that was present eight years ago. Complacency may be his most dangerous enemy. He doubtless calculates that a healthy panic about the result would give his supporters some ginger.

On the other hand the opposition parties must hope that as in several recent European elections, the leading party, now looking more vulnerable, will see its lead slip away and the opposition make gains. But which opposition? There are several opposition parties—socialists, liberals, students, a centrist Green party on the left of Fidesz, and the radical populist Jobbik party on its right. And though they co-operated in one small municipal election, the Left opposition parties still shrink from co-operating with a party they were recently calling neo-fascist. They even shrink from working with each other. Still, the opposition has been woken from a mood of almost complete defeatism and is now looking more spirited even if still disorganised.

Maybe they should also be looking a trifle embarrassed too—as should their allies in Brussels, the US, and the international media. After all, until the Hódmezővásárehely result, it was an article of faith among Orban’s critics at home and abroad that he was a populist authoritarian who was closing down democracy in Hungary—at best creating the conditions (a controlled press, a gerrymandered electoral system) in which no opposition party could ever come to power. Now that the opposition is posing a real challenge, all that talk sounds alarmist, grossly exaggerated, and dishonest.

No doubt it will be recycled very quickly if, as remains likely, Orban wins on April 8. So it’s worth examining why Orban is still the favourite.

It has nothing to do with either a controlled press or gerrymandering. The official state media is pro-government, as it was under previous governments (about which no one complained), and though Fidesz enjoys a dominant position in private media, that dominance is probably less than the Democrats’ sway over the US media. Indeed, since a political ally of Orban’s split with him and switched to supporting Jobbik, Fidesz has been deprived of an opinion magazine, a television station, and advertising support. Last year the roadsides were covered in advertising billboards against Fidesz showing Orban and other notables and declaring simply, “You Work, They Steal”, at a time when the heavyweight broadsheets in the US and Western Europe were lamenting the suppression of free speech in the country.

As for gerrymandering, Hungary’s electoral system is actually more favourable to smaller and losing parties than the first-past-the-post system used in most English-speaking countries. It consists of a combination of FPTP and proportional representation: 106 MPs are elected by FPTP in single-member constituencies and another ninety-three are elected by nationwide PR on party lists. Thus, in 2014, Fidesz swept the board of single-member constituencies, and won a healthy overall majority of 131 seats when its PR share of the national vote was added in. The five-party socialist coalition, on the other hand, won only thirty-eight seats, mainly on the national PR lists. Thus, Fidesz won a two-thirds parliamentary majority (which it lost shortly afterwards in two by-elections).

How did this happen? Large majorities are inevitable even in a qualified FPTP system like Hungary’s if opposition to a government is distributed across several parties with modest vote-shares. Thus, in 2014, Fidesz won 45 per cent of the total vote as against 25 per cent for the socialist coalition and 20 per cent for the Jobbik populists. That gave it a landslide inevitable under almost any system. Those who attribute this victory to “gerrymandering” must ask themselves why Fidesz had an equally impressive result in 2010 when the electoral system was one designed by the previous government.

So far eighteen parties have registered for this election. Most of them are vanity projects of one kind or another, but at least six relatively serious parties—recognisable as socialists, liberals, centrists and so on—are in the mix. But the opinion poll results for all of them are depressing. Jobbik is usually rated second with between 11 and 20 per cent depending on the poll; socialists and liberals both gravitate to the low double figures. And Fidesz is miles ahead of all three at between 45 and 55 per cent of the vote.

Of course, polls can be wrong, as the by-election showed, and all the polls have a high number of “don’t knows/won’t says”. They may well be “shy” anti-Fidesz voters who—as opposition critics sometimes argue—fear retribution of some kind if they make known their hostility to the government. It’s worth pointing out, however, that all parties doing badly in the polls make defensive arguments of that kind.

Overall, the lesson is clear: if the opposition parties want to defeat Fidesz, they have to reorganise themselves into one or two political parties that have strong support in the electorate and—quite as important—a popular political program.

That’s what Orban has done very effectively. You can boil down his appeal to three simple points:

1. The economy is doing far better than it was eight years ago. He’s paid off a large chunk of Hungary’s national debt, unemployment is down, wages are rising, investment is coming in, and growth is above 3 per cent. His opponents argue that for various reasons, this economic success is flawed and will taper off in the next four years. Even if that’s true—which we can’t know with certainty—it’s a weak argument in the face of actual improvement and real cash in the pockets of the voters.

2. Orban has seized the immigration issue and made it the flagship issue of his campaign, in effect turning himself into an Anti-Merkel who will protect Europe from a non-military invasion of migrants invited in by the German Chancellor and now being distributed across Europe by the European Commission—or who would be distributed across Europe if Orban were not around to block them.

3. Orban benefits on both these issues from his general image as a strong political leader who will protect Hungary from whatever dangers threaten it. None of the other political parties has anything like this kind of appeal.

Orban’s government has weaknesses—for instance, the rumours of corruption bruited abroad by the billboard campaign—which a strong opposition campaign could exploit. It will probably do so, and as in other countries, the social media campaigns of the Left (which are aggressive and imaginative) may play a larger part than either side has calculated. So the game isn’t over.

But Orban has one advantage that explains why he is the focus of international attention. Other elections in Europe, notably the Italian election, have shown that there are now four forces in its new politics: Left populists, Left centrists, Right centrists, and Right populists. The Centre-Right has one great potential advantage: the Left’s collapse across Europe has come first. So the Right has been given time to assemble a new coalition. It can woo the disaffected blue-collar vote with a patriotic appeal and wed it to the traditional supporters of the mainstream Right. Orban is the first political leader to do this in a consistent way.

That’s why he’s loved and loathed across Europe—and why his election or rejection will be significant outside Hungary as well as within it.

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