Hungary: Establishing a right-wing state

Skewed election laws, biased media and weak opposition guaranteed Viktor Orban a second term.

In the past four years, Hungarian PM Viktor Orban managed to put together a new system to guarantee his reelection, writes Jambor [AFP/Getty Images]

Throughout its four years in power, Hungarian PM Viktor Orban’s government has restructured the democratic system, taken over independent branches of power, and alienated several social groups. He and his Fidesz Party earned a landslide victory in the April 6 parliamentary elections. 

“Hungarians today brought down a regime and founded a new one,” Orban saidas a newly elected PM in 2010.

At that point, very few people took his words for what they meant. Today, we see that a new system has indeed emerged in Hungary: A system which secured Orban another four-year mandate and which validated his previous term.

The weakness of the opposition

Three factors explain the Fidesz victory. The first is the unimaginative campaign of the left-wing opposition, which failed to sell to its electorate political figures who were associated with eight years of disastrous socialist leadership preceding Fidesz taking power.

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The top three names on the left-wing alliance list could hardly convince voters that the unfortunate past was gone for good. First on the list was MSZP (Hungarian Socialist Party) leader Attila Mesterhazy, who had already suffered a defeat from Orban in the 2010 elections. In second place, the coalition ran ex-PM Gordon Bajnai, head of the interim 2009-2010 MSZP government. The third slot went to Ferenc Gyurcsany, another ex-PM (2004-2009), whose name conjured bad memories of the infamous “Oszod” speech: A leaked party pep talk which included references to winning the 2006 elections by “doing nothing” and “lying through our teeth”. Protests following the emergence of the leaked tape lead to violent clashes and severe police brutality.

Fidesz clearly played on the resentment and trust deficit towards left-wing headliners. With Mesterhazy running for PM, they still referred to the left-wing cluster as the “Gyurcsany coalition”, while Minister of the Interior Sandor Pinter declassified the “Oszod” tapes to bring them back to the campaign and remind voters of MSZP’s past failures. COF (Civil Unity Forum), an NGO with strong ties to Fidesz, started a nationwide billboard campaignwith the three left-wing politicians shown in mugshots behind bars.

The opposition also took their fair share of wrong turns throughout the campaign. They failed to present authentic alternatives or visions concerning the future of the country. They merely positioned themselves against the government, which turned out to be a downer in the eyes of voters seemingly tired of the endless political back and forth.

Fidesz, on the other hand, put out forceful messages about reducing household utility costs and a “war of independence” fought in spite of severe criticism from the EU. Parliamentary elections, according to the Fidesz rhetoric, centred around “fighting the war on utilities” against the left-wing coalition and antagonistic EU bureaucracy.

A system to win

Such a landslide victory for Fidesz would not have been possible without restructuring the election system. Two rounds of voting have been reduced to one, forcing opposition parties to reach an early compromise in individual electoral districts. The number of MPs was nearly halved to 199, while the proportion of individual seats in parliament was increased. District borders were redrawn in a way that would have brought victory for Fidesz in the 2006 elections.

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The reform of the “compensation list” – a system where votes on individual candidates who did not win their electorate were transferred to their party list, originally designed to amass votes received by runners-up in districts – have now also allowed district winners (in most cases Fidesz candidates) to add their surplus votes to party lists, widening the gap between winners and their contenders, and bringing seven more seats for Fidesz. These elections were also the first to enfranchise Hungarians living in neighbouring countries as dual citizens; 95 percent of them voted for Fidesz.

Parties were banned from campaigning on TV channels and in radio broadcasts, while political messages by the government and Fidesz-ally NGO COF kept being aired all through the campaign period. The government also sold their advertising material and slogan “Hungary performs better” to Fidesz at a symbolic price, creating a loophole to legally broadcast – technically – Fidesz propaganda for months via media which were unavailable for all other parties.

Party budgets were also limited by law, a ruling which Fidesz circumvented by “outsourcing” advertising to the government or COF. Based on calculations by NGOs (Transparency International Hungary, among others), Fidesz itself exceeded 2bn HUF ($9m), while COF and the government also spent more than 1bn HUF ($4.54m) on the same campaign. In comparison, the left-wing coalition’s total spending amounted to 1.37bn HUF ($6.2m).

Media skew

The selective nature of right-wing and state-owned media coverage is best illustrated through their way of handling two dubious cases that both emerged during the campaign period. After his failure to list 240m HUF ($1.1m) in an Austrian bank account in his declaration of assets, MSZP deputy Gabor Simon was excluded from the party and removed from candidacy. State media capitalised on opposition leaders’ failure to come clean immediately, and kept the issue on the surface all through the campaign period.

If Jobbik beats MSZP by a decisive majority while smaller left-wing parties fail to perform well, Hungary might follow in Poland’s footsteps with a long era of only right-wing forces in the two most powerful positions.

As it came to light a week before the elections, Fidesz floor leader Antal Rogan also made some mistakes in his declaration of assets, listing his flat as smaller than it was. In the following days, as another luxury flat and some inherited property were unearthed, state media conspicuously refused to report on the issue. State-owned news agency MTI (which has been the only one in Hungary since 2010) refrained from attending opposition press conferences and mentioned the case only when Rogan himself made a statement. The Fidesz politician won a seat on April 6, despite the scandal.

Despite losing one-fifth of their 2010 votes, Fidesz has come through in the elections, and is likely to receive a two-thirds majority. It is expected that 133 seats would give them the power to change the constitution, while one Budapest seat is still hanging with a 22-vote Fidesz lead and more than 1000 votes yet uncounted (as of the time of writing of this article). Losing this district would put them just short of a two-thirds victory.

EU elections

And while far-right party Jobbik has increased the number of their votes by 4 percent, they might gain even more momentum for the 25 May European parliamentary elections.

Left-wing opposition parties will enter this vote separately, and their results may determine their roles in the four years to come. Fidesz’s mobilisation capability will almost certainly bring them an even more decisive victory, while a second place for Jobbik seems fairly uncontested by MSZP, although, whether they can widen the gap and secure their position as second strongest, will remain questionable.

On the left, the vote will decide which formation passes the 5 percent threshold to win EP seats and survive politically: The green party LMP (Politics can be Different), Ferenc Gyurcsany’s DK (Democratic Coalition) party, Gordon Bajnai’s Together party, or ex-financial minister Lajos Bokros’s MOMA (For a Modern Hungary).

If Jobbik beats MSZP by a decisive majority while smaller left-wing parties fail to perform well, Hungary might follow in Poland’s footsteps with a long era of only right-wing forces in the two most powerful positions.

But judging from this year’s campaign, with Fidesz at the wheel until 2018, the only question for the next parliamentary elections will be the second place – not who will win.

The article has been updated on 12/4/2014 to reflect latest data for campaign spending.

Andras Jambor is a communications expert and a blogger. He has worked previously for Hungarian political parties (Together – Dialogue for Hungary, Politics can be Different).