The prime minister speeds towards another electoral victory, but Hungarian society has been left behind; hapless and incapable ofﬁnding a believable alternative.
Winter 1989. A Lada is careening down snow covered roads in the Hungarian countryside. The man at the wheel is a young Viktor Orbán, a Fidesz militant, returning to Budapest after a political meeting in the provinces. Beside him sits Tibor Fischer, a British writer of Hungarian origin who is bound for success. A Russian soldier suddenly appears in the middle of the road, wielding a large torch. He waves the torch to get them to stop. In reply, Orbán steps on the gas and the soldier recedes into the distance in a cloud of dust. “What was that all about?”, asked Fischer. “He wanted us to buy him some vodka”, replied Viktor with a shrug.
When recounting the anecdote, Fischer noted that “not only did Orbán not slow down, he didn’t even think about slowing down. His attitude hasn’t changed much since then”. The man that never slows down is about to win his third term as prime minister. The polls are telling. Fidesz is clearly the most popular party and almost certain to obtain an absolute majority in parliament. And while Orbán keeps rushing ahead, it is now Hungary that is being left behind in the dust. The climate of mistrust towards the government and politics is such that rather than causing a revolt, it has led to widespread apathy. There are no real alternatives. The majority party will be those who don’t vote (40% in the last elections). Hungarians have lost hope in the future. Constant attacks on civil society, the dismantling of the welfare state, the increased cost of health care and growing economic inequality (14.9% of Hungarians live below the poverty line according to Word Bank data) have led to resignation and a sense of dismay. A recent survey conducted for Foreign Policy by the International Republican Institute (IRI) showed that 50% of Hungarians believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, 74% are pessimistic about future employment and 68% believe that politicians are deaf to the citizens’ needs.
“The main challenge for the opposition is understanding what people need and translating this into an eﬀective political programme”, said Zsuzsanna Szelényi, a parliament member elected with Együtt 2014, the socialist-liberal party, which joined Unity, the left-wing coalition, in the last elections. But that seems to be exactly the problem: Divided into small parties and movements, the opposition is only united in its eﬀorts to defeat Orbán. It seems incapable of speaking to the citizens, who view their leaders as politicians who only want to retain their seats in parliament.
The fragmentation of the opposition is an advantage for Fidesz, particularly given the new electoral law introduced in 2014. The law redrew the electoral colleges and eliminated run-oﬀs, limiting the representation of small parties and national minorities, and handing the keys to the country to Orbán for years to come. In the last elections, Orbán garnered 8% fewer votes but only lost 1.7% of his seats. Representation is also curtailed by the new quorum: 5% for single parties, 10% for two-party coalitions and as much as 15% for broader coalitions. Reduced to a batch of diverse forces, the opposition risks being politically sidelined. The case of the socialist party is emblematic.
The Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) (Fidesz’s main opponent until 2010) has now become a minor player. The polls credit the party with just 8% of the vote. Their candidate for prime minister, Laszlo Botka, the very popular mayor of Seghedino, who was convinced he would win the elections in 2016, stood down last October over diﬀerences with the other opposition parties. He accused them of “not putting enough eﬀort into defeating the outgoing government”. Botka has tried in vain to form a new centre-left coalition, but has been rejected by the other opposition forces: “I made a mistake”, Botka admitted. “I didn’t realise that the opposition parties are only interested in a few seats in the Orbán regime. I hadn’t realised how deeply the political maﬁa had penetrated the ranks of the opposition, including my party”. These very harsh words were aimed primarily at Ferenc Gyurcsány, former prime minister and founder of Democratic Coalition (DK), currently boasting 9% of the vote, who Botka believes is too embroiled in scandals and corruption to be part of a coalition that really intends to reform the country. The clash between Botka and Gyurcsány has ended up harming the opposition as a whole, already a frayed and contentious bunch, and the resignation of the Socialist candidate made the situation all the more obvious.
So Hungarians are left in a quandary: should they vote for a strong leader who, after all, ensures the country’s stability? Or should they vote for his antagonists who are constantly bickering without oﬀering a sensible alternative? Orbán’s success in the polls indicates their answer to this question. When asked which of the various political leaders would be best suited to lead the country, almost 60% of respondents said Orbán. Bernadett Szél of the LMP (Lehet Màs a Politicka), a green party founded in 2009, came in second in this ranking. An economist with a doctorate in psychology, Szél is supported by 14% of Hungarians (Századvég data). According to the polls, her party can hope to garner 9% of the vote, and her stock is rising. Szél has said she wants “a new government, a new era and a new direction” for the country, and is appealing to young voters in terms of hope and trust in the future, employment and the environment. She’s becoming the new face of national politics. Even if Szél doesn’t manage to challenge Viktor Orbán this time around, she is what the future has in store.
Andras Fekete-Gyor, by contrast, is on the political scene’s fringes. He is the leader of Momentum, a movement that arose out of last summer’s street demonstrations but has not managed to come up with a clear political programme. The polls have Momentum at 3%, and they seem unlikely to gain a seat in parliament. In this climate of general distrust, one faction that is riding high is the extreme-right Jobbik party (currently projected to secure 15% of the vote) which, along the lines of the French Front National, has taken steps to make themselves acceptable to the conservative electorate. Jobbik is attempting to siphon oﬀ votes from Fidesz, with which it shares many views, including religious traditionalism as well as the rejection of immigration and multiculturalism. So far, the make-over has produced grotesque results. Gàbor Vona, Jobbik’s leader, who has always promoted discriminatory campaigns against the Romany people, has asked the government to make amends for its treatment of minorities. Vona has gone as far as saying that the Roma are “exploited as a voter pool while suﬀering under extreme poverty. This is racism”. He left journalists astounded by his metamorphosis as he also reiterated how sorry he was about Jobbik’s past treatment of the Romany issue, though he couldn’t help pinning much of the blame on the Roma themselves and accusing Flórián Farkas, the head of the National Roma Council and a member of Fidesz, of taking advantage of his people to raise his vote count. He also added that his party would stand alongside László Bogdán, the mayor of Cserdi, a Romany village that made headlines in Hungary owing to a story about work and social redemption. “I’m proud of the Roma, who are an example for their community”, Vona added, “and think that no one in Hungary should be discriminated against because of their ethnic origin”. While Vona attempts to promote a new image for his party, László Toroczkai, an important member of Jobbik and the mayor of Asotthalom, has doubled down on his ban on Muslim women wearing hijabs. He’s called it a “war against Muslim culture” and told the BBC that “we primarily welcome people from western Europe – people who wouldn’t like to live in a multicultural society”. ’Scratch the surface, and the Jobbik of old shines through.
Jobbik’s shift doesn’t appear to worry Orbán. There’s even a chance that the extreme right-wing party may not manage to stand in the elections, owing to a ﬁne of €2 million levied by the Hungarian Court of Auditors for having received illicit funds during the last electoral campaign. Many believe that ruling was the work of Fedesz, casting the entire electoral campaign in an ever gloomier light. The results seem such a foregone conclusion that Orbán hasn’t even bothered to present a detailed programme. All he has said is that if he wins “things will go on as before”. Last November, he stated that the upcoming elections “are not about the parties”, but are more of “a spiritual issue”. In other words, “whether we want to be a country of immigrants or defend our Christian roots, if we want to be harassed by Europe or be free to defend ourselves”. This is the path Orbán has chosen, one which risks leading Hungary down a blind alley.