Local elections in Hungary have placed a question-mark over the durability of the ‘illiberal democracy’ of Viktor Orbán.
Since Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party returned to power in 2010, many commentators have noted Hungary’s regression from a fledgling liberal democracy to a right-wing, authoritarian, stridently-nationalist state. Under Orbán’s premiership power has been concentrated in the hands of the prime minister and his associates, while constitutional checks and balances—including judicial independence and oversight—have been progressively eroded.
As far back as 2012, when Orbán and Fidesz had barely embarked on the task of turning Hungary into an ‘illiberal democracy’, the political scientist András Bozóki commented that ‘[l]iberal democracy … has been replaced with a wrecked version of “majority” rule … where the freedom of speech is limited by self-censorship (people do not speak up, for fear of losing their jobs) and press freedom is clearly being reduced to the blogosphere’. More recently, Bozóki’s colleague at the Central European University Matthijs Bogaards has referred to the ’de-democratization’ of Hungary.
Aside from the role of the Orbán administration and allied business interests in drastically reducing the number of mainstream platforms (newspapers, radio and television) for independent journalism in Hungary, Orbán and Fidesz have gradually extended their influence over the country’s cultural and intellectual life, as well as education.
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As a result of legislation enacted by Hungary’s Fidesz-dominated parliament, the prestigious Central European University (CEU) has had to relocate the bulk of its teaching from Budapest to Vienna, while a recent law has severely curtailed the autonomy of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. State-approved textbooks introduced in Hungarian schools endorse the prime minister’s views on such topics as multiculturalism, while senior appointments in key cultural institutions, including theatres and museums, often appear to owe more to the ideological orientation of the successful applicants than to professional experience or intrinsic ability.
Orbán and Fidesz have gone to enormous lengths to ensure that their populist, ‘Christian’ and starkly chauvinist vision is embraced by opinion-formers across various sectors and that potential centres of intellectual or cultural opposition are enfeebled or neutralised.
Dramatic and unexpected
In view of the apparent ease with which Orbán and Fidesz have succeeded in realising their political project in this decade, the losses suffered in this month’s local elections by the governing party across Hungary were all the more dramatic and unexpected.
To Fidesz’s evident surprise, Gergely Karácsony, co-president of the diminutive Dialogue for Hungary, decisively defeated the incumbent mayor of Budapest, István Tarlos. Karácsony, whose candidature was supported by five opposition parties, also including the left-leaning Hungarian Socialist Party and the centrist Momentum, obtained almost 51 per cent of the votes, compared with just over 44 per cent for Tarlos, who had the backing of Orbán and Fidesz.
Karácsony’s success was replicated elsewhere. Mayoral candidates endorsed by an alliance of opposition parties triumphed in 14 of Budapest’s 23 districts. By contrast, in 2014 all but six districts in Budapest had voted for Fidesz-supported mayors. A similar pattern was evident in the provinces, particularly in many of the larger towns. Opposition parties achieved numerous successes against Fidesz mayors where they were willing to endorse a single candidate.
The local-election results have clearly damaged the aura of invincibility Orbán and Fidesz enjoyed, while emboldening Hungary’s opposition parties. Although it’s much too early to make confident predictions, the striking gains by opposition candidates in the capital and key provincial towns suggest Orbán and Fidesz can be removed from power in parliamentary elections to be held in 2022—provided that the opposition parties continue to collaborate closely.
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The results also give reason to hope that Fidesz’s fear-mongering, anti-EU, anti-George-Soros, anti-migrant and anti-globalist rhetoric is starting to have less impact on Hungarian voters—as compared with concerns about the state of schools, hospitals and public transport, and widespread dismay at the corruption, arrogance and sense of entitlement of many senior Fidesz politicians. Recent revelations about the dissolute lifestyle and alleged corrupt practices of Zsolt Borkai, then Fidesz’s mayor in the important industrial city of Győr, scarcely helped to bolster support for party candidates across the country.
As the philosopher and veteran political activist Gáspár Miklós Tamás remarked recently, Orbán may also be a victim of his own success. By pursuing tough and uncompromising measures which have prevented ‘migrants’ and asylum-seekers from entering Hungary in significant numbers, it has become increasingly difficult for Orbán and Fidesz to frighten voters with the spectre of an ‘invasion’ by Muslims and other foreigners.
Jubilation amongst Orbán’s many detractors, in Hungary and abroad, should however be tempered by caution and an understanding of the character and situation of Hungary’s premier. As Paul Lendvai noted in the final chapter of his 2017 political biography of Orbán, ‘it is going to be a long, hard road ahead to break Orbán’s grip on power’. He went on:
His decisive leadership is backed by a willingness (sometimes explicitly affirmed) to use force, if necessary, against ‘the enemies of the state’. Nobody knows how far Viktor Orbán … will go to avoid giving up power, with all its consequences for him, his family and his cronies.
Orbán’s undiminished appetite for power, his tactical skill and proven ruthlessness—allied to probable concerns on the part of Hungary’s prime minister that loss of office would trigger an investigation into the extent of his, his family’s and his associates’ assets (and of the manner in which they were acquired)—suggest that, as general elections draw closer, there will be an epic, brutal political struggle between Fidesz and the opposition parties. The capacity of the latter to remain united and resolute—as well as the electorate’s ability to distinguish misinformation from verifiable facts—will be fully put to the test.
In the aftermath of the local elections, the Fidesz-aligned media asserted that Budapest’s new mayor, Karácsony, served the interests of ‘Brussel’s left-liberal elite’ and the ‘Soros empire’, rather than the needs of ordinary Hungarians. Similarly, the Fidesz media tried to explain the party’s reverses as the consequence of sinister machinations on the part of Soros-funded NGOs and the ‘Soros university’ (the CEU).
In the run-up to the 2022 general elections, Orbán and Fidesz will no doubt continue to recycle tried-and-tested conspiracy theories of external interference in Hungary’s domestic affairs—presenting Fidesz as the champion of ‘real’ Hungarians and the opposition parties as the tools of predatory, powerful and malign foreign interests.