There is a palpable sense of gloom and foreboding amongst liberals, moderate conservatives and those on the Left in Hungary following Fidesz’s unexpectedly decisive victory in the April 8 parliamentary elections. Prime Minister Orbán and the Fidesz-KDNP coalition swept to their third successive triumph at the ballot box, gaining two thirds of the seats in Hungary’s unicameral Parliament. This will enable Fidesz to amend Hungary’s Constitution, or Fundamental Law, at will, without having to seek support from any of the opposition parties.
“How do you explain this result?” I asked an elderly, university-educated acquaintance the morning after the elections, as we walked our dogs near St István Park in Budapest’s XIIIth District, an area that remains an opposition stronghold. My interlocutor shook his head wearily. “This country’s fascist! It always was and it always will be!”
Despite the evident strength and sincerity of my companion’s convictions there is ample evidence to suggest that the truth is a great deal more complex. While Fidesz may have gained an impressive number of seats in Hungary’s Parliament, the election results show conclusively that the Party does not enjoy overwhelming support amongst the electorate. Without taking account of possible electoral irregularities – now the subject of mounting speculation – Fidesz-KDNP received one hundred thousand fewer votes than the opposition parties combined. Fidesz’s striking success, in terms of winning parliamentary seats, is far from an accurate barometer of its real approval ratings. Rather, the party’s two-thirds majority in the new Parliament is the product of Hungary’s spectacularly skewed election laws, which were designed by Fidesz and passed by a Fidesz-dominated legislature. As underlined by the historian and blogger, Eva Balogh, “many people underestimated…the devilish nature of the electoral system Viktor Orbán created.”
Why did Hungarians Vote for Fidesz?
If Hungary’s flawed electoral laws account for the scale of Fidesz’s success in the recent elections, the argument put forward by my dog-walking companion – that Hungarians voted for Fidesz in significant numbers because of an innate cultural bias in favour of chauvinist and authoritarian government – cannot withstand serious scrutiny. Hungarians voted for Fidesz for a whole host of reasons, some of which appear to have had nothing whatsoever to do with ideology or politics.
“Two people from Fidesz came knocking on every door in our apartment building,” a middle-aged woman from the working class district of Csepel told me and others one morning, in a Budapest café, less than a week before the election. “They asked every householder who they intended to vote for. If they replied Fidesz, they were given a box of foodstuffs”.
Aside from alleged material inducements, occasional reports of pressure from employers on their workforce and, most worryingly, suggestions of serious election irregularities, including the contention that as many as 125,000 votes may have simply “vanished”, the governing party’s campaign was greatly helped by a range of dubious practices. In its preliminary report on the Hungarian elections, an OSCE Election Observation Mission noted: “the ability of contestants to compete on an equal basis was significantly compromised by the government’s excessive spending on public information advertisements that amplified the ruling coalition’s campaign message.” The Observation Mission also emphasised that, while the public broadcaster had “fulfilled its mandate to provide free airtime to contestants”, its “newscasts and editorial outputs clearly favoured the ruling coalition”. At the same time, most commercial broadcasters – the bulk of which support Fidesz – had been “partisan in their coverage”. These factors go some way towards explaining why Fidesz was able to attract significantly more votes than any other single party in the elections. Persistent and grossly biased media coverage – in combination with omnipresent state-funded “public information advertisements” that, in reality, simply reinforce the anti-migrant, anti-EU and anti-(George) Soros rhetoric of Fidesz – have helped to create and sustain a fearful social climate in which poorly educated, low-income citizens, in particular, especially in deprived rural areas, have grown to accept Fidesz’s fictive political narrative. As Balogh noted recently in Hungarian Spectrum, although opposition parties took most of the seats in Budapest, „[t]he inhabitants of villages, in fact, the poorest villages, voted in droves for Fidesz. They are under-educated, ill-informed, and brainwashed.”
Fidesz’s fear-mongering election campaign relied heavily on convincing the Hungarian electorate that only Orbán and Fidesz possess the courage, tenacity and moral vision to prevent Hungary from being overrun by ‘hordes’ of migrants, allegedly intent on erasing Hungary’s culture and Christian heritage. As Orbán put it in an interview on Easter Friday, on Kossuth Radio, just eight days before the parliamentary elections, prompt and decisive measures are needed to ensure that Hungary does not suffer the ‘dreadful’ fate that awaits the peoples of Western Europe:
I think that young people in Western Europe have to prepare themselves for a life in which they will witness the disappearance of Christian Europe and in which they will be transformed into a minority within their own communities…This danger threatens all of us. The question is how the various peoples within Europe will respond to this danger.
According to this narrative, Hungary is engaged in an existential struggle with the European Union, with the financier and philanthropist George Soros and with the United Nations – all of whom, so Orbán maintains, are intent on resettling vast numbers of Asian, Middle Eastern and African migrants in Hungary and elsewhere in Europe. In reality, as Matthew Engel remarked earlier this month, in a witty and perceptive essay in the New Statesman, “Hungary is never going to be overrun by migrants because a) the wages are terrible; b) the language is terrifying; and c) the lack of welcome is notorious.”
Settling Accounts with Hungary’s ‘Enemies’
In a fiery speech Orbán delivered in mid-March, on the anniversary of Hungary’s epic but unsuccessful revolt against Habsburg rule, in 1848-49, he gave a stark warning to his political opponents, whom he dismissed as agents of Soros. Following the elections, Orbán declared, there would be a “settling of accounts, morally, politically and legally”.
Few people in Hungary are inclined to dismiss the Prime Minister’s threats as empty rhetoric. Emboldened by a third successive election victory and a two-thirds majority in Parliament, there is little reason to believe that Orbán will choose to act with restraint, whether against the Budapest-based Central European University, a bastion of liberal, cosmopolitan values and of world-class scholarship, against civil society organisations or against a host of increasingly marginalized and pilloried dissident elements.
Strikingly, many educated younger Hungarians I encounter – most of whom have had little or no direct involvement in politics – no longer see a meaningful future for themselves in a Fidesz-dominated Hungary, where corruption and nepotism – as well as the continuing assault on civil liberties – are becoming the norm. Since 8 April, the talk amongst customers in the café where I often take breakfast has been almost entirely of emigration. Fidesz may have won the recent parliamentary elections but it’s Hungary, not only the country’s hopelessly divided and ineffectual opposition parties, that has lost.