Election preview: Hungary

Hungary goes to the polls tonight, with right-wing prime minister Viktor Orbán seeking a third consecutive term in office.* There’s little doubt that he will get it, although the size of his majority will only partly reflect his level of support.

Orbán’s party, Fidesz, started out as a liberal party, but it left Liberal International in 2000 and has since moved steadily rightwards. I notice that when I previewed the last election, in 2014, I still described it as “centre-right”, but that term is now clearly inappropriate. The Hungarian government has made clear its dissent from the liberal norms of western Europe and embraced instead the alliance of Vladimir Putin’s Russia in what Orbán calls “illiberal democracy.”

The name, of course, is a fraud: whatever the theoretical position might be, we know that in practice abandoning liberalism also means abandoning democracy. And Orbán made that plain in his first term, with a series of changes to the Hungarian constitution and electoral system that shielded him from criticism and entrenched his party in power.

The 2014 results demonstrate the problem. Between them, three opposition parties – the centre-left alliance Unity, the far-right Jobbik and the Greens (LMP) – won a majority of the vote, 51.1%. But they only won 66 of the 199 seats, less than a third. Fidesz won a two-thirds majority with just 44.5% of the vote. Some democracy.

The media, of course, don’t want to talk about anything as boring as electoral systems, so instead we are given the impression that Orbán rides an unstoppable wave of popularity. But the reality is a bit different. The opposition from time to time has shown that if it works together, it can inflict significant defeats on the government: in a key by-election in 2015, and in a mayoral by-election just a few weeks ago.

It’s true, however, that Orbán retrieved his position in 2015-16 with his hard-line anti-immigrant stance. The opinion polls show Fidesz fairly consistently polling between 45% and 50% since then. Unity has dissolved back into its constituent parties, of which the main ones are the Socialists and the centrist Democratic Coalition: Jobbik and the Socialists will be fighting for second place behind Fidesz, while Democratic Coalition and the LMP will be concentrating on staying above the 5% threshold for proportional seats.

The big problem the opposition has is that in addition to the 93 proportional seats there are 106 first-past-the-post constituencies, of which Fidesz last time won 96 (including nine for the Christian Democrats, which now operate just as an auxiliary of Fidesz). In the large majority of those (71, by my count) Fidesz was well short of a majority and would have lost if the opposition votes had been pooled behind a single candidate.

But that, of course, would require not just co-operation among the various left and centrist parties (difficult enough), but some sort of deal between them and Jobbik. And it might reasonably be queried whether it makes sense to try to defeat an authoritarian right-wing government by forming an alliance with neo-fascists.

A funny thing, however, has been happening with Jobbik: as Fidesz has taken over more of its territory, Jobbik, under its modernising leader Gábor Vona, has been going the other way, brushing up its image and trying to edge its way into the mainstream. Four years ago I described it as “probably the most successful European party located quite so far down the fascist road,” but that judgement now seems a trifle unfair.

It’s a nice illustration of the way a party system is a dynamic thing. When one party moves, others respond. And faced with the greater danger of Orbán, Hungarian democrats may reasonably regard Jobbik as the lesser evil – or, as one left-wing activist quoted by Politico put it, “a moderate far-right party.”

Still, it’s a big ask. Co-operation with Jobbik would involve not just asking voters to support its candidates in certain seats, but also working together to form government if they were somehow to jointly win a majority. It’s a most unlikely prospect, but it would be fascinating to watch.


* and a fourth term in total, since he was prime minister from 1998 to 2002, but not, as the BBC would have it, “his fourth victory in a row.”

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