Why Hungary rewarded Orban’s rough democracy
A Government election poster in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by Laszlo Balogh / Getty Images)   

Peter Franklin has written a wonderful article on Hungary’s recent elections, in which he noted that Viktor Orban’s smashing re-election is not abnormal given the opposition’s weakness. Arguments to the contrary rely on the idea that Orban’s domination of the media has created an unfair playing field that suppresses the true feelings of the Hungarian people.

Peter’s piece led me to see if I could test whether the election results were reflective of unfair tactics or were, as he contends, largely an expression of support for a course a near majority of Hungarians approve of. My review supports Peter’s contention.

The Hungary question

U OK Hun(gary)?

By Peter Franklin

My test was simple: how did Orban’s party, Fidesz, fare in each region of the country compared with its support in the last pre-Fidesz election in 2010. In 2010, Fidesz did not control the media; in 2018, it allegedly did. If the “Orban as autocrat” argument is correct, we should therefore see significant changes from 2010, especially outside of the capital of Budapest where opposition access to newspapers and television is supposedly limited.

We do not, however, see those changes. Fidesz support was down by about 8% in Budapest – the ruling party received only 38.7% there – but it was also down in virtually every other Hungarian county. Their pattern of regional strength was also largely unchanged: the party performed well in the regions where it did well in 2010 and, with one or two exceptions, performed less well in areas where it was less popular eight years ago.

It’s not surprising that, in a first-past-the-post system, some Hungarians might reluctantly choose Fidesz over an even more extreme and distasteful alternative

The most striking difference between the two elections is also easily explained without recourse to claims of autocracy. Fidesz support increased or was roughly level in only five Hungarian counties. Tellingly, these five regions were also the far-right Jobbik party’s strongest regions in the 2010 elections, and were places where Jobbik was Fidesz’s main competition this year. It’s not surprising that, in a first-past-the-post system, some Hungarians might reluctantly choose Fidesz over an even more extreme and distasteful alternative.

Nor is it particularly  surprising that Budapest residents are opposed to Fidesz. Across Europe we see the same thing: people who live in large cities, especially the capital, reject a party that campaigns on nationalistic, anti-migrant, EU-suspicious themes. That was true in the 2017 UK election, where London swung heavily against the pro-Brexit Tories, as well as in the recent French, Italian, and Czech elections. Fidesz won only six of the capital’s 18 seats, and it would have lost the other six to non-Jobbik parties had they fielded a single candidate.

Fidesz does do well outside of the big cities and university towns; that, again, is what we see elsewhere. The anti-immigrant candidate in the recent Czech presidential election, Milos Zeman, lost Prague by an over 2-1 margin, but won the race by winning smaller, poorer regions far from the capital by equally large margins.

Populism in Italy

Italy's populists flex their muscles

By Henry Olsen

It continually shocks the European urban elites that people outside their neighbourhood don’t agree with them. But that is the case, whether we’re talking about small towns in Italy whose voters backed Lega or M5S in March or Hungarians who look to nationalist parties like Fidesz or Jobbik rather than the parties preferred by Brussels.

Hungarians are also particularly fond of nationalistic themes. One cannot forget, as they never do, that they are a unique people with a distinct language surrounded by a sea of Slavic nations. Indeed, the first post-Communist election was won by a party much like today’s Fidesz, the Hungarian Democratic Forum. It, too, combined elements of Hungarian nationalism with christian democratic and economically liberal stances. Fidesz rose only as HDF declined and Orban moved Fidesz into its political space, first by forming an electoral alliance with HDF and then by absorbing the party entirely.

Orban’s Hungary is growing economically and expresses the values that many Hungarians want to see

Orban runs a rougher brand of democracy than I’m comfortable with. I’ve been to Budapest twice in recent years and both times the road in from the airport was plastered with government-sponsored billboards promoting an Orban-favored cause. Fidesz also changed the electoral law to allow ethnic Hungarians who do not and never have lived in Hungary the right to vote. Over 96% of these votes were cast for Fidesz in this year’s election, a suspiciously high total more in line with what one normally sees in unfree states. But the evidence seems to suggest that Hungarians living within Hungary had a free choice this year and freely expressed it.

Orban’s Hungary is growing economically and expresses the values that many Hungarians want to see, and that combination usually is rewarded at the polls in every democratic country. To compete in the next election, Hungary’s urban opposition should look more to Austria’s Sebastian Kurz, who won last year’s election by adopting a more nationalistic agenda, for inspiration, than to the placid globalism so often preferred by the EU’s self-appointed best and brightest.