When Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, arrives at a European summit in Brussels, he is envied by his 27 counterparts, for his strength at home. He doesn’t need to coordinate with any coalition partners, nor does he fear political backlash from an opposition. He can do what he wants.
That’s because, having won a third consecutive landslide in April, his Fidesz party has an all important two-thirds majority in parliament, which has given him the constitutional power to rewrite laws.
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And Orbán is doing just that. In a flurry of legislation, he has eroded the system of checks and balances on his authority, and curbed the freedom of the media and courts. Such authoritarian behaviour has led to a European Parliament reprimand early this month, backed by a vote which even the majority of Orbán’s conservative centre-right allies from the European People’s Party (EPP) supported (though the EPP refuses to expel him).
But Orbán remains undaunted. His success has been driven, ultimately, by his ability to read Hungarian political sentiment. His party’s popularity is built on its promise to cater to the values and preferences of a culturally conservative Hungary and its projection of strong economic leadership – attractive even among left-wing voters. According to András Biró-Nagy, co-director of Policy Solutions, a political research institute in Budapest, “No other party has been able to truly compete on these sensibilities with Orbán.”
Orbán has cemented his power with the help of the state propaganda that pounds out his messages, and election law carefully designed to help his party at the polls.
“Part of the reason for Fidesz’s success is that they have reduced the democratic space,” says Biró-Nagy. “There is no balanced party competition, there is no level playing field, the conditions are not there any more for a competing party system.” International observers called the 2014 election free, but not fair, and in their 2018 report complained of “intimidating and xenophobic rhetoric, media bias and opaque campaign financing”.
Orbán’s success is in large part, the result of weak and fragmented opposition that is largely distrusted by the voters. Under the current voting system, opposition parties would have to unite behind a single candidate to defeat Orbán’s men. It proved an impossible task in too many constituencies. “While the opposition is so fragmented, election loss is a question of basic mathematics,” Benedek Jávor, a member of the European Parliament from the Green, left-wing Dialogue party told me.
Jávor says that it is not only a lack of will that makes cooperation among opposition parties difficult. It is also because they represent widely different world views – from urban liberals to supporters of the far-right. It is almost impossible for them to find common ground.
So rather than shaping compelling messages in the run up to April’s election, opposition parties instead bickered about whether they should unite candidates against Fidesz’s people. Little time was spent deciding who and how they would govern in the event of a win. As a result, no alternative vision of Hungary’s future was offered that could compete with Orbán’s message of euroscepticism and xenophobia.
On top of which, according to Biró-Nagy, “there is a credibility crisis on the opposition side. And this is not only a crisis in leadership where opposition figures lack charisma.” The governing left-wing Socialists and liberals had, by 2010, been discredited after the mismanagement of unpopular liberal reforms, austerity policies during the economic crisis, corruption, and a rolling political crisis in which the Socialist prime minister was caught on tape saying he lied to get elected, and then refused to resign. Unsurprisingly, “the country lost faith in the old Left-wing’s ability and moral capital to govern,” says Jávor.
The old Left has failed to repair its credibility over the past eight years, and nor have voters developed much faith in the inexperienced newcomers. “This is pretty much a catch-22 situation,” says Biró-Nagy. “You cannot win new supporters with the old opposition parties, but the old parties have still the most robust base.”
It is no surprise, then, that the biggest protests against Orbán have been organised not by political parties, but by activists. Balázs Gulyás was the one of the organisers behind the largest mass rally against Orbán, when in late 2014 over 50,000 demonstrators took to the street against a planned internet tax. In a rare move, after the protest, Orbán backed down.
“We wanted to show that the people could defeat the Orbán government on an issue. And it was a clear win,” Gulyás said. “The single-issue mass demonstrations alone will not bring about salvation, but they show to the outside world that Hungarians are not all that happy,” he added.
After the protest, Orbán’s popularity waned: at the cusp of 2015, the party lost a million voters and a by-election saw him lose his two-thirds majority.
Not long after, however, Orbán discovered the issue that diverted all attention from his troubles: migration. By the end of 2015, the border fence was up, and two-thirds of those fleeing voters had returned to him. As Biró-Nagy puts it: “Orbán hit the political jackpot with migration.”
And these days, opposition to Orbán and his illiberal state is getting more and more risky. When voicing dissenting views, people ask not to be named. Government employees are afraid to attend demonstrations. Activists have moved abroad.
The question must be: why did Hungarians go along with the erosion of their freedoms? Perhaps the answer is in the country’s history. Few people at the time of the negotiated transition from Communism in 1989-90 actually paid a price for freedom. After the transition, the new democratic elite failed to empower people, nor could it understand the popular desire for a paternalistic figure. Those centuries of authoritarian rule created a need for a strong leader, and Orbán was able to exploit that.
A study published last week by Policy Solutions shows that around half of Hungarians don’t think Fidesz can be removed by democratic means – only 36% think it can. That loss of faith in the democratic process is reflected in the popularity of a satire party, the Two-Tailed Dog, which is increasing. The party is polling low, but according to Biró-Nagy, they could produce a surprise by getting into the European Parliament at next May’s election. It has campaigned on a platform for free beer and eternal life – goals that now seem just as achievable as voting Orbán out of office.