Can a united Hungarian opposition defeat Orbán’s illiberal democracy?

By Daniel Green 

VIKTOR Orbán and his increasingly authoritarian Fidesz party has consolidated control over Hungary for just over a decade.

The trend as now developed to the point where the country is no longer considered a democracy by the NGO Freedom House – which now only rates it as ‘Partly Free’.

Since being elected in 2010, Orbán’s government has gerrymandered Hungary’s constituencies, attacked the independence of the judiciary, and actively bought or shut down media outlets who oppose the government.

With this in mind, it is little wonder that Orbán has maintained a hold over two-thirds of seats in the Országgyűlés (National Assembly), half of votes cast in general elections and dominating Hungarian politics over a range of smaller divided opposition parties.

However, with the next election just over one year away, Orbán now faces a real threat from a plan by opposition parties to unite to take on the government and restore Hungary’s democratic institutions.

A tweet by Jobbik leader Péter Jakab after he attempted to give Viktor Orbán a bag of potatoes in protest at Fidesz ‘vote-buying’ during the by-election

The plan will see six of the country’s parties, ranging from socialists to the former far-right party Jobbik, run on a common list with a single candidate in each constituency, a shared manifesto and even a single candidate for Prime Minister.

For Gergely Arató, deputy parliamentary leader of the Democratic Coalition – one of the opposition parties in the coalition, the decision to unite was a necessity.

“The Hungarian election system unilaterally created by Fidesz strongly favours the strongest party and has transformed less than half of the votes cast to a two-thirds majority in parliament twice.

“The only way for the opposition to defeat Fidesz to run in an alliance.”

On paper, the opposition could be in with a good chance of victory. Many constituencies in the last general election saw the opposition parties win a majority of votes when combined, and an initial trial run at cooperation in municipal elections in 2019 resulted in a promising performance.

In certain cities across Hungary, the six parties joined forces to contest mayoralties and gain seats on county assemblies. Their unity scored them victories in Miskolc, Pécs, Tatabánya and, crucially, the capital Budapest.

The opposition was also helped in the final days of the campaign by the leak of a corruption scandal involving the Fidesz mayor for the town of Győr; although that mayor won re-election by a little over 600 votes, it was a significant blow to the government.

However, election expert for Political Capital Róbert László cautions that, while those elections were promising for the opposition, the coalition will need to do even better to ensure victory next year and attempt to win over traditionally Fidesz voters.

“There are 106 single-member constituencies, which are much bigger than most towns in Hungary. For example, in Szombathely, the opposition candidate won in 2019. 

“However, the constituency includes plenty of suburban villages, so it’s not enough for the opposition to win in the town – they have to get a majority in the small settlements where Fidesz support is extremely high.”

László’s conclusions appear to have come to pass in a by-election in October last year, in a constituency made up of smaller Fidesz-leaning towns outside the city of Miskolc.

The opposition candidate, a member of the former far-right Jobbik, lost by five percent after previous anti-Roma and anti-Semitic remarks emerged and claims that Fidesz bribed poverty-stricken residents with potatoes to ensure their two-thirds majority was maintained.

Although opposition primaries planned for all constituencies should help weed out candidates like those in the by-election, the defeat highlights the importance of being able to win across the country and in a system where the ruling party will resort to any measure to achieve victory.

Fidesz has already been flexing its control over state media to attack the opposition over recent weeks and months – in particular the leader of the Democratic Coalition, former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány.

Orbán and Gyurcsány are long-standing political rivals, having fought the 2006 general election against each other.

However, Gyurcsány is equally as divisive after a speech he gave shortly after the election leaked, where he admitted to lying during the campaign and that his coalition government had achieved nothing over the last four years. Protesters were met with tear gas and water cannon, and the Socialist Party saw a collapse in support. 

Despite his resignation in 2009 and his party’s crushing defeat a year later at the hands of Fidesz, it did not prompt his exit from frontline politics – instead he split from the Socialist Party and formed the centre-left Democratic Coalition.

His continued presence is a gift for Orbán, who has branded the united opposition as ‘Gyurcsány’s coalition’.

“I think Fidesz see that as their best strategy,” investigative journalist Szabolcs Panyi explained.

“Gyurcsány is not someone able to attract disillusioned Fidesz voters, so it’s pretty clear that they want to overemphasise his involvement in the coalition to prevent some of their voters from defecting to the opposition.”

Although Gyurcsány has ruled out running as a candidate for Prime Minister, his wife, Vice-President of the European Parliament, Klara Dobrev, is touted as a potential nominee for the Democratic Coalition, with the support of one in four opposition voters in a recent poll.

“For Fidesz, Dobrev would be the easiest target. You don’t have to be a genius to tie her to Gyurcsány,” Panyi added.

The current frontrunner, however, is the recently elected mayor of Budapest Gerely Karáscony, one of the most popular opposition figures in the country. Panyi draws a comparison between him and recent Polish presidential candidate Rafał Trzaskowski – the mayor of Warsaw, and believes the Hungarian government will echo attacks by Poland’s Law and Justice party to brand him as representing only the metropolitan parts of the country.

Despite their lack of control over the airwaves and even billboard advertising, playing in the opposition’s favour is their strength on social media and grassroots campaigning. 

In Budapest’s 2nd district, Daniel Berg, the district’s deputy mayor and member of the executive of centrist party Momentum, has already been working with 6,700 activists to distribute their first round of leaflets to some of the 45,000 households of the area. He explained this approach to campaigning will help motivate and mobilise opposition voters, in particular the younger demographic where Momentum attracts the greatest support.

“People are tired of the same old faces and they really want a new kind of political culture,” he said.

Panyi added that the combined pools of activists from each of the opposition parties could amount to an effective campaigning force to knock on doors and get out the vote.

Polling for the opposition currently looks promising; since November, polls have put the united opposition between three and five points ahead of Fidesz, but László explained that the coalition would need a stronger lead to ensure victory due to the electoral system.

So where will the battlegrounds of the election be fought? László predicts a dirty campaign.

“Orbán knows he cannot afford to lose power and will do anything to stop the opposition winning,” he said.

For Panyi, the election will likely be dominated by the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the state of the healthcare system and the economy post-pandemic, and the vaccination programme.

Corruption scandals, like the one that embroiled former Fidesz MEP Jósef Szájer in controversy, could also be expected to emerge during the campaign from both sides.

With control over Hungary’s institutions, its relationship with Europe and the fate of its democracy on the line, it’s no surprise that the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Featured Image: Pixabay

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