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Orbán or Not Orbán? This is What Hungarians Will Decide in April by Dániel Kacsoh

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Orbán or Not Orbán? This is What Hungarians Will Decide in April

Hungary is going forward, not backward.

This is the message of the Hungarian government before the general elections scheduled for April 3rd. The slogan-turned-internet-meme is a concise expression of why the cabinet headed by Viktor Orbán proposes that voters should elect them for yet another term, and of how they look at the left-wing contenders. What does the future portend? What might the ruling Fidesz–KDNP alliance have on offer?

Orbán’s offer to Hungarians

After the pandemic, the Hungarian government restarted the economy by introducing a number of welfare measures, wage increases, a major tax refund, and price maximization of certain crucial commodities. It also extended certain financial benefits, such as the freeze on interest rates, the personal income tax exemption for people under 25, and the restoration of the thirteen-month pension for the elderly, a benefit revoked in 2010. Fidesz is promising a further extension of the generous family support program, a comprehensive wage adjustment for teachers, and the assertive representation of Hungarian interests in Brussels, namely, a sovereignist policy and the rejection of illegal immigration. 

In terms of Hungarian international relations, the currently ruling alliance advocates a Europe of nation states, citing the vision of the founding fathers of the European Union. In opposition to federalist aspirations, exaggerated integration, and the installation of a United States of Europe, the Hungarian government prefers pragmatic cooperation based on mutual economic benefits, while striving to maintain a good relationship with other powers in the world as well.

The Hungarian cabinet does not shy away from sharp conflicts regarding migration, and has stayed the course on a strict migration policy, most recently confirmed in the Hungarian Constitutional Court’s interpretation of the respective ruling of the European Court of Justice. The position of the government is that applications for asylum must be filed and examined outside of the borders of the European Union; demographic decline should be resolved through a natal response, not through immigration; social and political problems should be addressed in the country of origin, not imported to Europe.

At his international press briefing in December 2021, Viktor Orbán set two main goals for this year, noting that a lot may hinge upon the results of this year’s elections. The first of those goals is to take measures to accelerate the economy further. The second is to make sure that the rate of growth and level of employment remain at pre-crisis levels. Fidesz plans to proceed in achieving this goal by increasing the availability of vaccinations: “The second major thing will be to continue our defense against the virus, as there is no hope that the virus will leave us, and therefore, in our calculation, we will certainly have to mobilize significant resources in the first half of the year to support the effort which remains vaccination-based,” projected the prime minister.

Viktor Orbán specifically acknowledged the importance of child-protection measures to his campaign. He plans to hold the child-protection referendum, a government initiated program to restrict sexual propaganda among minors, at the same time as the elections. 

In many ways, the prime minister has positioned himself as an ideological antagonist to the EU, but it is his child-protection effort that has drawn down practical consequences that could hurt Hungary, and hurt his reelection bid. The European Commission, citing rule-of-law concerns, has launched an infringement procedure and is now holding back recovery funds from Hungary. The Hungarian government, however, is convinced that the real reason behind this penalty is because the Hungarian child protection act is labeled as ‘homophobic’ and, read as such, is rejected by the European Commission.

So, the upcoming general elections in Hungary have attracted a great deal of international attention. The chance to replace Viktor Orbán is a tantalizing prospect to many, including George Soros, who will throw his weight behind whatever forces can make that happen. Consequently, at the request of civil organizations and MPs of the European Parliament who support Orbán, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) intends to send a full team of observers to Hungary to monitor the fairness of the elections—if they have sufficient staff, that is. Hungarian Minister of Justice Judit Varga responded by noting that “similar missions were also present in our country over recent years, and we also prefer sending observers to other countries from time to time. This is routine. One thing is certain: the OSCE observers will be witnessing free, fair, and democratic elections, which, however, can only be fully realized if they do not make an attempt to interfere in the Hungarian elections in the course of their mission. We hope their visit will be exempt from any ideological or political bias. We look forward to welcoming them warmly in our beautiful country.” 

The ‘alliance’ would win after a period of twelve years in opposition 

What is to be expected of the opposition? The former Socialist prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsány, the chairman of the left-wing Democratic Coalition party, is currently looking for people to volunteer as activists, announced by the ex-PM himself on his Facebook page. Although the election campaign period officially starts fifty days prior to the elections, informal campaigning has been ongoing in Hungary for months. Hungarians know Orbán’s opposition as a six-party alliance, the strongest member of which is Gyurcsány with his Democratic Coalition.

The ‘rainbow coalition’ is far from being united. The cooperation of its members is hampered by several conflicts of opinion and internal rivalries, even as the parties involved are, on paper, putting up joint candidates and a joint electoral list against the current governing parties. This unique situation, happening now in Hungary for the first time in twelve years, has materialized through the combined efforts of critical left-wing players who warrant some attention. 

Ferenc Gyurcsány took over from Péter Medgyessy—the non-partisan prime minister of the MSZP–SZDSZ cabinet of 2004 (a coalition government of the Hungarian Socialist Party and the liberal Alliance of Free Democrats, formed in 2002)—by ousting his former boss from power. At the elections in the spring of 2006, as we know from the Őszöd speech leaked the same year in the autumn, the Left managed to score a close victory with the help of “hundreds of tricks” and welfare measures (which were withdrawn post-election), but as a result of the societal and economic crisis that plagued his time in office, Gyurcsány was compelled to resign and pass the baton to minister Gordon Bajnai. After the general election ensuring a two-thirds Fidesz majority in Parliament in 2010, Gyurcsány pulled out of the post-communist Hungarian Socialist Party, and founded his own party, the Democratic Coalition.

Over the course of Hungary’s past decade of elections, the Democratic Coalition ran either by itself or as part of alliances. Now it has become the force with the strongest support and influence within the opposition, despite the stain of Gyurcsány’s past offenses, which reach beyond the lies hidden in the Őszöd speech, to bad governance, and police brutality turned against those who demonstrated against him in the streets. 

Gyurcsány is such a stain on the coalition that the radical right-wing party, Jobbik, managed to evolve and strengthen itself precisely in its opposition to Gyurcsány. Nevertheless, their incendiary statements against both Gypsies and Jews, along with their support for Magyar Gárda (the Hungarian Guard, an ultra-right quasi-paramilitary organization evoking the darkest moments of the period between the two world wars), has made them intolerable to the Left. Jobbik has tried to decouple itself from its extremist past in the last few years, but unacceptable statements made earlier by its current leader Péter Jakab continue to reverberate.

Additional members of the six-party alliance belong to the significantly weakened Hungarian Socialist Party (Magyar Szocialista Párt, the MSZP), the Green Party (Lehet Más a Politika, LMP, short for ‘Politics Can Be Different’), which opposed both Orbán and Gyurcsány when it was founded, and Dialogue for Hungary (Párbeszéd Magyarországért), a party which seceded from the latter. Support for these parties is currently insignificant. They may not be able to reach the 5% threshold for parliamentary representation separately. 

The sixth coalition member is the Momentum Movement, with a membership mostly made up of young urban liberals. It launched itself with its petition for a referendum against Budapest’s hosting the Olympics and received only 3% of the vote at the previous parliamentary elections in 2018. A couple of years ago, the leaders of this party urged Gyurcsány to withdraw from public life, similarly to Jobbik, and strictly excluded the possibility of any form of cooperation with either the Democratic Coalition or the Hungarian Socialist Party. These principles have been discarded by now by the parties concerned. 

Internal conflicts in the multi-party opposition

The last time Hungarian citizens went to the polls in 2019, mayors and municipal councils were elected. At that time, the fragmented and diverse opposition already nominated joint candidates in most of the cities, including the capital, where Gergely Karácsony was elected mayor of Budapest. In the wake of this experience, the affected parties concluded that they should select the 106 joint candidates for representation in the 199-member Parliament.

Party leaders, however, commenced intense bargaining behind the scenes; the Democratic Coalition and Jobbik, the ideologically most distant actors, were in fact the quickest to conclude their pact. As a result of voluntary, and forced, resignations, a real choice was missing in most constituencies in the course of the competition until October last year. It is clearly Gyurcsány and his party which will nominate the highest number of opposition candidates, and most of the names making it to Parliament from the slowly negotiated joint ‘party list’ will also come from them. 

Out of this process arose Péter Márki-Zay, a non-partisan prime ministerial candidate who caused more than a minor shock in Hungarian public life. Although he managed to win the 2018 municipal by-election and was elected mayor of a typically pro-Fidesz town, Hódmezővásárhely, he made it to the top without a real political background—or experience. According to the media, everyone on the government’s side and in the opposition, as well as in the international media, expected his opponent, Karácsony, to triumph. 

Márki-Zay’s victory, however, enabled Gyurcsány’s regeneration as a political leader. 

Shortly after his win, Márki-Zay, Orbán’s ‘anti-political’ contender, managed to lose his popularity with his scandalous statements within a few months’ time. Here is a non-exhaustive list: he declared that the Hungarian utility cost reduction program was irresponsible and dangerous, indicating the possibility of doing away with it on his coming to office. As he put it, “utility cost reduction is like migration. You can win an election with it as long as people are kept in the dark and fed manure—as they say in America, if they are kept as mushrooms.” He criticized the minimum wage, saying that he, as an economist, was not very keen on it. He lumped together Hungarians outside the border with illegal migrants. He praised fee-for-service healthcare and the privatization of hospitals as advantageous, going against public opinion. By announcing that he was keeping track of how many Jews and how many homosexuals were to be found in Fidesz, he also blew the fuse, with a bang, within his own camp. 

Márki-Zay’s impolitical outbursts drew criticism, oddly enough, from his closest political ally, Péter Jakab, the chairman of Jobbik, and with good reason. In his first video message in the new year, Márki-Zay commented, with zest, that the coronavirus took the heaviest toll among the elderly, who “tend to be pro-Fidesz,” unlike young people who are for change. In an interview with the news outlet, Alfahír, the chairman of Jobbik slammed this line of reasoning as unacceptable, commenting, “Death will not make its picks based on party affiliation, and it appears that stupidity will not do so, either.” 

With image problems plaguing the opposition, Gyurcsány remained the most influential actor in the background, who already made it clear after the primary that the prime minister was to be elected by the majority in Parliament and called for a joint coalition. 

The road to the joint program was rather bumpy, and due to internal conflicts of opinion, several debatable points have been dodged for now. Consequently, it remains unclear what the Left is actually offering to the country, apart from setting up a separate Ministry of Health and replacing Viktor Orbán, portrayed as a corrupt dictator.

On the opposition’s side, Mi Hazánk Mozgalom (the ‘Our Country Movement’), is running independently, outside of the six-party alliance, with an anti-vaccination campaign. This formation was set up by former Jobbik members, and they are fishing for the ultra-right vote. The increasingly serious party, founded as a quip, the Magyar Kétfarkú Kutya Párt (the ‘Hungarian Two-Tailed Dog Party’), will also be at the starting line in April. Both extra-alliance formations have a chance to reach the electoral threshold, which may increase the number of options to take into consideration when the new government is formed. Mi Hazánk excludes the possibility of participating in a coalition, while ‘the dogs’ are left-leaning.

What will be the result of the elections?

As things are at the moment, if the opposition wins, Márki-Zay would not have a ‘hinterland’ in Parliament, and, under public law, he would be floating above the current opposition, which would significantly narrow his room to maneuver. Among the now oppositional parties, the strongest caucus in Parliament, in all likelihood, will belong to Gyurcsány, which will guarantee a dominant role for the former prime minister and for left-wing influencers as well.

The situation, naturally, will look differently if the elections do not bring a change of government—recent analyses have been pointing in this direction. Further indications of a Fidesz continuance can be seen in both Dobrev’s and Karácsony’s announcements that even though they will be included in the list, they prefer not to work as Members of Parliament. This is also the preference of Anna Donáth’s, who replaced András Fekete-Győr at the helm in Momentum as a result of his fall in the wake of the primary. She stated that she would not undertake a role in a Márki-Zay government. Consequently, those affected most in the opposition do not expect to see a change of government. They are rather preparing for another four years in opposition. The race, however, is not over yet.

HVG—a political and economic weekly which cannot be accused of having a pro-government bias—has reported chatter that a number of key figures in the opposition’s campaign also expect Orbán’s reelection. The paper deduced the same, from the fact that Márki-Zay’s plan of having a seventh caucus flunked: if a change of government does happen, it would make no sense to insist on seats in Parliament, since the parties currently in opposition would be able to place their own in executive positions. At the same time, the appearance that the Left has no chance to win may jeopardize the mobilization of pro-government voters.

Dániel Kacsoh is deputy chief editor of Mandiner.

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