Fidesz, Viktor Orbán’s party, scored a landslide victory at the Hungarian elections on April 3rd. The result came as a surprise even for right-wing conservative analysts, and perhaps certain Fidesz politicians as well, not to mention the Hungarian Left and the international public.
In Hungary, the National Assembly includes 199 seats (93 party-list seats, and 106 constituency seats). Fidesz got 54% of the votes for the party lists, while the united opposition, the joint list of the six biggest oppositional parties, only reached 34%. In the constituencies, Fidesz’ triumph is even more significant: Orbán’s party won 87 constituencies, while the united opposition won only 19-17 in Budapest, and 2 in the countryside. Fidesz will have a fourth two-thirds supermajority since 2010, with 135 seats in the new assembly.
The results will certainly be researched and explained for a long time to come. The international mainstream media tried to find an explanation for Orbán’s success both before and after the election. The truth is, in most cases, they failed to leave behind today’s all-encompassing liberal clichés that they want to stick onto everything from Brexit to supporters of Donald Trump, to the new continental right-wing movements (denounced by some commentators as “populist”).
Below, a few points worth considering have been compiled by a Hungarian author, the editor-in-chief of the portal Mandiner.hu, who has been closely watching Hungarian politics for almost two decades.
1. Viktor Orbán is the doyen of Hungarian politics
Orbán has become a grand old statesman by the age of 58. He is not an underinformed, incapable populist quickly rising to the top on the wave of the current popular mood, but a politician who has spent 34 years in the forefront of politics and has devoted his whole life to it. He became one of the public faces of the opposition under the communist system as a young man, and at the age of 35 he became prime minister for his first four-year term, between 1998 and 2002. Since 2010, he has won four elections in a row with a two-thirds supermajority. With his experience, he is elevated above the Hungarian political caste—and, truth be told, also above the international one—by the sheer amount of political knowledge he has accumulated, by the organisation he built over thirty years, by his exceptional acumen in policymaking, as well as his keen sense of the mood of the electorate.
After Angela Merkel’s exit from the political stage, he is the longest-serving head of state in the EU—and the entire western world. Orbán’s strategy, tactics, ability to navigate, and his deep understanding of voters were crucial factors in winning this last election with such a strong majority after the difficult four-year period behind us.
2. The strength of the Fidesz network
It is not Viktor Orbán alone who is behind the success of the Hungarian governing party, there is also all the hard political work of 33 years. Fidesz was started as a youth organisation, then it was transformed into a political party which frequently appeared in the media during the 1990s, but was not yet embedded in society (contrary to the post-communists who were still robust and well-organised).
Building a conservative party out of a real hinterland only commenced after the surprise defeat of Fidesz at the elections in 2002, which required the strengthening of its direct ties with society, the founding of new media outlets, think tanks, and other supportive institutions. From a “media party” just scratching the surface, Fidesz was turned into a political force embedded in the deeper layers of Hungarian society, which helped it accumulate real knowledge of its needs and aspirations. Fidesz was a small opposition party with 5% in the 1990s. From 1998 on, it evolved into a governing party able to set up a coalition. It became the major force of opposition in a stable bipartisan system between 2002 and 2010, and, subsequently, a “big tent” party, taking all, and a “natural” governing party since 2010, with Viktor Orbán as its “natural” leader—in the eyes of the party, as well as its voters.
There is also some truth in what analysts have repeatedly stated. Hungarian politics seem to favour large, centrist governing parties, at least for the past 150 years. This was the case for the Liberal Party in the era of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, which was at the helm for thirty years, and for the Horthy regime, the governing party between the two world wars, with only small opposition parties on the left and the right, in most cases doomed to remain in opposition for good. Although there were no opposition parties under the communist dictatorship, the state-party of the late Kádár regime had a similar role to play in society.
This latest triumph of Fidesz, the fourth time it achieved a two-thirds victory, may further corroborate theories that Orbán’s Fidesz was to become the centrist party of a new era, to remain in power for an extended period of time, continuing the Hungarian political historical tradition.
3. The slow disintegration of the Hungarian Left
We should look back, again, on the last thirty-three years: in 1989–90, when the Communist one-party system fell apart in Hungary, it was conservative forces who managed to form a government after the first free elections. In the background, however, in society, in the economy, and also in state administration, the (post)communist networks easily survived. The successor to the Communist state-party—the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP)—had had significant support to rely on, up to the beginning of the 2000s, until 2006, when the “speech of lies” of Socialist Premier Ferenc Gyurcsány led to revolts, changing the structure of Hungarian politics for decades, as one can see now. Up to that point, however, the Hungarian Socialist Party was the most intricately organised and socially embedded party in Hungarian politics. Moreover, it was allied with the party of urban liberals, the Free Democrats (SZDSZ), which was almost in total control of the media and cultural life in Hungary.
What has happened in the last fifteen years was that the Hungarian Left—at first in government, then in opposition—let its well-organised network slip. An increasing number of defeats at elections brought about an intellectual vacuum, making it increasingly difficult to ensure proper replenishment of politicians, and as connections with society were being cut, their economic background shrank. The Hungarian Left simply forgot the basics of political organising efforts and failed to retain an appropriate knowledge base, while being splintered into 5-6 different parties. Fidesz, meanwhile, was learning continuously, and was building its own foundations. This changeover has become complete by now, resulting in the fourth major defeat of the Left.
4. The strategic and tactical mistakes of the Left
The circumstances described above led to the Hungarian leftist-liberal camp making several strategic and tactical mistakes over the years which culminated during the last election campaign. The electoral bases of the Right and the Left were of a similar size for twenty years, although that of the Right was slightly bigger, which was enough of an advantage for the Right to win in most constituencies on an ongoing basis since 2010. Subsequent to the elections in 2018, however, the Left, which was defeated once more, concluded that instead of running separately, their parties should form a close alliance in order to nominate joint opposition candidates in the constituencies and to have a shared single list at the next elections. In the framework of this effort, they also included in their alliance the right-wing radical Jobbik party, which was established and defined itself as such in the 2000s in opposition to leftist-liberal parties. By the time of the elections in 2022, the leadership of Jobbik was completely dissolved in the squeeze of leftist forces, while their voter base, of a scale of about one million four years back, dispersed. Finally, the all-encompassing alliance also included the former Socialist prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsány, the most rejected Hungarian politician, along with Jobbik, understandably disliked by leftist-liberal voters.
Their strategy did not result in the accumulation of votes they thought; rather, it produced a total fiasco. Whereas in 2018, the separately running six opposition parties received 2.7 million votes, in the coalition of 2022 they received 1.8 million votes. The majority of the voters they lost were probably made up of former Jobbik voters; the supporters of that party were unable to accept that their own party elite became allied with the Left, their archenemy. A part of Jobbik voters stayed at home, some of them may have voted for Fidesz, and another significant portion most probably voted for Mi Hazánk, a radical right-wing formation founded by dissenting, former Jobbik politicians, which did get into Parliament eventually, causing a surprise. Thus, the 2022 election scheme of the opposition utterly and completely failed.
5. An incompetent opposition prime ministerial candidate
It was a political innovation in 2021, on the part of the opposition, that they held primaries of their own to select their candidates in the constituencies as well as their joint prime ministerial candidate. In the latter race, finally, Péter Márki-Zay came out on top—a nonpartisan mayor of a smaller town in southern Hungary. Márki-Zay, the admittedly actively religious father of seven, managed to win the opposition primary, beating leading political figures of the Left, thanks to the protest mood of opposition voters.
Although mainstream Hungarian and international media were portraying Péter Márki-Zay as a talented and charismatic politician rising like a shooting star, it became evident during the campaign that his political talent was rather limited, and as an outsider he was far from being a yet-undiscovered genius—he was rather a political amateur. Mr. Márki-Zay delivered never-ending speeches and posted long videos on Facebook, making a series of contradictory or even scandalous declarations in his protracted monologues. He made insulting statements about a number of groups of society, and also criticised the politicians of the opposition alliance who were backing him. His controversial statements were easily turned into campaign topics by the Right. Some of the committed voters on the Left had kept their distance from Péter Márki-Zay from the beginning, who, after a long series of verbal blunders, was unable to properly address, let alone mobilise, undecided voters.
The consequence, as pointed out above, was quite clear: the opposition alliance lost one third of its former voters. On election night, Péter Márki-Zay delivered his speech admitting defeat alone, only with his family members behind him on the stage—most of the party leaders were absent. What is more, both the president of Jobbik and Ferenc Gyurcsány started to pin the responsibility for the defeat on Márki-Zay right away, the same evening, in their Facebook videos.
6. Fidesz’s new deal with the voters
Neither Viktor Orbán’s experience, nor the opposition’s mistakes will fully explain the victory of Fidesz. Retrospectively, it is now possible to realise that a new era began in Hungary in 2010, in which a central, and in many ways centrist, force became the natural governing party under the leadership of Viktor Orbán. Orbán’s presence in domestic politics, spanning decades, his domestic policy, economic policy, social politics, and foreign policy would warrant a thick volume of essays. It can be clearly stated that he managed to offer a deal to people on a wide spectrum of Hungarian society which was, indeed, well-received.
Orbán’s unorthodox policies (“Orbanomics,” as some commentators say), the mixture of pro-market, low-taxation policies and—on some strategic fields—bold and radical state interventions, price regulations, state ownerships, etc., are worthy of detailed analyses.
In the past 12 years, thanks to the proportional (flat) income tax regime, broad sections of society managed to become part of the middle class, and many members of the previously existing middle class managed to thrive and accumulate some wealth. Increased spending boosted the economy, especially the construction industry. The low corporate taxes and other subsidies were advantageous for both domestic and international economic actors coming to Hungary. The rate of unemployment sank to an outstandingly low level, wages started to climb at a brisk pace, and GDP growth has been spectacular year after year. The special system of generous family support further strengthened the middle class, and targeted support ensured significant resources also for the countryside, which saw major development after two decades of post-communist stagnation. Also in the countryside, public employment schemes were introduced to people living on the fringes of society, especially Roma people who were dependent on aid for years, and work experience in public employment gave hundreds of thousands a chance to find jobs in the real market economy.
Although Hungary was shaken by COVID-19, the country managed to weather the years of the global pandemic with quite mild restrictions, and, thanks to regulations implemented to benefit the economy, Hungary quickly returned to the rate of economic development experienced in the years before the pandemic. The result: although there are many critiques of Fidesz and Viktor Orbán, even among those who vote for them, when people think about the last decade and compare Orbán’s deal with what has been offered by the earlier left-liberal government or the current opposition—a message that was hard to grasp, other than the message that Orbán should be ousted from power—an increasing number of voters decided that Fidesz should stay in power for the next four years, again.
In summary, it can be stated that the economic and social policies of Orbán and his team are absolutely okay for the overwhelming majority of voters, along with the way Orbán and his team have been representing the interests of Hungary on the international stage, particularly against EU bureaucrats and international leftist-liberal forces.
In respect to the war in Ukraine, Hungarian people and the Hungarian administration provide all possible help to refugees, but due to the tragic experiences of Hungary in the twentieth century, voters prefer staying out of this war—a position currently represented by Viktor Orbán, shouldering a fair amount of conflict resulting from this decision internationally.
It can also be stated that outside the central districts of Budapest, the capital of the country, the overwhelming majority of Hungarians are fully immune to new Left, radical-liberal woke ideology. Instead, they are content with the plebeian, small-c conservatism represented by Fidesz, the kind of right-wing approach which was typical of the masses in the second half of the twentieth century in many countries, from America to Austria.
“People have the power,” goes the Patti Smith protest song, the Hungarian version of which became an opposition anthem before the 2022 elections. Indeed, the Hungarian people exercised their power in a quite pronounced way—voting for Viktor Orbán, and not the opposition.
The story will continue, of course. The reaffirmed Orbán government will be faced with many challenges, from international politics, to the war in Ukraine, maintaining a balanced budget, and economic policies. Regarding Hungary, it is certain that conservatism will continue to abound in the years ahead.
Gellért Rajcsányi is the editor-in-chief of Mandiner.hu.