Why is Orbán so strong?

László Andor on how Hungary’s nationalist prime minister has grasped and held onto power.

On 8 April,  Hungarian voters sealed a third consecutive victory for the right-wing nationalist prime minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party’s anti-immigrant platfom. In recent years, Hungary has often been cited as an example of democratic backsliding. Fidesz has hollowed out the rule of law, alongside social dialogue and the welfare state. Declining school standards and a miserable health care system are part of  everyday life for most Hungarians. Since 2011, Hungary has seen unprecedented emigration, amid evermore evidence of systemic corruption and embezzlement of EU funds. No wonder Hungary’s economic performance lags behind comparable countries like Poland, Slovakia or Romania. In democratic systems, such experiences normally bring down goverments. Instead, Fidesz today is celebrating a massive victory. To understand why the party is so strong, one must consider a number of factors and take a longer term historical perspective.

  1. Orbán has been the leader of the strongest political party since about 2000. Orbán governed in coalition with smaller centre-right parties from 1998 to 2002. Since then, his party has incorporated much of those parties’ voting base. He was in opposition for 8 years (2002-10), during which the Socialist Party (MSZP) only managed to win by being the strongest party for a few months (in both 2002 and 2006). Previously, in the early and mid 1990s, the centre-right was fragmented in Hungary. Orbán united them, and the right’s core social base (the conservative upper and middle classes) want to remain united behind him.
  2. Orbán united the right on his political economy agenda - to correct the imbalances of the economic transition to a market system, which created excessive foreign ownership in Hungary. This is a long-term programme, unfinished and unfinishable, and has helped forge a commitment to the leader on the right. Originally, this was a far-right agenda, which Orbán appropriated for the centre-right. Economic nationalism is a core issue for Fidesz. In recent years, it has pushed back foreign ownership in various sectors, and the beneficiaries of this agenda consider it more important than upholding democratic standards.
  3. Orbán created cultural hegemony by occupying and expropriating some themes that resonate with many Hungarians. These include support for minority Hungarians in neighbouring countries, support for sports (especially football and the legacy of legendary Hungarian player Ferenc Puskás legacy, but also the Olympics), and the memory of the 1956 uprising against the Soviet Union. Religion is also important: there is a strong correlation between those who believe in God and those who believe in Orbán.
  4. Orbán was lucky to have the general elections in 2010 when people felt the fallout from the global financial crisis of 2008-9. This was bad for incumbents everywhere but it allowed Orbán to achieve 2/3 majority in parliament, which he used to change the constitution (not discussed before the election, so also not a promise or something people expected). He started to change the rules of the game in order to eliminate the tools he had used to get into power. (For example, it became virtually impossible to run a referendum on issues the government would not agree with.)
  5. The 2010 defeat practically eliminated the Free Democrats and heavily damaged the MSZP which had been the strongest party in four elections since 1990 (in ’94, ’98, ’02 and ’06). MSZP lost its base among the less educated and the poor, who went to and have stayed with Fidesz and the far-right Jobbik party, especially in rural areas. A split in 2011 further weakened the socialists, who also were haunted by the image of economic incompetence (partly deserved) and corruption (often exaggerated). The fragmentation of the centre and left (there was also a split among the Greens and some start-up parties emerged in the middle) helped Orbán to another 2/3 majority in 2014 (even if in this case he only had 1 more mandate than necessary for constitutional majorty, and he later lost that after a by-election).
  6. In 2010 Orbán knew that support would wane, and he used his 2/3 majority to reorganise the political system. He changed the electoral law and made it even more disproportional than before (abolishing the first round of the elections, surrealistic gerrymandering etc.). He brought state media under his control, gave citizenship to ethnic Hungarians living in neighbouring countries and allowed them to vote by mail, which was not given to Hungarians who have residence in Hungary but work in the UK or elsewhere abroad. Checks and balances on executive power were diminished. Financial incentives were created to stimulate the formation of bogus parties and ensure that some anti-government votes went to waste, which indeed happened in both 2014 and 2018.
  7. After 2014, in his second mandate, Orbán went further. He openly spoke about the “illiberal state” as a model to be followed. His cronies aquired vast shares in private (printed and electronic) media, which means that opposition voices and views have a very limited chance to reach the rural population. With the help of a rogue Austrian investor, Orbán got the main political (left-liberal) broadsheet newspaper of the country (Népszabadság) closed and he has launched a witch hunt against civil society, especially those exposing corruption. Intimidation goes to extremes when opposition candidates or their relatives can just be sacked from their jobs. A huge share of the state budget goes to Fidesz propaganda. The State Audit Office has imposed an arbitrary fine on opposition parties. Dirty tricks may happen in other places, but for Fidesz dirty tricks have become the norm.
  8. The 2015 refugee crisis came handy, and Orbán managed to exploit Hungarians’ fear of migrants. Anti-migrant hysteria in the last three years has been unprecedented and plays an important role in rallying Orbán’s voting base. Those who protested the inhumane treatment of refugees were considered enemies, and Orbán started to suppress civic activity on the grounds of national security. In Fidesz propaganda, Hungary is under attack from those who want to flood it with (Muslim) immigrants: Brussels, George Soros and the United Nations, which can only be stopped if Orbán remains in power. The 2018 Fidesz campaign was built on this sole topic, which for Orbán and his supporters became a symbol of national autonomy and security.
  9. The European People’s Party has provided cover for Orbán. Despite dismantling the rule of law in an EU member state, the EPP has protected him in order to avoid losing a member and in exchange for economic and political favours (e.g. for German businesses in Hungary like Audi, Deutche Telekom etc.). The German Christian Social Union (CSU), Bavarian sister party to Angela Merkel CDU, has played a pivotal role in whitewashing Orbán’s autocratic rule, and only rejected his wildest ideas like re-introducing the death penalty or voter registration. Orbán has also pleased his German allies by championing fiscal austerity, in contrast with the previous period when Hungary struggled with excessive deficits.
  10. Many in Hungary have lost hope, including opposition politicians who in recent years started to play for mere survival and a place in parliament, instead of finding ways to change the government. Orbán has successfully played divide and rule with the opposition, and many old and new political figures played into his hand. Various opportunities to form a more united opposition were missed, while centrist and left-wing forces came to the 2018 elections in a fragmented state, leaving many voters puzzled as to whom they should vote for in constituencies and on party lists. Some consolidation on the left has taken place with the creation of a socialist-liberal-left green alliance with a single top candidate. Despite the dismal results, this may be the basis for centre-left renewal, as long as the “Alliance for Change” between MSZP and the Párbeszéd (Green Left party) under the leadership of Gergely Karácsony and Ágnes Kunhalmi gains confirmation and achieves better results in the 2019 European and municipal elections.

More about László Andor