For the third consecutive time, the Fidesz party has been swept into power in Hungary. The large voter turnout of 69 percent in the recent parliamentary election has shown democratic resilience. Opposition parties received one hundred thousand more votes combined than Fidesz. But due to Hungary’s mixed election system, Fidesz won a two-thirds majority, confirming Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s grip over the country.
There was some hope that a high turnout would damage Fidesz. But the party held all the cards in its favor. Besides having delivered steady economic growth and targeted social payments, Fidesz could count on the state-controlled media, on restricted campaigning possibilities for the opposition, and on its own massive communication machinery.
Yet the real tragedy for Hungary is that despite the record-high turnout, voters were offered no good choices. Fidesz had become too aggressive over how it governed and how it established crony capitalism. Not taking any chances, the party homed in on the rural areas, where threats about migration and the vilification of George Soros, the Hungarian-born Jewish philanthropist, were exploited for all they were worth. These issues resonated with the rural population. They should not be underestimated.
In these areas, increasing poverty rates and the government’s vast workfare program meant that locals were looking for a protector.
In a country where both the income gap and the values gap between Budapest and the rest of the country have been growing, Fidesz made a deliberate choice to concentrate on the regions. It dominated these areas by all means possible. A key feature of this strategy was how Fidesz fully controlled the regional media. Despite enormous efforts by the government, the independent media is more prevalent than state-controlled press at the national level. But further media takeover efforts cannot be ruled out.
There was slight hope after a local by-election upset in February. In the southern city of Hódmezővásárhely, an independent, conservative candidate won the race for mayor, not only with a high turnout but with tacit support from the entire opposition. Civil society was energized. But the euphoria was short lived.
Beyond loving to hate Orbán, opposition parties were mostly competing with each other. The Movement for a Better Hungary, known as Jobbik, wanted to shed its image as a right-wing party, capture a moderate center space, and remain Fidesz’s largest opposition force. The former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány mainly wanted to defeat his original Hungarian Socialists Party (MSZP) with his own Democratic Coalition (DK). The anticapitalist green party, Politics Can Be Different (LMP), refused to support any cooperation with the socialists. Had that happened, Fidesz could have been deprived of six seats in Budapest alone.
Another weakness of the opposition was that it too used threats, but not successfully; it exaggerated the country’s slide into dictatorship and it made economic promises with no facts to back them up.
Opposition parties also faced an existential choice: if they didn’t field enough candidates in single districts, they would be deprived the bulk of their state funding. Even though Orbán could monopolize key policy issues, this wasn’t the sole reason for his victory. Hungary’s unique political system helped his power grab. Its mixed electoral system favors a big, consolidated, political force, and Fidesz’s success has been based on dominating the Right.
Another factor is social, and includes the crisis of the Left. The lingering disappointment in Hungary’s foreign capital driven economic transition created a right-wing shift of the working middle-class and business elites. Between 2004 and 2010, the Hungarian economy fell behind those of its Central European neighbors. That was mostly before the global financial crisis, and when Hungary was governed by then socialist prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány.
Between 2010 and 2016, with Fidesz in government, an economic stabilization program had the effect of making the top 10 percent of society living better than they had since 1945; another 40 percent saw their incomes grow. Corporate tax in Hungary, at 9 percent, is now the lowest in the EU. But redistribution toward the middle class is at the expense of the poorer strata of society.
As soon as the election results were announced, the leaders of Jobbik and the socialist party offered their resignations—while Gyurcsány and LMP leader Bernadett Szél are staying on. Until the opposition is revamped, Orbán remains firmly in charge. After his landslide reelection, many members of the opposition, journalists, and NGO workers in Budapest are afraid that Orbán will seek “moral, political, and legal amends” as he promised before the vote (though his victory speech, in contrast—and whether sincere—talked about modesty.)
So, what next? The sweeping victory surprised even Fidesz. The government is now in the position to cut back its rhetoric and seek a more constructive approach at home instead of conflicts. The opposition is in shambles; there is no “enemy” left.
The same goes to key policies. The government has put a lot of money into construction instead of modernizing existing institutions. Sectors such as education, healthcare, and social systems have been centralized. But they are hopelessly underfunded, just as human capital is underdeveloped.
Addressing these shortcomings requires money what won’t be easy to find. To keep the economy purring before the elections, the government used up 94 percent of EU structural and investment funds from the current EU budget period (2014-2020) by the end of 2017. These amount to an annual 6 percent of gross domestic product and are the country’s only source of innovation.
As his conservative revolution has survived, Orbán may try to elevate this political shift to the European level to ensure his legacy. This means strengthening the bond with Poland and keeping regional integration a foreign policy priority. Yet, despite the talks and efforts toward regional unity, Hungary is pretty much a lone actor in the EU. Even Warsaw is starting to change its rhetoric.
Orbán’s ambition to form and not follow EU policies should not be exaggerated. For Fidesz, the migration issue—which has become a topic of a national backlash across Europe—has been a godsend, allowing the party to emphasize its role of protecting national sovereignty, identity, and interests, as well as exploit the Hungarian victim myth and will to survive.
So how should the EU respond? What Orbán represents is a challenge. But instead of focusing on the man as his discredited opposition requires, the EU should focus on the country’s social and economic roots. Hungarians are big supporters of the EU but don’t want become “more European,” as the opposition promised, if that means the same old economic policies.
Brussels could focus more on the implementation of its regional and cohesion funds, as most of these end up in Budapest and in the regional cities instead of rural areas.
The reality is that the Hungarian middle class is the beneficiary of ongoing redistribution from the bottom to the top. The real challenge for the opposition is to bring those 3 million Hungarians living in poverty back to the society and into politics. In short, don’t let Orbán’s cult continue to dominate European headlines and politics at home.