Until Orbán is around*, he will inevitably win
In a backlash to Viktor Orbán’s election victory, the most decisive of all times, two major narratives have taken hold in Hungary for the past fortnight. One interpretation is about „getting rid of the opposition”, the other about „dictatorship”. The popular vote is either thought to express public discontent with a flawed, dysfunctional opposition, or, as others believe, the elections were a mere fraud. Apparently, both are mistaken as exclusionary explanations, and yet, both carry an element of truth. In our presumption the general elections on 3rd of April were not simply „one of a kind”, but an ultimate vantage point. As such, the election results clearly reflect the stunning shortcomings of the opposition parties, and also the manipulated, hand-tailored rules and the vast resources of Orbán’s sytem. What is expected, then, to come out of a mixture of these two factors? Further victories for Viktor Orbán, as long as he holds out. Only an outright cut of EU funds and the looming economic recession can change this perspective. A cikk eredetileg magyarul jelent meg, itt olvasható.
„Although Orbán’s party, Fidesz, can be defeated, the sytem itself will remain in place.” In 2019 this was the conclusion that Válasz Online arrived at after identifying and enlisting the stocks obtained in strategic sectors of the national economy, like energy, information technology and banking, by cronies belonging to Viktor Orbán’s political powerhouse. To put it more simply: the excessive parliamentary power (that is the two-thirds majority) was complemented by excessive economic power. The theoretical model to this achievement is Weberian political capitalism, whose aim is „to gain profits by means of political power”. Nevertheless, the wealth amassed by the „national bourgeoisie”, a new elite elevated in recent decades, is not self-sustainable. It is political wealth. The one who gave it can also take it back. Remember the companies owned by Lajos Simicska, a former crony once close to Viktor Orbán, who later got into conflict with him, or the dozens of media companies which were „donated” by their owners to a foundation, creating the largest ever media conglomerate in Hungary called Central European Press and Media Foundation.
Following Orbán’s victory on 3rd of April we must review our previous diagnosis: the established economic system has been kept intact and even further fortified, and now it also seems impossible to overthrow the political power. And, only to soothe anyone’s fears, not because general elections will be abolished. Formally Orbán’s victory will always appear democratic, despite minor remarks by the OSCE. The opposition will be doomed to fail and the current Prime Minister is being and will be invincible for a variety of reasons, either embedded in the system itself or utterly subjective factors. Let us now take a closer look at these.
I – TECHNICAL REASONS
A two-block system
Viktor Orbán has been in power in Hungary with a parliamentary majority allowing for constitutional changes since 2010. After the triumphant 2010 elections his government established a new electoral system favouring big political blocks, despite being fully aware that the Hungarian opposition is fragmented and is made up of a number of small and middle-sized parties. The one-round election system – which has eliminated tactical voting between voting rounds – and the weight given to individual mandates in electoral districts (where the first-past-the-post candidate is the winner) are both in favour of big parties, leading to the development of political blocks. However, this is only the first element of the booby trap.
It is even more important that the governing majority made it more difficult to create independent, national-level party lists by modifying the electoral rules (stipulated by Act CLXVII of 2020) in December 2020. In previous elections it was sufficient for a party to delegate 27 individual candidates in electoral districts in at least 9 counties (out of 19 counties altogether) and in Budapest. Since December 2020 parties need to have at least 71 candidates in at least 14 counties and in the capital. Theoretically this move was against fake parties (parties established solely for the purposes of getting election subsidies and causing confusion), although they could have been deterred through other, more efficient means. The consequence of this change of rules was crucial: the opposition was compelled to establish a joint national-level party list. Before 2020 the parties may have cherished the idea of establishing independent party lists, in the form of an „old-school leftist” block (Hungarian Socialist Party and Democratic Coalition) and a block of „new wave” parties (centre-right Jobbik, centrist LMP, liberal Momentum and new leftist Párbeszéd „Dialogue” party), which could have formed a coalition government in case they won. After 2020 this idea became utterly unsustainable, since the establishment of two separate party lists would have meant that rival opposition candidates should have been delegated in as many as 36 electoral districts.
Before 3rd of April the opposition brought hope from the example of Israel, saying that Benjamin Netanyahu, a close ally of Viktor Orbán, was ousted after exactly 12 years in power by a rainbow coalition of opposition parties – ranging from the radical right (Yamina) through the left (Labour Party) to the United Arab List. The analogy was, however, mistaken: in Israel the electoral system is based on party lists with no electoral districts, and the parliamentary threshold (3.25%) is much lower than in Hungary. The Israeli electoral system is an exemplary model for proportional representation: it gives no advantages to the winning party, and prefers more or less unstable coalitions instead. And it leads to situations like the present one, with thirteen factions in the Israeli parliament.
As a consequence of the one-round electoral system, the excessive weight given to the individual electoral districts and the Act of December 2020 (including a system of winner compensation not detailed herein), the Hungarian political sphere is designed to create large political blocks.
Either „only one opposition party can survive”, or more parties, but forced to cooperate. For the former option an exceptionally talented leader would be needed, while for the success of the latter option a lack of internal conflicts and a relatively identical ideological background is necessary. The opposition does not possess either of these assets. The causes are detailed below, under the section on subjective reasons.
It is a common knowledge that the political competition is mainly a competition of resources. The candidate with the better chances has more money, or, in other words, more billboards, Facebook ads and media coverage. From this aspect the playing field has become unexceptionally asymmetrical in Hungary.
Prior to 3rd of April the expenses spent on Facebook by Fidesz-affiliated Megafon (a platform coordinating and financing pro-Fidesz Facebook influencers) has exceeded HUF 1 billion (USD 2.7 million). Similarly, Fidesz had eight times as many billboards in public spaces as the opposition.
What is more, the messages sent to the electorate by Fidesz and by the government are inseparable. State institutions has supported the election campaign of the governing party, and the costs were covered by the national budget and not by the party. Meanwhile the opposition was not allowed to appear in the publicly funded national radio and television channels, only smaller soundbites were permitted once in a while. Nothing equals the huge amount of resources that was hoarded – by making use of government funds – in the past 12 years to support Orbán. The whole machinery could be jeopardized by only one thing: some parts of the media portfolio and (a part of) the communication budget may fall victim to financial cuts as a consequence of the looming economic crisis.
Twelve years is a long time, sixteen is nearly endless: existing in opposition for even half of this period carries the risk of fading into obscurity. Financial donors disappear and remaining competences of governance vanish simply because it becomes a distant memory when the opposition last had the chance to run a ministry. This should be noted even if we are aware that governmental know-how was remarkably modest before 2010.
Time and the consecutive failures tend to erode the country-wide network of the opposition parties. Owing to the heritage of the Communist regime the Hungarian Socialist Party had the strongest network in the country up until 2006-2010, it had party offices and organizational networks. A similar organizational background was built by the then radical right Jobbik party. By now, however, their networks have been weakened and fragmented, and they are inching towards dissipation. Fidesz, on the contrary, has found a way to maintain a presence even in the smallest settlements, and to spread out its nationwide network, which immediately signals even the slightest quiver of public opinion in the country, thereby facilitating swift political responses.
Keeping rivals out
The last „technical” presumption is as follows: this meticulously constructed economic and political powerhouse and campaign machinery is a guarantee – as long as Viktor Orbán is in the ring – for keeping out rational (and potentially successful) rivals who would show up as challengers from beyond the ranks of the present opposition parties. In recent weeks we have participated in many conversations, both individually and as an editorial office, where the first question has been the following: considering that the opposition is truly awful, why nobody arrives from the outside, who is capable, better at strategic thinking, speaks languages (etc.), and creates a party, demonstrates leadership and organizes the activities in the opposition?
Let us now look at a hypothetical thought. Provided that such a new candidate emerges and is deemed by Fidesz as perilous, the following scenario is expected to unfold: (1) the whole country is flooded with billboards presenting the new candidate as a criminal / in the company of clowns / with a pair of shears in hand to cut the border fence / sitting in the lap of the former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány; (2) the pro-government media outlets TV2 or origo.hu present crushing content suggesting that the new candidate is gay, someone in their family is a murderer or an alleged murderer; (3) in order to spread the allegations effectively a social media campaign is launched on Facebook and Youtube in the value of USD 20-27 thousand, reaching out to each and every member of the Hungarian electorate who goes online.
Though it might sound as a parody, the pattern is absolutely realistic. Everybody knows what happens to anyone deemed in any given moment a threat to Viktor Orbán. Gábor Vona, the former leader of Jobbik and prime ministerial candidate in 2018, was attacked by the pro-government revolver media claiming that he was gay, thereby effectively damaging his popularity in the conservative countryside. The allegations proved to be an utter nonsense, and the ex-president of the party later successfully won several civil lawsuits, with a binding effect. The wife of the joint opposition prime ministerial candidate in 2022, Péter Márki-Zay, was accused to have killed a baby as a maternity nurse, and this allegation forced her to change careers and she is now learning to become a carpenter. All the libel suits were won by the plaintiff. A little off the course, but it is worth mentioning the case of leftist opposition member of parliament István Nyakó, who was physically prevented (meaning: forcefully held up) by Fidesz-affiliated tough guys from entering the building of the National Election Committee in 2016 to submit a proposed referendum question which the governing party considered risky. The unprecedented incident was left with no consequences.
The toolbox is thus varied. The talking heads of the governing party say that all races are tough – but it is a distortion. It is beyond doubt that the old leftist parties committed huge mistakes. Between the years 1998 and 2006 they were the first ones in Hungary to have used shameful campaign practices and tools. However, when Fidesz came to power, they used the same tools, previously judged immoral, on a regular basis. The smear campaign methodology, which was imported via American consultants, is applied vehemently and exploited almost non-stop by the governing party. This extreme form is hardly ever used in Europe. (It is inherently mistaken to dismiss this phenomenon as the „same as in America”: in the US the private economy is strong, with self-reliant and autonomous players, and entrepreneurs supporting their favoured political block. Neither political block is capable of „privatizing” the entire institutional set-up and the treasury to use public funds to launch despicable smear campaigns.)
In Hungary, the forceful economic and political machinery constructed in the past 12 years has a power of deterrence and of keeping rivals out: it simply saps people’s propensity to deal with politics, which is seen as a filthy and extremely dangerous terrain.
II – SUBJECTIVE FACTORS
The scrutiny of subjective factors leads us first to the field of social psychology. Many people doubt even the existence of this field of science, falsely though. Collective characteristics and especially traumas can be effectively exploited for political purposes, either justified or misleading.
In Hungary the most important drive is an elemental desire for stability. The reason for this is a historic memory of discontinuity: the dynamics of „hope arising, only to be wrecked by a disaster” has been part of the common consciousness of Hungarians ever since the repression (partly by the Russian czar) of the freedom fight in 1849. However remote it may appear, this is still the first „big fear” of our historic remembrance. Then the 20th century was characterized by changes of the political system or form of governance (no less than six times in 1918, 1919, 1920, 1946, 1949 and 1989), as well as a number of bloody revolutions and half a dozen changes to state frontiers. I can still recall a visit to a pub in the north of Switzerland, where the waiter told me with no particular pride that the property belonged to the very same family ever since the early 1900s. In Hungary this would be impossible. Most probably, a similar pub would have been confiscated in 1919 by the red revolutionists, in 1944 by the arrow-cross men allied to the Nazis, and after 1948 by the communists allied to Stalin, only to be privatized again in 1989 – and acquired by a new owner.
Following the change of the political and economic system in 1989 one million people (nearly a quarter of the entire workforce of 4.5 million) lost their jobs in just a few months. After such traumas, the politician who promises stability and security is very much in tune with the desires of the people.
Remember the billboards of PM candidate Péter Medgyessy, a surprise winner of the 2002 elections over Viktor Orbán, saying „Safety of Jobs, of the Law and of the Public”. (Just for the record: the main slogan of the opposition in 2022 was „Power belongs to the people” – a hollow emptiness, zero content.) Viktor Orbán has learnt the lesson and built an industry on the promise of safety and stability since 2010, and even more so since 2015. Many specific government measures were based on this, as public works schemes or the improvement of public safety in smaller settlements. As observed by the online economic portal G7, an increase in the number of public workers in municipalities directly enhanced the electoral chances and improved the election results of Fidesz.
In contrast, the average voter judged the opposition as a risk. Of course, it is to a large extent guaranteed by the structure of the regime: the fundamentally fragmented opposition, which is made up of parties displaying mutual hatred, is forced by the Prime Minister – as shown above – to develop unified blocks, or, in other words, cooperation. (Fidesz vocally claimed that by 2022 „communists have sided with fascists”, but it is a distortion. One of the cooperating parties, Jobbik, was indeed part of the extreme right before 2015-16, but then they advocated a centrist programme, driving away the radical wing, which later established a separate party. Today’s Jobbik condemns fascist ideology. The leftist opposition parties MSZP and DK, denoted by Fidesz as communists, are in fact neoliberal in their economic approach, despite the fact that they both originate from the state party of the Communist period. Neither of them identifies with the communist heritage any more.)
Cooperation of the opposition parties may become habitual, but will remain necessarily forced, and it will lead to formations that are inevitably more unstable than Fidesz, lacking the lustre of unity and safety mirrored by its solid block-like opponent. And even succesful cooperation would be a far cry from an election triumph, it is only a minimum requirement.
Seizure of topics
It is a competitive advantage for Viktor Orbán that he has by now seized almost all the important positions and topics in Hungarian politics. Let us now take a closer look at two of these topics, those with the most important takeaways.
1) National pride. At a Fidesz party congress in 2019 Orbán literally said that in Hungary „the most that a governing party can offer to the people” is „rebuilding the country’s self-esteem”. Besides stability, this is the most crucial psychological impact of the regime: following the failures of the 20th century people welcome any politician who offers national pride. The most spectacular example of „rebuilding the country’s self-esteem” is the reconstruction of buildings destroyed in the capital and especially the Buda Castle District in World War II (called Hauszman Plan). Ever since 2014 opposition politicians have repeatedly demanded that the reconstruction programme be ceased, saying that its costs are horrific and it is a „falsification of history”. The costs are indeed huge, still their protest will not trigger widespread resistance. The reason for this is that the Buda Castle is right at the core of Hungarians’ national pride, and many people believe that the reconstruction programme is a long-awaited and necessary „restoration of history”. This is also true to people from the countryside: they tend to walk through the Castle District in the tens of thousands before the fireworks parade takes place on the national holiday of 20th of August every year, and what they can see there has a powerful influence on their national identity. To put it more bluntly: each „restored” building is another brick in the wall of Fidesz’s next two-third majority. And each protest by the opposition parties against the restoration is another tiny nail in the opposition’s coffin.
2) Orbán, the friend of the common man. At first glance it seems to be in contradiction to the previous point that in a number of topics the self-confessed rightist government is way more leftist than the opposition. Ever since the introduction of welfare transfers such as the subsidized decrease of overheads costs, an extra month’s pension and other transfers the Prime Minister is essentially a leftist politician (as well). In 2015 the government even coined a left-leaning catchphrase: „the hard-working common man”. Indeed, the regime is capable of creating buzzwords appealing to the working class.
The former leftist Prime Minister (in power between 2004-2009), Ferenc Gyurcsány, is one of the least popular politicians in the entire history of Hungarian democracy (his infamous speech, in which he spoke about lying to voters all day and night, was leaked in 2006). Yet, he is unwilling to retire and is part of the opposition to this day. He is a symbol of an opposition which has failed to solve the most fundamental task of power politics for the past 12 years.
Ever since 1994 Viktor Orbán has made his best to divide, expel or subdue and integrate all rivalling power players on the right, however insignificant, in several waves of attack. Meanwhile, the opposition was immersed in internal power struggles which obstructed cooperation and led to fragmentation: DK broke away from MSZP, the Párbeszéd („Dialogue”) party left LMP, and Mi Hazánk („Our Homeland”) deserted Jobbik. The cake has remained essentially the same size, while the number of slices multiplied. Worse still, a charismatic, dominant and respected opposition leader has not emerged as yet.
By the present day Ferenc Gyurcsány, who got stuck in the opposition’s craw, has become a symbol of the slack that the opposition has failed to take up in the political sphere. The talent, the ideas and the force have all been lacking for that.
His presence has also been very fortunate for Viktor Orbán, but that is the way it is. For the moment, no opposition leader means a threat to the Prime Minister.
What has happened in recent weeks is a projection of the opposition’s future situation, inasmuch as it is a continuation of their current helplessness: the opposition parties have failed to agree even on the issue of whether they should boycott the opening session of the new parliament or not. The parties of the old left are yet to fade to oblivion, while the new generation parties struggle to break through. It is business as usual in Hungarian politics. For the foreseeable future, the united opposition will be a company of navel-gazing, hysteric morons, unable to get rid of their shackles.
Politics of grievances
As the constitutional lawyer and political analyst Péter Tölgyessy noted several times before, one of Orbán’s most important discoveries is that deep-rooted Hungarian obsession with complaints and grievances cannot be eradicated, only re-channelled. The anti-Brussels rhetoric of Fidesz is an element of this process: „He has learnt [that is Viktor Orbán] that in Hungary any government could be destroyed by the extremely powerful reflexes of grievances. Thus he tried his best to externalize these reflexes in a way that he has also become an opposition to the political system. He says »I have been in power for 12 years, I would be responsible for all the problems«, therefore he turns it the other way round, to the outside, in the direction of Brussels, multi-national companies, or anybody, except for the Fidesz government.”
Viktor Orbán has changed the political battleground in a way that most external attacks only further strengthen him. Sargentini report? Hungarian people are under attack! Article seven? A war for sovereignty! Rule of law mechanism? Let us protect our homeland! It might seem to be paradoxical, but the Prime Minister’s esteem is not depreciated at all, even if he becomes more and more isolated. „Alone against the whole world” – as Albert Wass, a rightist Hungarian author put it, undoubtfully referring to an ingrained piece of the Hungarian soul. Let us remember: at the national level Viktor Orbán has been left untouched by the consequences of leaving the European People’s Party. However, due to the breakup his position in the EU has definitely weakened: the European People’s Party is an important stage of lobbying and representing interests, and the whole country has been left worse off since its Prime Minister has become a castaway in political no-man’s land. This has also lead to the unpleasant development in January this year that the European Parliament would certainly not elect a Hungarian vice-president, despite the fact that it has been a position to which a Hungarian politician has been elected ever since 2009. The majority of Orbán’s supporters are nonetheless cheering upon the breakup with the European People’s Party, however disadvantageous it is for the country, saying that Orbán „is fighting”, and, what is more, „alone against the whole world”.
Finally, the last point, which is probably the most powerful and it is related – from among the factors listed in the chapter on Technical reasons – to time. One of the scenes from a new Hungarian historical HBO-series, entitled The Informer, is strikingly forceful. In the few-minute cut we can see a university student, Zsolt Száva (actor: Márton Patkós), having a debate with one of his professors, Mr Lukács (Szabolcs Hajdu), in 1985, still before the collapse of communism in Hungary. The topic is the potential opportunities for creating political alternatives. The related extract from the dialogue goes as follows:
Professor: „The system will not change itself. The reason for this is that it no longer operates in offices. It is engrained in the reflexes of 10 million people.”
Száva: „We will see where we can get with each other!”
Professor: „ I am telling you in the name of a whole generation: good luck.”
Twelve incessant years in government is an extremely long time. It has its own weight. There could be more than a million voters out there for whom Viktor Orbán is no longer a simple option in the general elections – but a reflex. And those who make decisions based on reflex are not disturbed by and not even interested in contradictions.
Asterix in the title: the following moment in Hungarian political history.
By now only one thing is left without explanation. The asterix in the title: what exactly do we mean by Viktor Orbán being „around”? Two responses seem worthy of mentioning.
a) The current Hungarian political system is built around one single person – denoted as leader’s democracy (András Körösényi), a peculiar form of kingdom (Gábor Török) etc. –, and succession is out of question (as yet). In this situation the decisive factor is not the procedures undertaken at the party level, but simply the mental and physical state of the leader. As long as Viktor Orbán is in possession of his skills, his rule is not hampered by anything. The next decisive moment in Hungarian political history will be when the party base of Fidesz will have to face up to a post-Orbán situation. What will happen then and what will be the fate of the power pyramid and the amassed fortunes all remain in the realm of guesswork.
b) The question of how long Viktor Orbán will be „around” depends not only on mental and physical aspects, but also on external factors. Moreover, the changes to the political system in Hungary in the past century were with no exception inflicted on the country by disastrous external forces. Russia’s war against Ukraine and the unity that is being forged against Putin’s Russia marks an excessively risky moment in history. There is leaked information that the Hungarian Prime Minister was unprepared for the Russian aggression, and though he won the general elections by advocating the politics of peace, the moves made in favour of Moscow have both alienated the V4 countries and shoved the strong alliance with Poland into crisis mode. Warsaw has got into the focus of Western action and the Weimar triangle (German-French-Polish cooperation) is very much alive, while Hungary is drifting towards the margins of European politics and may be denied access to an enormous amount of funds (in the midst of a period of recession) as a consequence of the rule of law mechanism. This might be the biggest challenge in the history of Orbán’s regime, still, the scenario of „the EU will finally get rid of Orbán” is not realistic. Apparently, the system has a limitless ability to adapt to changes: after Orbán’s Polish ally, Mr Kaczyński, criticized him for staying silent over the Bucha massacre, the Hungarian Prime Minister condemned it within 24 hours. Beyond that, if he fails to win the top prize in the lottery, meaning the victory of Marine Le Pen (who received a Hungarian bank loan of billions for campaign purposes) in the general elections in France, he will surely strive to consolidate his relationship with the EU. However, in case Le Pen should win, the Hungarian Prime Minister will become again as bold as ever.