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Miscalibrated ambitions, or the shock of repetition

Fidesz wins a fourth term in office in Hungary following an election campaign marred by disinformation. The united opposition’s aspirations of ousting Viktor Orbán from power turned out to be nothing but false hope.

April 5, 2022 - Ferenc Laczó - Articles and CommentaryHot Topics

Hungarian election ballot box. Photo: blackcatstudio / Shutterstock

On a bright but strikingly cold Sunday afternoon this past weekend, I was spending a couple of hours amidst thousands of mostly young, educated, and chatty Hungarians. Most of my compatriots in the crowd were audibly enjoying the opportunities European integration has opened for them and, at least on a personal level, were looking rather confidently to the future. An ideal way to spend Sunday afternoon, you may say, and indeed fairly close to my ideal image of where my younger compatriots should be, except that we were waiting in a line extending over several hundred metres in The Hague just to get a chance to cast our ballot – and potentially help oust Viktor Orbán, as most of us in that long line clearly intended to do, after three controversial terms of his gradual and systematic regime change.

By the early evening, it became abundantly clear that Orbán’s party, Fidesz, achieved its fourth electoral landslide victory in a row in what many analysts view as a political system rigged in the incumbent’s favour in subtle and not so subtle ways. The young, open-minded, and relatively optimistic crowd in The Hague thus quickly came to symbolise for me what might have been if Hungarian political, social and cultural developments did not change course in such drastic ways in recent years.

The high turnout (nearly 70 per cent) and the mandate distribution, amounting again to a two-thirds majority for Fidesz, both strikingly resemble those from four years ago. While Fidesz has made further gains in every county across Hungary and the opposition has succeeded at even more individual districts in Budapest than in 2018, what must strike us is the overall stability of electoral preferences ever since the political earthquake of 2010.

Such remarkable stability and the widespread political cynicism and apathy in Hungarian society notwithstanding, the disappointment among supporters of the opposition is nonetheless profound this time around. The sense of shock derives primarily from the fact that the united opposition of six parties has proven significantly less popular than the sum of its parts, losing close to every third of the individual parties’ previous voters.

The widely cherished idea that Hungary continues to be divided into two equally large blocs – an illiberal incumbent and its unfairly disadvantaged democratic opposition – is simply no longer tenable. Fidesz has outperformed the united list representing an unusually broad spectrum of anti-regime populist rightists, conservatives, greens, liberals and leftists by no less than some 18 per cent – substantially more than the most pessimistic predictions had it.

This points to two unavoidable conclusions. Orbán’s regime has permeated and captured the Hungarian state and society more successfully by now than – in hindsight rather naïve – expectations regarding a close and truly contested election had assumed. Second, the founding concept behind such a broad united opposition, which raised many novel hopes in recent months, turns out to have been a mistaken one.

Elaborate discussions could be had about how to categorise the Hungarian elections of 2022. It clearly was not a fair competition– even most of Hungary’s lavishly funded football teams competing in the first league posted Fidesz’s slogan on their Facebook pages on election weekend – and pious pretences by the incumbent aside, nobody sincerely expected it to be that either. There nonetheless remains the freedom inside the ballot box even under self-declared illiberal democracies: enforced loyalty and mass exit interrupted by a moment of voice, to paraphrase Albert Hirschman.

However, a majority of Hungarian citizens (over 53 per cent) have used that freedom to express their endorsement for what they consider appealing about Orbán’s strongman rule, or at least signal their acceptance of it as the inevitable order of things Hungarian. Regime control and manipulation have doubtlessly both increased as compared to four years ago. But the conclusive election results also demonstrate, if any further proof of this was still needed, that the hegemonic political culture and value orientation in Hungary today rather sharply diverge from Western European ones.

With more than a decade of Fidesz’s supermajority behind us and no end in sight to Orbán’s rule, which has already lasted longer than that of any other Hungarian prime minister, it is high time to admit that the seeming eagerness to westernise and Europeanise in the years after 1989 has produced very partial results in Hungary and turned out to be rather superficial – a realisation that must make the opposition recalibrate some of its symbolic strategies and policy preferences if it wants to rebuild and pose a more serious challenge.

Illiberal, authoritarian, ultraconservative and far right views enjoy vocal political support across large parts of the globe today, several long-established democracies included. Some may view Hungary as merely a striking illustration of such broader trends in the early 21st century. What makes the country sadly special is that parties propagating such platforms have consistently received 60 to 70 per cent of the vote for over a decade now – and I doubt there is another country that used to be considered a consolidated liberal democracy where this has also been the case. The latter fact is also what makes the country’s democratic decline such a global concern: while other countries may have fallen in democratic rankings at similar speed, arguably no country has fallen so sharply from such a high position – and this unforeseen autocratic turn has clearly gone hand in hand with right-wing radicalisation.

A little understood long-term legacy of Soviet communism seems to be that people who had experienced such regimes tend to value liberal democracy less than others at comparable levels of development. It is indeed conspicuous that many of the countries with the sharpest fall in democracy scores – think also of Russia, Serbia, Poland – are from this broad region. However, the post-communist framing should not be used exclusive when it comes to interpreting Hungarian developments. It may be less frequently emphasised but Hungary is also a post-fascist country that participated in the Second World War on the Axis side – a cataclysmic event that continues to shape its nationalistic political culture in visible ways.

My point is not that Orbán resembles Miklós Horthy. The differences between them are manifold and obvious: the former has been hollowing out democracy without using physical violence against Hungarian citizens whereas the latter pre-empted democratisation by assuming power and ultimately led the country to genocide and ruin. A key point, however, is that the right-wing radicalisation which Hungary has experienced in the early 21st century has an important and little analysed precedent in the 1930s and early 1940s – even if the consequences will most hopefully be radically different this time. The blatant lack of empathy and solidarity many supporters of Orbán show towards victims of Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine are not encouraging in this regard, to say the least.

As for the opposition, the formula of bringing together as many actors as possible under the broad umbrella of a minimalist consensus seemed entirely rational given the peculiarities of Fidesz’s electoral system. However, the sheer diversity of the united opposition was too obvious in the eyes of its potential electorate – while too few new and credible voices managed to make themselves heard within this broad but shallow oppositional platform. While the discourses on democracy, inclusivity and accountability appeared well chosen, key messages of returning the country to Europe and the West and restoring the constitutional order may well have sounded too abstract – especially compared to Fidesz’s references to tangible and immediate concerns such as peace, security, gas, or pensions.

The unexpected choice to have Péter Márki-Zay as lead candidate has also turned out to be counterproductive. It has been hard to avoid the impression in recent months that Márki-Zay is a somewhat perplexing and unpredictable character who stands at an odd angle to mainstream Hungarian political forces – one of the few pro-market conservatives in the country today who sincerely believes in key tenets of western liberalism. On Sunday he lost by quite a margin in his home district, where his meteoric political rise first began in 2018, which largely captures the story of his poorly planned candidacy.

More importantly, the moderated far right Jobbik party could be brought into the united opposition but not really its hard rightist former voters – of whom there were still over a million four years ago. They appear to have deserted the united opposition in droves, boosting Fidesz’s and the new extremist Mi Hazánk’s votes further on Sunday and practically guaranteeing the opposition’s miserable defeat. In hindsight, Jobbik leader Péter Jakab’s crashing out of the first round of the primaries last September should have sent a warning concerning how difficult it was going to be for the opposition to mobilise right-wing populist voters – a warning that has largely been ignored and one that would admittedly have been difficult to respond to. If anyone needed further proof, it is indeed impossible to build a democratic majority when some 60 to 70 per cent of the voters openly identify with illiberal, authoritarian, ultraconservative and far rightist views.

All this might be cause for dark pessimism for those in favour of liberal democracy in Hungary at a time when the European Union’s preferred policy appears to be a combination of inaction and the current regime’s quiet isolation. Orbán’s regime has proven its staying power once more and it will clearly be a prolonged and arduous task to try and reverse the profound changes it has introduced, if such an opportunity shall emerge in the future. However, the picture would not be complete without at least mentioning that the regime is faced with its deepest real-world crisis at the moment – serious economic and financial malaise, massive problems in education and health care, an aging society with many choosing to emigrate, largely self-inflicted foreign policy turbulence and growing marginalisation in the EU, to name only some of the key facets of this complex crisis.

This vortex might lead to some imbalance in Orbán’s rule much sooner than expected – and will most hopefully do so short of a social catastrophe. Crowds of young, educated, open-minded, confident and chatty Hungarians might even reappear on the streets of Hungarian cities one day.

Ferenc Laczó is an assistant professor in European History at Maastricht University. His recent publications include Hungarian Jews in the Age of Genocide: An Intellectual History 1929-1948 (Leiden: Brill, 2016). He is also the co-editor of The Legacy of Division. East and West after 1989 and of Magyarország globális története 1869-2022 (A Global History of Hungary 1869-2022) .

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