A letter from Budapest
I was asked to write this short piece on the European Election in my country, Hungary. I was fulfilling my democratic duties in a town in western Hungary where some of my relatives reside. I arrived a day before the elections with two burning questions in mind: what’s best for the country, and how to make this article interesting when the results are expected to hold no surprises? I resolve this latter issue by deciding to give you an immersive view into the life of a Hungarian (me) on Election Day. Here it goes:
7:03: I wake up. It takes me 20 seconds to identify the reason for the mounting unease in my disposition: it is Election Day, with all the threats of dullness.
7:15: I get out of bed, and even before I start making coffee, I put a bottle of champagne in the fridge. By the end of the day, I anticipate, it will come in handy - either for celebration or for comfort.
7:18: Chat messages start buzzing in earlier than on most days, and certainly before the caffeine kicks in. I choose to ignore them. I turn my attention to the papers on the table. One is from Prime Minister Viktor Orbán himself, sent out to many Hungarians, my relatives included, urging them to go and vote, to “send a message to Brussels” to “stop immigration”. I casually cover this up by other newspapers, all of which I pay for. Not voluntarily, but I aspire to be a good citizen, so I pay taxes. The articles in all these papers boil down to the same message sent by the Prime Minister. All of them are essentially owned by the government through proxies.
7:19: I read everything in the papers that isn’t pro-government propaganda, and because I actually like reading news. In order to do it, I open up my laptop to find the very few media outlets that are not controlled by the government. I do not pay for those, they are free.
7:40: In my hurry to get some information, I forgot that by going online I’ll be exposed to all the messages. Having read the news I start skimming through the group chats with my friends. I decide to ignore the arguments on why to vote for this or that party, why not to vote, and which tests match you up with which party. I copy that “everyone should vote the way they think is best”-cliché into all chats, and close my laptop.
9:00: I’m standing in front of the door of the building where voting takes place. I can’t go in due to the continuous stream of elderly people coming out. A line starts to build behind me, consisting mostly of members of the younger generation. I begin to suspect that turnout rate would be high this time, but it is not surprising, as the Prime Minister really made today count: most people wouldn’t want immigrants, regardless of the reality of this threat. All the elderly are dressed up in their nicest suits and dresses. Young people wear their leisure clothes.
9:05: I voted, and I consider lingering by the place, hoping for a chance to pick up a great story that I can write about for you. A quick glance around dissuades me from this plan, as everyone seems guarded and they speak only to each other in hushed voices.
13:00: The prevailing arguments in my group chats are either supporting Momentum, a relatively new party, member of ALDE, consisting of young, liberal people, or abstaining from casting the ballot altogether. The abundance of the former makes me question the polls, which placed Momentum at the end of the list of parties who will likely send a candidate to the EP.
18:30: I give up on my neurotic updating of the independent media to see any news on the election and the turnout rate, with its staggering numbers. The anxiety of what I am going to write about finally overtakes my anxiety about the results.
23:24: I tried very hard not to sneak a peek at the results until the final numbers start coming in. I mostly succeeded throughout the day, so now I try to catch up. The governing party, Fidesz is above 50%, as predicted; though not with 14 seats out of the 21 Hungary has, as predicted, but with 13. In second place is DK, a left wing party formed by the previous and much hated Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, whose wife, the first on the list, was the most popular candidate in the polls. Analysts expected a close race for the second place between DK and the Socialist Party (MSZP). Similar to the US Presidential elections and Brexit, polls were wrong, however. DK got four seats, but MSZP only one, coming in 4th in the race. Momentum overtook them, securing 3rd place, sending two MEPs to the EP, whereas polls were not even sure they would send one. Jobbik, a former far-right party that promotes a centralized government, also gets one seat, being the 5th most popular party with 6% of the votes.
I contemplate the results and try to evaluate them. Momentum certainly managed to live up to its name, theirs was the largest victory compared to the expectations that were placed in them beforehand. The question is whether they can keep this momentum going, or if they will also fall into the same, shrewd enemy image Fidesz set up, from which opposition parties cannot break out. 10% of the voters certainly hope they can.
At any rate, I crack open the bottle of champagne. Whether for celebration or comfort - it doesn’t matter. I am sure it will be justified later on.
Máté Hajba is the Director of the Free Market Foundation, which advocates economic freedom, civil rights and tolerance. He is also the Vice President of Civic Platform, which runs anti-racist campaigns and promotes democratic values. He is interested in the relationship between the state and the individual and in the concept and history of liberty. He writes for international press on issues such as intolerance in Hungary and international relations. To promote the concept of individualism, liberty, tolerance and free market, he co-founded a youth organization named Eötvös Club.f