Orbán's victory raises concerns about the state of the rule of law

Peter Marki-Zay

Opposition leader Peter Marki-Zay addresses supporters during an election night rally in Budapest

© picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Anna Szilagyi

A new hope

Ever since the left wing government, riddled with scandals and by the financial crisis, lost the election in 2010, the governing party, Fidesz is ruling by a two third, constitutional majority. In previous elections, the opposition was fragmented, so no party could gain enough votes by its own to pose a threat to Fidesz. This changed when the opposition formed a united coalition for the 2022 elections, and came to the realization that the most viable candidates should be selected through primaries. The conservative leaning mayor of a Hungarian town, , Péter Márki-Zay won the prime ministerial primaries, beating much more well known politicians. His allure was that he belonged to no party, and was therefore not associated with previous failed campaigns or scandals. Joint candidates were also selected for the 106 individual constituencies supported by all 6 parties of the coalition, plus the Everyone’s Hungary Movement, led by Péter Márki-Zay.

Key messages in the election race

The 21st century ushered in an era where it is easier to win elections with short slogans, rather than long election programmes. In this spirit, the governing party campaigned on the slogan “Hungary is moving forward, not backward” - a reference to the politicians involved with the unpopular left wing government before 2010, such as former prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsány, whose party, the Democratic Coalition (DK), is a major force within the opposition. Ads overwhelmed Hungarians which depicted Ferenc Gyurcsány as Dr. Evil, from Austin Powers films, and Márki-Zay as his Mini-Me. On a policy level, the government stressed how much benefits families and pensioners received through Fidesz and how the governing party is responsible for reductions in utility fees, and price caps on essential foods and gas prices, which the opposition wants to end. Parallel to the general elections there was also a referendum, initiated by Fidesz, with loaded questions on LGBTQ groups influencing children. While no such influencing exists or is being planned, the referendum asked questions whether such influencing should be allowed or not, playing on the fears of more conservative voters.

Meanwhile the opposition was denying Fidesz’s claims of wanting to abolish social benefits, while pointing out the rampant corruption, erosion of democratic values, such as rule of law, free media, and checks and balances, and the economic issues, such as the runaway inflation and deficit, as well as the devaluation of the national currency. The opposition proposed to introduce the Euro, join the European Prosecutor’s Office, and to institute major changes in the public sector, as schools are not performing well, teachers are on strike due to poor conditions and healthcare is simply inadequate.

What went wrong for the united opposition

The war in Ukraine was a huge disruptor to the elections. Despite the analysts close to the government dismissing the possibility of a war in Hungary, and despite Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s close relationship with Vladimir Putin, the government managed to capitalize on the issue. They claimed that the opposition wants to send Hungarian youth to war, or instigate a larger scale conflict. Though Fidesz supported sanctions against Russia, the government is not allowing the transfer of lethal weapons through Hungarian territory to Ukraine. The narrative that Fidesz supports peace while the opposition supports war was completely false, nevertheless it worked.

The elections saw an average participation of around 70%, but went up as high as 80% in poverty stricken areas, where the Fidesz candidates won, showing that simple massages worked better than the opposition’s reasoned explanations that government interventions, such as price-caps, hurt the economy in the long run.

The opposition coalition consisted of six parties, who wanted different things. For example one of the parties was Jobbik, a fomerly radical right party, that centralized since. However, during the early days of the party their members were fiercely against former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, whose party is also part of the opposition coalition. Jobbik’s voters didn't vote for the opposition coalition, but either voted Fidesz or another party called Our Homeland, which formed by the radical politicians of Jobbik, who left when Jobbik centralized. This new radical party also ran on an anti-war message and were campaigning against Covid regulations. In the parliamentary elections, they gained over 6%, which secured them 7 seats in the Parliament out of the 199. Fidesz gained 135 seats and the opposition coalition 56. The remaining 1 seat went to the German minority in Hungary. On the bright side was, however, the electoral success of the liberal Momentum party, which increased its seats from 0 to 11.

There were also problems within the opposition coalition itself. There was no countrywide unity among the opposition parties so there was no roadmap. The parties had their differences and many disliked the prime ministerial candidate, who in turn disliked the party leaders, so cooperation was cursed by rifts. Since no such coalition effort was tried before and due to the disruptive effects of the war, people hoped that the opposition has a chance to beat Fidesz or, if that scenario fails to materialise, that Fidesz will win with a simple majority, were soon to be disappointed. In fact, Fidesz managed to increase the number of seats in the parliament compared to 4 years ago.

What is to come

With a new legitimacy, the Hungarian government can continue its stance on Ukraine, implicitly aiding Putin. Just after the election results came in, Viktor Orbán called Ukrainian President Zelensky one of his opponents. Hungary’s position within NATO will be a point of interest. A defence meeting of the V4 countries, scheduled to take place at the end of March in Hungary, was cancelled as the Czech and Polish representatives pulled out, signalling their dislike of Orbán’s position on Ukraine. Similarly of interest would be Hungary’s relations with the EU as the latter is deepy concerned with the deterioration of the rule of law in the country. The economic situation will also have to be addressed, and probably the state controlled utility prices and other price caps will have to end.

However, the most interesting question will be that of the opposition’s future. Can the coalition survive this defeat? Probably not. The large parties will prevail, but currently there is no known strategy for what is to come for the opposition in the next four years.

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.