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5.4.2018

Election Thriller in Hungary

A couple of days before the Hungarian parliamentary elections on 8 April 2018, political tension has become almost tangible inside a highly polarised society. The single issue on the agenda is whether Viktor Orbán’s populist, anti-liberal party, Fidesz can be defeated by a majority of the voters who want to replace the government. This option did not exist as a real opportunity just two months ago. But the surprise victory of a joint opposition candidate at the end of February in a race to be the mayor of a small town, which name can be pronounced only by native Hungarians, Hódmezővásárhely, at the southern border of the country, where only right-wing politicians have been able to win during the last twenty-some years, changed the election paradigm.

Since then, there is a huge public pressure on the fragmented opposition to have just one common candidate run against a Fidesz-man (almost surely not a woman) in all the individual constituencies locally. Fidesz changed the rules of the game after grasping power in 2010 and abolished the second round, so coalition-building before the election is now a moral order in the eyes of those citizens, who want a fundamental change after living eight years under the semi-authoritarian rule of a much hated leader. Civil groups and research institutes actively manage surveys to choose the most attractive person among the many opposition candidates to run.

Still, negotiations on the party political level happen reluctantly and tardily. Partisan identity, personal rivalries and diffuse long-term strategies make last minute compromises extremely difficult between small and big, old and new, left-wing, centrist, and green political groups just after fighting against each other heavily so long. Moreover, for a nationwide victory, a democratic block should co-operate even with Jobbik concerning a big number of individual constituencies - first to defeat Orbán, and, then, to deconstruct the illiberal Fidesz-state. Such an agreement would seem to be unacceptable for many foreign observers since the party was established on an anti-Roma and anti-Semitic, semi-fascist platform a decade ago. A potential cross-voting strategy would create a serious dilemma for many Hungarians, especially liberal intellectuals. Namely, Jobbik has probably really changed: its renewed political agenda follows a declared shift towards the political centre, focusing on corruption scandals and even on the breach of the rule of law, apparently leaving racism behind. As for the forthcoming elections, the dilemma might remain theoretical: Jobbik is reluctant to talk to the left-liberal forces and wants to run its own candidates all over in the county.

It means that the victory of Fidesz will be the most likely outcome because of the trap built into the electoral system. Just with forty percent of the voting share, Orbán might gain a clear majority, perhaps a two-third majority, third time in a row. In its campaign, the ruling party sends out just a single message in order to mobilise its core supporters and sympathisers: Fidesz will defend Hungary from the influx of migrants, whilst the opposition would invite and locate here a million non-white and non-Christian people. Although there are a very few refugees staying in the country – Hungary was on the transit-route in 2015 towards Germany –, the smear propaganda against “Muslim invasion” including a xenophobic picture used in the Brexit campaign spread by a media system highly dominated by the government has a strong influence on the electorate. Other elements of the Fidesz populist political communication have been speeded up to a higher gear, for example to “stop” both the American-Hungarian philanthropic billionaire George Soros, the main enemy of the regime whose foundation sponsors independent civil society organisations, as well as “Brussels”, which represents the steady decline of the secular Western democratic political elites.

If Fidesz wins again, the conflict-series with the European institutions will continue. Following the opinion of the relevant committees of the European Parliament, its plenary would probably decide to suggest the introduction of the Article 7 procedure against Hungary – to be second after Poland – that might end up with the suspension of the voting right of the country inside the Council of the EU together with further potential sanctions. At least, theoretically. Fidesz is still a member organisation of the centre-right European People’s Party and its leaders sent their best wishes to Orbán before the parliamentary elections. However, none of them showed up in person in Budapest to give the Prime Minister a laudation.

As Orbán made it explicit in his celebratory speech on 15 March, the day of the 1848 national revolution, he would take moral, political and legal avenge on his opponents – without exactly defining this circle, but talking later about two-thousand “mercenaries”. A new, second phase of the illiberal, hybrid regime might bring cruel times for the opposition, civil groups, autonomous individuals and non-loyal entrepreneurs with a critical, but hesitant European Union watching without action. As people say in the Hungarian capitol where Fidesz will surely suffer significant losses: we have to go and vote in order to be able to vote again in four years time.

*The author is the chairman of the Hungarian Europe Society.
**El País will publish a Spanish version of the article on 7 April.

István Hegedűs

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