Report

Hungary’s Opposition Smells Blood in the Water

After three straight electoral victories by Viktor Orban, an unlikely coalition senses a chance to halt the country’s slide into authoritarianism.

By , an international correspondent based in Vienna.
Viktor Orban delivers a campaign speech.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban delivers a speech during a campaign event for his Fidesz party in Szekesfehervar, Hungary, on April 6, 2018. Ferenc Isza/AFP via Getty Images

BUDAPEST, Hungary—In a quest to avenge the dismantlement of democracy wrought over a decade by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s increasingly authoritarian rule, a six-party opposition coalition has assembled with a legitimate chance in next year’s parliamentary election. But the would-be spoilers will have to battle a system stacked against them and dig deep to overcome internal divisions.

Their success is far from certain. While polling shows that the coalition poses a challenge to Orban and his Fidesz party, its reliance on a door-to-door ground game to cut into Fidesz’s rural support could prove problematic. There is a lot at stake. Should Orban win a fourth consecutive term, Hungary’s democratic decline will continue. Regional autocrats-in-waiting will be emboldened. The European Union will face an even bigger dilemma about how to approach the wayward member state, which it already sued this week over Hungary’s discrimination toward LGBT people. Global political opposition movements will have to go back to the drawing board and learn from the mistakes.

“Theoretically, the opposition has a chance to win these elections, better than anything they had in 2014 or 2018,” said Peter Kreko, the executive director of Political Capital, a Budapest-based research group. “But it’s still a very diverse set of players … and they are going to have to play twice as hard if they are going to make it all the way.”

BUDAPEST, Hungary—In a quest to avenge the dismantlement of democracy wrought over a decade by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s increasingly authoritarian rule, a six-party opposition coalition has assembled with a legitimate chance in next year’s parliamentary election. But the would-be spoilers will have to battle a system stacked against them and dig deep to overcome internal divisions.

Their success is far from certain. While polling shows that the coalition poses a challenge to Orban and his Fidesz party, its reliance on a door-to-door ground game to cut into Fidesz’s rural support could prove problematic. There is a lot at stake. Should Orban win a fourth consecutive term, Hungary’s democratic decline will continue. Regional autocrats-in-waiting will be emboldened. The European Union will face an even bigger dilemma about how to approach the wayward member state, which it already sued this week over Hungary’s discrimination toward LGBT people. Global political opposition movements will have to go back to the drawing board and learn from the mistakes.

“Theoretically, the opposition has a chance to win these elections, better than anything they had in 2014 or 2018,” said Peter Kreko, the executive director of Political Capital, a Budapest-based research group. “But it’s still a very diverse set of players … and they are going to have to play twice as hard if they are going to make it all the way.”

The person who will lead this challenge will be decided in two primaries this fall. The front-runner is Budapest’s mayor, Gergely Karacsony, a liberal who has promised to protect 99 percent of Hungarians over the 1 percent who he says benefit from Fidesz. But the 46-year-old former pollster is deeply aware of the obstacles facing him should he lead the ticket as Orban sole challenger—most especially, gaining support outside the capital.

Unraveling the deep state built by Orban and Fidesz will be the real task at hand.

“Our strategy is to engage as many people as possible in the political process—that’s why we are carrying out primaries,” Karacsony told Foreign Policy in his office in Budapest’s City Hall. “Our door-to-door campaigning will also be very important in terms of how we counter the government’s media machine.”

As an avid Patti Smith fan, Karacsony fervently believes his people have the power. But while Smith crooned that “the people have the power to redeem the work of fools,” the Fidesz machine has been built by people who are anything but. Since coming to power in 2010 following anger at the previous Socialist government, an army of sharp legal minds have amended the country’s constitution, gerrymandered the electoral map in favor of Fidesz, stacked the courts with party loyalists, and crafted discriminatory laws.

The media ecosystem has also been hollowed out after dissenting periodicals were pushed out and the remaining players bought by organizations loyal to Fidesz and its hard-line nationalism. The influential Central European University, which is funded by the billionaire financier and philanthropist George Soros, has been effectively chased out of the country. EU funds have been mismanaged, and a dependency system has been established centered on Orban and his allies.

Fidesz has been able to make these changes due to its two-thirds supermajority in the parliament, which it has held since 2010. Even if the opposition coalition wins next year’s election, unraveling the deep state built by Orban and his party will be the real task at hand. 

“The opposition is still pending between a government-critic paradigm and regime-change paradigm,” said sociologist and former Education Minister Balint Magyar. “We need regime change because what we have now in Hungary is a post-communist mafia state.”

The coalition members will face the full force of Fidesz’s power. It’s likely their legitimacy will be questioned and they will be branded agents of chaos. Over the last decade, the government has assembled a rotating cast of enemies who supposedly threaten Hungarian values, including migrants, Soros, the LGBT community, and the EU. But even if Fidesz throws all its rhetorical bogeymen into the campaign, many Hungarians are growing increasingly frustrated by pandemic mismanagement and the government’s ongoing spat with Brussels.

In the 2018 election, Fidesz won 49 percent of the vote. In second place, with 19 percent, was Jobbik, a controversial party that claims to have abandoned its far-right roots and moved to the center. Its leader, Peter Jakab, will go up against Karacsony in the opposition primaries. But there is concern that Jobbik hasn’t completely abandoned its old ways. When the Hungarian parliament passed a law in June that included a ban on showing content containing homosexuality or gender reassignment to minors, Jobbik was the only opposition party to vote with Fidesz. Karacsony still has faith: “Jobbik has moved back toward the center, while Fidesz has become much more extreme than Jobbik is.”

 “The regime is becoming increasingly ideological.”

Still, opposition parties are taking heart from the success of Israel’s opposition in forming a unity government in June. Driven by the same dislike of a longtime leader drifting ever more to the right and painted with a similar spectrum of political colors, “the discipline and determination with which the parties campaigned and then started governing is inspiring,” said David Koranyi, a senior advisor to Karacsony. The fall of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also impacted Europe’s right-wing populists more than the fall of former U.S. President Donald Trump because the vast power Netanyahu held was not enough to keep him in office, said Ivan Krastev, an expert on Central and Eastern Europe.

Next spring, Hungary’s tottering democracy faces a Mohacs moment. The opposition is emboldened but hamstrung. Meanwhile, howling from a painful breakup with the European People’s Party, a Europarty in Brussels, Orban is quickly losing Western allies and swinging more toward the East.

“The regime is becoming increasingly ideological; we have seen that with every term,” Kreko said. “But Orban’s shift to a more extreme position [politically] makes us question where he will go from here” should he win.

Amanda Coakley is an international correspondent and Milena Jesenska journalist fellow at the IWM in Vienna. She covers Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Twitter: @amandamcoakley

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