Hungary’s Strongman Is Running Scared

A unified democratic alliance finally has the chance to beat Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party in elections early next year.

By , a Berlin-based journalist.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban steps on the podium to give a speech during an economic forum attended by 15 central and eastern European leaders as well as the Chinese Premier as a guest on November 27, 2017 in Budapest.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban steps on the podium to give a speech during an economic forum attended by 15 central and eastern European leaders as well as the Chinese Premier as a guest on November 27, 2017 in Budapest.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban steps on the podium to give a speech during an economic forum attended by 15 central and eastern European leaders as well as the Chinese Premier as a guest on November 27, 2017 in Budapest. ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP via Getty Images

BUDAPEST, Hungary—For the first time in his 11 years in office, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is fighting for his political life.

The government’s frantic tone and a desperate flurry of fresh measures aimed at voters suggest that Orban’s Fidesz party takes the results of independent polling very seriously. Ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections, which are expected to be held in April 2022, the unified opposition of more than half a dozen parties maintains a solid lead of 4 percentage points over Fidesz, which has ruled Hungary with parliamentary supermajorities since 2010 and fashioned the state according to Orban’s vision of a Christian-oriented “illiberal democracy.”

Gabor Eröss of Hungary’s Green Party told Foreign Policy: “This is what we need: three and a half or four points more than Fidesz.” In 2018, the five main opposition parties, which ran separately, tallied a combined 47.6 percent of the vote, while Fidesz amassed 49.3 percent, enabling it, according to Fidesz-passed law, to occupy two thirds of parliamentary seats. “Orban is beatable. But the larger our victory, the better, as Fidesz will contest a narrow loss.” Rampant corruption and dwindling wages, Eross says, have incensed many Hungarians and even soured a slice of Fidesz voters, enough to tip the balance definitively in the opposition’s favor.

BUDAPEST, Hungary—For the first time in his 11 years in office, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is fighting for his political life.

The government’s frantic tone and a desperate flurry of fresh measures aimed at voters suggest that Orban’s Fidesz party takes the results of independent polling very seriously. Ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections, which are expected to be held in April 2022, the unified opposition of more than half a dozen parties maintains a solid lead of 4 percentage points over Fidesz, which has ruled Hungary with parliamentary supermajorities since 2010 and fashioned the state according to Orban’s vision of a Christian-oriented “illiberal democracy.”

Gabor Eröss of Hungary’s Green Party told Foreign Policy: “This is what we need: three and a half or four points more than Fidesz.” In 2018, the five main opposition parties, which ran separately, tallied a combined 47.6 percent of the vote, while Fidesz amassed 49.3 percent, enabling it, according to Fidesz-passed law, to occupy two thirds of parliamentary seats. “Orban is beatable. But the larger our victory, the better, as Fidesz will contest a narrow loss.” Rampant corruption and dwindling wages, Eross says, have incensed many Hungarians and even soured a slice of Fidesz voters, enough to tip the balance definitively in the opposition’s favor.

Since 2010, Orban has ruled Hungary like a fiefdom, bucking European norms as well as channeling European Union funds to his allies and family, observers say. The European Commission has accused Hungary of ineffective prosecution of corruption, deficiencies in public procurement, conflict of interests, and violations of judicial independence, as well as the transfer of public assets to newly created private foundations. On Nov. 19, the commission requested that Hungary respond to these allegations or face financial penalties. EU concerns over the corruption allegations and violations of the rule of law have already delayed the payment of 7.2 billion euros ($8.1 billion) in grants under the bloc’s coronavirus response fund, worth around 5 percent of the country’s GDP.

After years of infighting and turbulence, the United Opposition—comprising the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), Democratic Coalition, Movement for a Better Hungary (known as Jobbik), LMP/Green Party, Dialogue for Hungary, Momentum, and others—will run a joint candidate in every one of the country’s 106 voting districts. Should they prevail, this diverse cast that spans the political spectrum intends to govern together, even though they will remain separate parties with rival positions on major issues. A sign of its unwieldly disposition and the difficulties it will certainly face: The United Opposition, founded late last year, currently has no program.

Nevertheless, predictions of its chances to better Fidesz appear auspicious, even with much of the media tightly in Fidesz’s hands. In the 2018 parliamentary election, though Fidesz trounced opposition parties in the countryside, it failed to win majorities in larger cities, including Budapest. In the 2019 local elections, opposition parties took 10 of 23 mayoral posts—the first major defeat for Fidesz in an election since 2006. The 2019 trouncing of Fidesz followed a 2018 by-election in the Fidesz stronghold of Hodmezovasarhely, where an electrical engineer-turned-historian, Peter Marki-Zay, snatched the small southeastern city on the Great Hungarian Plain away from Fidesz for the first time since 1990. In the hope of repeating this feat on the national level, the opposition chose the conservative Marki-Zay, a clean-cut, church-going father of seven, as their joint candidate for prime minister.

Intensifying EU pressure, spiraling inflation, and the unified opposition obviously have Orban on the ropes. “Orban is reaching deep into his bag of dirty tricks,” said Laszlo Andor, an economist, former EU commissioner, and MSZP member. “And he’s spending like there’s no tomorrow, as well as dealing out state assets.”

The latest Orban maneuver—perhaps a game-changer—is a law that, as of Jan. 1, 2022, will ease the way for Hungarians living abroad to register to vote as residents living in Hungary. All diaspora Hungarians with citizenship can cast ballots for a party on the national slate. This right they already have. But as of 2022, those who claim residency—without having to prove it—can also vote for a directly elected local candidate. This practice, which constituted fraud when the addresses were fake, happened in the 2018 parliamentary election in northeastern Hungary, as documented by independent NGOs. But now, what was once fraud is completely legal, enabling perhaps tens of thousands of ethnic Hungarians in bordering countries to register and then vote for direct local candidates in Hungary.

The Hungarian diaspora has long been a trough for nationalist politicos in Hungary to feed from—but for no one more than Orban. In Ukraine, Serbia, Slovakia, Austria, Croatia, and Romania live about 2.2 million ethnic Hungarians, about 20 percent of Hungary’s total population. (The minorities are the casualties of the post-World War I Treaty of Trianon, which doled out two-thirds of the Kingdom of Hungary’s lands to adjacent states.) And they vote Fidesz in droves—to the tune of 96 percent in 2018. Their votes are gratitude for Orban’s grandiose pronouncements that include them in the greater Hungarian nation—and for pumping some 351 million euros ($397 million) a year into the near abroad under the rubric “aid for national policy purposes.” In western Ukraine, the monies for the 150,000 ethnic Hungarians total 150 percent of the government budget there, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

The electoral tampering is anything but subtle. In contrast to the settled diaspora Hungarians, Hungarian migrants working abroad on a temporary basis tend not to be Fidesz voters—and find voting regulations frustratingly complicated and unfair. They are required to submit ballots at Hungarian embassies and consulates. Thus, a Hungarian living in Dallas (with a residence in Hungary) has to journey to Los Angeles to vote, while a Hungarian in northern Serbia (without a residence in Hungary) can vote by mail.

Official monies now are flowing freely, too. Hungary’s 2.5 million pensioners, nearly a third of the vote, will receive an extra social security payment as of Jan 1. A $2 billion income tax rebate for families, income tax exclusion for young workers, and home renovation grants will also be available.

Moreover, the airwaves are flooded with ever cruder, often bizarre anti-opposition tirades, which lay bare Fidesz’s existential angst of losing control. (Afterall, scores of officials and cronies could be held liable for corruption.) Fidesz spokespeople accuse opposition figures of aiding refugees—an anathema to Orban’s devotees, now deeply ingrained after years of xenophobic propaganda—in border regions to make their way into Hungary, while the pro-government Hir TV’s programming resembles a “rolling election attack-ad,” according to Jeremy Cliffe of the New Statesman. Fidesz associates slam Marki-Zay as a “rotten-souled unscrupulous bastard” and “vile ferret.” “I take the risk of announcing to you here and now that Peter Marki-Zay is gay,” pronounced Fidesz co-founder and Orban ally Zsolt Bayer on Hir TV. “His son is the champion swinger in Hodmezovasarhely.” The channel labels Marki-Zay as a left-wing candidate, while other government media link him to the far-right.

Yet the smear campaign has not dented Marki-Zay’s popularity, and he may be just the right candidate to rally Hungarians disgusted with Fidesz mismanagement and cronyism. His conservatism appeals to Fidesz voters who oppose LGBT rights and access to abortion but are fed up with the graft. Marki-Zay admits that while he personally may reject these kinds of liberal measures, he doesn’t feel they should be state policy—and poison relations with the EU.

Oppositionists and average Hungarians seem divided about the elephant on the table: namely Fidesz’s willingness to relinquish office should it lose. Fidesz did vacate the mayoral posts that it lost in 2019, and it handed over power without fuss in 2002, when it was voted out after one term.

Understandably, others suspect noncompliance, a concern echoed in the German foreign ministry, according to anonymous sources there. In contrast to past elections, there will be opposition observers at every voting station. Although the EU claims that it has no remit to monitor elections, individual members of the European Parliament may travel to Hungary in a private capacity to help oversee election processes. If the EU can do more than this, the opposition would certainly welcome it. Election monitoring would be easier than trying ex post facto to repeal a stolen result, which the EU has never done.

Now out of jobs themselves, Orban allies such as Donald Trump, Sebastian Kurz, Andrej Babis, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Germany’s Christian Democrats can’t help him any longer. The tide is ebbing against national populists in Europe and beyond. The defeat of Orban would be more than just icing on the cake.

Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist. His recent book is Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin (The New Press).

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