Hungary’s opposition needs a full reset

Viktor Orbán’s crushing victory in April’s parliamentary elections left half of Hungary devastated. Having secured his third consecutive supermajority, the Hungarian PM is now turning to the European political arena with full strength.

Most commentators argue Orbán’s popularity is due to his fierce anti-migration stance. Needless to say, the fear mongering against ’Islamic conquerors’ was one of the main elements of his success. However, as in every authoritarian regime, there was one other key factor allowing the governing party to score such a big win: the tragic state of the Hungarian opposition.

 Divided they fell

Four months after their defeat, the state of the opposition parties has deteriorated. Jobbik, a far-right-turned-conservative movement, the strongest party within the opposition, suffered a major setback when its former deputy leader quit the party to found a new one. With its popular party leader Gábor Vona having resigned, the party has lost its public face and has been searching for an identity ever since.

The situation is no different with the left. Securing only 10 per cent of the vote, the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) is in ruins compared to its former self. The Socialists were so unpopular they had to ’import’ a candidate for PM from a tiny green-leftist party. The same holds for the other leftist party, the Democratic Coalition (DK). Run by former socialist PM Ferenc Gyurcsány, DK, formerly a platform within MSZP, barely passed the five per cent threshold to get into the Parliament.

Achieving their best electoral result since their foundation, the Hungarian Greens (LMP) got 7.5 per cent of the votes. Momentum, a newly formed small liberal party, didn’t get enough votes to enter the Parliament.

Davids against Goliath, but this time, Goliath wins

Aside from all the institutional obstacles, Fidesz’s dominance in the media and a lack of resources, there are several reasons why Orbán’s political opponents are still unable to engage with voters. Three of them stand out.

First, the Hungarian opposition is highly diverse from an ideological standpoint: Jobbik is a mixture of nationalists and conservatives and wants to cooperate with ’parties of the 21st century’ only: LMP and Momentum. The Socialist Party and DK claim themselves as leftist, but they also have a neoliberal background. Both Jobbik and LMP were founded as a response to the corruption and/or neoliberalisation of the Socialists. With such a divided opposition made up of parties who dislike each other just as much as they hate Mr Orbán, it is no suprise they couldn’t find any common ground.

Second, in Hungary’s winner-takes-all election system, a candidate for MP can win a district only if it’s a one-on-one battle. Out of 199 MPs, 106 are elected from constituencies. The opposition realised the need for cooperation, but they do so in time. During the last three months before the vote, the media was covering nothing but which candidate was going to step aside in which district. The opposition simply forgot to discuss the most important feature of every campaign: the vision of their own party. Some parties, especially those on the left, that allowed Orbán to build an authoritarian regime in the middle of Europe, continue to talk only about how they should cooperate and fail to recognise the voters’ real needs, humiliating the Hungarian electorate.

Many people were right to believe that if these parties couldn’t even form an alliance to win the election, they will definitely not be able to run the country, either.

Perhaps the most important problem for the opposition was the lack of credibility. The main reason why Mr Orbán scored such a big win back in 2010 was his predecessor, Ferenc Gyurcsány. Critics say certain MSZP (and now DK) members were just as corrupt under his leadership as Fidesz is considered by the opposition today. Being symbols of the corrupt neoliberal governments of the past, these two parties have been completely unable to increase their support.

Credibility is an issue for the Greens, too: having not cooperated with the ’parties of the Old Left’, they unintentionally helped Fidesz win a two-thirds majority. Moreover, the party’s ethics committee punished some of those who wanted to cooperate. In moral terms, they may have been right not to support the ’Old Left’, but this attitude may have cost the party many of its voters.

Change is inevitable

After three consecutive electoral losses, one is right to ask: why are these parties still in the race? In order to provide a credible alternative to Fidesz, the opposition must go through a radical transformation.

Hungary’s left must search for ways to express its concern for social justice, but this is impossible to while Ferenc Gyurcsány and his party continue to be in politics. His approval ratings are by far the lowest ever recorded and he himself has become a synonym for corruption. He is a deeply polarising figure who should have resigned many years ago. On average, DK candidates for MP got the least votes in local electoral districts. By blaming other parties for not cooperating with him, he may ensure his political survival, but he is no help in the fight against Fidesz.

It is clear that the Socialist Party will not be the changemaker, either. Their brand was significantly damaged and only a handful of their leading politicians have preserved their credibility. These figures might be able to take the lead to finally transform the left, but it is not expected to happen within MSZP’s current structure.

As for Jobbik, transforming the party from a far-right gathering into a conservative and Christian democratic party was a necessary (and smart) move, but the party desperately needs a new and charismatic leader since the incumbent is the exact opposite. The party needs a leader able to criticise Fidesz on topics relevant to right-wing voters.

Surprisingly, the Greens are actually going through a transformation: the party’s right-leaning leader intends to a form an alliance with Jobbik and the liberals of Momentum. This may prove effective for the municipal elections next autumn, but there is a serious risk that LMP might lose its left-leaning supporters, come such an alliance.

If the current ideological diversity were to stay the same for the next four years, what the opposition would need is a semi-institutional alliance of the moderate left and the moderate right. A credible cooperation of conservatives and progressives, with fresh faces and a capable leader who can challenge Mr Orbán.

As Western European examples suggest, left-wing populism would be the other way. But this is very unlikely to work in a country which was hit hard by communism. Furthermore, right-wing parties are seeing a renaissance across Europe, and the chances for a purely progressive party leading the opposition remain minimal, especially at a time when Europe faces serious questions about its culture and identity.

EU elections will decide

One thing the opposition desperately needs is success, even in the short term. The last time they could claim a victory over Fidesz was the so-called ’Nolympics’ movement, when Momentum successfully led a campaign for a referendum against Hungary’s bid for the 2024 Olympics, claiming that close-to-Fidesz oligarchs would steal all the money from the event anyway.

As of now, the only innovative tool on the agenda would be to run a campaign to join the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO). Corruption surrounding the allocation of EU funds is a great concern for voters and the EPPO would provide a good opportunity to find a European answer to a Hungarian problem and, of course, to contribute to the opposition’s campaign.

In light of the upcoming European Parliament elections, Mr Orbán’s interest is to keep migration on the top of the EU-wide political agenda. Having targeted French president Emmanuel Macron by claiming that the elections will be the clash of pro-migration and anti-migration forces, he has brutally simplified next May’s election. Positioning himself as not a domestic, but a European player will significantly increase his chances of a good result. As long as the opposition does not have a long-term and easily communicable vision for the future (and security) of Europe, there is a high risk they may perform even more poorly than they did this April.

As for migration, Fidesz’s approach may have been xenophobic, and that needs to be condemned. Nevertheless, when the people of Europe consider mass migration a crisis challenging our culture, religion, well-being and safety, and when they say it should be stopped, they need to be heard for one profound reason: simply because they are right. Instead of ignoring the migration debate, the opposition should attack the Orbán government for the way it has dealt with the crisis.

Currently, Fidesz is projected to win the EU elections by a wide margin. Structural changes are not expected to happen within the opposition until next May. However, if either MSZP, DK or LMP falls short of sending MEPs to Brussels, the need for transforming the political stage and unifying the ideologically diverse opposition will become crystal clear. And that is when Péter Márki-Zay, a widely popular and independent mayor, who promised to launch a conservative, but moderate political movement against Mr Orbán, may come into the picture.

Many argue that Hungary has shifted away from being a democracy. Though democratic principles and the rule of law have been violated over the last eight years, people are still free to vote. The real problem right now is that there is no credible alternative to vote for. If the opposition really wants to set one, they will have to find new ways, ideals, structures and, of course, a unifying figure to make this happen, while others need to step aside.

The views expressed in this opinion editorial are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Emerging Europe’s editorial policy.

About the author

Dominik Istrate

Dominik Istrate

Dominik Istrate is a reporter at Emerging Europe, and the founder of CEA Hungary.

Add Comment

Click here to post a comment