Endre Borbáth, Jan Philipp Thomeczek, Alberto López Ortega, Norbert Kersting, André Krouwel
(For the German version of this article, please click here).
On the upcoming Sunday, the most unpredictable Hungarian national election will take place since 2006. After 12 consecutive years of Viktor Orbán and Fidesz majorities, the opposition has a realistic chance of approximating or even surpassing Fidesz’ vote share. Following a civil society organized primary election, six opposition parties came together and joined forces. During the primary elections, opposition voters elected a single candidate to face Fidesz in each of the 106 individual member districts and united behind the prime minister candidate, Péter Márki-Zay. Mounting a centre-right challenge aimed to convince disenchanted ex-Fidesz voters, Márki-Zay represents a centre-right position within a polyphonic big-tent opposition alliance. The six political parties of the alliance ‘United for Hungary’ previously occupied radical right positions (Jobbik), centrist positions (Momentum), centre-left positions (MSZP), left positions (DK), as well as pro-environmental positions (PM, LMP). Beyond the pressure of the majoritarian electoral system, the parties of the opposition alliance are bonded together by their strong anti-establishment, anti-Orbán stance.
The campaign was shaping up to be a ‘regular’ election campaign, dominated by ‘socio-cultural’ issues such as the politics of gender. The government called for a referendum to be held at the same time as the election on legislation related to ‘child protection. This plebiscite seems to lack integrity in different areas, if one would apply the criterium of other referendums. The questions are highly suggestive, widely considered homophobic designed to back opposition parties into a corner. However, the dynamic was suddenly changed by the launch of the Russian attack on Ukraine. The war has forced the Orbán government to change its strategy of fighting the campaign on gender. After 12 years of having invested in a close alliance with Russia, the Fidesz government’s policies came under close scrutiny. This includes the agreement to extend the Paks nuclear power plant based on a Russian backed loan, hosting the Russian backed International Investment Bank (often seen as a Trojan horse of Russian intelligence operations in Europe), hosting regular Putin-Orbán meetings, and investing in close business corporations with Russian elites. With the NATO and EU alliances closing ranks in solidarity with Ukraine, Orbán partly reversed his government’s uncritical stance on Russia and found a pro-peace, pro-neutrality position, as the electorally least harmful alternative. As part of this strategy, the government remains reluctant to impose hard sanctions on Russia or to support military efforts, such as the transport of weapons undertaken by the NATO alliance, but it also shies away from openly challenging NATO. Some observers suggest that Hungary may not even allow NATO planes to cross their territory. Meanwhile, the ‘United for Hungary’ alliance consistently represents a political position more closely aligned with the NATO and EU countries, against Russian aggression. In the last month of the campaign, the war became a ‘super-issue’ crowding out the coverage of other domestic political concerns in the press.
Although new in its current manifestation, parties’ stance on the war feeds into the broader dimension of pro- and anti-EU positions. Based on a survey of 80 experts, the PRECEDE project’s voting advice application shows Fidesz’s neutral position on the question of overall evaluating EU membership of Hungary, for example. Despite high popular support for EU membership, since in government Fidesz has taken an ambivalent position on the EU. While it is constantly engaged in a ‘fight against Brussels’, Orbán previously argued that Hungary is entitled to the benefits of EU membership as an emerging market that provides investment opportunities for Western European economies. Hungarian exit has never been on Fidesz’ agenda, instead, he argues for ‘reforming’ the Union to more closely reflect what he considers to be the ‘European’ heritage. The opposition alliance takes a less critical position, with prime minister candidate Márki-Zay promising to introduce the Euro soon. Under the conditions of the current war, Orbán takes a similar ‘pragmatic’ position, arguing that ‘Hungarian interests’ trump more principled views on Ukrainian solidarity. His position remains tenable to the extent that no Russian attack is imminent on a NATO-allied country. Opposition parties frame the country’s role in the war as a test of Hungary’s commitment to the ‘Western world’.
While the outcome of the election remains uncertain, Fidesz is a clear favourite. The few public opinion polls that have been conducted since the outbreak of the war show that many voters agree with the pro-peace position Viktor Orbán has taken. On the national day on the 15th of March, activists diffused a previous speech by Viktor Orbán to the marching pro-government supporters in which he argued for a principled view against an autocrat such as Vladimir Putin. Government supporters booed this prior speech, displaying a remarkable commitment to the prime minister that goes beyond a demand for consistent position-taking. Orbán has successfully shaped an electorate homogenous in its preferences in a highly polarized space, where Fidesz-voter defection to the opposition parties remains exceptional. Should the opposition alliance emerge as victorious, to successfully face the institutional limits that stay in place even if they win the election, and form a stable government for years to come, they need to make similar investments in both ideological and organizational cohesion. At present, a poorly phrased sentence, a picture from the past of a Jobbik politician, or a reminder of the role previous left-wing prime minister Gyurcsány played in crushing the 2006 protest are still able to dissuade voters of opposition parties.