Today, Sunday, April 8, sees Viktor Orban’s attempt to win a third successive term for his party, Fidesz, and for himself as prime minister, put to the test by the country’s eighth election since the end of Communism. Hungarians have become used to elections since 1989 and to power changing hands as a result. Governing parties lost elections in 1994, 1998, 2002, and 2010.
Usually an election in a small Central European country with this democratic record would struggle to get into the news at all, let alone into the headlines. Yet the restless caravan of the world’s media has for the last week been bidding up the prices of Budapest’s best restaurants and hotels (which, incidentally, are very good indeed — as a glimpse at the travel pages of the same media would disclose) to cover the result.
And this level of interest is itself a story — and a changing one.
Until a month ago, the international media consensus was that the election was a formality, or at best a foregone conclusion, because Orban was the authoritarian strongman of a nation that had ceased to be a real democracy. Fidesz had ensured its victory by gerrymandering the election system, suppressing opposition media, buying votes with EU money, and swamping the country with posters appealing to the nationalist and ethnic prejudices of the electorate. The conditions for genuine democratic elections were therefore no longer in place, and Orban’s victory would confirm the fact. To be sure, the media would still turn up in large contingents for the burial, but the story they wrote would be the end of democracy.
And then in Hodmezovasarehely, a town in the southeast of Hungary (pop., 47,019, local attractions: thermal bathing), there was a small political earthquake. An independent candidate for the local mayoralty, but one supported by all the opposition parties, easily defeated the front-runner Fidesz candidate by a healthy margin of 16 points.
That was genuinely a big surprise since the town had been a Fidesz stronghold. At once there was an outburst of optimism among the opposition parties along the lines of . . . a Fidesz election triumph wasn’t a foregone conclusion . . . if only the opposition parties united as they had done in Hodmezovasarehely . . . the mathematics for an opposition victory were there in the result . . . And so on and so forth. That response may have overinterpreted one small-town election result — we’ll know later tonight — but it made the result look less certain and gave the opposition a real fillip.
It also handed the media a new big story — that Hungarian opposition democrats might now deal a blow to Orban and to the insurgent nationalist populism across Europe that he has come to symbolize. Since the German and Italian elections had given that populism the kiss of life (after reports had exaggerated its slaying at the hands of President Macron of France), that was an important European story as well as a Hungarian one.
The news desks booked longer stays for their correspondents.
It is, however, a complicated story. After all, if there is the possibility that Fidesz could be defeated and replaced by the opposition, then Hungary is a democracy, Orban is not an authoritarian, and many previous reports have been fictions or . . . well, exaggerated. So a note of caution crept into the reports. The revival of the opposition parties and their uneasy attempts to cooperate were noticed. The formerly “far-right” Jobbik party, now transitioning to something else, was mentioned as respectable enough to be a coalition partner for some left-wing parties (but not others.) The phrase “back-sliding democracy,” as opposed to a deceased one, started to appear more often. A horse race was being described in more reports, albeit one with a firm favorite and a long list of also-rans.
So what will happen today? Since I can’t foretell the future, I don’t know. But I will give my best guess: Orban is likely to win a decent majority that falls short of his previous landslides. And then I will try to explain why he won and also, if I am wrong on this, why he lost.
Reasons for an Orban Victory
First, why did Orban win? Here are the reasons in descending order of importance:
1) Fidesz and Orban have provided Hungary with efficient and successful government for the past eight years. It’s an obvious point, but one that has received little attention. One exception: Earlier this week a New York Times report by Patrick Kingsley and Benjamin Novak summarized the government’s economic achievements as follows:
Government debt, as a proportion of Hungary’s gross domestic product, has fallen more than 6 percentage points since 2010. The country’s credit ratings have improved. The budget deficit has roughly halved. Growth has almost quadrupled. Wages have risen by more than 10 percent. Though still high, deprivation has fallen by nearly half — not least in places like Siklosnagyfalu, where villagers benefit from their workfare wages. Officially, unemployment has dropped by nearly two-thirds.
Orban turned himself into an Anti-Merkel who would protect Hungary and Europe from a nonmilitary invasion of migrants invited in by the German chancellor.
Kingsley and Novak go on to qualify and correct these broad conclusions in an admirably fair-minded piece of reporting. But the main impression that Hungarian voters have derived from these facts is that their life has improved as a result of decisions taken by Orban. That impression goes beyond economics, moreover. The voters in general seem to approve of the broad social and foreign policies of the government (with some exceptions listed below), and in general to believe that national affairs are conducted without the atmosphere of perpetual crisis and disorder that they see in other countries, notably France and Germany. And they derive this impression as much from regular news reports as from government and election propaganda. The alleged undermining of democracy and the Hungarian constitution — on which the opposition, media, and Eurocratic politicians place so much stress — apparently has little impact on the popular mind. And insofar as it’s a serious election topic, the government probably wins the argument by presenting itself as the defender of Hungary and popular democracy against an undemocratic liberalism imposed by Brussels.
2) Orban seized the immigration issue two years ago and made it the flagship issue of his government well before the election campaign. In effect, he turned himself into an Anti-Merkel who would protect Hungary and Europe from a nonmilitary invasion of migrants invited in by the German chancellor and now being distributed across Europe by the European Commission—or, rather, who would be distributed across Europe if Orban were not around to block them.
3) Orban benefits on these and other issues from his general image as a strong political leader who will protect Hungary from whatever dangers threaten it. None of the other political leaders has anything like this kind of appeal.
4) Last but definitely not least, Orban won because the opposition was divided among too many parties to mount an effective challenge against him. Eighteen parties were registered for this election. Many were vanity projects of one kind or another, but at least six relatively serious parties — recognizable as socialists, liberals, centrists, etc. — were in the mix. Large majorities are inevitable even in a qualified First-Past-the-Post system like Hungary’s if opposition to a government is distributed across several parties with modest vote-shares. (I explain exactly why in Quadrant.) Thus in the 2014 election, Fidesz won 45 percent of the total vote as against 25 percent for the socialist coalition and 20 percent for the Jobbik populists. That was enough to give it a landslide under almost any system. And it applied again today. Those who attribute these victories to “gerrymandering” must ask themselves why Fidesz had a still more impressive victory in 2010 when it was fighting in an electoral system inherited from the previous government.
Reasons for an Orban Loss
Now, if that’s why Orban won, why did he lose? My suggested reasons are mirror images of the reasons he won. Here goes, in descending order of importance again:
1) Orban and Fidesz devoted too much of their campaign to the mass-migration issue, and they were too heavy-handed in their exploitation of it. They had already won that issue, and all they really needed to do was to remind the voters of it from time to time (while emphasizing other winning topics and neutralizing those issues where they were unpopular). Instead, they hammered it home relentlessly and — especially in relation to George Soros — in terms that some of the more moderate Fidesz supporters in Budapest found distasteful. It probably won them votes all the same, but perhaps fewer than a cooler appeal would have done.
2) Equally, they failed to make enough of their economic successes. Though gratitude is a notoriously weak motive in electoral politics, the improvements in the economy were his trump card. In addition to the general rising statistics, still relatively fresh in people’s minds were Orban’s specific actions to lighten the economic burdens on ordinary Hungarians at the expense of foreign banks and utility companies. They symbolized a general willingness to intervene on behalf of ordinary voters that was popular, though rightly suspect to free marketeers. They aroused negative reactions only among bankers — heigh-ho. He should have made more of Hungary’s economic gains in the husting and in general.
3) Some of the state spending intended to buy votes was unexpectedly misdirected and provoked annoyance rather than gratitude. That was particularly true of the generous subsidies to sports facilities, notably swimming and soccer, which was intended in part to promote Hungary as a center for international competitions in those sports. Voters contrasted the apparently lavish expenditure on sports venues with the poor conditions still prevailing in state hospitals and other public services. Ministers had received an initial rebuff when they had to abandon Budapest’s bid for the Olympic Games after students organized resistance to it. But they didn’t apply this lesson to public spending in general, and discontent over it may have partly neutralized their overall economic success in the public mind.
4) Fidesz was undoubtedly harmed by persistent rumors of corruption. Corruption has been endemic in Hungary for decades, and it is easy to arouse a cynical suspicion of it. For a long time, it was a subterranean issue. Last year, however, in the so-called poster wars, the roadsides were covered in advertising billboards against Fidesz showing Orban and other notables alongside the words: “You Work, They Steal.” Ironically, at the time, the heavyweight media in the U.S. and Western Europe were lamenting the suppression of free speech in Hungary. They continued doing so after Fidesz lost an opinion magazine, a television station, and advertising support when a former ally of Orban’s switched his support to Jobbik. So the charges of corruption, propagated abroad both by opposition media and by the Left campaigns on social media, were probably another cause of Orban’s defeat.
If, that is, Orban is defeated in a few hours, which I strongly doubt will happen. But whatever the result, Fidesz and the opposition parties will each take away a lesson from this election. If the opposition parties want to defeat Fidesz next time, they have to reorganize themselves into one or (at most) two political parties that have strong support in the electorate and — quite as important — a popular political program related to what the voters want. And if Fidesz wants to win again, it must accept that its past successes have now been pocketed by the voters. So the party must develop a new set of policies emphasizing issues — and perhaps a different tone — that bring back into the party fold its discontented moderate supporters.
And, now, let’s see what the voters actually decide today.