On April 8, Hungary holds one of its most unpredictable parliamentary elections since the beginning of the country’s recent democratic history in 1990. Voters will decide about much more than only the composition of the National Assembly, or the political color of the next government. After eight years of uninterrupted democratic backsliding under the government consisting of his Fidesz-Hungarian Civic Union and the Christian Democratic People’s Party, the illiberal regime built by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán faces for the first time substantial resentment within society. This could endanger his personal power and the stability of his meticulously constructed regime, and also poses an existential threat to all his cronies and acolytes that have benefitted from Fidesz’s capture of the state.
For the first time since 2010, the number of voters wishing for a change of government outstrips those who favor the status quo. However, the anti-establishment protest sentiment of the electorate cannot be translated on a one-to-one basis into votes for the opposition, as a large segment of protest voters shows little openness toward the opposition parties either. And, even if it could be, the fragmented structure of the opposition, the lack of cooperation not only between the left-liberal “democratic opposition” and the radical right-wing party “Movement for a Better Hungary” (Jobbik) but also between the left and the greens, and above all the one-round electoral system that clearly favors the party with the relative biggest electoral support, currently Fidesz, would all hurt the chance of an opposition victory.
But the tectonic moves in society, caused mostly by the revelations of carefully accumulated proofs of the extreme level of state-led corruption entangling the prime minister and his closest family members, can hardly be overlooked. The real question is whether this can result in an earthquake at the polls.
What to expect?
Fidesz winning a majority but fewer seats than in 2014 is the most probable outcome. A victory by the opposition is not really likely, but also not implausible. The same applies to Fidesz gaining a two-thirds supermajority of seats that would allow it to make changes to the constitution — which has the highest chance if one of the four main opposition parties does not clear the 5 percent threshold required to win seats.
There is a consensus among pollsters, including those in government-friendly research institutes, that the polls show a significantly higher level of support for Fidesz than it can expect in the elections. Among voters with a stable party preference, it has between 47 and 53 percent support. But among uncertain voters the opposition has a much larger potential. Ultimately the turnout and the distribution of the votes among the opposition parties will decide whether a defeat for the government is possible or not.
According to analysts, a turnout of at least 70 percent would be required in order for the opposition to capitalize on its advantage among uncertain voters. However, such a turnout only happened once, back in 2002. The turnout was 61.24 percent in 2014 and 64.2 percent in 2010. Furthermore, if the distribution of protest votes is not reasonably proportional among the four main opposition parties, turnout above 72 percent conceals new dangers for the opposition.
It is expected that Jobbik and the common list of the Socialist Party (MSZP) and the alternative green party Dialogue for Hungary (PM) will be able to collect the most protest votes from formerly undecided voters. In that case, by larger turnout the green party “Politics Can Be Different” (LMP) and the left-wing Democratic Coalition (DK) party of the former prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsány, the two smaller opposition parties with a barely larger support than 5 percent, ultimately could end up below the 5 percent electoral threshold. The inability of even one of these four parties to enter parliament would result in the complete failure of the opposition; it would not only mean an automatic Fidesz majority but also put a new supermajority within Orbán’s reach.
What is at stake?
Irrespective from the outcome of the elections, on April 8 Hungarian politics will enter a new era. Orbán’s first government term after 2010 was characterized by a conscious but careful dismantling of liberal constitutionalism, based mostly on defraud of international partners by “creative compliance,” implementing cosmetic changes in the laws criticized by the European Union, but always keeping their substance. In his next term, Orbán took a more radical approach, leading to measures like the “CEU law” and the “NGO law” in 2017 that resembled legislation in straightforwardly authoritarian regimes. His rhetoric also became more authoritarian. Most recently, speaking on the Hungarian national holiday on March 15, Orbán threatened his opponents: “We are calm and good-humored people, but we are neither blind nor gullible. After the election we will of course get even with them, in moral, political and legal sense.”
The previous elections in 2014 were labeled “free but not fair.” According to the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the main European election observation body, Fidesz “enjoyed an undue advantage because of restrictive campaign regulations, biased media coverage and campaign activities that blurred the separation between political party and the State”. Since then, the situation has gotten worse in all these fields. Given the uninterrupted authoritarianization process as well as Orbán’s outspoken threat toward his adversaries, it is fair to argue that Sunday’s elections will be the last somehow free ones in Hungary if he can keep power in his grip. Expecting any kind of self-moderation of Orbán, an idea often entertained by conservative politicians of the European People’s Party, is wishful thinking lacking any critical reflection on the experiences of the past eight years. If Orbán wins again, the illiberal state of Hungary will soon turn out to be authoritarian.
The National Assembly has 199 members, 106 returned from single electoral districts and the rest from party lists. If the opposition wins at least 40 out of the 106 single electoral districts, Fidesz would lose its majority that are, according to the calculations, required together with the party list mandates to break the majority of Fidesz, and Orbán’s power system could experience a sudden breakdown. However, should this happen, restoring democracy will be far from an easy endeavor.
Even if Jobbik and the left-liberal opposition can agree on a short-term political action plan, they will be paralyzed by the fact that, given the capture of the state by Fidesz over the last years, all state institutions are controlled by Orbán’s acolytes. Lacking the required constitutional majority, the opposition cannot reshuffle the institutional settings in accordance with the principle of the rule of law. In the worst-case scenario, the parliament could be dismissed in early 2019 if the independent but Fidesz-dominated Fiscal Council vetoes the annual budget due to any kind of deficit, and the president, a former high-profile Fidesz-politician, makes use of his discretional constitutional power. Of course, that would mean the inevitable return of Orbán to power in the new elections.
Another scenario is also possible. Nobody thinks the opposition could win the supermajority required to amend the constitution; therefore a new government will not be able to change the institutional setting created by Fidesz — or at least not in accordance with the principle of the rule of law. The dismantling of the state capture embedded in Hungary’s current Fundamental Law and the restoration of a pluralist system of liberal democracy can only be fulfilled by any new government lacking the two-third supermajority by a violation of the constitutional order and the rule of law. In any other case, a win by the opposition will only mean a temporary break in the authoritarian trajectory of Hungary.
Therefore, in the event of an unexpected win by the opposition, the EU will have to urgently develop what its position would be if a new government tries to dismantle Orbàn’s illiberal state by violating the rule of law, and under what circumstances it could tolerate, or even cautiously support this.
Preparing for the unexpected
In spite of the occasional tacit coordination between Jobbik and mostly the MSZP, and the desire of the electorate for cooperation among the opposition parties, a possible right-wing nationalist coalition between Fidesz and Jobbik after the elections cannot be completely ruled out. This scenario can materialize if Fidesz loses its majority, but is able to convince Jobbik — with concessions, promised office, and resource grabbing, or even blackmailing — to leave the opposition camp and join a coalition with Fidesz. Although from the perspective of the common ideological denominator of the two parties, this option does not sound ridiculous, it is also not too plausible. Jobbik would be bargaining away a long-term power perspective for some short-term gains, and would expose the party to the danger of being gradually absorbed by Fidesz, as happened to Orbán’s smaller coalition partners between 1998 and 2002.
Furthermore, hardly any guarantee could satisfy Lajos Simicska, the oligarch providing financial support to Jobbik. Simicska, formerly Fidesz’s treasurer and one of Orbán’s key oligarchs, became the prime minister’s nemesis after their break-up in 2015. He has been fighting for his — and his fortune’s — survival since then, and has become one of the prime minister’s key opponents by unveiling important corruption cases in Orbán’s political and personal circles. Whether any deal could overcome the divide between them is doubtful. Furthermore, should he lack seats for a majority, Orbán could convince individual Jobbik MPs much cheaper to change sides and secure his government
End of an Era
Faced with the prospect of either further radical authoritarianization under a new Orbán government or a new government’s need to overturn Fidesz’s state capture even by breaking constitutional rules, Hungarian politics is approaching an important milestone.
Therefore, regardless of the outcome of the elections, the EU cannot anymore uphold its current strategy toward Hungary, which is based on avoiding conflicts and the reluctant toleration of democratic backsliding. Either the pre-announced, increasingly authoritarian moves of the next Fidesz government will challenge the EU and press it to take action in favor of its fundamental values, or a new government, supported among others by the radical-right Jobbik, will confront the EU with the dilemma that the illiberal state capture can only be dismantled by the violation of the rule of law.