Since the collapse of state socialism Hungary has had its fair share of predictable and unpredictable elections. But it has never had an election that was both predictable and unpredictable at the same time. And yet the vote on 8 April is set to be precisely this: a Schrödinger-type election.
On the surface it seems obvious that Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, which has amassed an overwhelming political, institutional and economic dominance in the country, is going to win an outright majority (if not a 2/3 majority) in the 199-member Hungarian National Assembly. Recent opinion polls place the popularity of Fidesz in the 41-27 percent range, far outpacing the second largest party, the extremist-turned-moderate right Jobbik, which polls between 8 and 18 percent within the voting-age population.
Something is happening under the surface.
These huge variations in the numbers already suggest that something is happening under the surface. If one also takes into account that fact that a large number of people refuse to answer the polling institutes (out of fear or indecision), alongside the fact that Fidesz is traditionally over-measured in every poll, we get the most unreliable polling data in Hungary’s entire post-socialist era. And the pollsters themselves confirm this.
On February 25, the southeastern town of Hódmezővásárhely held mayoral elections. The town, considered by many as a Fidesz stronghold, rejected the candidate of the governing party and instead elected an independent, Péter Márki-Zay who was supported by all the opposition parties. The surprise result energized many and raised hopes that Orbán’s quasi-authoritarian party could be defeated in open elections.
However, it is not only the results of Hódmezővásárhely that indicate that Hungary is facing an unpredictable election, nor the unreliability of opinion polls, but the unrelenting stream of scandals that have been plaguing the governing party since the beginning of this year.
The most unreliable polling data in Hungary’s entire post-socialist era.
It is impossible to summarize all the scandals uncovered by the Hungarian media in recent months, so I will just offer a quick run-through of the most notable pieces:
– in January, following an interview in the Times of Malta given by Kristóf Altusz, Secretary of State in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it became clear that amid the hateful and scaremongering anti-refugee campaign run by Fidesz since 2015, the government in fact offered asylum to roughly 1300 refugees in 2017. The revelation pointed out the hypocrisy of governmental rhetoric and proved what most people already knew: Orbán is playing to the worst instincts of parts of Hungarian society just to stay in power.
– the EU anti-fraud agency OLAF issued a comprehensive report on the usage of EU funds in Hungary, and alleged that a firm owned by Orbán’s son-in-law, István Tiborcz, had used fraudulent means to win public lighting projects funded by the EU. The OLAF-report alleged that Tiborcz’s firm had acted as part of a network of organized crime and the Hungarian state had assisted in their fraud.
– one of the senior members of Fidesz, Lajos Kósa was caught in a surreal scandal involving a potential impostor and an inheritance of €35 billion! Authentic legal documents were presented showing that Kósa was commissioned to manage this exorbitant sum of money by an unknown woman claiming to have inherited the money from a relative in Switzerland. Kósa denied ever seeing a dime, but the scandal kept rolling with documents proving he wished to bestow around €2.5 million on his own mother. We do not know what really happened, whether we are faced with an elaborate scheme of money laundering, or if Kósa was simply tricked by a rural con-artist, but the fact remains that the sheer absurdity of the story forced the politician into hiding from TV-cameras.
Surreal scandal involving a potential impostor and an inheritance of €35 billion!
– according to another messy piece of news, a sum of money almost identical to the one in the Kósa-story was laundered out of Hungary in the form of diamonds.
– thanks to a corrupt bond scheme that enriched several Fidesz-related firms, foreign criminals managed to obtain Hungarian residency: a person accused by the Italian police of money laundering, and a close accomplice of Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad were both offered Hungarian residency in exchange for investment into bonds issued by the Hungarian state. The entire residency bond scheme was the brainchild of Antal Rogán, one of Fidesz’ most respected members, and the minister responsible for government propaganda.
– smaller scandals involving the luxurious villa of the national bank’s director and the offshore accounts of a government officials also spiced up the campaign season.
Taken together, these stories exemplify the extent of corruption that permeates the governing party from top to bottom. It wasn’t just the stories themselves that were surprising, but the simple fact that the usually well-oiled communication machinery operated by Orbán’s clique was shaking, and for the best part of 2018 topics favorable to the opposition dominated the news cycles.
Being on the defensive is not a position Fidesz has been used to over the last 8 years. With the intertwined hate campaigns against refugees, George Soros and Hungarian NGOs, the government managed to stay on the offensive for years. It succeeded in imposing such a powerful narrative frame on the Hungarian public sphere to the point that even its opponents were forced to play on Fidesz’s turf. Now all that has changed.
Even its opponents were forced to play on Fidesz’s turf.
Despite these developments, the reality of Fidesz’s political, economic and media dominance remains, as does the electoral system, which was designed to favor the single largest political actor, i.e. Orbán’s party. Of the 199 members of parliament 106 are elected in a British-style first-past-the-post system with single-member electoral districts, and only 93 in a proportional system based on national party lists.
The 106 seats up for grabs in a winner-takes-all fashion can thus be won even without commanding a simple majority in the given district. Taken alongside the fragmentation of the opposition, this puts Fidesz in a very advantageous position. In 2014 – when the ruling party obtained a 2/3 majority with less votes than in the lost elections of 2006 – Orbán’s candidates won 96 out of the 106 electoral districts. Only in 26 did they command a majority. In the remaining 70 they got fewer votes than the most important opposition candidates combined.
The electoral surprise at Hódmezővásárhely has breathed new energy in the drive to have just one opposition candidate in each individual district, thus maximizing the chances of defeating the Fidesz candidates. A number of grassroots organizations and civic groups arose around this topic, trying to strongarm the opposition parties into a deal on each and every electoral district. The most prominent of these organizations is the Common Country Movement which commissioned opinion polls in many battleground states to find out which candidate is most suited to defeat that of Fidesz.
After it became clear that the opposition parties were unwilling to enter into an all-out coordination (they did however partially coordinate in some districts up until the end of this week), these civic groups started advocating for ‘tactical voting’: they are campaigning to convince voters to put aside their individual sympathies in the single-member districts and vote for the strongest opposition candidate, while voting for their favorite party only on the national party lists.
What portion of the different electorates will be voting tactically?
The question of tactical voting introduces an additional element of unpredictability into this already messy equation. Without official party directives how will the voters know who the strongest candidate is that they should vote for? What portion of the different electorates will be voting tactically, and how many will stick to their favorite candidate irrespective of his/her strength? These are questions that will be answered only on the evening of April 8.
These questions will also influence voter turnout, another fundamental aspect of the elections. Given the stability of Fidesz’s two million-strong electoral base, everything will be decided by how many people get mobilized on the other side. Analysts and political leaders alike claim that a turnout of 70 percent would be the minimal requirement for stripping Fidesz of its parliamentary majority, but a fairly high 65 percent is needed even to avoid yet another 2/3 qualified majority.
It is no wonder that at this moment few dare to predict anything, but the safest bet remains a Fidesz victory.
However, after 8 years of aggressive extreme right wing demagoguery and a strong right-wing economic policy that left public services in ruins and left the bottom half of society in stagnation, if not decline, the continuation of Orbán’s tenure holds fewer surprises. Many believed that after the debacle in Hódmezővásárhely, the government would alter course and tone down the anti-migrant, anti-Soros propaganda to talk about issues more on the minds of Hungarian citizens. But they were wrong.
Orbán’s modus operandi is already well-known.
In fact Fidesz doubled down on its usual lies. It even initiated a new xenophobic campaign copying UKIP’s anti-refugee billboards from the Brexit campaign. Orbán’s modus operandi is already well-known and moderation is not part of his repertoire. If April 8 brings results that the majority of Hungarian society is not very keen on, the lines of continuity remain clear: further attacks on the remnants of pluralism and the rule of law, further privatization of public resources and funneling them to the political clientele, the continuation of the perverse redistribution that channels wealth from the poorer segments of society into the richer ones and a continued rhetorical war against the European Union.
With the help of EU funds as well as Russian and Chinese loans for the construction of the Paks2 nuclear plant and the Budapest-Belgrade railway, Fidesz’s economic position is stable, its clientele is well-fed. With the record low corporate tax and employer-friendly labor law the multinational corporations are also pacified. If it is not thrown out this Sunday, Orbán’s regime is therefore set to strengthen further, and many fear that in four years there will be even less opportunity to challenge it.