Hungarian opposition parties at crossroads after crushing election defeat

Hungarian opposition parties at crossroads after crushing election defeat
The first reaction of the other coalition parties was to blame joint prime minister candidate Peter Marki-Zay.
By bne IntelliNews April 5, 2022

Hungary’s six-party opposition alliance is still reeling from Sunday’s crushing election defeat that saw Fidesz retain power with a larger vote share and margin than ever before, securing a fourth supermajority that will further cement Viktor Orban’s power.

The future of Hungary’s diverse coalition looks uncertain. The first reaction was to blame joint prime minister candidate Peter Marki-Zay, who has still not decided whether to keep his job as mayor or take up his seat in parliament and form a new political party.

"Apparently this model cannot be changed in a democratic way. If there is a lying propaganda machine and 12 years of brainwashing it’s impossible to defeat Orban on his own field", said Peter Marki-Zay, the joint prime minister candidate of the opposition, in his concession speech on Sunday night.

The 49-year conservative economist and father of seven was standing on the stage at Budapest’s iconic Ice Rink on Sunday when he delivered his concession speech, surrounded by his children and his wife.

The absence of opposition leaders was a conspicuous sign. The mayor of Hodmezovasarhely acknowledged a day later that it was his own request.

He said he wanted to reassure shocked and embittered voters, not to leave the country, a sentiment widely shared by many young people after another sweeping victory by Hungary’s self-proclaimed illiberal leader, despite corruption scandals, shrinking media freedom, and democratic backsliding.

Yet the lack of support by his allies was a symbolic message and underscores the problem of how the six-party alliance could continue to work together.

Two liberal politicians, Momentum president Anna Donath and Parbeszed co-president, Budapest’s liberal mayor Gergely Karacsony, were the only speakers of the night, but no politicians of Democratic Coalition, Jobbik, or LMP were present.

Blaming the media dominance of Fidesz, the tilted election landscape, the gerrymandered districts and the pervasive overlap between state and party campaign financing is an obvious explanation of the election loss, but does not address strategic flaws in the campaign. The lack of a clear alternative to Orban, a new vision, was the key issue behind the downfall, said former Jobbik president Gabor Vona, who retired after the 2018 elections.

Free but not fair election

Hungary's elections were well-run but did not offer a level playing fields according to a report by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) published on Monday. They deployed a full election observation mission for the election with more than 300 observers, the highest in its history for an EU country.

Europe’s main electoral watchdog labelled the last two elections in 2014 and 2018 as "free but not fair" and after the 2018 vote concluded that there was a "pervasive overlap between state and ruling party resources."

The fact that OSCE experts take issue with "the absence of a level playing field," media bias and "an opacity of campaign funding" can be considered business as usual. We couldn’t have possibly expected them to go down without putting up at least a little fight, commented Fidesz international spokesperson Zoltan Kovacs.

Losing 800,000 voters

For the first time in 12 years, it seemed that the six-party alliance spanning the political spectrum from left to right had a good shot at toppling Viktor Orban’s regime. Opposition parties held a historic primary to agree on a joint list and field a single candidate in all individual districts. But at the end of the day, they gathered only 1.7mn votes, some 800,000 less than four years ago, and got 57 seats compared to 64 four years ago.

Analysts opine that some 300,000-400,000 voters who chose leftwing parties in 2018 remained on the sideline or voted for Fidesz on Sunday, scared off by Peter-Marki Zay’s communication style and possibly his rightwing policies.

The other half of the voters deserted from centre-right party Jobbik, the strongest opposition party in 2018, mainly to the far right Our Homeland Movement, which passed the 5% ceiling comfortably.

The appearance of a political formation on the right of Fidesz also means the re-establishment of the so-called central force field, which means there is one party on the right and the left of Fidesz. For years this division has allowed the conservative nationalist party to position itself at an equal distance from the radical right and split the protest and anti-government vote.

MPs of the radical and anti-vaccination and anti-elitist Our Homeland are likely to vote with Fidesz on the national strategic questions but promised to stand up against Fidesz on issues such as prospective austerity measures.

As expected, it was Jobbik who came out attacking the joint PM candidate first. "Marki-Zay promised to renew the opposition in October but rather than doing so, he has actually caused its fall", Jobbik leader Peter Jakab said on Monday.

Marki-Zay struck back saying it was Jobbik who could not retain its supporter base, which shrank from 1mn to around 350,000 in four years. Opposition sources said the rivalry is rooted in Marki-Zay's plans of wanting to establish a new conservative fraction, which is seen as a threat by Jobbik.

Ferenc Gyurcany, head of the Democratic Coalition and seen as the leader of the opposition with the largest faction, accused the joint prime ministerial candidate of being a weak leader.

Later in the day Green LMP politicians called it is a strategic mistake for the left-center opposition to run a rightwing candidate. 

These comments underscore the dilemma facing the united opposition of how to continue rebuilding themselves after the historic defeat as, by nature of the election laws, they are bound to work together in the future. 

Even as opposition party leaders pledged to work together after meeting on Monday the future role of Marki-Zay in the alliance remains uncertain. He has still not decided whether he would leave his post as mayor of Hodmezovasarhely or take up his mandate in Parliament.

Nevertheless, he has not given up on his plans of setting up a centrist rightwing party that could eventually be a member of the European People’s Party, which has pitted him against Jakab.

Overcoming Orban’s populist appeal

Marki-Zay’s efforts to lure so-called Fidesz orphans, or disenfranchised voters of the ruling party, a key campaign promise, failed as there is just no bridge between the two blocks due to the deep ideological rifts in a deeply polarised society, analysts noted. Not only did the opposition fail to bring new voters in, including young people, but it also lost hundreds of thousands of supporters

Analysts claim the opposition needs to build up a new, coherent vision and give it a political form. The message that Orban must go will not be enough to topple the regime even if it is riddled with corruption scandals and other controversies.

The opposition also needs to be visible in rural Hunary. The election results show that support for Fidesz was the highest in these areas. Households' rising income and the fear of instability after the war also pushed many undecided toward the governing party. 

What is the secret of the Hungarian prime minister?, a pro-government media anchor asked an analyst from government-funded research institute Nezopont after Orban’s election speech. "Viktor Orban understands the soul of Hungarians" came the answer from Agoston Samuel Mraz.

Orban has established an emotional bond and connection with voters after the 2002 election defeat. Over the years he has built up a loyal core base of around 1.5mn through a number of measures, including holding big rallies, and copying campaign methods by former Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi.

Potential foreign policy effects

The scale of Orban’s victory is likely to see him continue to defy EU attempts to enforce democratic norms. His victory speech on election night foreshadowed future conflicts with Brussels. 

On the other hand, the overwhelming support has improved his position in negotiations in Europe, as Brussels might once again perceive that Fidesz has no alternative.

The European Commission and the new government could agree on RRF subsidies in the foreseeable future, according to a flash note by Political Capital.

The EC would then have the conditionality mechanism as a weapon to try to keep the Hungarian ruling party within a few red lines. The ruling party’s policies on Russia will not change. The government will not veto sanctions but they might block extending them, especially in case there was a proposal to restrict EU energy imports from Russia.

It is not impossible, however, that they will spend some EU subsidies on restricting Hungarian dependence on Russian natural gas, but mainly with the aim of improving their negotiating position vis-á-vis Moscow. Fidesz could become even friendlier to China. In the case of Beijing, they are not forced to clearly take a side, unlike in the case of Russia, Political Capital said.