The Hungarian election earlier this month has dealt a big blow to the once confident hope that broad opposition pre-electoral coalitions are the best way to remove entrenched authoritarian populists from power.
On April 3 Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s radical rightwing Fidesz party retained power with a larger vote share and margin than ever before, securing a fourth supermajority that will probably be even more difficult to reverse in four years’ time. The six-party left-right opposition coalition won fewer voters together than they had attracted apart four years ago.
The Hungarian opposition’s landslide defeat provides a warning for Slovenia’s opposition in the general elections there later this month, and offers lessons for Poland’s opposition parties ahead of the country’s next election in November 2023.
It reinforces the message that authoritarian populists are very hard to dislodge from power. They may come to power through the ballot box but they make sure that it is near nigh impossible for them to be removed that way, by hollowing out the democratic system from within.
When Orban lost the 2002 general election despite his Fidesz finishing as the largest party, he said notoriously: “We who are standing on this square will not be in opposition, because the motherland cannot be in opposition”.
Orban made sure that when he returned to power in 2010 he would never be in opposition again. He rewrote the electoral system to his own specifications and gerrymandered constituency boundaries. He enabled Fidesz-voting ethnic Hungarians in neighbouring states to vote by mail, but forced hundreds of thousands of mostly opposition-voting Hungarians who have emigrated to Western Europe to travel long distances to queue up at consulates.
He used state funds, rabble-rousing referenda and shady organisations to campaign permanently and without regard for spending limits. Opposition parties accuse him of covertly supporting fake parties to act as diversions and of blackmailing voters on public work schemes to vote for Fidesz.
Orban has also built a massive media machine using friendly oligarchs and state advertising, closing down critical media and denying the opposition a voice.
“This is Planet Orban,” Milan Nic, senior fellow at the German Council of Foreign Relations (DGAP), told bne IntelliNews in an interview. “It’s very difficult to have a change of government.”
Orban is now expected to destroy any surviving pockets of independence.
“The most likely scenario is that the autocratic political system is extended even further,” Hungarian think tank Political Capital said in a note after the election. “The conquest of the judiciary can be finished, which is the last, still partly free branch of government, the space for free discussions will be even more limited, and the regime can become even more authoritarian as a response to the deteriorating economic situation.”
The Hungarian strongman is also playing a wider role in spreading authoritarian populism across Europe. He tries to use the Central European Visegrad Group as his mouthpiece, has built Hungarian business and political links in the Western Balkans, and is trying to form a radical rightwing European Parliamentary group.
Orban is an extreme example of the way populist authoritarians deform democracy while maintaining its trappings, but he is far from unique. In Central Europe, authoritarian populists of varying degrees and different political stripes have become the dominant parties in Hungary, Poland, Czechia and Slovakia. To the south in the Balkans, they have built commanding positions in Serbia and to a lesser extent Slovenia.
Yet until the Hungarian setback, there had been a sense that the tide was now turning. Slovakia’s leftwing strongman Robert Fico had been forced to resign in the uproar over the assassination of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée, and his Smer party lost power at the subsequent election in 2020, though it remained the largest party. All the opposition parties had declared before the election that they would not join with Smer and it was replaced by a four-party centre-right coalition.
In Czechia, the ‘centrist populist’ ANO party of billionaire Andrej Babis remained the largest party in the October 2021 general election but was replaced by a government of two pre-election coalitions, comprising three centre-right parties on the one hand, and a centrist and liberal party on the other.
Recently there have also been a string of defeats for authoritarian populists in the Balkans. North Macedonia’s rightwing leader Nikola Greuvski lost the 2016 general election and then fled to seek protection from Hungary’s Orban in 2018 when convicted of fraud.
Oligarch Vladimir Plahotnuic, who had ruled Moldova from behind the scenes, fled to Turkey in June 2019 after his centre-left Democratic Party lost the election.
In 2020, President Milo Djukanovic’s Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro was ousted at a general election by a ‘big tent’ combination of three wide pre-electoral coalitions ranging from the centre-left to the far right. His Democratic Party, which had ruled since 1990, remains the biggest party.
The victory of the Czech opposition coalitions last year in particular had appeared to show that when faced with a dominant authoritarian populist, the best strategy was to form a pre-election coalition.
Big coalitions were also built in Hungary and Serbia ahead of the general elections there on April 3. In Poland the opposition has also built two pre-election coalitions, of the centre-right and the broad left, in readiness for the November 2023 general election.
The stars appeared to be aligned for the EU’s only ‘hybrid democracy’ to return to being a full democracy. The Hungarian election was regarded as the opposition’s best chance since Orban returned to power in 2010, given his government’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, its corruption, his regime’s increasing isolation in Europe, and the looming cost of living crisis.
Though the hope of a majority faded during the campaign, the final result was still a shock. Fidesz won 1.1mn votes more than the opposition’s 1.7mn, which was down a massive 800,000 votes compared with four years ago. The winning margin was 54% against 34.5%, which in Orban’s skewed system gave Fidesz 135 seats against the opposition’s 57, which was down from 64 four years ago.
Compared to that disaster, the Serbian election was at least an improvement, given that the opposition had refused to even stand last time around. While the broad 10-party United Serbia (UZPS) coalition’s share of the vote was just 13.6% compared to the 42.9% won by President Alekandar Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), for the first time in years the SPS did not achieve an outright majority.
Breadth vs depth
So what went wrong in the Hungarian and Serbian elections and what lessons should democrats draw from them?
The two fundamental issues facing pre-election coalitions are how broad and how deep they should be, with one dimension usually inversely related to the other.
Firstly on breadth, this will usually depend on how dominant the authoritarian leader it opposes is, and whether there are any strong parties or leaders among the democratic opposition. The more dominant the ruler is and the weaker the opposition, the more likely the latter is to form a broad coalition.
In the successful Czech case, as well as in the upcoming elections in Poland and Slovenia, opposition parties have chosen to form ideologically close coalitions, while in Hungary, Serbia and Montenegro it formed broad ‘catch-all’ formations.
In some countries of course, one of the opposition parties is anyway so much larger that smaller parties are reluctant to join with it – fearing that they will be swamped – or its leader is seen as too divisive.
This seems to be the case in Poland, where some opposition parties fear that a broad coalition would be dominated by former premier Donald Tusk’s centre-right Civic Platform party, and that this would mark a return to the kind of neoliberal politics that arguably laid the foundations for the populist takeover by Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice party.
But against a dominant authoritarian figure such as Orban, Vucic or Djukanovic it is a great temptation to form as wide a pre-election coalition as possible to maximise the potential support and prevent any votes being lost by threshold requirements. The inevitable problem, however, is that the individual parties lose their core identity and voters can be put off by the grouping’s incoherence.
“The problem is that electorates aren’t pieces on a chessboard that you can move around,” Alex Szczerbiak, professor of political science at Sussex University in the UK, told bne IntelliNews last year in an interview about the Polish election scene. “The electorates that comprise the opposition are quite heterogeneous and, as a whole, they would likely prove less than sum of the parts. There are people who would vote for the opposition parties they like but would not vote for the opposition as a single group,” Szczerbiak added.
In Hungary, political analysts estimate that some 300,000-400,000 voters who chose leftwing parties in 2018 did not vote or voted for Fidesz, scared off by opposition prime minister candidate Peter-Marki Zay’s communication style and his rightwing policies.
The other half of the voters deserted from the rightwing Jobbik party, the strongest opposition party in 2018, mainly to the far-right Our Homeland Movement, which entered parliament for the first time. Jobbik voters rejected its more centrist direction and its cooperation with liberal and leftwing parties.
As well as losing former voters, coalition leader Marki-Zay’s attempt to attract former voters of the ruling party failed as there is no bridge between the two blocks due to the deep ideological rifts in a polarised society, analysts say.
By contrast, in the narrower Czech SPOLU coalition, ODS leader Petr Fiala’s decision to wrap his rightwing party’s still rather tarnished brand in the new coalition packaging immediately gave it the weight of a real alternative to Babis’ dominant personal vehicle, the ANO party, and positioned Fiala himself as a potential premier.
In Slovakia in 1998 the defeat of rightwing authoritarian Vladimir Meciar had been a similar story, with centre-right parties forming a pre-election coalition that came a narrow second and was then able to form a broad government to oust the HZDS leader.
Secondly, in terms of coalition depth, this will often depend not just on the breadth, but also on the electoral system and the campaign dynamics. A broad coalition will struggle to agree all but the most basic manifesto, while a more majoritarian election system and a campaign focussed on one-to-one TV duels will favour a deeper agreement on a common programme, party list and leader.
The Czech SPOLU centre-right coalition is a textbook example of deep co-operation. It was able to agree regional party lists and a coherent programme in a relatively painless way because of the three parties’ ideological closeness and the fact that the ODS was no longer a dominant force. At the same time ODS leader Fiala was a low-key, unthreatening figure to his coalition partners, but also one who grew in stature when he was put forward as the head of the coalition in TV duels with Babis.
Unity of the coalition has a synergy effect as it shows voters that the parties should be able to cooperate in government. SPOLU is now discussing staying together for this autumn’s regional elections and beyond, though this will be much more challenging, given the different dynamics in each region.
In Serbia and Montenegro the pre-election coalition deals were shallower affairs, given the range of the parties involved and their fissiparous nature. In this month's election in Slovenia the leftwing KUL coalition is also loose, without a single leader.
But Hungary is an example of a broad coalition that was both deep in ambition while remaining shallow in practice.
Despite the breadth of the democratic coalition, it did make perfect sense to form one nationwide party list and to choose single candidates for constituencies and the premier for the first time, given the way Orban has made the electoral system even more majoritarian to benefit his dominant Fidesz party.
Opposition parties held historic primaries to field a single candidate in all individual districts and chose Marki-Zay (branded MZP) as their PM candidate, which created big momentum ahead of the election.
However, the breadth of the coalition meant that immediately after the primaries the parties descended into several months of infighting over the programme and the party list rankings, during which all this momentum was lost.
“A broad but shallow coalition was not a good idea,” Professor Zsolt Enyedi of CEU told a webinar of the university’s Democracy Institute on April 4, adding that anyway “in Hungary you need a miracle for the opposition to win an election”.
Deep coalitions need to look united and have a leader who can unite, otherwise voters can see right through them. Hungarian voters were far from convinced by the opposition’s display of unity.
“It was insufficient,” Peter Kreko, director of Hungarian think tank Political Capital, told a DGAP webinar on April 5. “There is a need for much more substantial cooperation.”
MZP as scapegoat
Marki-Zay’s victory in the primary accentuated these problems because he was a political outsider who criticised the old coalition parties and was in turn cold shouldered by them. He was left to campaign largely by himself, with little connect with the campaigns being run by the individual coalition parties.
“MZP was part of the trend against party elites, an outsider,” says Nic. “It did not contribute to a united opposition. It was not a convincing act at the end.”
Since the election, the coalition parties have tried to scapegoat him for their own failures.
He was a talented communicator but he was too inexperienced for an environment in which even half-gaffes – such as agreeing during an interview that he would send Hungarian troops to Ukraine if Nato asked – were trumpeted by Fidesz’s media machine.
Nor was he able to build up much of a personal standing because Orban refused to debate with him, and state TV only gave him five minutes’ airtime during the whole period since he won the primary in October 2021. “The opposition could not overcome that they don’t have a megaphone,” says Nic. “They are cut off from the voters.”
Another problem of shallow coalitions is that they often focus solely on removing the incumbent populist leader, adding to polarisation in society, and allowing him to dominate the campaign.
Both Orban and Vucic were able to set the agenda, painting the opposition as a grave danger. They should have been on the defensive over the Ukraine war because of their friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but they were able to turn this around, promising their voters that they would keep them out of the conflict. Vucic switched his presidential campaign message to “Peace. Stability. Vucic.”
To win, the coalition needs to have a positive message of its own, a simple one, typically focussed on bread and butter issues that ordinary people in the regions can grasp.
In Czechia, the opposition did not just campaign against Babis as a billionaire who was degrading the country’s democracy, but very early on it seized on the cost of living crisis, which appealed to all voters, including poorer ones. SPOLU made a strong effort to campaign right across the country, even knocking on doors, a rare practice in post-communist societies where under the former regime that often meant bad news.
In Serbia the opposition, though boosted by anger over environmental issues, had a weaker positive message of its own, especially for SNS voters in its heartland rural areas.
In Hungary, the campaign was relentlessly against the Orban regime’s corruption and its isolation in Europe, topics that had only limited purchase outside Budapest.
This is crucial as in both Serbia and Hungary the opposition tends to be strongest in urban areas and has failed to make inroads into the countryside, where voters have little exposure to opposition media. To do that, parties need to build grassroots organisations and campaign there all the year round.
Deeper co-operation between opposition parties, a positive and relevant message, and focusing on year-round campaigning across the country are not just vital for winning but also for staying in power – populist authoritarians don’t tend to give up and will try to make a comeback using the party machines they control.
Kaczynski, Orban and Slovenia’s Prime Minister Janez Jansa have already made successful comebacks, as have Slovakia’s Fico and Meciar in the past. Montenegro’s Djukanovic still poses a significant challenge as president and Czechia’s Babis is likely to run for the presidency next January, which would put him in a strong position to destabilise the government. The cost of living crisis and perhaps even refugee fatigue could play to populist strengths.
Opposition coalitions will make a populist revival much more likely if they fall apart in office, as the Hungarian, Slovak and Slovenian democrats have in the past, and as the Slovak government often seem on the verge of doing today. The broad Montenegrin coalition has already become virtually disfunctional.
But they are the lucky ones, at least being in power. For the Hungarian and Serbian opposition there is little to look forward to as the regimes they are fighting against will now continue to entrench their positions.
“Once a ruling party has consolidated its hold on the state – on every level – it becomes increasingly difficult for any other political force to confront them,” Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society Policy Institute, told bne IntelliNews in an interview.
In Serbia, political experts are not optimistic that the coalition will stay together.
“For the opposition, retaining unity will be a challenge. Given multiple internal tensions, the main opposition alliance UZPS could splinter. The opposition will also need to adjust to political life back inside parliament, where the SNS will use its control of parliamentary procedure to frustrate the opposition,” said an analyst note from consultancy Teneo published after the election.
In Hungary, the opposition already looks demoralised. Marki-Zay has decided to not take up his deputy’s seat, and he has even questioned whether democratic change is possible any more.
"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", he said in his concession speech.
Political experts now expect the opposition coalition to collapse.
“[In Poland and Hungary] the coalitions are much more diverse,” Petr Just of the Metropolitan University in Prague told a Kafkadesk.org podcast on March 29 before the Hungarian election. “Their internal diversity sooner or later will lead to some disintegration of these alliances,” he said, adding: “I don’t see much long-term perspective.”
“The [Hungarian] opposition will likely collapse completely,” Political Capital said in a note after the election. “They have already started searching for who to blame, deflecting blame from themselves, but nobody can avoid facing the consequences of their actions in this case.”
Clare Nuttall in Glasgow and Wojciech Kosc in Warsaw also contributed to this blog.