Orbán Victorious

On 3 April 2022, Hungarian voters went to the polls and awarded Viktor Orbán a fourth consecutive mandate to govern. Orbán’s Fidesz and the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) will return to the National Assembly with 135 out of 199 seats, after winning a record 53.13% of the popular vote. The main opposition coalition, United for Hungary (EM), was expected to win at least 40%, but instead picked up a paltry 35% and 56 seats. In the concurrent referendum on the government’s so-called ‘Child Protection Act’, appeals from LGBTQ groups for voters to spoil their ballots evidently succeeded, and the number of valid votes failed to clear the required 50% threshold. Nevertheless, many believed that the referendum – which included questions such as ‘Do you support the promotion of gender-reassignment treatments to minors?’ – was merely intended to increase election turnout; and in this sense it may have served its purpose.

EM encompassed the two largest opposition parties, the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) and Jobbik, both of which were severely punished by voters. Each will have just 9 members in the Assembly compared to 15 and 17 respectively in the current parliament. The MSZP remains associated with the brutal shock therapy reforms of the 1990s and 2000s, when its unabashed neoliberalism created an enduring rift with the organized labour movement. Jobbik, founded in 2003 as an antisemitic nationalist outfit obsessed with policing ‘gypsy criminality’, has meanwhile tried to reinvent itself as a pro-European, anti-corruption ‘people’s party’. Yet, although Jobbik’s opportunistic transformation caused some of its hardliners to abandon ship, it was never complete or coherent enough to gain the support of the liberal or left opposition. 

Most worryingly, the new legislature will host seven members from Mi Hazánk, the fascist party convened by ex-Jobbik Vice President László Toroczkai, who received 6% of the vote. Toroczkai, mayor of the Serbian-border village of Ásotthalom, is the onetime leader of the irredentist Sixty-Four Counties Youth Movement, who has used his position to institute local bans on the Islamic call to prayer and wearing of the hijab. Mi Hazánk describes itself as a force to protect ‘Northern Civilization’ against anti-national forces, its propaganda animated by apocalyptic visions of the ‘great replacement’. Now that the parties of EM look set to turn on one another in the wake of their defeat, the telegenic Toroczkai could become one of the most prominent national opposition leaders.

EM’s failure was expected, even if its scale was not. During the final weeks of the campaign the government was leading in polls, 50% to 40%. Yet, as in 2018, the Fidesz-KDNP machine pulled out all the stops to prevent a last-minute opposition breakthrough. A new law allowed voters to register outside their residential jurisdiction, legalizing the practice of voter tourism. The postal ballot system meanwhile benefitted Fidesz-KDNP by prohibiting postal voters from registering a Hungarian residence, which confined the practice primarily to Magyar residents of Transylvania, Vojvodina and other neighbouring enclaves. Some 100,000 émigré voters in the UK, many of whom have a registered address in Hungary, were forced to travel to London or Manchester to cast their votes in person. Reports of pro-EM ballots being destroyed in Transylvania are yet to be substantiated, but there was undoubtedly a degree of voter coercion in Hungary’s smaller villages, where Fidesz mayors often exchange public-sector jobs for vote guarantees. 

Whatever the extent of these manoeuvres, Hungary’s highly concentrated media landscape, combined with Fidesz’s use of public funds in its election campaign, made unseating Orbán unlikely. Yet, this year, circumstances for the opposition were uniquely favourable, as EM managed to present a single electoral ticket with a common political platform. In 2010, Orbán swept to power on a wave of discontent with the incumbent Liberal-MSZP coalition and its prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsány, who had presided over mass privatizations in the preceding decade. Orbán’s first legislative supermajority allowed him to denude the High Court, change the electoral system to benefit Fidesz-KDNP, introduce a liberalized labour code, and begin to abolish faculty governance in the university system.

When elections were held in 2014, Orbán faced two main opposition camps: a left-liberal Unity ticket headed by the MSZP’s Attila Mesterhazy, and Jobbik. In the aftermath of the vote, when Unity, Jobbik and the Green Party together polled close to 52% (compared to Fidesz-KDNP’s 44%), the opposition began to consider the prospect of an all-party ticket: a plan that was initially undermined by lack of endorsement from Jobbik and other non-Fidesz Christian politicians. By 2018, when Orbán again captured a legislative supermajority with less than 50% of the popular vote, it was common to blame his political longevity on the fragmentation of the opposition – with Jobbik identified as the chief culprit.  

Yet in 2018, Jobbik’s recalcitrance was weakened after it failed to make headway at the ballot box, winning only 3 extra seats. The dashing of its hopes opened the party up to cooperation with other anti-Orbán forces, which in turn precipitated the departure of hardliners like Toroczkai. Subsequently, as Jobbik gained a profile as the most cohesive opposition organization, some centrists and progressives lent their votes to the far-right party in marginal districts. Ahead of the 2022 ballot, it seemed that EM – which now included not just the nominally ‘left’ parties, but also Jobbik and the centrist Momentum – could avoid the pitfalls of the last two elections, and present a unified front. 

A hasty internal primary elected Péter Márki-Zay as EM’s prime ministerial candidate, after he beat MEP Klára Dobrév in the second round. Compared to Dobrév, who is married to the deeply unpopular Gyurcsány, Márki-Zay seemed capable of appealing to the Christian middle-class voters on whom Fidesz relies. Once a marketing manager for a French industrial group, Márki-Zay ran as an independent in the 2018 mayoral byelection in the small market town of Hódmezővásárhely, which Fidesz had governed since 1990. He professed himself a ‘right-wing Christian’ and ‘disappointed Fidesz supporter’, but gained the backing of the MSZP, Jobbik and the Greens. His victory was a morale boost for the ailing opposition, which showcased the potential for a left-right alliance to defeat Fidesz-KDNP.

In a sense, EM was a national version of the Hódmezővásárhely coalition. Márki-Zay once again presented himself as a genuine Christian Democrat in contrast to the corrupted Orbán. Parties associated with EM but not represented on its candidate list were mostly drawn from a conservative bourgeois milieu, whose political vehicles included the New World People’s Party formed by Orbán’s former education minister, and New Start, led by the veteran right-wing mayor of Gödöllő. With these actors on-side, EM hoped to shatter the impression that Fidesz-KDNP was the sole choice of Hungary’s middle-class bürgertum.

Now that the results are in, the difficulties involved in scaling up the Hódmezővásárhely coalition to national level are evident. EM did not pick up the moderate, well-to-do Christian voters whom they hoped would gravitate to Márki-Zay. Far from it. The coalition received a staggering 1 million fewer votes than its constituent parties in 2018. With the exception of three suburban constituencies in Buda, EM did not win any middle-class Fidesz strongholds. Márki-Zay himself was defeated by the Fidesz candidate in his home seat of Csongrád-Csanád. The opposition had managed to unite around a plan for rescuing Hungary’s democratic-constitutional order from the corrosive effects of Orbán’s rule; on this question, its rhetoric was clear. But absent a similarly unified social-economic vision, it was incapable of mobilizing sufficient popular support under conditions of degraded electoral democracy. 

On paper, the EM parties agreed to oppose some of the most extreme economic reforms of the Fidesz-KDNP government, such as the so-called ‘Slave Law’, which removed overtime restrictions and allowed firms to delay payment to workers for up to 36 months. Yet such positions were part of a broader EM programme that emphasized restoring the ‘rules-based’ market economy over which Gyurcsány presided. Marki-Zay’s timid appeals to the labour movement fell flat, as the leader drew a distinction between the ‘interest representation’ of unionized workers and the ‘wellbeing’ of the economy as a whole – suggesting that the former would ultimately be subordinate to the latter. For many voters, such restorationism, harking back to the dark days of the post-Soviet transition, did not amount to a compelling vision of the future. 

Fidesz, by contrast, promised to modernize the country and empower its upwardly mobile Christian middle class. In his 2021 speech at the Fidesz party congress, Orbán set out his vision for elevating Hungary to the status of a ‘developed nation’. As well as defending extant social hierarchies (from the macroeconomic to the domestic sphere), he pledged to create a dynamic national bourgeoisie – one that has hitherto been elusive in a semi-peripheral state like Hungary. This project tapped into a problem in Hungarian politics that stretched back to before the 1990s: how to form a distinct national identity while simultaneously playing economic catch-up with western Europe? ‘Illiberal democracy’ and hyper-neoliberal authoritarianism provided an answer, however illusory or mendacious, to that question. The opposition, by confining itself to constitutional matters, did not. 

Now that Fidesz-KDNP has been re-elected, we can expect more efforts to slacken the labour market and align educational policies with the interests of foreign and domestic capital. Last January, at a conference of the German-Hungarian Industrial and Commercial Association (AHK), delegates discussed the best means to provide Hungarian businesses with a sufficient supply of cheap labour – including training programmes, guest-worker schemes and émigré-recovery policies. The influx of desperate refugees over Hungary’s Transcarpathian border may do part of the job; prior to the election, the Orbán government announced a twelve-month programme to subsidize firms that employ Ukrainian citizens. Yet there will also be a further push to institute what are pitched as ‘German-style’ worker apprenticeships, scrubbed of trade-union involvement and boasting ultra-exploitative terms. The transformation of Hungary’s public education sector into a national workforce training department – pursued in lockstep with Orbán’s better-known efforts to privatize higher education – will continue apace.

Aspects of the government’s economic agenda may, however, be frustrated by the concerted action of the EU. Fidesz no longer has the protection of the European People’s Party, and on 16 February the European Court of Justice ruled that the Commission could make budgetary outlays conditional upon ‘the principles of the rule of law’: a provision directly aimed at Hungary and Poland. Earlier this month, Ursula von der Leyen confirmed that the EC would initiate this ‘conditionality mechanism’ against Hungary over concerns about corruption and misappropriations (even though, as Wolfgang Streeck has pointed out, the Commission has never applied these standards to more supportive member states, such as Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia and Malta). Tens of billions of euros, earmarked for infrastructure schemes and other vital programmes, hang in the balance if Hungary is sanctioned. EU funding cuts would be even more damaging given the government’s balance of payments deficit, caused by the recent devaluation of the forint, which will impede its efforts to tackle inflation. The brunt of such bureaucratic interventions will be borne by the country’s poorest citizens. Whether Orbán tries to avoid this outcome and appease the EC remains an open question. 

Yet even if the government manages to deal with pressure from above, it may still encounter resistance from below. One bright spot in the election was Budapest’s 6th constituency, where the long-time community organizer András Jámbor successfully ousted Fidesz mayor Botond Sára. Jámbor, founder of the socialist-environmentalist group Szikra (‘Spark’), prevailed thanks to hundreds of hours of canvassing across the district. The candidate had been at the forefront of struggles against short-term tourist lets and odious public-private development plans, including Orbán’s controversial scheme to gift land earmarked for social housing to China’s Fudan University. He pledged to use his Assembly seat to continue this fight, which may yet inspire similar mobilizations outside the metropole. 

Indeed, the last few years have seen a surge in street-level opposition to the Fidesz project. In January 2019, protests against the Slave Law erupted in towns and cities across the country. Workers at Audi’s massive engine plant in Győr launched an unprecedented strike that resulted in an 18% minimum pay rise for all employees. The week-long action catalyzed a wave of strikes at other plants. Workers at the Hankook tyre factory in Dunaújvaros struck, causing production to drop from 45,000 to 100 tyres per day, and winning a minimum raise of 20%. At large corporations like Suzuki, Bosch and Continental, employees organized protests, threatened strikes and won similar improvements. 

This uptick in labour militancy has continued into 2022. As people went to the polls last Sunday, 20,000 of Hungary’s public school teachers had launched a national strike. The action was called by two previously rival formations, the Democratic Union of Teachers and the Union of Teachers, to fight back against desperately low wages and the ongoing assault on labour rights. The unions have framed their walkout as a defence of the right to strike tout court, launching a public campaign that has attracted support from students, parents and other trade unions. These developments suggest that the factionalism and atomization which characterized Hungary’s post-1990 labour movement may now be giving way to a cooperative approach. Orbán remains electorally ascendant, yet such revolts contain the glimmers of a freer, fairer, more solidaristic Hungary. Let’s hope they find a viable party-political form sooner rather than later.

Read on: Iván Szelényi, ‘Capitalisms After Communism’, NLR 96.