An end to Hungary’s long era of far-right Orbán-led government now appears a tantalising possibility. With parliamentary elections due in early 2022, the country’s opposition parties have united in a rainbow alliance, and most polls accord it a lead over Fidesz, which has been in power since 2010. Better still, Gergely Karácsony, the popular Mayor of Budapest, recently dropped heavy hints he may throw his hat into the ring to become the bloc’s premiership candidate.
Even if he does, dislodging Fidesz from office remains an uphill challenge and removing the party from actual power may be even harder.
Maintaining the unity of the disparate opposition alliance, first established in 2019, is vital for ensuring a change of government. That an alliance exists at all is remarkable: a standard joke in Hungary is that two Hungarians stuck in a lift will have formed three political parties by the time of their release. This has an uncomfortable degree of truth to it. Previously, opposition leaders’ preference for fighting each other rather than Orbán bolstered his power and led to the consolidation of what Freedom House refers to as a “Hybrid Regime” (a political setup that is no longer classified as a democracy).
Internecine splits among the opposition have left Hungary with two rival Socialist and two Green parties, a liberally-minded Momentum Party, and the formerly far-right Jobbik Party. In 2018 this fracture was amplified by the country’s voting system for constituencies: First Past The Post, gifted Fidesz a two thirds majority in the National Assembly. In reality, most Hungarians had voted for opposition parties, but this did not translate into parliamentary seats. The country’s election system combined with a radical gerrymandering of constituency boundaries, proved a disabling combination for the Hungarian left.
Fidesz’s opponents can’t afford to return to in-fighting: the electoral system is already heavily weighted against them and riddled with irregularities. More than a decade has passed since Hungary last had elections deemed both ‘free and fair’ by international observers.
Support for Fidesz in many rural constituencies is intimately tied to “workfare” schemes that provide low paid ‘public work’ to unemployed Hungarian citizens, particularly for members of the country’s sizeable Roma community who are usually unable to access other employment or receive state benefits. As enrolment in these schemes is at the personal discretion of local Fidesz mayors and the secrecy of the ballot is often compromised, scope for corruption is obvious: Fidesz can exchange economic opportunities for votes (or penalise those who vote against them). Complex voter suppression tactics also effectively disenfranchise the many disillusioned young people who have left the country for work in other EU states.
Yet, there is hope. The obstacles for the opposition parties are considerable, but not insurmountable, especially if they better assert their legal entitlement to ballot observation in 2022 than in 2018. If Karácsony succeeds in this autumn’s primary for the opposition’s leadership, there will be the opportunity to appeal to the country’s large bloc of undecided voters, about a third of those eligible. The Hungarian capital’s mayor polls more favourably among this sector than his lead rivals Péter Jakab (Jobbik) or Klára Dobrev (Democrat Coalition).
Given Karácsony’s moderate political views and good track record of cross-party collaboration in local government, he may even be able to win over some Fidesz voters frustrated with the party’s flagrant corruption, and its mismanagement of the Coronavirus pandemic. Fidesz’s years in power have seen Hungary become the most corrupt country in the EU, according to Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index. It also boasts the world’s highest per capita death rate from COVID-19. Even some of the government’s instinctive supporters now voice frustration on these points, at least in private.
The opposition alliance needs every vote it can get if it is to enter power as well as office: Fidesz’s two thirds majority in Hungary’s National Assembly has hitherto enabled it to amend the country’s constitution unilaterally, shaping the structure of government to its advantage. It also embedded some contentious policies as cardinal laws attached to the constitution, including the criminalisation of homelessness. This poses a problem for opposition parties if they obtain only a simple majority of seats next year: constitutional amendments require a two thirds majority to undo.
Unless the opposition obtains an overwhelming electoral victory, it will find itself in the unenviable position of having ostensible responsibility for the country during its post-pandemic economic slowdown, while having very few available powers to steady the situation. To make matters worse, much of Hungary’s civil administration has become fused with the Fidesz party apparatus. Many powers which would usually belong to either ministers or statutory bodies have been placed in the hands of “Government Commissioners”, usually Fidesz party loyalists appointed for 9-year terms and, again, only removable by a two thirds parliamentary majority.
Recently several other important functions including Higher Education, Cultural policy and Environmental Management have recently been transferred to “Public Interest Foundations” which enjoy the same entrenched legal protections as the government commissioners. They are controlled by committees dominated by appointees affiliated to Fidesz. The conduct of their affairs is not subject to external regulatory oversight or the usual public sector financial disclosure requirements.
Daniel Hegedus, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund, asserts that this strategy serves three ends, one of which is diverting public wealth “so that even after an election they can hold onto them, making it more difficult for the EU’s anti-fraud agency [OLAF] to scrutinise the use of EU funds”.
Hungary’s opposition will face an uphill battle if it is to undo the damage of the years of Fidesz rule. In 2022 the united opposition must win big or it won’t have won at all.