Given Fidesz’s high level of control over key institutions and the vastly unequal resources at the disposal of various parties, the outcome of the 2018 Hungarian election was never in serious doubt: it would inescapably bring the seventh consecutive electoral victory for Viktor Orbán.
The moot question rather concerns what kind of election the country just had, or where exactly on the spectrum between free and fair elections characteristic of liberal democracies and the mass endorsement typical of electoral authoritarianisms does Hungary now stand? Phrased differently, what do the campaign period and the few surprising elements in the electoral outcome reveal about the current political standards in the country? What expectations for the future do they raise and, last but not least, what broader lessons might be drawn?
The tolerance of populism
Without resorting to outright bans of oppositional candidates to thereby turn elections into mere gestures of endorsement (Fidesz has rather used so called national consultations and referenda to force such gestures), the months preceding the election day have nonetheless shown just how far Hungary has advanced towards hollowing democracy.
The Fidesz leadership has led a campaign, with disproportionate resources and the explicit backing of state institutions, which focused on fear-mongering, employed conspiracy theories and fake news, and issued some open threats. The ruling party neither engaged in open public debate on its governing record, nor presented concrete policy plans.
Instead of selecting suitable candidates upon rational exchanges of argument as in a liberal democracy, Hungarian voters were expected to affirm their loyalty to the national community as such and the party supposedly incarnating it. In other words, right-wing populism has clearly become the dominant mode of politics in Hungary.
Fidesz’s controversial re-election was equally welcomed among leading representatives of the centre-right and right-wing populists in Western Europe, which reveals as much about Fidesz’s shift to the right as about the preference among members of the center-right for a semblance of stability over standards of democracy in Eastern Europe.
Yascha Mounk has correctly suggested that the latter, if not based on ignorance, can only be qualified as utterly cynical. Patrick Kingsley added the important warning that such tolerance towards illiberal state-building in an EU member state might, on the longer term, be even more detrimental for the future of the Union than the looming – and until now much more prominently discussed – Brexit.
Successful strategies for a divided country and economy
One of the few surprises of the electoral outcome was that – despite the dissatisfaction of a slight majority of voters with their government – Fidesz managed to mobilise its base more effectively than its opposition, contradicting much of the conventional wisdom on the matter. Together with the self-servingly revised electoral system and the equally much-maligned divisions among opposition parties, this again has handed two-thirds of the mandate to the ruling party – which nominally amounts to an overwhelming endorsement.
If a key illusion of the opposition ahead of the elections concerned the support of previously invisible voters, the fact that nearly every second voter chose the ruling party indeed had to do with the previously untapped potential of an illiberal state in villages and small towns.
As in such localities, clear social hierarchies and economic dependencies could be effectively combined with the radical propaganda discourses by the state or a party regarding threats and security, one-party rule paid extra dividends.
If the openly racist and nearly apocalyptic-sounding campaign brought Fidesz poorer and also less educated voters (without having to introduce substantial redistributive socioeconomic policies for that support), this generally successful campaigning strategy also exacerbated the divide between Budapest – responsible for about 40% of the country’s GDP – and the rest of the country: oppositional parties received the majority of votes in the only Hungarian metropolis but were soundly defeated practically everywhere else.
Such a change in patterns of last-minute mobilisation and electoral geography notwithstanding, the Hungarian party structure has remained essentially unchanged. We ought to recall that between 1990 and 2010, Hungary had a remarkably stable party system with a gradual reduction of complexity and with only a single new party making it into Parliament in two decades (and even that party was a splinter party from a major one and never acquired more than 6% of the vote).
Despite the creeping regime change Viktor Orbán has announced and largely implemented since 2010, counter-intuitively, the electoral strength of parties has changed little over the course of the last three national elections. Nothing may illustrate how closed the system is better than the fact that the only newly independent force to pass the threshold of 5% in 2018 was the party led by – widely discredited – former socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány (conspicuously, also with less than 6% of the vote).
The ever more dominant Fidesz continues to be opposed by a midsized Jobbik, a middling (and essentially still post-communist) left currently consisting of two important players, and a smallish green party.
Whereas the gradual decline of the post-communist left over the past eight years might be viewed as the greatest potential source of change in the party structure, a major accomplishment of Fidesz this year has been that neither a more moderately profiled Jobbik, nor the centrist but critical LMP has managed to grow as a result.
After the three most recent national elections, the Fidesz-dominated system indeed looks about as stable as the previous, much more competitive – and thereby, historically speaking, also exceptional – one.
The missing opposition
Béla Greskovits – a professor of International Relations and European Studies at Central European University – is right to suggest that beyond the material resources Fidesz is able to dispose, its social embeddedness in local communities and the powerful identity narrative it offers also provide keys to explaining the party’s remarkable electoral strength.
One should add that, next to organizing its over two million loyal supporters, another key aim of illiberal rule is to disable competitors from mounting serious challenges, and until now Fidesz has proven equally successful at the latter. Characteristically, the (otherwise weakly coordinated) oppositional campaign of 2018 focused, above all, on cases of corruption and the most damning pieces of evidence have been provided by Lajos Simicska, a renegade Fidesz oligarch – who upon hearing the misfortunate results has just abandoned his media presence.
Lacking the resources, a solidified presence in the local communities and unifying narratives to compete with Fidesz, the main parties of the opposition have simply not been able to develop alternative strategies to compensate for their grave structural weaknesses. Any future challenger will doubtlessly take significant time and extra energy to organise and will likely have to confront worsening odds.
Nonetheless, a major uncertainty continues to surround the seemingly consolidated one-party rule in Hungary. This uncertainty has to do with the tension between Fidesz’s ceaseless drive to dominate and impose on all realms, and its immediate – battered but surviving – liberal democratic international environment.
The agenda of Orbán to recentralise the Hungarian state and monopolise power has until now admittedly largely succeeded without him having to face international consequences. It would therefore be tempting to conclude pessimistically that authoritarian consolidation did not strike the elite club of liberal democracies like a grave problem until it got to be too late.
However, nothing is predetermined in this paradoxical story of authoritarian state consolidation in a larger liberal union. The moderate and slow-moving norms of Western liberal democracies and their highest form of compromise, the European Union, might still come to haunt the Orbán regime just when the regime thought it had locally managed to conclusively hollow them of substance.
All it would take is recognition of how unworthy Orbán’s Hungary has become of European approval and the benefits of full membership. The committed use of European leverage and pro-active support for liberal democracy do not look like imminent prospects but nor are they impossibilities.
Ferenc Laczó is the Ph.D. Assistant Professor in European History at Maastricht University.