In Hungary, the first real major electoral success of the unified opposition signifies change. Is it the start of bottom-up renewal in Hungary and the other Visegrad countries?

With this question in mind, we can look at the strategies of the newest liberal party of Hungary – Momentum – and whether the latest electoral success of the opposition is the dawn of a new politics in Hungary.

Gergely Karácsony

Last month’s municipal elections in Hungary brought a grand surprise. Gergely Karácsony’ achievement to become mayor of Budapest shook the political class and power balance within Hungary, at least in part. In most of the cities, the unified opposition took the mayoral post. In Budapest, Karácsony, who is a member of the Dialogue for Hungary (Párbeszéd Magyarországért) party, won with 50 per cent of the votes.

Interestingly, none of the polling agencies predicted that he had a reasonable chance of winning against Fidesz candidate István Tarlós, who held the post since 2010.

The opposition’s electoral victories come at a time when the government party, with a two-thirds majority in parliament, increasingly isolates itself from its European partners. Instead, Fidesz prefers to tighten bonds with countries generally not considered as blossoming democracies – China, Russia and Turkey.

Although there are claims of a new wave of dissatisfaction with Fidesz within the Hungarian electorate, one should note that support for Fidesz has grown in the rural areas of Hungary. In 13 of the 19 counties, Fidesz won more votes than in the previous elections of 2014.

An underlying gap

An important takeaway from the municipal elections is that the gap between the rural areas and the cities is widening. This is not unique to Hungary or the V4 countries but is a more general phenomenon. That said, the underlying reasons for the gap in countries such as Hungary, where one party has had an overwhelming dominance in politics for close to a decade, might be more troubling in Hungary than in full democracies.

A study by Isabel Mares and Lauren Young found that during the 2014 municipal elections, five to seven per cent of voters were compelled to vote for Fidesz using either positive or negative incentives. This “clientelism” took the form of representatives offering rewards or threatening workers they would lose their job if their families did not vote for the party.

To some degree, the widening gap is exacerbated by the availability and presence of independent media. The printed media in Hungary, especially on the local level, are part of the pro-Fidesz media conglomeration, making penetration outside the cities particularly difficult. The lack of access to critical media coverage leads to an information gap.

Moreover, rural areas are more prone to find solace in conservative-nationalist rhetoric that claims to safeguard their Christian values.

In light of this ideological rupture between the rural and the city, the progressive movements within Hungary and the V4 countries will probably not be able to declare national victories just yet. In Poland, for instance, the Law and Justice Party (PiS) comfortably won the general elections this October, it gained a single majority in the Sejm again, albeit against an opposition that is stronger and more unified.

The example of Momentum in Hungary shows how the opposition can start from a low base and build its way to challenge a powerful ruling government, with cooperation within and between countries.

A party to stay

Momentum made its entry in Hungarian politics in 2017 and started as a movement that successfully campaigned against Hungary’s bid for hosting the Olympic games in 2024. Back then, it got the government to withdraw from the race by way of a petition. Barely a year later, the party ran in the general elections in April 2018 but did not manage to pass the 5 per cent threshold.

This year, the party booked an electoral success by winning two seats in the EP elections and formed part of the united opposition that ran in the municipal elections last month.

In terms of Momentum’s party strategies, it is clear that its members are using social media actively to reach young voters. A survey among the Hungarian youth shows that those who support Momentum are among the most likely to vote in elections. In the same survey, conducted by political scientists of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences earlier this year, Momentum and Fidesz rivalled each other in terms of popularity among the youth.

Anna Donáth

Since Momentum did not manage to pass the five per cent threshold for entering into parliament in 2018, the European Parliament is the main platform where Momentum is active. Two MEPs, Katalin Cseh (31) and Anna Donáth (32) are actively using the Parliament to criticise the Hungarian government and its decisions, for instance, the veto of Hungary against the Commission’s plans for annual rule of law reports.

In case of the veto, Donáth stated that the Hungarian government “will prevent any common position if it seeks to strengthen the rule of law and to dismantle Viktor Orbán’s alliance with illiberal leaders outside the EU.”

Yet there are also local forms of mobilisation. Firstly, the political figureheads of the party – Cseh and Donáth in the EP and András Fekete-Győr as the party leader – appear weekly in cities in Hungary to engage with locals. They ask whether participants want to join the party, have questions for the representatives or whether participants have recommendations for Momentum.

This active on-the-street form of mobilisation sounds familiar. After losing the elections in 2006, Fidesz also entered into a permanent election mode and did most of their campaigning on the streets.

Due to the dominance of government-controlled media outlets in rural areas, reaching out to people living outside the cities is particularly difficult. To get in touch with people beyond the cities, the only way to reach people is to go there in person.

Another interesting activity of Momentum is the presence of the party outside of Hungary. The party organises get-togethers for Hungarians living in other parts of Europe, particularly in the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands.

Momentum realises that there are large numbers of Hungarians who left their home country in recent years for Western Europe. Many of them are young and highly-educated, who might be interested in engaging in politics.

Again, while the parallel might be too simplistic, the outreach to Hungarians abroad is a political strategy that has similarities with the way Fidesz continues to engage with the Hungarians outside of its borders, particularly the “old minorities” in Transylvania and border regions of neighbouring countries.

Unify at home and abroad

So, what can we expect from Momentum in the future? This is where Budapest mayor Karácsony and his colleagues in Bratislava, Prague and Warsaw come in. Currently, all capital cities of the V4 are in the hands of young, progressive mayors and there are signs this bottom-up renewal can become a platform for pressure on national governments.

In their projection of a feasible alternative to nationalist-conservatism, these progressive leaders can set an example for municipal politics elsewhere in the country. By being active on social media, visible in local initiatives and building an image of being anti-corrupt, local politicians can start to change politics from the bottom up. Addressing the concerns of citizens – the main fears in Hungary being the unpredictability of life, serious illnesses, material insecurity, migrants – local politicians would be able to build confidence and support for their political platforms.

A reasonable concern is, however, that the government in Hungary is trying to weaken the influence of cities by taking away competences from them, such as the possibility to apply for EU funds.

On 8 November, the mayors of V4 Capitals discussed a “Pact of the Free Capitals” in Berlin. Their aim: jointly applying for structural funds from the European Union and setting common priorities on issues such as climate change and the rule of law.

In his own words, Budapest Mayor Gergely Karácsony, at the Eurocities conference in Prague on 20 November, expressed his confidence in the role of cities in bringing about bottom-up change: “It is clear that cities are the direct link to the people. With the current democratic deficit, which the EU institutional system can hardly react to, cities are able to serve as a bridge”.

His and other mayor’s progressive leadership marks a new chapter in the domestic political landscape of the V4 countries, but whether this will spill over beyond the capitals to smaller cities or the countryside is far from certain.

PhD candidate in International Relations at the Corvinus University of Budapest


Scenarios for cohesive growth

As of 2019 the negotiations about the next Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) will enter a critical moment. In the face of an imminent Brexit and the fallout from global turmoil, the EU has to reflect on its guiding principles and take decisions to fulfil the promise of a united Europe.

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The Visegrad/Insight is the main platform of debate and analysis on Central Europe. This report has been developed in cooperation with the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS).

Launched on 1 October 2019 at the European #Futures Forum in Brussels.