With turnout of just under 62 per cent of eligible voters, Viktor Orbán’s national conservative government has managed to garner 44 per cent of votes cast and a narrow two-thirds majority of seats in the parliament, thereby extending its tenure in office by another four years. The opposition alliance of Socialists and Liberals mustered just 25 per cent of the vote, while the extreme right-wing party Jobbik received nearly 21 per cent. With 5 per cent, the fourth party – the green party Politics Can Be Different (LMP) – also made it into the Hungary’s parliament on the banks of the Danube.
Behind these dry numbers lies a multi-year showdown waged in an atmosphere of political hatred. In 2010, Orbán’s Young Democrats (Fidesz, KDNP) interpreted their monumental victory as a “revolution at the polls” and the beginning of a “system of national cooperation”. In practice, this meant they could govern with their more-than-comfortable parliamentary majority for four years while completely excluding the opposition. They took control of almost the entire media landscape, restricted the rights of the constitutional court, and subordinated the cultural sphere to their will. This process clearly went beyond the erosion of democratic institutions and the creation of an authoritarian model. In 2010, the defeated Socialist Party (MSZP) disintegrated into rival factions, and civil protest was still in its infancy. The sole fault line with which the new power had to contend was the international community; the former darling of the West – Hungary – was making negative headlines.
Grotesquely, Orbán’s team understood how to utilise foreign criticism of its policies to its own advantage. There was talk of an international conspiracy against Hungary, and the Western media were labelled deadly enemies of “our home”. Opposition activists, philosophers and artists who drew attention outside the country to the government’s arbitrary exercise of power and the danger of right-wing extremism were suddenly regarded as enemies of the people and as traitors, and in some cases were publicly accosted and subjected to obscene attacks on the web sites of media organisations close to the government. Particularly in the conflict with the EU and IMF, the national card was played. There was talk of a “war of economic freedom”, and historically and socially rooted sentiments of frustration were mobilised to reinforce the cohesion of the government’s own camp. It seemed as if an ideological Iron Curtain had been rebuilt during these years between Hungary and the West.
This militant nationalism had a role in ensuring that the right-wing conservatives – despite their rather modest performance in government – would again score a victory at the polls. As it turned out, however, they lost at least six hundred thousand supporters – disaffected voters mainly from western Hungary, impoverished small business owners, the unemployed, pensioners and young voters who four years ago in the wake of the previous cabinets’ corruption and incompetence still believed they would be saved from ruin by a vigorous government. Many of them did not vote for the left, however, but instead placed their hopes on the emergent extreme right, which now after its nationwide success is once again the third-strongest political force in the country, in some constituencies having outperformed not only the left but also Fidesz. The rise of Jobbik is certainly the most depressing fact about Hungary’s seventh free democratic election since the fall of communism.
The party of amateur historian Gábor Vona is openly anti-Semitic, racist and anti-European. In its programme, it promises economically unjustified social improvements on the one hand while at the same time calling for the “chemical castration of perpetrators of sexual violence”, the reintroduction of the death penalty, as well as the restoration of the pre-war constabulary “to combat Gypsy criminality”. That almost a million citizens can be attracted to such a project (and not only Jobbik voters advocate such “law and order” measures) is a truly worrying mental diagnosis for the whole society.
Another fact providing little encouragement is that the democratic parties were obviously unable to convert the undoubtedly growing popular dissatisfaction with Orbán’s policies into an election victory. This concerns not only voters who have drifted to the extreme right, but also the nearly 40 per cent of the electorate who stayed at home – passive voters who obviously no longer associate expectations with any political force. Several factors contributed to the left’s inability to attract such voters. The fragmentation and fierce recriminations among the losers in 2010 lasted far too long. It was only shortly before the 2014 campaign that they were able to forge an electoral alliance, and even then only with regrets and distress. Their internal disputes led in early 2013 to a split in the green party LMP, which ultimately ran independently of the electoral coalition, surpassing the five per cent hurdle for a second time. There is a risk that the democratic opposition’s renewed fiasco will lead once again to hopeless prospects, tasteless quarrelling and a power struggle among the powerless, rather than to common reflection and the elaboration of an alternative for the election in 2018.
We are seemingly light years away from the next parliamentary election, but voting for seats in the European Parliament is coming up already in May. A breakthrough by the democratic opposition is unlikely, however. This is unfortunate, because a stronger presence in Brussels by the democratic opposition would not only bring benefits for the newly minted MEPs, but would also strengthen the voice of pro-European Hungary. And in October citizens will be asked to turn out for communal elections – a new opportunity. More important than numerical progress right now, however, would be the creation of a sober, quiet atmosphere and a common social and democratic political initiative that would be compelling for voters and non-voters alike, and would contribute outside the trenches to dismantling the culture of hatred and to restoring normal conditions, so that Hungary can re-assume its original place among the young democracies.