In late February this year, Hungary’s Fidesz party was rocked by losing a by-election in its normally solid stronghold city of Hódmezővásárhely. Until that moment, victory for the governing Fidesz-Christian Democrat coalition at the April general election had been largely a given. But then, pressured by their voters calling on them to coordinate, opposition forces entered a belated and drawn-out process of negotiating which party would stand its candidates where, seeking to replicate the by-election’s success while still trying to maximise their individual chances in the race. However, their bickering accompanying the process gave the impression that the opposition parties are more preoccupied with themselves than with defeating the governing parties. Fidesz, in turn, ran an unalloyedly migration-focused single-issue campaign void of any substantive policy proposals in a media environment that was ultimately already highly favourable to the government. The coalition further benefited from an “overlap between government information and ruling coalition campaigns, and other abuses of administrative resources, [that] blurred the line between state and party,” as the OSCE ODHIR election observation mission found.
The high turnout of nearly 70 per cent was expected to benefit the opposition and harm the chances of the incumbent. Instead, Fidesz-KDNP was able to expand its support even in nominal terms. It won 49 per cent of the vote on the national party list and 91 of the 106 first-past-the-post single-mandate constituencies. On top of this, the mixed electoral system introduced by the second Orbán government further boosted the coalition’s total, through its system of “winner compensation”. Thus, the votes cast translated into two-thirds of the seats going to the coalition – in total, 134 of the 199 seats in parliament, enough to allow the governing party to push through changes to the constitution. Even the other end of the victory scale tells a story: for the first time, the German minority national list received enough votes to win a seat. But the representative taking this seat is also a member of Fidesz and will likely vote with the government.
This crushing defeat for the opposition parties effectively consigns them to irrelevance for the next four years. Coming back from here, especially for the left, will require essentially the (re-)development of the parties – a daunting task in the current outright hostile environment. Radical right party Jobbik pursued a strategy of mainstreaming over recent years in the hope of broadening its base, but it came in second with 19 per cent of the vote on the national list and 25 seats in parliament. Although in relative terms the results confirmed the party as the biggest opposition force, in absolute terms this was much below what Jobbik expected. The remaining 39 seats are divided among four left and liberal parties and one independent candidate. The severity of the defeat is reflected in the decision of the leaders of, among others, the Socialists and Jobbik to immediately resign. In the former case, this is a next stage in the Socialist Party’s ongoing and increasingly unsuccessful struggle for relevance and survival, while in the latter the resignation of Gábor Vona could bring about the re-radicalisation of Jobbik. Such a scenario would leave Hungary with parties that deploy radical right rhetoric as both governing and lead opposition parties, leading to further deterioration and a sharpening of extremist language in the public discourse.
As the election won recognition as free, despite it hardly being fair given the campaign environment and the electoral system boost, the results considerably strengthen Orbán’s position, equipping him with new ammunition against criticism at home and abroad. In his recent harsh confrontations with the European Commission over refugee quotas, the new higher education law, also known as Lex CEU, and the operation of NGOs, Orbán has already abandoned what he himself once described as his “peacock dance” of ostensibly making changes in response to outside criticism. He now makes no concessions when faced with criticism from Brussels. Orbán’s sovereigntist, illiberal course, which already brought an unprecedented decline to Hungarian democracy landing it among the semi-consolidated democracies of the region, is now set to continue, and at pace.
Despite his radical right bedfellows, Orbán’s key conservative allies in the European People’s Party have so far shown little sign of concern
Having constructed a constitutional and institutional setting that cements the positions of the Fidesz government, to further solidify its power Fidesz will now move to put pressure on dissenting voices in civil society, advocacy organisations, and the remnants of the independent media. The so-called “Stop Soros” legislative package released in January clearly foreshadows such a move. Critics warn that this controversial set of proposals would impede freedom of assembly, and potentially even curtail civil society representatives’ personal liberty. High-ranking representatives of the government have already announced, and Orbán confirmed, that the plans, which are to be examined by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission by June, will be among the first decisions of the new parliament, as soon as May. This shows that the government has no intention of ensuring that the legislation adheres to international human rights standards and does not even pretend to value the Venice Commission’s legal opinion. But the two-thirds parliamentary majority also enables the government to amend the constitution, with which it can, for example, carry through its previously failed attempts to put a constitutional ban on the relocation of refugees and migrants, thus getting its way against the European Court of Justice dismissal of Hungary’s complaint about the issue. In terms of the country’s institutions, the courts and municipal administrations are, so far, still relatively independent. But they can now expect to find themselves on the table, the latter especially as the next local elections are scheduled for 2019.
Other logical targets are the remaining independent parts of the media, which over recent years have come under increasing pressure. They suffered a growing lack of funding as the governing parties built their dominance over the sector by tightening their grip on public broadcasters, using state advertising to finance government-friendly outlets, and overseeing the acquisition of media outlets across the country by Fidesz associates. The extreme vulnerability of the media to changes in the political environment was vividly illustrated by the prompt decision of Lajos Simicska, former Fidesz treasurer turned Orbán enemy, to cease financing parts of his media portfolio and to sell others outright just two days after the election. This sudden act resulted in the closure of Magyar Nemzet, one of Hungary’s two opposition dailies, effective practically immediately. In such a context, independent journalism that can provide checks on the government sorely needs support and could benefit from more attention from the European Union.
On the European scene, Orbán will continue to pursue his anti-migration, nationalist agenda. With such a decisive victory behind his back, he will demand a say in future EU reform, aiming to limit the competences of the EU institutions, emphasise intergovernmental decision-making, take sovereignty back to the state level and empower national parliaments through a red card system. In these endeavours he can rely on his Visegrad allies – although only partly, as the group has shown signs of disunity on various issues over the past year. Orbán also enjoys the sympathy of radical right actors across Europe, like Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, and Heinz-Christian Strache. Despite the praise and embrace of these questionable bedfellows, the prime minister’s key conservative allies in the European People’s Party, among them EPP presidents Manfred Weber and Joseph Daul, have so far shown little sign of concern.
Others, however, have begun to raise the alarm, and did so even prior to this month’s election. In May 2017 the European Parliament tasked the Civil Liberties Committee (LIBE) to examine the state of rule of law, democracy, and fundamental rights in Hungary. Following the LIBE investigation, the European Parliament is then due to vote on whether to initiate the Article 7 procedure, potentially leading to Hungary losing its voting rights in the European Council. The vote is likely due in September 2018. The European Parliament’s Budget Control Committee and Constitutional Affairs Committee have already signalled that they believe Article 7 proceedings to be justified, and LIBE also found that there is a clear risk of a serious breach by Hungary of the values on which the EU is founded. . To pass a decision in the European Parliament, however, two-thirds of MEPs will need to agree – so how the EPP votes will be crucial. Should the LIBE report find enough reason to start Article 7, EPP MEPs will be faced with a choice: they either assume their moral obligation to stand in defence of democratic values and principles even if the problem lies with “one of their own”; or they irreparably drift to one platform with the radical right, creating the precedent of endorsing an illiberal state inside the EU. With domestic checks and balances weakened to such an extent by now, the responsibility of the EU to draw a line is unprecedentedly high.
Zsuzsanna Végh is a researcher at the European University Viadrina and associate researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed here are those of the author.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.