By Robin Vandendriessche
In 2014, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán declared his intention to build an illiberal state, citing Russia and China as examples. Since his Fidesz party rose to power in 2010, Hungary has taken the lead in what later would be known as democratic backsliding. This includes dismantling the independence of the judiciary, expanding party influence over state institutions, funneling public funds to cronies, taking control of the media and gerrymandering electoral laws. After winning a third consecutive term, Hungary is now firmly controlled by Orbán and Fidesz loyalists. However, in 2020, six Hungarian opposition parties from right to left joined forces and stated that they will run together in the 2022 parliamentary election. The uncomfortable alliance has only one purpose; to defeat Orbán and end his rule. This rainbow coalition, including the Social Democrats, Greens, Momentum and Jobbik will put forward a single candidate in all of Hungary’s 106 electoral districts. According to Politico’s Poll of Polls, Fidesz and the united opposition have only differed by a few percentage points since 2021. For the first time in a decade, a change of government in Hungary seems plausible.
Fidesz remains particularly strong in the countryside due to the growing urban-rural divide. Opposition parties seem to realize this and have already campaigned heavily in the rural electoral districts. Back in 2010, these rural strongholds were the reason for Fidesz’s landslide victory. Hungarians were disillusioned by the painful budget cuts by the socialist government, high unemployment and steep economic contraction which disproportionately impacted the rural areas. When Orbán took office, Hungary began to see an economic recovery which mainly depended on EU funds and its EU membership in general. The COVID-19 pandemic, the withholding of NextGeneration EU recovery funds and the rule of law conditionality mechanism in the EU budget could jeopardize the relation between EU funds and economic progress. This could support the united opposition as the popularity of a government is usually in sync with the state of the economy.
Furthermore, the opposition will present a joint prime ministerial candidate and will hold primaries in every constituency where there is no consensual candidate. Such a format raises awareness and has proven successful by the victory of the joint green nominee Gergely Karácsony who ousted Fidesz incumbent István Tarlós as mayor of Budapest in October 2019. Although the rainbow coalition contains very divergent visions it has at least agreed on one easy-to-understand message; removing Victor Orbán from power.
Such a message is strong but considerable challenges remain. Hungary’s political system, administration and media landscape are centered entirely around Fidesz. Furthermore, with a two-thirds majority in the government, it is able to amend the constitution and any electoral law if needed. The opposition had no choice but to unite in Hungary’s heavy gerrymandered political system.
Winning an election is one thing, governing effectively is quite another. No need to be a political scientist to realize that socialists and far-right extremists do not have much in common. Although this election will be a referendum against Orbán, an effective government is the key. If Hungary’s elites fail to do so they risk pushing the public even further to the nationalist, conservative and eurosceptic agenda of Fidesz like it was the case in 2010. Even if the united opposition wins the election and puts forward a coherent government there will be serious challenges to its effectiveness. Fidesz-loyal political appointees such as the chief prosecutor, the entire Supreme Court and the governor of the central bank will remain in office long after an opposition victory. This so-called ‘deep state’ that Fidesz has created is supported by numerous ‘cardinal laws and policies’ which require two-thirds majorities to be overhauled.
It has been a decade since the start of democratic backsliding in Hungary. Since then democracy has been silently dismantled. This resulted in a heavy gerrymandered electoral system and a media landscape and administration completely centered around the governing party. For the first time in over a decade, a united opposition could have a chance of removing Fidesz from power. The time seems right. Pressure from the European Union and its member states has reached an all-time high. For the first time, EU funding for Hungary is at risk, which has been the main driver of economic growth and thus the government’s electoral support.
And still, even if the opposition succeeds it will not be easy to govern effectively with so many ideological differences in a political system created to be governed by Fidesz. An ineffective government would give Fidesz all the ammunition it needs during its potential years in opposition. That could well be Victor Orbán’s plan all along.