Both Europe and Hungary were surprised one week ago by witnessing the third, landslide victory of Viktor Orbán, with unexpectedly high participation, resulting a consitutional supermajority. Were the elections fair and democratic? Is the Hungarian illiberalism democracy or dictatorship? What are the cornerstones of the Orbán regime? What about the weak opposition? What are the lessons learned and recommendations to the government, the oppostion, the citizens and Europe?
Not fair but legitim outcome: Orbán is the democratically elected ‘Strong Man’ of Hungary
The 8th April elections were free but not fair. As of Saturday 15th April, we do have official results. Although there were several irregalities reported in some electoral counties, it is unlikely that there was an organised electoral fraud and those issues did not impact the essential outcomes anyway: 49% of the population, every second citizen voted for the government and for Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. 70,22% of the population participated in the elections. With such a high number of participation, you can not deny anymore the democratic legitimacy of the Hungarian government. It must be added: the elections were not fair: the Organization of Security and Co-ordination in Europe (OSCE) report pointed out that Fidesz was overrepresented in the national media and there was no separation between the official government hate campaign against refugees and George Soros and the Fidesz electoral campaign. Government and oppostion did not have the same conditions. The government did not participate in public discussions with opposition politicans. Fidesz did not say anything about the next 4 years, education or healthcare, and it run a one issue (Stop Soros, Migrants) campaign with apparently high success. Apparently, Hungarians also wanted to punish the weak and divided opposition. It is another story that due to the Fidesz friendly, biased electoral system, the outcome resulted a 2/3, constitutional majority for the ruling party.
Hungarian authoritarian heritage – historical context
If we want to understand the illiberal tendencies in Hungary, we have to have a look at the historical context of the authoritarian regimes and the failed attempts to establish democracy in the past 150 years. Without knowing those traditions and seeing the frustration of the country, we remain in the dark.
In the recent Hungarian history, the three, most stable systems were authoritarian regimes with more or less liberal democratic elements, so those anti-democratic tendencies are deeply rooted in the population which has been used to live under circumstances with limited freedom. All of the mentioned systems were collapsed due to the change of international developments, change never came from the Hungarian society alone.
Dualist Austrian-Hungarian Constitutional Monarchy 1867-1918 – The Constitutional Monarchy had some liberal elements, regular elections, freedom of press but the role of the King, Franz Joseph was very dominant, limiting significantly the domestic policy life. The economy was liberal and the capitalist system led to swift modernisation of the rural country. The society was preserving several elements of feudalism. Only 10-15% of the population in the Historical Hungary had voting rights which excluded many of ethnic minorities giving 50% of the population, mainly Romanians, Sovaks and Serbs from being fully represented in the Hungarian Parliament. The system and the ruling Party could not be changed via elections. The opposition won only once, in 1906 but it was forced to give up its programme in order to make a government and was defeated shortly after.
Note: Hungary lost those ethnic populations after World War I and the situation is reversed: there is significant Hungarian minorities living in territories belonging today to Slovakia, Romania, Ukraine and Serbia.
Horthy regime – Kingdom without a king 1920-1944 – The Hungarian Kingdom was restaurated without the Habsburg Kings after the revolutions, under the leadership of governor Miklós Horthy as head of state. The conservative-liberal authoritarian regime preserved some liberal traditions (elections, freedom of speech and press), but it can hardly be considered as a democracy. The economic model was still liberal capitalism but the feudal societal system was preserved. Large part of the population lived in deep poverty. Although there were regular elections but the ruling party won all elections, in many cases with 2/3 majority so no regime change was possible via elections. The opposition had no chance to win partially because elections on the countryside were ‘open votes’: voters had to tell to the electoral committees which candidate they chose which ensured majority for the governments.
Kádár regime – Communist dictatorship with some individual liberties – 1957-1988 – Like many other socialist countries in the Eastern bloc, communist Hungary was a dictatorship, with no elections and having only one ruling party. There was no freedom of press or speech. However, after the 1956 revolution, the stalinist system has changed and compared to other communist countries, some limited freedom was provided to individuals and if people did not criticised the system politically, they could live their private life. The motto of the system was “Those who are not against us are with us.” The economy was not liberal, firmly coordinated by the state. The country was not fully sovereign as it largely depended from the Soviet Union. There were radical changes in the society: compared to previous regimes, the large majority of the population was lifted out from deep poverty, everyone was provided with a basic income and job – although at modest level. Increase of the living standard was an official policy which needed at some point international loans. Education and healthcare was compulsory and was provided to everyone. All of these elements explain the existing nostalgie in the Hungarian society to this system. However, the communist system was not economically sustainable which led to the change of regime in 1989.
Liberal Democracy and failed revolutions in Hungary – interim periods only?
Unfinished civil revolution and freedom fight in 1848-1849
Since the 150 years Turkish occupation of the country in XVI-XVIIth century, Hungary belongs to the periphery of Western Europe. The civil revolution which started in 1688 in the United Kingdom, in 1789 in France, only happened in 1848 in Hungary which turned into a freedom fight in 1849 and was opressed by Russian intervention. As the revolution did only achieve its aim in the economy but not in the political life, the country is since then on the road of joining the club of Western democracies – with moderate success.
The Great World War aftermath and dismantling the historical Hungary in 1919-1920
The end of the “Great War” was the era of revolutions but in the circumstance of the lost war, conditions were not ideal for a sustainable democracy. The so-called ‘Aster revolution’ quickly collapsed under the military occupation of the country, turned into an attempt to establish a soviet-like communist regime. The fact that this happened demonstrates how desperate the situation of the country was. The turbulent times ended up with the dismantlement of the Historical country, which lost 2/3 of its territories, populated mainly with ethnic non-Hungarians (Slovaks, Ukrainians, Romanians and Serbs) but with significant (cca 3 million) Hungarian minorities in the neighborhing countries (Treaty of Trianon).
The pre-defined sovietisation in 1945-1947
The end of World War II resulted the occupation of the country by the Red Army and it pre-defined the slow, but definitive sovietisation of Hungary. Although there were elections and an attempt for a democratic system since 1945, domestic political choices were very limited since the beginning, and due to the aggressive policy of the communist party, the country started to follow the Stalinist model.
Revolution and Freedom Fight – 1956
By surprising the world, this small country stand up against the Soviet occupation and during the days of 23rd October – 4th November, a bloody revolution and freedom fight demonstrated the willingness of the population for democracy. Although the revolution was opressed, the communist regime afterwards had some liberal aspects and was less opressing than in other countries in the eastern block
The collapse of communism and liberal democracy in Hungary 1989-2010
The collapse of the Soviet Union brought the Western model of democracy back to Hungary – the third times in its history. However, the people rather wanted the western high quality of life than democracy and they expected from a democratic system to bring those benefits. Unfortunately, the new system could not meet those expectations. Compared to communist times, the way of life of a large part of the population was significantly worse than before and huge parts of the population went into deep poverty while the political elite became very rich. Inequalities have been raised and frustration grew. The country did not perform well economically and the gap between the East and West became even bigger than before. The European integration in 2004 did not bring significant changes, either. So not a suprise that the economic crisis in 2008 hit hard the already weak economy and Hungary asked for an IMF loan to avoid economic collapse. Under those circumstances, following the failure of previous, post-communist socialist governments, Viktor Orbán came to power in 2010 with a 2/3, constitutional majority.
The ‘System of National Cooperation’ – Illiberal Democracy in Hungary since 2010
We can declare that there is a new system in Hungary since 2010 which can be still considered as a democracy but more authoritarian than Western welfare states to such an extent that it is somewhere on the border between a liberal democracy and an authoritarian regime (‘illiberal democracy’)
What are the main characteristics of the Orbán regime? In a nutshell:
– No meaningful collaboration with anyone, including national stakeholders, opposition parties, civil society, international organisations. The will of the ruling party is fiercly implemented regardless of the size of opposition.
– A new constitution cemented the power of the ruling party behind rules which can be changed only with a constitutional (2/3) majority. Centralised administration, and undermining the independence of key organisations: President of the Court of Auditors, President of the Hungarian National Bank, the chief Prosecutor, President of the National Judicial Council, President of the Republic are all close allies of the Prime Minister and loyal to Fidesz.
– Systemic and very professional corruption. Only pro-government companies can win public tenders, pro-government allies received previously state owned lands. The major source of such resources are EU funds. The ideology behind it to create a national (Hungarian) elite.
– Slow re-nationalisation by busing majority in the ownership of key companies in the energy, bank and media sector to ensure at least 50% Hungarian property.
– Support of the ethnic Hungarian minorities in neighboring countries such as Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia both financially and politically. Those nationals were awarded with the Hungarian citizenship and as they had the opportunity to vote (to the party list only so they did not decide the outcome of the elections), it is no surprise that 97% of the votes coming from Hungarians living abroad supported Fidesz.
– Rigorous economic policy, ensuring the low level of state dept.
– Fully controlled state media, including all major county level local newspapers. Critical opposition newspapers such as Népszabadság or Magyar Nemzet were recently shut down.
– Strong anti-civil rhetoric as they were ideal scapegoats, especially in the context of migration.
– A hate campaign against Hungarian born, jewish billionaire George Soros which apparently was very successful. Closing the Central European University (CEU) was one of the aims of the government because it was founded by George Soros.
– Establishing a national public work system which allocates a minimum amount of social assistance linked to public work. Its amount is slightly higher than the previous social benefits but still very low. This is a tool to dramatically reduce the number of registered jobless persons but puts a large part of the rural, poor population into dependency of the usually pro-government local authorities.
– Professional political campaign, including a sophisticated database of voters (forbidden by law but all political parties have something like this in Hungary) and a mobilisation system, supported by very efficient propaganda. The government regularly organises so called ‘national consultations’ during which each citizen receives a biased, pre-written list of ‘questions’ about actual political issues and while monitoring who sends them back, the database of voters can be regularly updated.
– The politically very important but unsustainable major systems such as education and healthcare has been underfinanced and no meaningful reform has been implemented so far.
– The independence of the Judicial system as well as the Constitutional Court is still persisent although the competences of the latter have been dramatically reduced.
On the other side – The Weakest opposition since 1990
One of the key reasons of the current situation is the disorganised opposition which was not able either to coordinate or to offer an alternative to voters. Although there are some changes but in principle, while half of the population is unhappy with the current government, they do not consider the current opposition as a viable alternative.
Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom (19,19%) – For a Better Hungary Movement – A far right party, which became the second largest opposition party. As Fidesz became more radical, Jobbik started to move back to the centre and now it claims that it is a conservative party. The electoral defeat will put the party to the test: either it remains on this moderate tone or it moves back to the far right
Magyar Szocialista Párt (MSZP) – Hungarian Socialist Party – The successor of the communist party of János Kádár, is now the Hungarian socialist democrat party. It ruled the country 3 times (1994-1998, 2002-2010) and its failure resulted the rise of Fidesz to the power in 2010 and the voters never forgot it. Since then, it is declining and nowadays it is considered being a zombie party without vision and leader, led by political mummies
Párbeszéd Magyarországért (PM) – Dialogue for Hungary – A small, Green Party without major population support (less than 1%), formed by a few politicans who left the other Hungarian Green Party LMP. Because they have a few, well known, popular politicans, they teamed up with MSZP for political survival.
The joint MSZP-PM list received 11,99 % of the votes.
Lehet Más a Politika (LMP) – Politics can be different (7,10%) – The Hungarian Green Party. Its policy was having a distance from both Fidesz and the political left but could not leave the small party status. The election result remained below expectations.
Demokratikus Koalíció (DK) – Democratic Coalition (5,41%) – The party of former socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány. He left the socialist party and founded DK which could not grow over time and could not became the leading party on the left, remaining a small party. His personality is very controversial and a smybol of the failures of the previous socialist governments.
Együtt – Together (0,66%) – The party of former prime Minister Gordon Bajnai which was created for the 2014 elections. Since then, Bajnai left the party and his successors did not manage to reach out to a wide population. With that result the party will most likely cease its functions although it has 1 single Member in the Hungarian Parliament who was elected in a single electoral district.
The composition of the Hungarian Parliament 2018-2022
The Hungarian electoral system – written by Fidesz, designed for it – has two pillars: a party list where the preferred party can be chosen and individual candidates. As 106 out of the 199 places are filled up by individual candidates, this is the decisive factor during the election. As Fidesz won 49,27% of all votes but 91 out of the 106 individual electoral circles, it has 133 out of the 199 places, having a constitutional, 2/3 majority (66,83% of the seats). Fidesz won 2/3 majority according to the liberal rules in 2010 but its own electoral system resulted a 2/3 majority both in 2014 and in 2018.
Lessons learned and recommendations to
THE GOVERNMENT Re-starting the dialogue to solve urgent, societal problems!
“We have to be modest as we have a reason for it.” said PM Viktor Orbán right after the election victory. And indeed, the country is divided (capital-countryside, government – anti government) and the hate campaign created an atmosphere which is not good for collaboration. Consequences should be drawn and the first steps should be to ensure that the campaign rhetoric will stop after elections and no one has to live in fear. It is never too late to re-start the dialogue to solve the major problems of the Hungarian society. In this spirit, top priorities shall be investing into the education system, re-prioritising prevention in the health system, ensuring inclusive Roma integration and tackle the challenge that many people, mainly the youth are leaving the country and are going to West.
CITIZENS Stand up for democracy!
Democracy is a permanent exercise. Citizens have to stand up, defend themselves and express their views and participate in the ongoing dialogues about the future of the country. Active citizens’ involvement is key for the re-newal of the country.
THE OPPOSITION Offering a new alternative is essential!
Conclusions should be made. The old model of 2014 and 2018 does not work anymore. Renewal is essential. The compromitted, old leaders cannot ensure a viable political alternative. The opposition in its current form is not able to make a change. A new opposition is needed.
New political parties
There are two new political parties in the Hungarian domestic policy who did not enter the parlament (were below 5%) but reached the 1% which means state support and recognition. It is unclear if they will play a leading role in forming the new opposition in the country.
Momentum Mozgalom – Momentum Movement (3,08%) – A youth movement, behind the NOlimpia campaign which effectively blocked Hungary’s candidature for the olimpic game. They are close to liberal values and have the ambition to be the opposition of the current system.
Magyar Kétfarkú Kutya Párt (MKKP) Hungarian Two-tailed Dog Party (1,75%) – It is a joke party and it happened the first time in the history of elections in Europe that a joke party received such high number of votes. Its existence is a symptome of the current illiberal democracy and it mocks the failures of the system. It used all the campaign support for concrete, tangible projects and while being satiric, in many times they make very valid critics of Hungarian politics.
EUROPE – Protect European values in Hungary!
While the election results should be respected, it has to be noted that the elections were not fair. Europe has to ensure that Hungary remains on the path of democracy and leaves the authoritarian heritage behind it. Europe must be the guardian of European values, principles such as the rule of law, democracy, media freedom, freedom of association and freedom of science.Zoltán Massay-Kosubek