A foreigner’s guide to the Hungarian elections

On April 3, Hungary will hold legislative elections which will determine the composition of its next government. The result carries weight beyond what one would expect from a country of just under 10 million people. A victory for the current ruling coalition will embolden critics of Brussels federalism; an opposition victory will leave Poland isolated and discourage Eurosceptic and populist forces globally. The two most recent American administrations have alternately praised and reviled the central European country; Russia and China have also long vied for influence there.

Much has been written with preconceived political notions in the English-language media, but relatively little of it comes from a position of local knowledge. Here are the key points for outsiders who would like to know more about this crucial election.

First, some important background: the Hungarian parliament has 199 representatives, 106 of whom represent the country’s local constituencies under a first-past-the-post system. The remaining 93 seats are allocated proportionally among parties that obtain at least five percent of the vote. If a recognized minority group (most likely ethnic Germans) gets an adequate percentage, those proportionally distributed votes decrease in favor of the ethnic minority representative(s).

In next month’s elections, the ruling Fidesz party, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, is seeking to maintain its parliamentary majority. If re-elected, Orbán will serve his fifth term as Prime Minister and his fourth in a row. He frequently clashed with the European Union and was even criticized by politicians in the United States. The KDNP, a Christian-democratic party, joins the coalition of Fidesz party lists. The Fidesz-KDNP coalition currently holds 133 seats in parliament.

Frustrated by the failures of the recent elections, six opposition parties have joined the grand coalition United for Hungary in a bid to overthrow Fidesz-KDNP. Five of them have already allied themselves in the 2019 local elections, with great effect – they took over the government of the city of Budapest, as well as many other municipalities. Among the surprise winners is Péter Márki-Zay, who won a race for mayor in a Fidesz stronghold. He went on to win the national opposition primary to represent United for Hungary as a candidate for Prime Minister. The coalition hopes its status as a relative outsider and nominal political independent will yield the same result as its mayoral victory.

What is most remarkable about United for Hungary is its wide range of ideological positions. Joining the Socialists, Greens and other centre-left parties is Jobbik, a party with a neo-Nazi past and a history of sordid behavior among its members – this has included a parliamentarian spitting at the Shoe Memorial of the Budapest Holocaust activists spray painting swastikas on headstones in a Jewish cemetery. In an effort to gain more legitimacy and oust Fidesz, Jobbik has attempted to moderate its image and partnered with left-wing and centrist parties in recent years. The number of parties in the grand coalition and the ideological differences between even its leftist member groups made compromise difficult, as Orbán frequently notes. United for Hungary only published its list of national candidates last week.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (C) arrives for talks with the press on the sidelines of the ‘Defend Europe’ summit, organized by Spain’s far-right VOX party, in Madrid on January 29, 2022. Far-right and conservative sovereigntist leaders are meeting in Madrid for a new summit aimed at pushing forward the formation of a common group in the European Parliament.

Two other parties have a realistic chance of reaching the parliamentary threshold of 5%. As in the United States, this is important because these foreign parties could siphon off enough votes from one of the two main coalitions to influence the outcome. The first is the Hungarian Two-Tailed Dog Party, a joke aimed at disgruntled voters who dislike the two grand coalitions. Its stated policies include free beer for Hungarians and the introduction of a mandatory siesta. Next comes the Our Homeland party, made up of dissident Jobbik voters dismayed by the party’s estrangement from the margins. It’s the only party that has an official anti-vaccine stance, which might be a relevant factor for some voters.

Hungary enjoyed fewer pandemic restrictions than neighboring countries throughout the election campaign, perhaps due to candidates’ reluctance to call for politically unpopular lockdowns. As a result, the campaigns ran at full speed. Canvassers are a common presence at major subway stops and intersections; contrary to the impression created in many Western media, opposition groups are highly visible in electorally critical Budapest. Advertisements from the two coalitions dominate billboards and advertisements on television and the Internet.

Orbán and his allies highlight Hungary’s sovereignty and its increased relevance on the world stage, infrastructure development and popular Fidesz-KDNP policies related to migration, family benefits and price caps for key services public. Márki-Zay and his allies accuse Orbán of being a kleptocrat and promise closer ties with the European Union and a liberal approach to utility prices, a move that will be more popular with business than Hungarian blue-collar workers.

Negative media coverage of Hungary in the West could paradoxically help Fidesz; some voters who do not necessarily like the ruling party may react negatively to a perception of foreign interference from those who know little about the country. The recent judgment of the Court of Justice of the EU against Hungary and Poland could also have mixed effects. Entrepreneurial Hungarians are likely to be frustrated by the conflict with Brussels, while many other Hungarians have lost patience with a federal body pushing unpopular policies on migration and national sovereignty.

Márki-Zay himself has undoubtedly been Fidesz’s greatest gift in recent weeks. The opposition candidate has made numerous inflammatory statements in his frequent Facebook Live videos. He compared Fidesz voters to mushrooms, for example, saying they live in the dark and feed on faeces. On other occasions, he questioned the number of Jews in Fidesz, told Hungarians who don’t like higher gas prices to drive smaller cars, and claimed to have secret knowledge of Fidesz homosexual politicians. More recently, he doubted women’s ability to spell and complete crossword puzzles. Even coalition allies expressed dismay at the missteps.

Hungary has developed a robust voting system over the more than 30 years since the fall of communism. Major polls are often aligned with one of the parties, which creates some disparities in their results. In the latest February polls, IDEA and leftist ZRI-Závecz show a 3-4 point lead for Fidesz; Right-wing Nézőpont showed a 7-point lead in his December-January polling aggregates. All pollsters report that undecided voters range from 5 to 7 percent. These figures represent an improvement for Fidesz since the autumn, probably partly thanks to comments from Márki-Zay. Unless there is a major change, the race will be tight and the Hungarians will wake up on April 3 without knowing what the outcome will be.

Observers in Brussels, Washington, Moscow and Beijing will be watching closely.

Michael O’Shea is visiting researcher at the Danube Institute. It is part of the Budapest Scholarship Program, sponsored by the Hungarian Foundation and the Mathias Corvinus Collegium. Special thanks to András Hajdú for his indispensable help in researching this article.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.


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