A Virus Challenging Governments within the EU

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his ruling government party Fidesz have secured comfortable leads in the last three general elections, most of the time ruling by a 2/3 supermajority. In 2022, the joint opposition will come together as a whole for the first time in Hungarian history, from right to left, as one unit to challenge Orbán. Might his reign potentially change forever in 2022?

Can Viktor Orbán hold on to his fortress?

The Hungarian general elections are around the corner in the spring of 2022. Hungarian Prime Minister (PM) Viktor Orbán and his ruling government party Fidesz have secured comfortable leads in the last three general elections, most of the time ruling by a 2/3 supermajority. His potentially most challenging competitor for 2022, Gergely Karácsony, an internationally renowned academic and politician from the opposition and Lord Mayor of Budapest, has unexpectedly dropped out of the race to challenge the incumbent PM’s seat.

In 2022, the joint opposition will come together as a whole for the first time in Hungarian history, from right to left, as one unit to challenge Viktor Orbán. Despite significant differences in content policy, the opposition does not see another way out of the dominance of Fidesz, as the previous elections resulted in the disastrous defeats of the opposition.

Instead of Karácsony, the joint Hungarian opposition sends the relatively unknown underdog and newcomer politician on the national level, Péter Márky-Zay, to beat the invincible ruler. The political experiment might be innovative, but the challenger is an incumbent with 16 years of experience in the opposition and 15 years of experience in the government.

Under normal circumstances, the scenario for the upcoming election seems obvious. The success of Péter Márky-Zay in becoming the first Non-Fidesz mayor of the city of Hódmezővásárhely will remain a one-hit-wonder, and he will not succeed against the PM; therefore, Viktor Orbán will enjoy a pompous victory in his home, the Buda Castle, from which he will look down on his again secured empire.

Yet, we do not live in normal circumstances since the outbreak of the Coronavirus. Life has changed drastically; citizens across Europe have lived through lockdowns, curfews, obligatory masks and travel restrictions. Some people have not seen their families and close ones in over two years. What seemed evident and self-explanatory back in 2019 might be questionable today. Viktor Orbán secured his current 2/3 majority in 2018 before our lives changed forever. Might his reign potentially change forever in 2022 as well?

National elections within the EU in a comparison

Citizens within the EU enjoy the single market freedoms with the almost endless interconnectivity and mobility shaping their decision-making daily. Multiculturalism grows, and cities and neighbourhoods are often home to all 27 member-states, by people using their freedom to live, work and travel within the Schengen Area.

The EU grows gradually into one state and offers a constant dialogue between citizens and its institutions, leading to multiple influences on our decision-making process. Social media and the Internet also offer an ocean of (dis)information, resulting in citizens developing, e.g. election decisions, quickly.

Infamously, most Brits were using the search engine Google right before the Brexit Referendum to inform themselves about what the EU actually is. In such light, we can assume that due to this growing interconnectivity and media coverage, other national European elections, especially during a pandemic, will almost certainly affect the Hungarian general election in spring 2022.

2020, the EU member states Croatia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia¹ held general elections. In 2021, Bulgaria, Germany, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic held general elections. The recap of the election results follows in chronological order, assessing whether or not the opposition could flip the table and further evaluate how seismic the shift occurred. The summaries will conclude with considerations about the Hungarian general election.

The first national elections in the EU, during full-wave pandemic restrictions, were held in Croatia on 5 July. The incumbent in the PM position, Andrej Plenkovic had a landslide win despite the pandemic and secured the re-election of his ruling conservative party Croatian Democratic Union HDZ. The PM held off successfully the so-called Restart Coalition, a center-left party coalition, which ended up only in second place. Right-wing nationalist and environmentalist movements increased seats in the Parliament on both sides of the political spectrum but had no king-maker ability to determine a government. The re-election might be traced back to the personification of the election campaign, in which the PM enjoyed vast popularity among the conservative-leaned electorate.

The next general election was held in Lithuania from 11 to 25 of October. The opposition party Homeland Union formed a coalition with the newcomer Freedom Party. The two contending parties successfully flipped the government by defeating the team of Independents and the Farmers and Greens. The government shifted slightly from the center-right to the left, especially by adding the liberal Freedom Party to the government. According to polls, citizens were displeased with the former government for rising COVID-19 cases, virus-related unemployment, economic challenges at large, supposed unreasonable legislation and suspected corruption. The younger generations in particular voted for the Homeland Union, which many saw as a breakout from the post-communism structures.

In the multiple elections in 2019 and 2020 in Romania, the National Liberal Party PNL and the Save Romania Union USR were the main winners, while the Social Democratic Party PSD lost a great deal of support due to its bad governance and anti-EU discourse. PSD managed to regain, however, support due to the pandemic, and a new nationalist/extremist party made its way to Parliament with 9% of the votes. Thus, PSD and AUR were seen as winners of the election. Although there was no governmental flip – the President decided to appoint a PNL member as Prime Minister – the pandemic made it easier in Romania for populists and nationalistic parties to win elections.

The first national elections on the 2021 schedule took place in the Netherlands from 15 to 17 March. Mark Rutte and his People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy VVD could secure a fourth term in power. The PM even survived an unsolicited resignation in January over a tax authority scandal. His government could not do anything except take responsibility for the scandal and step down but managed to go relatively unpunished on Election Day, barely two months later.

Over the past two decades, the Dutch election process has become strongly personalized, and programmatic differences seem to play a subordinate role. The Dutch election process is strongly personalized, and a content campaign appears to have a subordinate position. Overall, the populist right won additional seats and the green/left lost places, except for Sigrid Kaag, who leading the largest left-leaning party, Democrats D66, gained new seats. Mark Rutte has had to apply all his political ingenuity in the ongoing government formation process but now looks poised to keep Kaag from becoming the first female PM of the Netherlands.

In 2021, Bulgaria went through three rounds of parliamentary elections. Although the ruling party for 12 years won the first round of elections in April 2021, it could not gather the parliamentary support necessary to form a government. This development marked the end of Boyko Borissov’s tenure as the PM, with the longest tenure in the Bulgarian post-communist period. In the second election on 7 July 2021, Borissov’s party lost first to the “There is such a people” party, a populist political party in Bulgaria established by the Bulgarian singer, TV host, and politician Slavi Trifonov. It could not, however, gather the parliamentary majority to form a government, triggering another round of elections.

At the third parliamentary elections in 2021, on 14 November, the “We Continue the Change” party won first place, defeating Borissov’s political party, GERB, which is located on the center-right. “We Continue the Change” was formed by two ministers in the caretaker government appointed after the first elections in April, which failed to produce a government. “We Continue the Change” won in a relatively tight race with 25.65% of the votes compared to GERB with 22.8%. The pandemic did not influence the outcome of the elections, although it openly presented the country’s vulnerabilities.

Bulgaria is now Europe’s tenth poorest country with GDP per capita at 23,721 USD in 2020, resulting in one of the most poorly-funded health systems within the EU. Bulgaria also has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the EU, leading to one of the highest COVID-related death tolls within the EU. The country has struggled for years with systemic corruption and had one of its oligarchs included in the Magnitsky sanctions imposed by the US government in 2021. No sanctions have been imposed by the EU as yet.

On 26 September, the German general election led to a shift of seismic size in German politics. After 16 years of government by Chancellor Angela Merkel, the ruling party Christian Democratic Union of Germany CDU / CSU was not ready to find a suitable substitute for the giant footsteps of Merkel. The party used its capacities in fighting the pandemic and did not invest enough time, training and resources for a suitable chancellor. Armin Laschet turned out to be very unpopular, and potentially Markus Söder from the sister party could have won, but the CDU declined his candidacy for internal power reasons.

The weak chancellor candidate amid a pandemic and a flood during the summer created a great deal of pressure on the government. At the same time, this development opened a window of opportunity for the traffic light coalition between SPD, FDP and the Greens, which shifted the power dynamics in Germany now far to the left.

Between 8 and 9 October, the Czech Republic opened its voting booths for the general elections. The results were surprising to many because reigning PM Andrej Babiš and his party ANO (Yes) could not reaffirm their position in the government. Together, a liberal-conservative three-party coalition captured 27.8% of the vote, defeating Babiš’ ANO party, which won 27.1%. Another center-left liberal bloc of the Pirate party and STAN, a group of mayors, received 15.6% of the vote to finish third. The results led to a government flip.

Last-minute corruption accusations (Pandora Papers) directed at the PM incumbent in all probability played a decisive factor. Around 1/6 of the citizens voted for parties, which did not end up in the Parliament. Overall, it is difficult to judge if there was a shift of minds in the electorate; the situation indicates a great deal of uncertainty and indecisiveness among the voters. Some observers would argue that the country broke ties with its post-communism history towards liberal democracy with this surprising election result.

Reflection about Hungary’s upcoming elections with regards to other national elections in the EU since the outbreak of the pandemic

After this overview, what are the conclusions for Hungary and its elections in April 2022? There are two ways to approach the presented information, a quantitative and a qualitative way.

From a quantitative perspective, five out of seven elections shifted power to a new government in one way or the other. Sometimes, it was a simple flip. Sometimes, in cases like Romania, the pandemic made it easier for populists to benefit from the country’s weak political system. In a case like Germany, the government partially changed but with a dominating governmental partner leaving the field.

When five out of seven elections shifted power to a new government, the opposition in Hungary would have potential odds to win five out of seven times the general election in an EU-wide comparison.

With the upcoming snap election in Portugal in January, the trend of change seems to increase since observers forecast the incumbent to lose, which would turn the odds for the Hungarian opposition towards six out of eight elections.

The underdog role of Péter Márky-Zay looks in this light more like a real contender. Public perception matters because the Hungarian population, most importantly undecided swing voters, need to trust a candidate who recently appeared on the national sphere. Many voters do not want to cast a vote for a person who will lose. Voters like to give their vote either for a cause they believe in or for someone with credible odds to beat the government.

From a qualitative point of view, the opposition and the government shall closely study the wins and losses within the EU to secure their place in the elections. Even if the odds are against Viktor Orbán in an EU comprehensive comparison, the Croatian and Dutch election campaigns are intensely personalized, like Viktor Orbán’s in Hungary. He is widely portrayed as a strong leader of a strong Hungarian country with the mission of safeguarding Europe.

The Hungarian opposition might go for the example of David against Goliath and learn especially from the German and Bulgarian elections, in which the incumbent ruled for over a decade and still lost. Overall, post-communism ties, corruption, mishandling of the pandemic, weak candidates, internal power struggles, external influence, anti-EU rhetoric and economic down-swings brought the government in many cases to its knees. Structuring the election campaign towards these criteria could be the playbook for the opposition in writing history.

The pandemic might not always directly influence the electorate’s decisions, but it certainly woke up people from their daily routines. After two years of limitations on what we are allowed to do, citizens certainly pay much more attention to the political options they might choose from. Up until now, the trend indicates that the virus, symbolically speaking, is sweeping governments away.

  1. The Slovak elections are excluded from this article since the pandemic did not hit Europe with its total weight in February when the election was held. The consideration of the Slovak election would confirm the results of the article.

Rafal Fabianowicz

is a PhD candidate in political science at Andrássy University Budapest and receives the PhD Scholarship of the Hungarian State. He writes a compilation dissertation about the interplay of democracy and climate-related sustainability in Central and Eastern Europe. Moreover, he is a co-lecturer in the field of European Governance, focusing on the climate, energy and environmental governance of the EU.

Beyond academia, Mr Fabianowicz believes that theory needs to be put into practice. He is a Research Fellow for the think-tank European Democracy Lab in Berlin and engages as an External Relations Officer for the NGO V4SDG – Visegrád for Sustainability in Budapest. As an entrepreneur, he leads a small Hungarian-based company offering consultancy and research services. Furthermore, he is a member of the EIT-Climate KIC Network of Climate Coaches.

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