Despite opposition forces running united against him, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has garnered more votes than ever in April’s election and clinched the fourth constitutional majority in a row for his Fidesz party. What happened and what does this result mean for the country’s stance in Europe?
History seemed to be repeating itself on 3 April, the night of the parliamentary elections in Hungary. Just like four years earlier, opposition politicians, pollsters, analysts, journalists and ordinary citizens were staring in disbelief at their screens as the results began to roll in and it became apparent that Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz (with its Christian Democratic sister party, KDNP) would control the Hungarian parliament for another term with a constitutional (two-thirds) majority. Fidesz won two more seats than in 2018, while opposition parties lost eight, despite the fact that this time around they formed a joint party list and backed one joint candidate in every constituency. The relatively new, far-right, nationalist-chauvinist party, Mi Hazánk has entered into parliament for the first time after easily surpassing the 5 percent threshold.
A Fidesz victory in itself was not unexpected, the extent of it was. Aggregated polling data before the election showed Fidesz leading by 4-5 percentage points, however, opposition politicians were hoping until the last minute for “a late swing” to materialize and were confident that their joint standing would boost their prospects in the constituencies. Quite the opposite has happened. Fidesz won the domestic popular vote by 16 percentage points (52.1 percent versus 35.9) and after the postal ballots were counted (cast by ethnic Hungarians living mostly in neighboring countries) the lead of the governing party widened to almost 20 percentage points (54.1 percent vs. 34.5). Orbán is set to be elected Prime Minister with a two-thirds majority for the fourth time since 2010 (he also had a stint in power with a simple majority from 1998 to 2002). One question preoccupies political analysts in Hungary: how did he pull it off?
An Equation Disproved
Hungary has a mixed electoral system: 93 of the 199 parliamentary seats are allocated proportionately according to the result of the party list vote, while the remaining 106 seats go to the candidates receiving the most votes in the constituencies in a “first past the post” race. This system was designed by Fidesz lawmakers after the party came to power in 2010, and it favors them as the largest party, all the more so because their representatives used gerrymandering methods during the drawing of the constituency boundaries. Opposition parties ran separately in the 2018 election and they lost badly, even though combined, they received more votes than Fidesz nationally and in 52 of the 106 electoral districts.
This time though, opposition leaders felt they had no other choice but to find one joint candidate in every constituency, and for legal reasons this also entailed that they had to run on a joint party list. A strange union of six parties took shape, comprising two traditional left-wing parties (Democratic Coalition and the Socialists), the young centrist-liberal Momentum, two green parties (LMP and Dialogue) and – most notably – the former far-right, anti-EU Jobbik, which since 2015 has been undergoing a slow repositioning towards the center-right. The parties organized an opposition primary in fall 2021 which gave them their 106 joint candidates and a prime ministerial candidate, the conservative small town mayor Péter Márki-Zay, who, oddly enough, did not belong to any of the parties.
The formation of a six-party alliance seemed to bear results in some by-elections and in the 2019 municipal elections, so opposition leaders thought that their 2018 votes would add up in the 2022 parliamentary election as well, and would give them a chance to win in more than half of the constituencies. That calculation failed spectacularly. Competing with each other in 2018, opposition parties won in 15 constituencies, united in 2022, they won in 19, but a much weaker nationwide result and the rise of the far-right Mi Hazánk meant that overall they received eight seats fewer and Fidesz secured an even larger majority. While Fidesz received 200 thousand more votes than in 2018, the joint list of the opposition attracted 750 thousand less voters than the separate party lists had four years earlier, while turnout remained stable at around 70 percent.
In other words, despite the close cooperation between the parties – or precisely because of that – the opposition lost 28 percent of its voter base.
Who are these missing voters and where did they go? Regional voting patterns strongly suggest that the 2018 supporters of Jobbik were the ones who deserted the opposition in the largest numbers. The opposition lost voters in every constituency but their losses were the greatest in rural areas of eastern Hungary, where Jobbik had fared relatively well in 2018. Conversely, they kept 80-90 percent of their 2018 votes in many constituencies in Budapest, where Jobbik had been weaker in the past. One chunk of former Jobbik supporters likely voted for Mi Hazánk (a party founded by ex-Jobbik members), a smaller group may have supported Fidesz, some presumably stayed at home and – according to estimates – less than half of Jobbik’s 2018 voter share followed the party leadership and voted for the united opposition. During the campaign, Fidesz actively encouraged Jobbik supporters’ disillusionment with other opposition parties; they repeatedly portrayed former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány as the ‘true’ leader of the opposition. Prime Minister from 2004 to 2009, currently President of the Democratic Coalition party, Gyurcsány is remembered by his austerity measures and by a leaked speech in which he admitted that his government had lied during the 2006 election campaign. He remains one of the most unpopular politicians in Hungary, especially among right-wing voters.
A Campaign Disrupted
In part, the woes of the opposition were the making of its own mistakes. The successful fall primary was followed by two months of near silence as the parties and the outsider lead candidate, Péter Márki-Zay struggled to set up the organizational structure of the campaign team. It took them far too long, and even after they geared into campaign mode important decisions were often slowed down by lengthy negotiations between party leaders. They came up with a common visual layout and some slogans, but their campaign lacked proper focus and at some points also enthusiasm as parties engaged in infighting with each other and with Márki-Zay on the question of how to distribute positions on the joint party list. Márki-Zay, a newcomer to national politics, made several gaffes during the campaign, for instance he infamously claimed that the opposition alliance proudly represented everyone “from Communists to Fascists”.
Meanwhile Fidesz stuck to the anti-Gyurcsány messaging and tried to highlight the benefits of the government’s social and family policy. In fact, the government had been implementing a massive cash distribution in the months leading up to the election with extra money to pensioners, tax exemption for under-25s and tax returns for households with children–the combined cost of these measures is estimated at around HUF1000 billion (EUR 2.7 billion). To create the impression of fighting record-high inflation, Orbán maintained a cap on utility fees, freezed interest rates and fixed the price of petrol and some essential foodstuffs. A referendum was also held on election day at the government’s request, ostensibly about “child protection”, in reality with gravely misleading questions connected to an anti-LGBTQ law adopted last summer. Anti-LGBTQ messages did not constitute the loudest part of the campaign, nevertheless they might have contributed to the mobilization of the more ideologically committed Fidesz base.
Then came the war in Ukraine.
Crises generally help the incumbent but in the specific Hungarian context it was doubtful whether the famous “rally around the flag” effect would present itself, as the war had been launched by Vladimir Putin, with whom Orbán has maintained ever closer ties since 2014.
The opposition labeled Putin “a friend of Orbán” and tried to portray the election as a fateful choice between East and West, between Orbán and Europe. Fidesz supporters were indeed divided on assessing the war, a poll by Medián found that 43 percent of them thought the Russian aggression was justified and 37 percent thought it was unjustified. Smelling trouble, Fidesz quickly reframed the question. While Orbán condemned the invasion and reluctantly agreed to EU sanctions, he said the most important thing for Hungary was to stay out of the war. He campaigned with the slogan “Let’s preserve the peace and security of Hungary!”, said no to arms shipment to Ukraine and drew his red line on sanctions around Russian gas imports.
The government-friendly media was full of reports claiming that opposition candidate Márki-Zay would “drag Hungary into the war”, because once elected he would send weapons and soldiers to Ukraine. The accusations were factually not true (Márki-Zay simply said he would provide military aid should NATO take a decision to that effect) but they resonated with voters all the same. Opposition activists gathered a great deal of anecdotal evidence and it has become increasingly clear that even voters not satisfied with the government’s track record were afraid of the war and, influenced by propaganda, feared the consequences of an eventual opposition victory. In the last days of the campaign, after Volodymyr Zelenskyy publicly reproached Orbán, the Hungarian government charged the Ukrainian president with undue interference, but even a clash with arguably the world’s most popular politician of the moment has not harmed Fidesz.
A Strongman Unbound
Some in the opposition were quick to cite the war as the principal reason for their catastrophic showing. They say voters turned away from them “at the last minute” because of irrational fears fuelled by the government’s propaganda machine. I would be more cautious about overestimating the significance of the war as a theme in the Hungarian election campaign. A different hypothesis could argue that the decisive factor was not the content of the Fidesz campaign but the manner in which it was conducted, its sheer volume and ubiquity. Not surprisingly, Fidesz had more focused messages than the six-party opposition and its politicians forwarded these messages with much greater discipline. They also had incomparably more money and more opportunity to tell what they wanted to tell: public media and a large part of private media is controlled by the government, they acquired at least 10 times more advertising space on billboards than the opposition and could spend as much as they wanted on social media advertising.
In theory there exists a limit for campaign expenses in Hungary, but it is one of the worst kept secrets of the country’s political life that this rule is neither observed nor enforced. This gave a huge advantage to the governing party as Orbán used public money unscrupulously for advertising his government’s policies and even his stance on the war. In contrast, the opposition did not have its own media at its disposal and independent media has lost further ground since the 2018 election with the acquisition of Index (the largest online news site) by government-friendly businessmen and the withdrawal of Klubrádió’s rights to use an analog frequency. The opposition could have done better with a more professional campaign, but it would be unjust not to note that the playing field was tilted heavily against them. The messages of the government were everywhere and perhaps it was this visibility, not the messages as such, that helped Fidesz in attracting ‘undecided’ voters with weaker party affiliation in the last weeks of the campaign.
That is also the reason why some opposition politicians have reached the conclusion that Fidesz is ‘unbeatable’ with these electoral laws and this media landscape. Others are arguing for a ‘resistance’ outside the limits of parliamentary politics. What is certain is that the voice of the opposition will not carry much weight in the new parliament as Fidesz secured a comfortable supermajority with 135 MPs. Orbán can count on the support of an additional MP who was elected as a representative of the German minority, and it is highly likely that the six MPs of Mi Hazánk will vote with the majority on issues such as immigration or LGBTQ-rights. On the other side of the aisle, a weakened opposition has already embarked on a fierce blame-game with leaders of the Democratic Coalition and Jobbik claiming that Márki-Zay is solely responsible for their defeat.
What is worse, opposition parties are trapped in a perfect catch-22: when they face an election separately, they lose because the anti-Fidesz vote splits, when they stand together, they lose because some of their voters shun this bizarre alliance.
The only possible solace the opposition can find is that Orbán’s fifth government is set to face a difficult time. The generous public spending before the election has left the budget in a dire state with high inflation and the ongoing war in Ukraine is also not improving the economic outlook. The government would desperately need EU funds but the European Commission announced just after the election that it will initiate the rule of law procedure against Hungary, which can lead to the suspension of these funds. Orbán’s equivocal position regarding the Russian aggression has isolated him even more in Europe, the V4 alliance is in shatters and now even the support of Poland’s PiS is not as solid a given as before. In all likelihood, the Prime Minister’s positioning between his Eastern and Western allies (“a peacock dance” in his own words) will become more difficult to continue. But whichever way Orbán chooses, this election result gives him plenty of room for maneuvering. With more than 3 million votes cast for his party, he is stronger than ever domestically and nothing seems to threaten his rule.
Share this on social media
The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.