Ronan Shenhav / Flickr
Ronan Shenhav / Flickr

The 2019 European Parliament Elections in Hungary

Szilárd Mészáros

Analyse und Aussichten

They might be hard to see at first glance, but seismic shifts in Hungary’s political landscape marked this year’s European Parliament elections. Even before the polls opened, there was no doubt that the Fidesz-KDNP Party Alliance headed by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán would win these elections hands down. By unscrupulously focusing on the issue of refugees and immigration (which however hardly affects Hungary at all), Orbán again did well with broad swathes of the electorate. Meanwhile, though, the pro-European opposition experienced radical changes in the distribution of its vote. At the same time, its fragmentation is the main reason for its ineffectiveness in countering the national-populist government. What are the opposition’s prospects in the local council elections in October? What long-term scenarios can be established for the Hungarian left? These are arguably the most pertinent questions calling for answers.

Under Hungarian law, any party or party alliance must gather at least 20,000 voters’ signatures (‘supporting signatures’) to participate in European elections. In all, 25 parties pre-registered, of which nine finally managed to secure the required number of signatures – although it is also worth noting that any voter can sign multiple lists. In the previous two Hungarian parliamentary elections in 2014 and 2018, this rule meant that a huge number of small parties were able to stand for election, resulting in an even more disparate anti-government vote. In 2018, 18 parties ultimately failed to clear the 5% threshold to be elected to the National Assembly, with 16 of them not even reaching 1% of the vote, yet overall they garnered a respectable 7.57%.

A 5% threshold also applies to European Parliament elections in Hungary. In the end, five lists managed to get over that barrier in this year’s European elections: the governing Fidesz-KDNP Party Alliance, the left-liberal Democratic Coalition (DK), the liberal Momentum Movement, the alliance of the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) and the green Dialogue for Hungary party (Párbeszéd), and Jobbik, a formerly far-right party that has recently shifted to the centre.

While Orbán succeeded in mobilising more voters than five years ago, 40% of those who voted for him in 2018 did not turn out this time. As a result, he missed his goal of polling around 60% of the vote, and the disappointment felt by him and his party colleagues and supporters was plain to see on election night. However, there was another, even more important reason for this bitter aftertaste, namely the completely unexpected emergence of a new opposition leading light in the form of the Democratic Coalition (DK), led by Orbán’s main rival, former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány.

The DK, with its charismatic lead candidate Klára Dobrev and her unabashedly pro-European stance, leftist election programme (in which she also took up Western European election pledges of a European minimum wage, a minimum pension and systematic taxation of multinationals) and consistent campaign, enjoyed a real triumph, winning more than 16% of the vote. Against all expectations, they therefore won four seats in the European Parliament. The DK almost doubled its absolute number of votes compared with the national parliamentary elections in 2018, not only overtaking the old Socialist Party (MSZP) but even pushing it to the brink of political oblivion (with a score of 6.66%). Both parties will sit in the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats group (S&D Group) in the European Parliament.

The Momentum Movement has managed to establish itself as a new liberal force. It enjoyed an unexpectedly strong result, becoming Hungary’s third biggest political force, despite only picking up just under 3.1% of the vote in the 2018 parliamentary elections. Like the DK, it almost doubled its vote in absolute terms. In several areas of Budapest it became the second largest party, and the most popular party among young voters. Its two MEPs will join the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in the European Parliament (ALDE Group).

The former ruling party MSZP failed to show any signs of a revival. They are becoming progressively weaker in every election and seem unable to learn the right lessons from this. Instead, voters are doing this for them by no longer voting for the party. The MSZP’s latest ally, the small green party Dialogue for Hungary, obviously made a miscalculation when it went into an alliance with them. Its well-known MEP Benedek Jávor, who was recently named the most successful green politician in the European Parliament, is facing potentially losing his seat (he ran as the fourth candidate on the list but might still be able to continue as an MEP, following a decision by his alliance – if not, Hungary will have no Green MEPs left).

Hungary’s former far-right party Jobbik, while not seeing any alternative to cooperation between European nation states, did warn against a federalist United States of Europe blueprint. With their focus on stopping migration and tackling the wage gap, they attempted to occupy the centre ground by championing a mix of issues from both the right and left. As it turned out, this repositioning was not a success: it seems they were considered neither one thing nor the other, and so they too faced severe losses.

The election campaign

Viktor Orbán’s strategy once again was to wage a ‘frozen’ election campaign, with him and his party colleagues refusing to participate in any public debates or any other discussions (thereby in the long run also contributing to the decline of Hungary’s debating culture). They have traditionally mobilised their vote through the public TV channels, and latterly their own privately-owned channels too, as well as active door-to-door campaigning. In terms of issues, they predominantly focused on immigration, whose rejection according to Minister Gergely Gulyás was not xenophobia but simply survival instinct. They portrayed the European elections as a choice between electing ‘migration managers’ or politicians who wanted to stop migration management. As such, the refugee/migration issue provided these proponents of nationalist, populist ‘pull up the drawbridge’ politics with a much-needed excuse for a fresh onslaught. This mode of perpetual combativeness has become the most significant feature of this regime, with anybody opposing it being branded a despicable spoilsport.

The real crisis facing the left-liberal or green-left opposition is largely about having to distinguish themselves not only from Orbán but also from the other opposition parties. This results in a two-pronged approach which – partly because of the Hungarian media landscape – is pretty much doomed to failure. Nevertheless, in the campaign they did address some important issues, including the ‘social Europe’ model (in this context, the ideas of a European minimum wage and a minimum pension, for example), the blueprint for a sustainable Europe and the need for rigorous checks on enforcement of the rule of law in individual EU Member States. With regard to the last issue in particular, it should be noted that the European Union is having the greatest of difficulty handling the Hungary ‘problem’, as the adoption of the Tavares Report in 2013 and the Sargentini Report in 2018 has not yet resulted in any effective mechanism for dealing with authoritarian tendencies in a Member State.

In the midst of the election campaign, Orbán triggered another scandal: the independent, anti-government weekly newspaper HVG was banned from using the public advertising space provided by the private company that supplies this throughout Budapest – and which is of course in the hands of oligarchs close to the government. The reason behind this refusal may be the satirical/ironic way in which a minister’s wife had recently been depicted on this newspaper’s front page. Nowadays, such government interference in the press landscape is nothing new: a few years ago, the biggest opposition daily newspaper Népszabadság was shut down on specious grounds. Given this situation, it should come as absolutely no surprise that in this year’s Freedom in the World report by Freedom House, an independent watchdog organisation dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world, Hungary was classified as a ‘Partly Free’ country.

At the same time, streets across the country were full of posters by the governing parties calling on voters to support Orbán’s programme and stop immigration. Opposition parties were offered advertising space at exorbitant prices, meaning that they could hardly afford to rent any at all. This lack of resources had already come in for international criticism during the previous parliamentary elections, with for example the final report produced by the Organisation for Security and Co operation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) indicating that the imbalanced media landscape in Hungary had played a significant role in preventing voters from making informed choices about who to vote for.

The two successful opposition parties, the DK and the Momentum Movement, ran a very fresh and vibrant campaign. They focused heavily on online presence and were very well received by the educated elite. While they could not compete with the government’s resources, they managed to convey their messages with diligence and perseverance.

Outlook after the European elections

a) For Orbán and his Fidesz party

Although Orbán managed to secure another victory on the home front, in the EU he belongs to a far-right minority. The mutually agreed split from the European People’s Party (EPP), while not officially confirmed yet, and Orbán’s rapprochement with the new right-wing alliance of Matteo Salvini (from Italy’s Lega Nord (Northern League)), Marine Le Pen (from France’s Rassemblement National (National Rally)) and the like may turn him (or rather his party’s MEPs) into an opposition force in the European Parliament: this would at least be the logical conclusion of the argument between EPP lead candidate Manfred Weber and the Hungarian prime minister. Orbán’s opposition-based stance has delivered him various domestic successes but we will now perhaps see how he uses it at European level – if of course he leaves the EPP.

b) For the Hungarian left

Hungary continues to face interesting political times because this October there will be local elections across the country. A long-awaited alliance between the opposition parties could cause trouble for Fidesz, especially in most of the Budapest districts. This is because the Hungarian capital – like other major cities worldwide – is much more left-leaning than the rest of the country: in the 2018 parliamentary elections, the leftist opposition won 12 of the 18 directly elected seats, and if they had formed a united front, they could have also triumphed in the other six constituencies, thereby depriving Fidesz of a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly. So if the right political conditions are created, Budapest could be recaptured from the right.

However, Fidesz can be expected to continue to have a strong influence in small towns and villages. Indeed, the deepening feudal structures outside the capital have already caused a stir internationally. Here we should point to an important sociological relationship: the Orbán government’s electoral base is disproportionately made up of people with lower levels of education who live in small communities and belong to the older generation.

Furthermore, studies show that educational level is the most important factor in voter choices. Put simply, less educated voters in more rural areas show a clear tendency to vote for the right, whereas more educated voters in the cities are more likely to opt for the left. This implies that the left and centre have gradually lost their less educated voters. (This makes it easy to see why a state-directed education system ruling out any kind of autonomy is in Orbán’s interest: the more nationalistically young people are brought up and educated, the easier it will be to consolidate a society built on envy, fear and hate.) In a nutshell, there are three options available to the Hungarian left in terms of a long-term political strategy:

1) A new alliance could be established with social groups having modern lifestyles. This view is based on the idea that winning back ‘old’, ‘uneducated’ workers is a lost cause, so instead the left should focus more on the urban middle classes and provide them with policies that appeal to their tastes. This would in fact be a type of ‘green’ option, which could and should be considered inadequate from a left-wing perspective.

2) Another option would be to attempt to rally support by moving to the left, following the example of the Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Pedro Sánchez of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party. This would be directed against the injustices in society and therefore have a distinct leftist character.

3) However, another alternative would be to shift to the centre, as demonstrated for example by French President Emmanuel Macron with his La République En Marche! party and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with his Liberal Party.
The left-of-centre parties face the huge challenge of weighing up all the options and choosing a new path. Their responsibility now is to halt Hungary’s political and social regression and counter Orbán’s erosion of democracy at a conceptual level. The results of this year’s European elections at least suggest that all hope is not yet lost.