Hungary: Not a competition among equals

Hungary: Not a competition among equals

Hungarian ParliamentThe picture shows the Hungarian Parliament in 2010. On the 6th of April 2014 its composition will be re-elected – Creator: Matthias Mendler. Creative Commons License LogoThis image is licensed under Creative Commons License.

On 6 April, Hungary will hold a national parliamentary election which seems to be crucial in many respects. It might be the first time for voters to re-elect a conservative government and to confirm its mandate for a two-thirds parliamentary majority. The election will be of special importance also from a constitutional perspective. After 6 April, the voters’ decision might be interpreted as approval or rejection of the constitutional system’s thorough transformation which has been underway since 2010.

All this gives the 2014 election special importance for the parties as well. Both the governing Fidesz party and its strongest opponent, an alliance of five opposition parties – MSZP (the Hungarian Socialist Party), Együtt (Together 2014, the party of former PM Gordon Bajnai), DK (Democratic Coalition, the party of former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány), PM (Dialogue for Hungary, a party of former LMP members) and the Hungarian Liberal Party – consider the election to be a matter of life and death.

The election is also important for the two remaining parliamentary opposition parties. LMP, the Hungarian green party, is fighting to keep its place in the parliament by proving – despite its inner struggles and party split – that green ideas, anti-corruption messages and opposition to both the governing party and the opposition alliance might find support among the electorate. For the extreme-right Jobbik party, the real challenge is not merely to maintain its presence in the parliament but to become a serious challenger to Fidesz on the right side of the political landscape.

Although the election is considered to be a crucial one both for the parties and for the country’s future, the electoral campaign is very unusual, if not bizarre. It is not a competition among equals. Competitive policy conceptions, arguments and debates are almost completely missing from the campaign. Fidesz has not even prepared an election programme. According to PM Viktor Orbán, his party’s programme can be summarised in two words: “we continue”. As far as the opposition alliance is concerned, member parties each have their own programmes which contradict one another’s in part.

High support for Fidesz vs general disappointment

It is not surprising that Fidesz does not wish to unveil its intentions. The governing party is awaiting the election confidently. According to polls, Fidesz would get about 50 percent of votes and may obtain a two-thirds majority in the next parliament.

Source: The diagram was produced by the author based on the results of a poll published by Median

At the same time, the majority of the electorate is not satisfied with the country’s situation, notwithstanding that the public opinion climate has improved significantly since its low point in 2012. According to Medián’s poll in February 2014, 57 percent of voters think that things are developing in the wrong direction in Hungary and only 36 percent say that things are going well. Furthermore, one voter in two is hoping for a change of government after the election, while only 40 percent wish the current government to remain in office [1].

 

Source: The diagram was produced by the author based on the results of a poll published by Median

The difference displayed above between support for the governing Fidesz party and dissatisfaction with Hungary’s situation and the government’s performance reflects the large proportion of undecided and disillusioned voters without a clear party preference. Why the main opposition forces have not been able to build on anti-government sentiments can be explained by three factors.

Factor 1: Institutional reasons

Many elements of the new constitutional system were created with the aim of securing Fidesz’s positions in the power structure beyond the current legislative period. As a consequence, all independent institutions which are crucial elements of the system of checks and balances are now headed by persons appointed by and loyal solely to Fidesz and personally to PM Viktor Orbán (e.g. the Public Prosecutor, the State Audit Office, the Media Council, etc.). Electoral reform was one of the most critical parts of this transformation process. The main elements of this reform were 1) modifications to electoral districts; 2) the introduction of a one-round electoral system; 3) the creation of a fragmented party landscape by motivating parties financially to contest the election; 4) restrictions on campaign advertising; 5) the granting of suffrage to non-resident Hungarian citizens; and 6) a re-organisation of the National Electoral Committee with members appointed by the Fidesz majority for nine years instead of four.

The redrawing of electoral districts involved gerrymandering. District boundaries were manipulated in order to create an advantage for Fidesz. (Districts with a leftist voter majority were enlarged or split and incorporated into districts with rightist voter majorities.) As a result of the manipulation, the leftist opposition needs about 300,000 more votes to win a majority in the parliament than does the governing Fidesz party [2]. Thus, the new system of electoral districts is able to offset a slight left-wing lead.

Fidesz abandoned the two-round electoral system and introduced a new one-round system in its place. The new system provides an advantage to big parties or party blocks. As a consequence, the parties of the fragmented opposition were forced to form an alliance prior to the election instead of running separately and forming a coalition after collectively achieving a parliamentary majority.

The significance of regulations on campaign advertising cannot be understood without knowing the media landscape in Hungary. Over the years, Fidesz has established a commercial media empire consisting of television and radio channels as well as daily and weekly newspapers owned by persons close to the party. As a result of reorganisations and personnel changes since 2010 at almost all levels of the public broadcasting corporation, the latter has also become part of Fidesz’s propaganda system. Thus, the restrictions on campaign advertising in commercial media as well as in public spaces have only been detrimental to opposition parties. On the other hand, the opposition has also failed to take advantage of opportunities offered by the regulations (e.g. to outsource part of the campaign to civic organisations, thereby circumventing certain restrictions, as Fidesz has done).

As far as the suffrage of non-resident Hungarian citizens is concerned, it cannot be predicted how many will actually register to vote (hitherto, some 195,000 have registered [3]) and which party they would vote for. Surveys in neighbouring countries, however, show a sweeping Fidesz majority among those willing to participate.

Factor 2: Partisan politics

In the 2010 elections, the mainstream left suffered a historic defeat and collapsed. Since then, the leftist opposition has mainly been occupied with its internal struggles and the battle for the leading position. The rivalry came to an end on the surface in January 2014, only three months before the election, when five opposition parties finally formed an alliance and agreed on the conditions of a joint electoral bid (joint candidates, a joint list, a joint candidate for prime minister, etc.). The joint campaign has not yet lived up to expectations, however. There are three main reasons for this. Firstly, the rivalry has not ceased, but has merely shifted beneath the surface despite the agreement. The reason for this is that member parties and leading figures of the alliance are preparing for the aftermath of a possible electoral defeat, and trying to position themselves as the leading opposition force. Secondly, the parties are not interested in relinquishing their own image and messages. As a consequence, the alliance is not able to present a unified brand and programme. Thirdly, the time remaining until the election was simply insufficient to create and realise a joint campaign instead of applying the differing campaign strategies of each member party.

Altogether, the long internal struggle and rivalry for the leading position among the main opposition personalities – Attila Mesterházy (MSZP), Gordon Bajnai (Együtt) and Ferenc Gyurcsány (DK) – became tiresome for voters and has dashed their hopes for a potent, capable and authentic opposition which might have a chance to take over the government and to overcome the mistakes of the social-liberal governments before 2010. Contrary to prior expectations, however, polls show that the opposition alliance has not been able to expand its support base and to attract additional supporters from among the ranks of undecided voters. This can be explained in part by the disappointment many voters feel over the fact that most leading personalities of the opposition alliance were key figures of the social-liberal era between 2002 and 2010. Fidesz’s campaign strategy aims at maintaining this image in order to keep dissatisfied but undecided voters away from the polls.

Factor 3: Communication

With respect to political communication, Fidesz is the winner of the campaign by far. Fidesz defined its goals very precisely and has implemented its strategy relentlessly. Since 2010, Fidesz has been following a strategy to maintain its core voter base and to keep them active. There have been many symbolic actions and issues aiming towards this goal (most notably the “freedom struggle” against banks, multinational companies and the EU). In 2012, the strategy was expanded with a process of cuts in utility prices intended to increase Fidesz’s voter base, or at least to neutralise the disappointment of former Fidesz voters. The third element of Fidesz’s campaign targets unsatisfied and undecided voters, and attacks leading figures of the opposition alliance directly. The main issues of this part of the campaign consist of corruption scandals involving top MSZP officials (e.g. former MSZP Deputy Chair Gábor Simon) and various issues of the past (e.g. Ferenc Gyurcsány’s “lies speech” in Balatonőszöd in 2006). A special characteristic of this negative campaign is that it is mainly being implemented by media outlets and a certain NGO (CÖF – Civic Alliance Forum) with extremely close ties to Fidesz.

While Fidesz observes the rules of political communication in its campaign, the opposition alliance is unable to do so. This is why Fidesz is leading the campaign by being on offense and setting the agenda. A good example is how they have managed to keep the Gábor Simon affair at the centre of public attention for almost two months. By contrast, the opposition alliance has missed opportunities to create their own issues, to deliver an overall message on why the current government must leave, and to explain their vision for a different Hungary. In addition to the reasons mentioned above, this can also be traced back to the lack of a real leader on the opposition side. Due to the longstanding personal rivalry among the parties’ leading figures, there was no time to build up the brand of a single leader. Instead, there are a handful of strong personalities, among whom Ferenc Gyurcsány seems to be the dominant one.

Campaign issues

The consequence of the three factors mentioned above is the governing party’s dominance in the campaign. While the government uses the same slogan (!) and the same visual elements in its advertisements as Fidesz to praise its own efforts, the opposition alliance is on the defensive. Although it put together an eight-point programme to publicise its most crucial promises, these issues do not dominate the campaign and are not well-known among the public. The reasons for this are the general lack of credibility on the part of the alliance and its leaders, and the fact that the issues addressed by the eight-point programme have no antecedent in the opposition parties’ previous policies, i.e. there have not been any political campaigns or messages in the past on which the new programme could be built.

The main issues of the campaign have been set by Fidesz: utility price cuts, corruption scandals involving top MSZP politicians, and praise for the efforts of the past four years. Instead of formulating a counter-narrative and building up its own issues, the opposition alliance is trying to keep pace and fight against its own lack of credibility. A symbolic example for the state of the opposition is the case of former MSZP Deputy Chair Gábor Simon, who turned out to have 240 million forint (about 770,000 euro) in a bank account in Austria and to possess a fake passport issued by the Republic of Guinea-Bissau. After many suspicious affairs during the four years of the Fidesz government, it is a top politician of the opposition alliance who has fallen victim to a corruption scandal.

The remaining opposition parties: Jobbik and LMP

Corruption scandals do not seem to shock most voters anymore, however. Voters have been trained to accept that corruption is a natural aspect of politics. According to a poll conducted by Political Capital on the image of politicians in 2007, voters consider them dishonourable. Due to this general opinion, the decision for or against a party or a candidate is based on attributes other than trustworthiness, such as ability to govern and ability to tackle problems [4].

Nevertheless, corruption scandals have indirectly benefited the extreme right-wing party (Jobbik) as well as the green party (LMP). Both parties position themselves as opponents of both Fidesz and the opposition alliance. In order to maximise its support, Jobbik is actually implementing two campaigns in parallel. On the national level, Jobbik is pursuing a moderate track with modest messages targeting mainly youngsters and conservative middle-class voters in order to boost the perception of Jobbik as a party ready to govern. Mainly on the local level, however, Jobbik is spreading anti-Roma and anti-Jewish messages – implemented by party members with close ties to extremist organisations – in order to mobilise its core voter base.

After four years of harsh parliamentary work against a two-thirds majority and persistent internal party struggles resulting in a party split, LMP must again prove that it deserves a place in the Hungarian parliament. LMP positions itself as the only remaining opposition party to have preserved its newcomer character and credibility to the highest degree. LMP has re-branded and renamed itself in this campaign as “Hungary’s green party”. It has been pushing a few issues for years which have become the party’s trademark (e.g. publication of the files of Hungary’s communist-era state security services, combating corruption and VAT evasion, and campaigning against the construction of two new nuclear reactors at Paks). Although the party can only count on 4 percent of votes according to the latest polls, it might still cross the 5 percent threshold and make it into the next parliament.
 

Endnotes:

[1] http://www.median.hu/object.b5e8eb69-e93f-4c50-9ce9-65f39f8f58a2.ivy

[2] http://www.valasztasirendszer.hu/?p=1942632

[3] As of 23 March 2014; http://valasztas.hu/hu/ogyv2014/766/766_5_2.html

[4] http://www.vg.hu/kozelet/vg_online/kozelet_-_belfold/071129_ikrek_198665?p=1


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