Hungary: "Jobbik is now the strongest extreme right-wing party in the EU"

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Dome reflects in a puddle, Budapest

On 6 April, a parliamentary election was held in Hungary, and the winners were Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party. “Csak a Fidesz” (“Fidesz alone”) was Orbán’s campaign motto. His populist right-wing government used the two-thirds majority it received in the 2010 election to bring about an authoritarian turn. Due in part to a change in the electoral law implemented unilaterally by the Orbán government, the governing coalition of Fidesz and the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) won over 90 of the 106 individual constituencies. According to the current vote count, the prime minister’s fraction holds 133 of the 199 seats, and thus has a chance of defending its two-thirds majority. Whether Orbán can truly maintain this supermajority will become clear only next Saturday when the votes cast abroad will have been counted. As the results in several constituencies are very close, these votes could influence the final distribution of seats. The opposition alliance, Change of Government, obtained just under 26 per cent of second votes and fewer than 40 seats. The extreme right-wing party Jobbik has around 20 per cent, and the green LMP surpassed the five per cent threshold.

Our office director, Eva van de Rakt, spoke with political scientist Bulcsú Hunyadi about the outcome of the election. Bulcsú Hunyadi works in Budapest for Political Capital, a think tank.

Eva van de Rakt: Mr. Hunyadi, Viktor Orbán received almost 53 per cent of votes in 2010, and the day before yesterday 44.5 per cent. Although Orbán lost 8 percentage points, he holds over 66 percent of seats. How do you interpret the showing of the Fidesz-KDNP governing alliance?

Bulcsú Hunyadi: Fidesz indeed lost more than 8 percentage points, which corresponds to about 630,000 votes. Despite the loss of votes, however, Fidesz has attained almost the same strength in the parliament as in the 2010 election. Thanks to the new electoral law, Fidesz was able to offset this loss and achieve a tight two-thirds majority with the support of about one-quarter of eligible voters in Hungary, i.e. around 2.1 million votes. The strong showing is also a result of low voter participation, which at 61% was the lowest since 2002. It can be surmised that in particular those voters stayed home who were, or are, dissatisfied with the government, but who also could not be reached by the opposition.

106 of the 199 seats are individual constituencies, and candidates are selected through a first-past-the-post system. What effects did this new distribution of individual constituencies have?

The new elements of the electoral system with respect to the individual constituencies benefit Fidesz. There is now only one ballot. The constituencies have been drawn up in such a way that conservative candidates have an advantage. In addition, the party with the best showing in each constituency benefits from the vote lead of the elected candidates. This lead is counted in the second vote. All this means that individual constituencies play the key role in the new system. The strongest party has the greatest chance of obtaining a majority of the individual constituencies and thus also a majority in the parliament. In this election, Fidesz could reap the benefits of the new electoral system which Fidesz itself introduced.

Viktor Orbán’s electoral victory is a harsh blow for the opposition alliance, Change of Government, which received only just under 26 per cent. While the alliance won eight individual constituencies in Budapest, it won only two individual constituencies outside the capital. Why didn’t the opposition alliance succeed in convincing the electorate of the necessity for a change of government?

After four years in opposition and four years of the Fidesz government which offered it numerous opportunities for criticism, the alliance of five parties could only manage to garner 200,000 more votes than the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) did in its historic defeat in 2010. The alliance’s showing suggests that the formation of a common list of leading politicians from the pre-2010 period, had rather the effect of alienating voters. The alliance’s poor showing can also be traced back to the fact that the opposition parties fought amongst themselves for the past year and a half instead of criticising the government. Indeed, rather than explaining the government’s mistakes to the voters and offering a different vision, the parties quarrelled amongst themselves over the leadership position.

The extreme right-wing party Jobbik gained 4 percentage points compared to its 2010 showing with 20.5 per cent of second votes cast. How do you explain this result?

Jobbik’s electoral success is no surprise. In numerous analyses in recent years, Political Capital has warned that neither the democratic parties, nor the media nor civil society have a strategy to combat increasing right-wing extremism in Hungary. The steps which the authorities have taken against the hate speech of right-wing extremists are insufficient and inconsistent.

While Jobbik had a stronger showing in this election than in 2010, the party’s position in the parliament is no better – due to the new electoral system. In the long term, however, Jobbik could become even stronger, and thus represents a serious challenge for Fidesz.

Jobbik made gains throughout the country, amounting to a total of over 100,000 more votes than in 2010. In addition to its “historical stronghold” of eastern Hungary, the party also received more votes in western Hungary as well as in the capital. Jobbik’s growth can be traced back to voter dissatisfaction with both the governing and opposition parties. On the other hand, this growth is also a result of Jobbik’s electoral campaign, which presented it as a moderate party.

As a result of this election, Jobbik is now the strongest extreme right-wing party in the EU. The result suggests that the party could make gains in the European Parliament election in May as well as in communal elections in the autumn. Extreme right-wing parties in the EU are working to destabilise the European Community. From this perspective, it appears all the more important for established parties that support the European project to mobilise their voters ahead of the upcoming EP election.

A study commissioned by the Heinrich Böll Foundation shows that Jobbik made appeals in particular to students. What are the reasons for this?

Youth are truly overrepresented among Jobbik’s voters. The party’s central base is composed not of students, however, but of lower middle-class youth with less education who fear social decline.

Jobbik’s wide support among Hungary’s youth can be attributed to the following factors: Jobbik and the extreme right-wing scene offer youth a sense of community and belonging. The established parties have overlooked young people, neglected them and failed to integrate them. In addition, Jobbik could tap into their disappointment and distaste for politics.

LMP, the green party, again succeeded in overcoming the five percent threshold. How do you assess LMP’s showing?

LMP’s showing is an unequivocal success. While the green party lost a third of its voters compared to 2010, it still managed to overcome the five percent threshold once again, despite a party split at the beginning of 2013, and can continue its parliamentary work. LMP managed to play the same role as in the 2010 election; as before, it positioned itself in the middle and made it clear that it could not support either the governing party or the opposition alliance. With this strategy, LMP garnered the support of dissatisfied voters desiring a democratic renewal.

What role did the media play in the election campaign?

The media played a dominant role in the election campaign. Fidesz has a massive presence in the media landscape – in the commercial media as well as in the public media. Through their dominant role, Fidesz managed to get out their messages to the people again and again, while the opposition had only a reduced public available – also as a consequence of restrictions on election advertising. The governing party achieved its goal: The regulations were intended to limit access to political news, in particular with the aim of reducing voter turnout.

How do you interpret the voter turnout of about 61 per cent?

The low voter turnout can be explained by two factors. On the one hand, the opposition parties were not able to formulate a credible alternative; they could not persuade voters and mobilise them. On the other hand, low voter participation was one of the goals of the Fidesz strategy. Through the new regulations for election campaigns and the new electoral system, Fidesz wanted to discourage undecided voters and voters dissatisfied with the government from turning out to vote. Since the governing party knows exactly who its voters are and can also personally mobilise them, the strategy was designed to bring its own voters to the ballot boxes and to keep potential opposition voters away.

What do you think the outcome of the parliamentary election means for the country’s political future?

While the question of whether Fidesz will ultimately have a two-thirds majority in the parliament is indeed important, it is rather a symbolic one. Fidesz’s political line and strategy will not change significantly. It will continue to exclude the parliamentary opposition from the political decision-making process. Orbán will probably continue its confrontational posture vis-à-vis the opposition parties and vis-à-vis the EU. The Fidesz system actually cannot be consolidated in the long term, however, for the simple reason that it was constituted against the will of all the opposition parties and the majority of Hungarian society. Viktor Orbán’s power is based on confrontation, polarisation and a continually combative mood. Only in this way can Fidesz’s core voters be mobilised and the system perpetuated.

In my opinion, the political situation in Hungary displays similarities to that in Poland. There, politics is dominated by two large conservative parties, Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform and Law and Justice, while the Social Democrats have not been able to offer an alternative capable of governing since 2005. The decisive difference, however, is that in Hungary the rivals on the right side of the political spectrum are a populist right-wing party and an extreme right-wing party.

Mr Hunyadi, thank you for the interview.