The EP election in Hungary: A contest without a second place

EP in Strasbourg
Teaser Image Caption
Due to the Lisbon Treaty coming into force Hungary currently holds 21 seats in the European Parliament

The EP election in Hungary resulted in a clear victory for the governing party, Viktor Orbán's Fidesz. The national vote was characterised primarily by an internecine competition on the left and secondarily by a battle between the far-right and the left. The Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) lost the former, but left-wing parties outperformed Jobbik.

Since Fidesz's massive victory was once again a certainty, the two most important questions were: Would the extreme-right party Jobbik be able to clinch second place, and how would the parties of the left fare relative to one another?

As usual, polls overestimated Fidesz's performance by a few percentage points, although the right-wing populist party received 51.49 percent of the vote nonetheless. Jobbik, too, performed slightly better in polls than in the actual vote. The difference was most significant, however, in the case of the largest left-wing party, MSZP. Although its showing of almost 4 percent below the level forecast by polls was not far worse than Fidesz's (-3.26 percent) or Jobbik's (-2.07 percent) shortfall, it was psychologically devastating on several accounts.

EP election results in Hungary, May 25, 2014

Party list Fidesz-KDNP Jobbik MSZP DK Együtt-PM LMP
Results 51.49% 14.69% 10.92% 9.76% 7.22% 5.01%
Seats 12 3 2 2 1 1

This is all about the left

Most significantly, this was MSZP's worst result in 24 years – since the year of the first free elections in Hungary. Even in 2010, following an extremely calamitous and unsuccessful term in government, it did nearly twice as well. Second, in reality the party's leadership and its supporters had hoped that MSZP – often underestimated in polls – would pull off an upset second-place finish despite lagging slightly behind Jobbik ahead of the vote. In reality, however, the contest was not even close. As always, expectations were key, and while a result between 14 and 15 percent would have been perceived as disappointing, it would still have fallen within the range of what was reasonably expected. Eleven percent was far below that, however.

Third, MSZP's performance relative to the smaller left-wing parties led by former PMs Gordon Bajnai (Együtt-PM) and Ferenc Gyurcsány (DK) was disastrous. The expectation had been that with low turnout MSZP would do fairly well compared to the other two parties, because it is better organised and has an activist base, while the two new parties had less time to build national organisations. As it turned out, however, this only made a difference in rural areas; in Budapest, for example, MSZP finished only fourth after Ferenc Gyurcsány's DK and Gordon Bajnai's Együtt-PM, which was the greatest shock to the Socialist Party.

Though it (barely) finished first among the left-wing parties, MSZP's leadership position on the left has been severely shaken, and it is difficult to see how the party can survive such a disastrous outcome without significant changes, both at the personnel and programmatic levels. The first has begun with the withdrawal of party leader Attila Mesterházy, but since caretaker chairman and Szeged mayor László Botka – whose local MSZP was astoundingly successful compared to the party's showing elsewhere – does not appear willing to stay on for the long haul, the leadership issue will remain open for some time.

What happened with the Socialists?

What caused the massive intra-left shift away from the Hungarian 
Socialist Party to the left-liberal DK and, to a lesser extent, to the centre-left/green Együtt-PM? There are probably several reasons, but there is an obvious one which accounts for a large segment of this phenomenon. DK-leader Ferenc Gyurcsány had been cultivating an image as the most forceful critic of PM Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz government, seeking to secure the support of the most determined section of the left-wing electorate. Though polls were not necessarily wrong in estimating that this is a relatively smaller segment of the voting-age population than the Socialists' own base, in a low-turnout election such as the EP ballot the energy and dedication of DK supporters over-represented this segment as a share of the total electorate. Meanwhile, MSZP generally retained the support of the less-active segments of the left-wing electorate who on the whole evinced little interest in a low-stakes election.

This was also manifested in the geographical distribution of the votes received by left-wing parties. Relatively speaking, DK and Együtt-PM are predominantly urban parties. Urban voters, especially those in Budapest, tend to be more active in terms of turnout, and this discrepancy was far more pronounced in the EP election than in the national parliamentary election in April. This favoured the two smaller parties, which have built a fairly strong presence in Budapest but are as yet still struggling to build a national base. Finally, it is most likely that liberal voters – who overlap significantly with the most fervently anti-Fidesz segment of the electorate – voted for the left in April but never became truly friendly towards the Socialists, and probably welcomed the opportunity to vote for candidates whose policies are more liberal (Gyurcsány) or whose personality and previous policies are more in tune with liberal sympathies (Bajnai).

Jobbik and its "Russian spy"

Despite its second-place finish, the extreme-right party Jobbik had little reason to celebrate either, as it lost a substantial 6 percent compared to its strong performance in April's national parliamentary election. The party leadership's reaction provided an ironic twist. After the election in April, Jobbik's leaders were visibly upset despite the party's strong showing because in defiance of polls they had hoped for even more. Now, faced with an objectively disappointing result, the party leaders put on a show of cheerfulness. Together, the parties of the left were nearly twice as strong as Jobbik, which casts Jobbik's second-place finish into a different light. While the difference between the left and the far-right was only 5.5 percent in April, now it is a whopping 13.2 percent. Jobbik's dream of becoming the main opposition force in Hungary is on hold for the time being, but the left's situation has not become much easier either.

Jobbik naturally remains a significant political force, and a higher-turnout election could easily put it back on a rising trajectory. In fact, the municipal elections will be key in this regard. But the Russian spy allegation against its MEP, Béla Kovács, (which was used by Fidesz as tool for its negative anti-Jobbik campaign) obviously exacted a heavy toll. It shows that Fidesz has some key tactical weapons in its arsenal that can be deployed against Jobbik when the latter's strength becomes menacing.

The relative winners: the Greens

The real winners – in terms of outperforming expectations – were the three smaller parties, though with Jobbik's and MSZP's weak showings this concept is increasingly relative. Former PM Ferenc Gyurcsány's DK, despite going into the election with the lowest predicted result of the three, performed best, almost reaching MSZP's national tally. It did especially well in Budapest, was slightly ahead of the Socialists in central Hungary and performed on par with MSZP in large parts of western Hungary. Only in the east did MSZP retain a sizeable lead.

The green parties made huge gains in this election, but arguably this is not a reflection of the growing relevance of environmental issues. While in 2009 there was not a single Hungarian green MEP, now there are two, and the two parties that joined the "green" faction in the EP received over 12 percent of the vote. Theoretically, this might imply that the green bloc in Hungary is significant, barely behind the far right, but there are strong reasons to be sceptical about such a conclusion. There is little indication that the environmental agenda of the two parties, Együtt-PM and LMP, played a salient role in their performance. In fact, as far as the former is concerned, few voters had any idea that its MEP (Benedek Jávor) would join the green group in the European Parliament (which is not to say that this bit of information would have made them less inclined to vote Együtt-PM; it would most likely have been a neutral piece of information). Ecology in the form of environmentally conscious consumer ethics and as a global form of consciousness is probably playing an increasing role in the Hungarian urban, upper-middle class mentality, but when it comes to voting decisions it remains largely irrelevant.

In consequence, green parties' support hinged largely – in fact probably entirely – on issues unrelated to the environment. LMP's appeal comes mainly from its anti-establishment stance, formulated in the context of its ongoing anti-corruption campaign, the key message of which is that in order to clean up politics, voters must see through the false dichotomy of traditional right- and left-wing politics, since both are essentially the same in substance: forms of elite rule. LMP's ability to profit from growing disillusionment with traditional politics has been diminished by the presence of a far-right party using anti-establishment rhetoric. The elections of 2010 and 2014 revealed that Jobbik has been far more successful in gaining traction with the segment of the electorate who share anti-establishment views and sentiments.

In the Együtt-PM party alliance, only the smaller party, PM, has an environmental programme and image. Although it is not particularly strong, PM has distinguished itself from LMP primarily by adopting the stance that, as problematic as the Socialists and the left-wing establishment may be, Fidesz is a much greater problem because it is a menace to democracy itself, which justifies an alliance with the greens' erstwhile opponents on the left. Since it split from LMP as the party's left wing, PM has been less emphatic about environmental issues than about economic and social concerns, which are arguably of greater interest to voters as well.

General lack of nterest in environmental issues

The exception to the general lack of interest in environmental issues as an electoral cleavage was the issue of building two new blocks at the Paks Nuclear Power Plant. Even in the context of Paks, however, environmental concerns cited by the green opposition were often trumped by other arguments: Hungary's increased dependence on Russia in the energy sector and the risk of ballooning building costs – issues that probably resonated more with voters despite the existence of health and environmental concerns. But Paks was not an issue where the green opposition could distinguish itself from the other left-wing parties, which were similarly opposed to the project. Since other environmental concerns are simply not powerful enough to serve as key issues, green parties will have to find different topics to attract voters.

Though Együtt-PM performed below its leaders' expectations, it surpassed the 5 percent threshold significantly and also remains a viable force on the left. It performed fairly strongly in Budapest, finishing second among the left-wing parties and ahead of MSZP, but it was significantly weaker than the other two left-wing parties in the smaller towns, and virtually absent in rural municipalities. More so than the other parties on the left, Együtt-PM is a Budapest party. Over 63 percent of all its votes came from Budapest, while for MSZP this ratio was slightly less than 50 percent, and for DK slightly more. To remain competitive in the long run, Együtt-PM must work on its national presence.

Despite its dedication to rural issues, LMP also remains very Budapest-centred, drawing almost 60 percent of its votes from the capital. And once again, Budapest saved LMP: early on during election night it seemed as if the party would fail to overcome the 5 percent threshold, but then it exceeded it very slightly as Budapest and other urban results started coming in. Still, this must be a disappointment for party leader András Schiffer, with his party running far behind Együtt-PM and much farther still behind Gyurcsány, whom Schiffer rather openly despises. LMP appears stuck at a level which, though sufficient for political survival, offers – for the moment – few opportunities for breaking out of the small party mould.