In April 2018 a general election will be held in Hungary. But liberal democracy in Hungary is undermined in such a way that the 2018 general election cannot be called either free or fair. Here are the reasons why.
Public opinion polls show a massive Fidesz lead for the general election in April 2018. So the current governing party will most likely win and Prime Minister Orbán will lead the country for yet another four-year term. The elections, however, will be neither free nor fair. This does not dismiss the opposition from being unable to make the quest more difficult for Orbán, who is now trying to establish his autarchic system – for more than just four years.
If you can imagine a race where your competitor has a five minute advantage and your legs are tied, then you are a step closer to understanding what it is like to be part of the Hungarian opposition. Several factors have led to the 2018 elections already seeming decided more than a month before the actual event. The most important is, of course, that Hungary – despite being a member of the European Union, a community of democracies – is no longer a liberal democracy.
Prime Minister Orbán calls his regime an “illiberal democracy” – a term that Fareed Zakaria used first in 1997 to describe “democratically elected regimes that are routinely ignoring constitutional limits on their power and depriving their citizens of basic rights and freedoms.” In my opinion, “hybrid regime” is a better term to describe Hungary’s current political system – a system that upholds some democratic institutions but deprives them of their role in exercising control over the governing party. In the following I will highlight some of the measures that have led to the situation in which the opposition has almost no chance of winning in April. Spoiler alert: most of them have nothing to do with the governing performance of Fidesz.
1. Prosecution as a political weapon
In 2010, Péter Polt was elected by a two-thirds majority of Parliament – just by the votes of the governing party, Fidesz –as Chief Prosecutor of Hungary. Mr. Polt is a former MP candidate of Fidesz and a long-time confidant of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Since his appointment, the prosecution basically refuses to initiate procedures even in the governing party’s most obvious corruption cases.
This could be seen as a sign of poor performance if not for the fact that the Prosecutor’s Office actually shows greater interest in opposition members of Parliament. In 2014, the Prosecution initiated a procedure against the vice-chair of the Socialist Party (MSZP) just before the elections. In 2017, evidence was presented against the lawyer of former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány and the MSZP for fiscal fraud.
Of course, the Prosecutor’s Office cannot be blamed for prosecuting the corruption of the opposition, but ignoring corruption scandals from the Government’s side and being tough solely on the opposition reveals a clear picture about how the governing party Fidesz uses Mr. Polt and his office as a political weapon.
2. The media is in Mr. Orbán’s hands
According to Átlátszó.hu, an independent investigative journal, 59 percent of all Hungary’s media outlets – online, television and print media included – are in the hands of businessmen with close ties to Fidesz. This not only means bias towards the governing party, but much more: these media broadcast and write the news that Fidesz’s communication machine dictates to them. To see this it is enough to examine the main web pages of the numerous media outlets owned by Lőrinc Mészáros, the well-known figurehead of the Orbán family’s business operations.
3. The Constitutional Court
Since the governing party elected new members to the Constitutional Court, it is no longer a counterweight to the Government’s decisions. Cases that could potentially harm the popularity of Fidesz are not being discussed by the court before the elections – and the decisions made by the Court are almost without exception in support of the governing party.
An opposition candidate in Hódmezővásárhely (the home city of János Lázár, Minister of the Prime Minister’s Office) and the father of the president of a newly formed liberal party called Momentum are only two of the many victims who have been terminated from their jobs for political reasons. Hundreds of thousands of public workers and most state employees are dependent on local Fidesz politicians and clerks who are not afraid to abuse their powers to achieve their employees’ political loyalty.
5. Financial resources
While the government reportedly spent almost HUF 30 billion (approximately EUR 100 million) of taxpayers’ money on campaigning just last year, most of the opposition parties are struggling with debts. Political scientists know that all around the world, every governing party has an advantage when it comes to financing campaigns, but in Hungary Fidesz may have as much as a hundred times more money than its opposition.
6. The State Audit Office as a political weapon
Just before the start of the official campaign, opposition party Jobbik received a fine of HUF 600 million (EUR 2 million) from the State Audit Office (ÁSZ) for illegal party financing. The decision is clearly politically motivated, as the current president of the State Audit Office is a former Fidesz representative. The governing party Fidesz has continued the very same practice that Jobbik has been fined for – but Fidesz is not being fined. Other opposition parties also got fines from the State Audit Office – while Fidesz did not.
7. The agent network of Fidesz
A lot of people participating in Hungarian business and political life think the governing party has created a network of agents similar to that of the Communist Party before the regime change in 1956. Opposition politicians, state-owned company managers, and employees complain about constantly being watched and challenged about their political loyalty. That is particularly true in the case of the media; some independent journalists are being threatened by media owners or even the secret service.
8. Election system
The relatively new election system adopted by the right-wing majority of Parliament in 2012, favours Fidesz, as was admitted by the Chair of the Parliament, László Kövér. Kövér, a leading Fidesz politician, said that “there was some geographic “juggling” in the reform of the election system.” This system creates constraints for the opposition parties to cooperate with each other in order to have the slightest chance against Fidesz, making it very difficult for them to build their own base and organisation.
By 2018, Hungary has not become a ‘real’ dictatorship. Opposition parties can operate, there are no political prisoners, and articles like this can appear even in the Hungarian-language media. More importantly, nobody has forced the left-wing opposition parties to engage in endless debates about their electoral cooperation – because basically that is what the left-wing opposition has done instead of showing themselves to be a viable alternative against Orbán.
The most popular democratic opposition party, the Socialists (MSZP), overthrew their own candidate for Prime Minister, László Botka, the successful mayor of Szeged, the second-largest city in the country. Former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány’s party, Democration Coalition (DK), is more concerned about winning over MSZP than about weakening Orbán’s party. The green party, LMP, has lost its best-known politician, András Schiffer, and still refuses to cooperate with other left-wing parties – which can be understood, although it makes the change of Government that much more difficult. Less than two months before ballots will be cast it seems the real stake of the election is whether Orbán will get two-thirds majority in the Parliament for a third time.
However, the factors listed above (and many others of a similar nature that cannot fit into a short article like this) undermine liberal democracy in such a way that the 2018 general election cannot be called either free or fair. At least we don’t have to worry about the results – we all already know what is going to happen.
 After this article was submitted, the independent candidate supported by the opposition, Péter Márki-Zay became mayor on the by-elections held in Hódmezővásárhely, a city which had been governed by Fidesz since the change of regimes. This unexpected victory may give the democratic opposition some hope and motivation for the upcoming parliamentary elections as well.