Reversing Orbán’s strategic mistakes and the ongoing marginalisation of Hungary

by Cristian Florescu

A conversation with Ferenc Laczó, assistant professor of history at Maastricht University. Interviewer: Claus Leggewie, published by New Eastern Europe

CLAUS LEGGEWIE: If you were to place a bet on the opposition winning in Hungary, what would your stakes be? How do you read the election polls up to now?

FERENC LACZÓ: I would put most of my money on the opposition receiving more votes than Fidesz, but Fidesz preserving its parliamentary majority. The Hungarian electoral system is gerrymandered to an extent that the opposition would need to win by close to four to five per cent to acquire the mandates needed to form a government. Despite the glaring inequality between the two sides in terms of resources, including Fidesz’s shameless use of state resources, I think the result is going to be very close. The opposition has a fair chance of finishing first but truly winning the election would, unfortunately, take more than that…

In the fall of 2021, the opposition was suddenly ahead in the polls – for the first time in more than a decade. Why was that?

The primaries which the opposition parties organised to select candidates were a massive success and mobilised a significant part of the electorate. That experience made many people realise that the revival of a democratic public and political life might be within reach. You could finally see the kind of critical mass of active citizens it takes to contest the current regime effectively. Despite the growing pessimism in certain opposition circles, I remain optimistic about the April elections. I think the opposition will eventually succeed at another, even larger round of mobilisation.

Are the opinion polls reliable?

Some more and some less, and even the more reliable ones are rather difficult to read. We know that Fidesz can count on more committed voters at the moment. We also know that, due to the composition of its electorate, the incumbent will probably only receive more votes than the opposition if the turnout is relatively high. In other words, a key goal of the opposition should be to mobilise its potential supporters without driving up the turnout too much. In a generous spirit, we might say that the recent campaign months of the opposition, which have been less than impressive, point to the implementation of just such a careful strategy…

How was it possible to unite the opposition after so many lost elections and failed attempts at cooperation? Where are the main points of friction and the predetermined breaking points? How do you assess the development of Jobbik?

Having managed to unite has certainly been a key success for the opposition and a true game-changer in Hungarian politics. The oppositional victories at key contested sites during the municipal elections of 2019 have shown how much more could be possible for them. It amounted to a psychological turning point. Having said that, I sense that the main reason for this change should be sought in Viktor Orbán’s irrational, authoritarian politics. The opposition united when Fidesz has already started to turn authoritarian, and they could see no other path to try and unseat the regime party from power. Oppositional unity was the thing Orbán should have wanted to avoid the most. He has nonetheless greatly helped it come about with his growing radicalism – a short-sighted and counter-productive politics that has also characterised him on the European stage in recent years.

What about Jobbik’s change?

Even though the chances for such an oppositional unity did not look great just a few years ago – and that was, most importantly, because of Jobbik – it is also true that years of successful cooperation means that now there is substantial agreement between key opposition players on the most fundamental issues. Levels of interpersonal trust have also visibly grown among them. Most Hungarian parties not being particularly ideological and not having mass membership either are two further factors that have arguably helped in this regard. For these reasons, I would not go as far as to talk about predetermined breaking points. Having said that, the inclusion of Jobbik remains controversial. However, neither the party nor its core voters are more radical today than Fidesz and its core supporters. Jobbik’s anti-authoritarian opposition to Orbán’s regime appears genuine too, even if it continues to take a right-wing populist form. However, Jobbik is no longer the most significant part of the opposition, nor the biggest national radical force in the country – Fidesz is. Co-operating with it can thus appear like a lesser evil right now.

What are the structural cleavages in Hungarian politics?

Generally, I would say that there are two basic divides in Hungarian politics: regime vs. opposition; and rightists vs. left-liberals where the latter divide is largely defined by attitudes to nationalism and liberalism. While the two divides closely overlap with each other too, important differences have emerged since key parts of the united opposition do not qualify as left-liberal.

The hopeful is a mayor from the province.

Yes, and it is worth mentioning that Péter Márki-Zay – by far the most significant new national-level politician – is a disappointed ex-Fidesz supporter. He is a pro-market conservative, a principled person with vocal opinions who has a special ability to appeal to those parts of the electorate who had grudgingly continued to vote for Fidesz in recent years despite the accumulation of significant problems. I see Márki-Zay as a centre-right politician in a country where the centre-right could be dominant but has hardly any party representation at the moment. Whether he will reshape the opposition into a big centrist bloc, or the opposition will re-emerge as a primarily left-liberal force, is an open question that the coming years will decide, I think. However, this question does not seem to be too crucial before the April elections: the other divide, i.e. regime vs. opposition, is just too crucial right now.

What means of power and manipulation does Orbán have to tilt the election in his favour?

Orbán practically possesses all crucial means of power and manipulation; many more than what would enable a free and fair election this spring. He has been building his regime for nearly 12 years, a regime that is based on extending control over institutions in formal and informal ways, assuring privileged access to key resources, and even the conscious merging of the dominant party with the Hungarian state. The electoral rules that Fidesz single-handedly introduced, and which favour it, are a crucial part of these distortions. Large-scale control over the media amounts to a key advantage too, of course. While Fidesz is supported by a wealthy elite layer too, as it has become an ever more authoritarian and demagogic party, its electorate has become ever more tilted towards rural voters, the elderly, the less wealthy and the less educated. Given the close contest, Orbán needs to mobilise large groups of the most vulnerable and dependent parts of the population to get re-elected. The monopolistic control his party has built-in numerous small localities could prove a decisive advantage here.

In the event of an election victory, the difficulties will only begin – first to form a government with a stable majority, and above all to eliminate the structural deformation that Fidesz has already imposed on Hungarian democracy. Are there irreversible developments?

Fidesz has indeed done much over the years to ensure that its network of people can keep key positions in the country even if there was a change of government. This is a pattern that has accelerated in recent months as Fidesz politicians have become increasingly worried that they might lose the spring elections. Key functions of the state have recently been outsourced to private foundations, not least when it comes to institutions of higher education.
To undo the significant structural deformation and re-establish a properly functioning liberal democracy in Hungary will take numerous years. The spirit of liberal democracy needs to be reintroduced to the state institutions after more than a decade of working according to a different, illiberal logic. Two of the most significant issues that are debated right now concern what to do with Fidesz’s unilaterally introduced basic law and how to deal with the massive corruption of recent times. The moot question is what a new government with a simple majority can and should do to undo the changes Fidesz has introduced with its two-thirds supermajority over the years. Holding referenda might be an option. A key priority should also be to proceed in close consultation and agreement with the country’s European partners. A new government would need to make sure not to alienate EU partners further while trying to undo the damage Fidesz has inflicted. I would also add that an agenda of liberal democratic restoration is necessary but not sufficient to create a successful post-Fidesz Hungary. A new government would have to aim higher. It would need to ensure that a repetition of the kind of anti-democratic policies the country has experienced becomes extremely difficult to execute in the future and that such policies will also be consensually thought of as utterly undesirable in Hungarian society. To my mind, only a courageous and future-oriented politics of major reforms can succeed at that.

What can European civil society do – just wait and see?

Illiberal state-building within the EU is a highly ambiguous process. While Hungarian citizens have experienced various new restrictions, most things remain perfectly allowed for citizens of EU countries. In theory, members of European civil society can count on the same rights and opportunities to be active in Hungary as anywhere else: they can engage with any number of social, cultural and political causes, co-organise projects with Hungarian partners, operate or support independent media, etc. While interest in and concern for the country has been visible in recent years, many more Hungarians who might have been active members of local civil society have left the country than what could be substituted for through increased European involvement. In other words, while the open European social and political space increases the chances of pro-democratic involvement and activism across Europe, civil society on the European peripheries has overall rather suffered due to the pull of the European centre. My understanding is that only a new grand bargain within the EU could reverse that trend. Current trends, including the process of Hungarian self-marginalisation in Europe, unfortunately, point in the opposite direction…

The European Court of Justice has just clearly ruled against Poland and Hungary. How has this been received by the Hungarian opposition – and the fact that the EU Commission will continue to sit back and wait?

The Hungarian opposition, just like a significant majority of Hungarian society, remains strongly pro-European. The decision of the ECJ has been taken to mean that European funds cannot be reserved for Orbán’s cronies in the future. It is also true that the government’s challenging the rule of law mechanism via the court has rather been a delaying tactic – and such delays cost the opposition at a crucial time. More generally, the European response to Orbán’s rather successful attempt at regime building since 2010 has been disappointing. Based on the experience of the transition and the multi-faceted accession criteria Hungary had to fulfil, the opposition hoped for and tended to expect a much more robust response from the EU to the country’s democratic decline. In other words, as Orbán challenges basic norms of the liberal West in an ever-bolder fashion, the opposition remains pro-western and pro-European, however, the EU’s continued hesitance after years of enabling the Orbán regime might risk alienating the pro-democratic forces in the country from the EU in the coming years.

How close is the alliance between the two “troublemakers” Hungary and Poland, and how do you evaluate the cohesion of the Visegrád Four?

When it comes to EU politics, Poland and Hungary are often spoken of in the same breath these days and such remarks are at times extended to the V4. While the Hungarian and Polish governments have indeed built a pragmatic alliance within the EU and need each other as protective shields under the current circumstances, I consider such discourses about the V4 to be a simplification. It rather plays into the hands of Kaczyński and Orbán to suggest there is a unified regional bloc diverging from and challenging the liberal West. Some of the right-wing populist strategies of the Polish and Hungarian governments are very similar indeed but those strategies are part of a broader, more global repertoire. The domestic political situations in the two countries and their foreign policy orientations are far from identical. To my mind, the deepening ties to the Putin regime, which have become even much more controversial since the start of Russia’s large-scale aggression against Ukraine, and to the Republican radicals in the US have been the greatest foreign policy changes under Orbán. However, due to the outcome of the recent US and German elections and Fidesz’s exit from the EPP, recent years have rather pointed to Orbán’s marginalisation, just when he has emerged as a global symbol of illiberal strongman rule. This process of marginalisation has increased the need for an alliance with the PiS-led government of Poland but Orbán’s close ties to Putin and bad to non-existent relations with the Biden administration recommend him neither in Brussels nor in Warsaw in the unpredictable and worsening current situation. If victorious in a month, the opposition would need to reverse Orbán’s strategic mistakes and ongoing marginalisation of Hungary.

How do you assess the effects of the Russian invasion on the Hungarian elections? Does it still evoke memories of 1956? Does it harm Orbán because Hungarians see him more as a mini-Putin, or does his superficial move into the EU front against Putin benefit him?

While questions of foreign policy have rarely been decisive for the outcome of Hungarian elections in the past, the Russian military aggression against Ukraine has the potential to make a real difference. These events imply the collapse of a key foreign policy strategy pursued by Orbán: to act as Putin’s closest ally within the EU – as some would put it, to act as his Trojan horse, even despite the regime celebrating those who resisted the Soviet invasion of 1956 at commemorative occasions. The sudden exposure of such an utter political and moral failure of the regime should indeed create a major opportunity for the opposition. Having said that, interpretations are just being developed as the tragic, cataclysmic, and unpredictable events unfold, so it might be too early to speculate about their exact impact on electoral chances. At the moment, even as much of its media continues to echo the Putinist version of events, Fidesz is trying hard to depict itself as the “peace party” and accuses the opposition of being too militant and pro-war. Ever the opportunist, Orbán has indeed returned to the EU fold in this grave moment of crisis. He has even readmitted the banned word “refugee” to welcome Ukrainian citizens who are fleeing into the country. However, the pro-Putin propaganda the Hungarian regime has been endorsing for years has certainly had an impact on Orbán’s supporters. In recent years, Putin enjoyed more sympathy on the Hungarian right than, for example, Angela Merkel. If the opposition finds ways to articulate the implications of the government’s unprincipled and hazardous behaviour, many of Orbán’s current supporters might also notice his blatant self-contradiction.

Ferenc Laczó is an assistant professor in European History at Maastricht University. His recent publications include Hungarian Jews in the Age of Genocide: An Intellectual History 1929-1948 (Leiden: Brill, 2016). He is also the co-editor of The Legacy of Division. East and West after 1989 and of Magyarország globális története 1869-2022 (A Global History of Hungary 1869-2022).

Claus Leggewie is a political scientist. Since 2015 he has been the Ludwig Börne Professor at the Justus Liebig University in Gießen. Until 2017 he was director of the Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut (KWI), Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities in Essen (Germany).

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