Corruption and populism: Hungary’s road to the elections of 2018

By Ábel Bede

On 16 June 1989 the young Viktor Orbán, one of the most prominent heroes of the counter-communist movement stood in central Budapest and made his now legendary speech at the reburial of the late Hungarian prime minister Imre Nagy. While his then fashionable mullet was battling the wind he himself showcasing his outstanding rhetoric skills was advocating democracy and civil rights. It is not only Orbán’s hairstyle that changed in the following thirty years but the values the politician stood for also disappeared on the long road to his speech on a different square last month when he threatened his opposition with “moral, political and legal” retribution.

Orbán formed his first government in 1998 at which point his party had already been transformed from a liberal to a christian-conservative party that still showed little sign of Fidesz’s current self. However, despite managing to mobilize their voting base, Fidesz was unable to win the support of swing voters during the next election which combined with an exceptionally high turnout resulted in socialist MSZP forming a coalition government with the liberals.

This defeat emotionally traumatised Orbán who then decided to take his rhetoric in a populist direction. Meanwhile the coalition lead by Ferenc Gyurcsány continued the mindless privatization of the 1990s. Hungary adopted capitalism at its most radical era meaning that the country went from a communist economy to an overly privatized one without a transitional period. Thus, it was easy for some to falsely associate their misfortunes with capitalism itself. Orbán later capitalized on this sentiment; it is the west and market competition that are bad, not particular forms of their execution.  

It was not only the economic crash that undermined the credibility of the Hungarian left. Alongside serious allegations of corruption PM Ferenc Gyurcsány’s speech at a party conference in 2006 was leaked in which he admitted “constantly lying to the public.” It was no question that Fidesz would win the 2010 election that in the end gained Orbán a ⅔ majority.

Fidesz used this since lost ⅔ majority to modify the constitution in 2013 signaling Orbán’s authoritarian tendencies which was complemented by his influence over the media, achieved through his oligarchs who acquired influential papers across the country and managed to obtain some of the bigger commercial tv networks. Additionally the government gained complete control over the state media that broadcasts nothing but Fidesz-propaganda whose subject material changed over the years, but followed a well established pattern of a common “enemy” their voters need to rally against, such as Brussels or George Soros.

Despite this propaganda campaign, cracks are appearing in the system since Orbán fell out with his old friend, Lajos Simicska who owns a number of Hungarian media outlets. Since then the Orbán-government conceded significant defeats including the invalidity of their propaganda referendum, the prevention of Budapest’s olympic bid, and the leaks of numerous corruption allegations published by the Simicska owned conservative newspaper Magyar Nemzet that in the past two months included an OLAF report concerning fraud in tenders awarded to Orbán’s son- in-law, the participation of government minister Lajos Kósa in a possible fraud scheme involving 4-5 billion(!) euros, and a grandiose money laundering scheme involving stolen EU funds and senior Fidesz-politicians.

These corruption scandals can significantly wound Fidesz as they are capable of disillusioning those who are otherwise receptive of their far-right rhetorics. It is only when their own voters realize that Fidesz is playing the immigrant card in order to maintain their power to steal, that they can be removed from power.

The hope that there is appetite for this was revived from under the tombstone of political apathy earlier this year when on a mayoral by-election in Hódmezővásárhely, one of the safest Fidesz seats the independent Péter Márki-Zay backed by every opposition party defeated the Fidesz-candidate by a great margin.

However, the repetition of this on the 8th of April is unlikely. Despite some individual withdrawals, negotiations about the country-wide coordination of the opposition failed, hence in most constituencies Fidesz faces several candidates who would stand a serious chance alone. Pushing Fidesz out of power did not seem to be enough motivation for most opposition parties who have the problems of their own.

Right wing Jobbik failed to convince the public that they have become a moderate conservative party, and scepticism towards them might be valid, as Gábor Vona did not get rid of the party’s extremists and there are some worrying elements in Jobbik’s otherwise surprisingly progressive manifesto, such as the introduction of segregation in schools. Nevertheless, the party is expected to make some gains in the east.  

MSZP had to salvage a prime ministerial candidate from a different party (green-left wing Dialogue’s Gergely Karácsony), after their leader, László Botka resigned stating it was impossible to do his job due to the vast number of Fidesz-spies in his party. This rotting corpse of the former communist party, being chewed on by the vermins of Fidesz might finally get its proper burial as party-alliances need to gain 10% of the votes to get into parliament which MSZP-Dialogue just barely does.

The presence of former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány’s populist Democratic Coalition significantly harms the opposition as it generates the false image that the choice is between him and Orbán, a battle that the latter is unlikely to ever lose.

Centrist Momentum burst onto the political scene with their successful ‘Nolimpia’ campaign, however they are struggling to get their message across since then, due to the lack of a charismatic leader and getting less coverage thanks to the failed PR move of not choosing a prime ministerial candidate. Nevertheless, if they obtain the votes of their targeted Hungarian diaspora in Europe, they have a chance of reaching the parliament.

Green LMP will probably increase their seats as they have the most convincing Hungarian politician, Bernadett Szél who was desperate to bring Jobbik and the left to the same negotiating table, however she has to face the problem of satisfying all members of her party composed of globalization critics, globalist greens and conservative environmentalists.

In 2018 Orbán still does not seem to have learnt his lesson that he needs to do more than mobilizing his own political base. This will most probably result him not gaining a ⅔ majority this Sunday. However, as long as Orbán’s greatest opponents are role playing right-wing extremists, a party full of Fidesz-agents, and his just as corrupt, left-wing equivalent who are unable to see beyond their own petty, narrow-minded and selfish interests it is unlikely that the downfall of his thieving empire of organized crime is imminent.

Image Fabrizio Di Ruscio via Flickr

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