Last weekend’s parliamentary elections in Hungary should have been a major event, at least within the European Union and the United States. Over the past four years the E.U. and the United States have criticized the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán for its authoritarian, conservative and nationalist tendencies. These were institutionalized in the new constitution, which the government rammed through the toothless Hungarian parliament, in which the national-conservative Fidesz-KDNP party coalition held a constitutional majority. Scores of domestic and foreign observers have highlighted the many problematic parts of the constitution, although very little has been changed as a consequence of these critiques.
But these are not ordinary times. The United States is preoccupied with the situation in Ukraine, while the E.U. is crippled by the lingering economic crisis and fears of an anti-European backlash in European elections next month. As a consequence, the Hungarian elections received little special attention from the E.U. and U.S. elite, despite widespread fears that another victory for Orbán, dubbed the “Viktator” by domestic critics, could lead to permanent damage to Hungary’s still-young liberal democracy.
So, what happened in the Hungarian election? Well, first of all, the rules of the game were changed significantly prior to the election. The one-chamber legislature was almost halved, from 386 to 199 seats. Moreover, the parliament is now elected under a new electoral system, designed by Fidesz, which is fairly similar to the mixed-member system in Germany. The majority of seats, 106, are elected as single-member districts, while the remaining 93 are distributed proportionally by regional list vote with a national threshold of 5 percent. While Hungary had been encouraged by international observers to change its opaque electoral system, and the new system is basically in line with the recommendations, critics warned that it would significantly favor Fidesz, almost guaranteeing the party a majority in seats, even if it did not get close to a majority in votes.
Second, the results are largely in line with the last polls before the election. Although Orbán’s party had unleveled the playing field somewhat before election day, mostly by restricting campaign possibilities for political parties, there is no doubt that Fidesz is by far the most popular party in the country. Not only did it get the most votes in the regional list vote, Fidesz-KDNP won all but 10 of the single-member districts. This notwithstanding, it actually lost more than 570,000 voters compared to the 2010 elections, a drop of 8.2 percent, and finished with 44.5 percent of the vote. Still, given the disproportionality of the new electoral system, this 44.5 percent of the vote leads to 66.8 percent of the seats, a drop of only 1.3 percent.
Whereas Fidesz-KDNP is the electoral loser but political winner, the opposition coalition Unity is the electoral winner but political loser. While increasing both its vote and seat share (by 6.7 percent and 3.8 percent, respectively), it won just 10 of the 106 single-member districts (9.4 percent). The coalition is primarily based upon the once dominant Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), which has become heavily divided as a consequence of warring leaders, some of whom have founded new, but ideologically fairly similar, parties.
In addition to the MSZP, Unity includes four small center-left parties: Democratic Coalition (DK), of former MSZP prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány; Dialogue for Hungary (PM), a split from the MLP (see below); Hungarian Liberal Party (MLP), formed by a former member of parliament from the now defunct liberal Alliance of Freedom (SZDSZ); and, finally, Together 2014 (E-14), a coalition of civil society organizations that came together in the large anti-Orbán demonstrations of 2012, led by another former prime minister of an MSZP government.
The euphemistically named Unity coalition was doomed from the beginning. The internal situation within the coalition is the literal opposite of its name: Although ideologically close, all five parties are almost more divided by personality clashes than united in their opposition to Orbán. It took months for the various leaders, virtually all stalwarts of the last unpopular MSZP government, to agree to one electoral list. The many centrist voters looking for a credible center-left alternative largely ignored or rejected the coalition. Unity performed well only in certain parts of Budapest, which had always been dominated by MSZP and SZDSZ.
The electoral and political winner of the Hungarian elections is the far-right Movement for a Better Hungary, commonly known as Jobbik. It received 20.54 percent of the vote, gaining almost 4 percent compared to 2010. That result made it the most successful far-right party in the European Union today, albeit narrowly. (The Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) gained 20.51 percent of the vote in the Austrian parliamentary elections of 2013.)
Almost 1 million Hungarians voted for the party that is mostly known for its stringently anti-Roma and anti-Jews discourse and its banned paramilitary group, the Hungarian Guard. The almost 130,000 new voters were won across the country. Most remarkable, however, was that Jobbik finished second in 41 of the 106 single-member districts (see below), almost beating Fidesz-KDNP in the industrial city of Miskolc in the Northeast. This unexpected result, a few percentage points higher than in most polls, is as much a testament to Jobbik’s strength and its relatively moderate campaign as to Unity’s fundamental weakness. The elections showed that Jobbik’s success was not a one-time event, as it had been for the far-right Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIÉP) in 1998. And they demonstrated that Jobbik is the only really unified party challenging the Fidesz-KDNP.
The fourth and final party to enter the Hungarian parliament is called Politics Can Be Different (LMP), which lost slightly compared to 2010 (-2.2 percent), but somewhat surprisingly was able to clear the 5-percent hurdle again, despite the split of E-14. The LMP is a “green-liberal” party with a moderately alter-globalization agenda. Its main support base is made up of higher educated professionals in urban settings, most notably the capital Budapest. Just as in the previous legislative period, it will play little role in Hungarian politics.
In the end, the elections have clearly proved the critics of the Orbán government right. While Fidesz is by far the most popular party, with almost twice as many voters as Unity, its dominant power is not so much a consequence of popular support but of political craftsmanship. Leaving aside the campaign manipulations before the elections, criticized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE), its constitutional majority is the result of an increased electorate and an unfair electoral system, both the work of the previous Orbán government.
Regarding the first, an interesting detail of the elections is the crucial role that the “non-resident voters” have played. This special category includes mainly the so-called “Hungarians abroad,” i.e. citizens from neighboring countries who speak Hungarian and mostly live in territories that Hungary lost after World War I. The Hungarian right-wing has always been obsessed with the territories lost as a consequence of the Trianon Treaty of 1920. After several earlier unsuccessful attempts at providing citizenship to the “Hungarians abroad,” the Orbán government extended the right to vote to them in 2011. Less then 200,000 actually registered, but those who voted repaid Fidesz handsomely last weekend. Of the 125,000 “nonresident Hungarian” voters, amounting to roughly 2.5 percent of the total number, a staggering 95.5 percent of them voted for Fidesz-KDNP. Ironically, the one seat that this amounts to is exactly the difference between a large majority of 132 seats (66 percent) and a constitutional majority of 133 seats (67 percent).
With regard to the second, the new electoral system did exactly what the Orbán government had intended and the opposition had feared: strongly favor Fidesz-KDNP. According to Hungarian media, Fidesz-KDNP won one seat per 31,833 votes, whereas Unity needed 66,309, Jobbik 84,879 and LMP 94,424 votes. While disproportionality between districts is not uncommon, particularly in first-past-the post-elections (just think of the U.S. Senate), the fact that Fidesz-KDNP got more than two times the number of seats per voter as Unity, and almost three times the number of Jobbik and LMP, not only violates the fairness principle of elections but also Hungary’s own new constitution, which stipulates that individual votes within the particular features of the election system should have identical weight.
There is one last interesting fact about the election results. While turnout was very respectable at 60.2 percent, compared to 64.4 percent (in the first round) four years ago, Béla Greskovits at Central European University noted that in 80 of the 106 single-member districts (75 percent) the share of the vote for Jobbik candidates is strongly negatively correlated with turnout. In other words, Jobbik gained better results in districts with low turnout. Until we have more systematic research, any explanation is purely speculative, but it could be that these were districts with particularly large traditional left-wing electorates (such as Csepel in Budapest). Many workers, for example, will simply not have come out to vote for Unity, which they perceived as too centrist. If the center-left does not get its act together by 2018, large portions of its former voters could vote for Jobbik next time, as blue-collar voters have been doing in countries such as Austria and France for decades now.
Where does this leave us with regard to the future? Little will change in Hungarian politics. Fidesz-KDNP still has a constitutional majority and can further centralize power within Hungary, as it intends to do. Orbán feels he will do that with the unwilling help of a toothless center-left opposition, which is too internally divided to create any meaningful check on Orban’s power, and a bolstered far-right opposition, which Orbán will continue to use as an excuse in the few instances that he faces Western criticism.
With regard to the E.U., Orbán lost little time sending a message to Brussels, which has criticized him repeatedly, if weakly, in the past four years. Foreshadowing more conflicts, he said in his first news conference since the elections: “The E.U. is not a super state. The E.U. is a playing field, with rules and regulations, where every country tries to achieve its best interests, so they get into conflicts with each other and with the E.U.” Still, Hungary is unlikely to face serious sanctions from the E.U., as Orbán is well protected by the European People’s Party (EPP), for which he served as vice president between 2002 and 2012. Just see how EPP President Joseph Daul responded to the election outcome:
“I warmly congratulate Viktor Orban and FIDESZ for today’s impressive electoral victory. The people of Hungary have renewed their confidence in PM Orban and his government because he has always spoken the truth to them and because he implemented courageous reforms, which put the country’s economy back on track.”
Finally, what do the Hungarian parliamentary elections tell us about the European elections of May? While many commentators have speculated about the “European meaning” of the Hungarian elections, there really is little meaningful to say about them. Jobbik did indeed win, but this was largely expected, and it had already been one of the strongest far-right parties in Europe since the 2010 elections. It actually remains to be seen whether Jobbik will do well in May. Given that the European elections are so-called “second-order elections” held shortly after first-order elections, political science theory states that turnout will be very low and voters will vote with the heart, rather than the boot (as they do in midterm second-order elections as in France and the Netherlands). However, as we have seen in the parliamentary elections, Jobbik seems to profit from low turnout.
In other words, the European elections will show us the real support of Jobbik, stripped of its protest component. Given the impressive grass-roots activities and organization of the party, and its remarkable attraction among young and educated Hungarians, I expect this to be much higher than in most other E.U. countries – roughly between 15 and 20 percent.
Cas Mudde is assistant professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. He is the author of Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2007) and co-editor of Populism in Europe and the Americas: Threat or Corrective for Democracy? (Cambridge University Press, 2012). He can be followed on Twitter @casmudde.
ps. Corrected for some typos (4/15)