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Opinion Orban’s victory might not make sense to the West. But it’s what Hungary wants.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and members of the Fidesz party celebrate onstage in Budapest on April 3. (Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images)
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Western elites no doubt find Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s landslide victory on Sunday distasteful. To some extent, this is justified: Independent election observers faulted Orban’s party, Fidesz, for tilting the playing field in its favor.

But it’s also true that Orban was reelected because of his combination of market economics, nationalism and social conservatism. This is what a majority of Hungarians want.

The history of Hungarian politics since the fall of communism makes this clear. The country’s first free election, in 1990, was won by a nationalist Christian democratic party, the Hungarian Democratic Forum, with about 25 percent. Three other conservative parties, including Fidesz, combined for an additional 27 percent. The nationalist center-right, therefore, had roughly 52 percent support.

That pattern held for the next 20 years, even as the parties themselves evolved. With the exception of the 1994 election, the collection of center-right parties consistently received between 49 and 54 percent of the vote. Orban’s Fidesz party, once an urban-based party focused on market economics, grew into a nationalist, big-tent party with a variety of conservative views. By 2006, it was the dominant party among Hungarian conservatives.

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Hungarians grew angry with the emergence of a leaked tape in which the prime minister admitted his Hungarian Socialist Party had lied to win the 2006 election, and they shifted massively to the right in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis. Many blamed the ruling Socialists for the collapse. Fidesz won in a massive landslide in 2010, claiming 53 percent of the vote. A nationalist party to its right, Jobbik, also won 17 percent, while the Hungarian Democratic Forum won almost 3 percent. In other words, nearly three-quarters of Hungarians embraced right-wing parties even before Orban had a chance to manipulate election rules.

The Post's View: Europe has tools to stop Hungary’s toxic ruler. It’s time to use them.

To understand Fidesz’s political dominance, one must understand that Orban’s nationalism responds to a long-standing element of Hungarian public opinion. For most of the past decade, his most serious opposition came from Jobbik, not the collection of Budapest-based centrist and center-left parties favored in the West. Jobbik, reviled in the West, grew to about 20 percent of the vote even as Orban shifted his focus to nationalist themes to limit its gains. Jobbik’s strength was nearly 30 percent at the height of the European migrant crisis, effectively forcing Orban to adopt his well-known anti-migrant stance.

Jobbik moved to the center after 2018, making the party palatable enough to join the center-left United for Hungary coalition. But that move alienated some of its members of parliament, who split to form a new nationalist party, Our Homeland. As a result, the only way for the opposition to beat Orban this way was to persuade all former Jobbik voters and some Fidesz backers to ignore that new party and support the centrist coalition.

They failed dismally in this herculean task. Our Homeland won 6 percent nationally and between 7 and 8 percent in rural regions where Jobbik had been strong. The opposition also lost votes to a joke party, the Hungarian Two-Tailed Dog Party, which won more than 3 percent nationally and more than 5 percent in the opposition’s stronghold, Budapest. Had the opposition picked up all of these voters, it would have won an additional 17 districts. Instead, it failed to win a single seat in the suburban region of Pest and gained only four seats in Budapest itself.

It’s not hard to see why voters stuck with Orban despite Western disapproval. Orban’s low corporate tax rates has attracted investment, reducing unemployment from 11 percent when he took office to 3.4 percent before the pandemic. His government’s subsidies for women who bear children have helped increase the total fertility rate by about 20 percent since 2010.

Even Orban’s close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin did not disturb his voters. Indeed, Hungary’s role in the Ukraine conflict was a major issue in the final days of the campaign, with the opposition staunchly taking Ukraine’s side. The fact that the opposition significantly underperformed compared to pre-election polls suggests that emphasis hurt Orban’s opponents more than him.

Fidesz’s domination of the media also likely helped pad its victory margin. But what country in the West would expect its incumbent to lose when its economy is fine and the leader represents the majority’s values?

Orban will lose when that’s no longer the case. That’s what’s happening in Turkey, where strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan now trails in Turkish opinion polls despite his hold on the media. He can thank Turkey’s 61 percent inflation rate for that. When conditions are bad or leaders are out of touch, voters will react no matter what lies they are being fed by state-paid talking heads.

Rep. Mo Udall (Ariz.) once conceded his bid to be the Democratic presidential nominee by saying, “The voters have spoken — the bastards.” Orban might not be the Western elites’ cup of tea, but he is Hungary’s glass of pálinka. It’s best for the West to understand that rather than whine that voters in Szabolcs aren’t Parisians.

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