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In Hungary, Orban wins again — because he has rigged the system

Here’s how Orban’s Fidesz party won 53 percent of the vote — but 83 percent of the districts.

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban greets supporters during an election night rally in Budapest on April 3. (Petr David Josek/AP)
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correction

A version of this story was published which gave incorrect figures for the percentage of seats won by Orban/Fidesz in single-member districts because of an editorial miscommunication. The original and correct figures have been restored.

Even the Hungarian opposition was pessimistic about winning the 2022 parliamentary election on April 3, but it did not expect the magnitude of its defeat. For the fourth time in a row, Prime Minister Viktor Orban won more than two-thirds of the seats in the Hungarian parliament. Pre-election polls showed Orban 5 percentage points ahead — but he won on election night by 18 percentage points, a shocking blowout.

Results will be final on Saturday, after the votes of Hungarians living abroad have been tallied. But Orban’s lead is substantial, and the final result is unlikely to change. With this supermajority, Orban can continue to amend the constitution at will, holding himself above the law.

A dismal Election Day for the opposition

In the preliminary results, Orban’s Fidesz party won 135 seats to the united opposition’s 56. The far-right party Mi Hazank (Our Homeland) gained seven seats and will often vote with Fidesz. The German “ethnic party,” another face of Fidesz, won the last remaining seat.

Peter Marki-Zay, the prime-minister-designate of the united opposition who had won repeated convincing victories in his hometown, lost in a resounding defeat. Other well-known opposition politicians also fell to their Fidesz opponents. Only in Budapest, Szeged and Pécs, where urban voters dominated, did the united opposition win districts.

What happened? Three factors are already clear: rigged rules, a horrible war and autocratic cheating.

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Rigged rules

Hungary’s electoral playing field is heavily tilted against the opposition. In 2010, Orban amended the Constitution to cut the size of the parliament in about half, after which he gerrymandered the entire country. The districts, drawn with no input from the opposition, spread Fidesz voters across many small districts in rural areas while concentrating opposition voters in much larger districts in the cities, thus giving them fewer chances to win.

After this redistricting, in 2014, Orban’s party won 45 percent of the vote — but 91 percent of the districts (under Hungary’s electoral system, 106 of the seats are awarded through single-member districts, while the other 93 are awarded through a nationwide electoral list). Similarly, in 2018, Fidesz won 48 percent of the vote and 86 percent of the districts. On election night 2022, with 98 percent of the vote counted, Orban won 53 percent of the vote but 83 percent of the districts. The absentee voters are divided between liberal expats who oppose Orban and conservative Hungarians in neighboring countries who are likely to support him in larger numbers.

Orban’s electoral system forced the six opposition parties — one far-right party and five centrist-to-left parties — to work together. That’s because having many small parties fragments the vote and hands victory to the single largest party in each district. Once the opposition started fielding a single strong candidate against the Fidesz contender, Orban’s haul of district seats shrank but not as much as predicted. But coordination has come at a price. The rickety six-party coalition agrees on only one thing: defeating Orban. It had no substantive common platform.

Facing a united opposition, Orban then changed the rules again to wrong-foot them. A November law introduced “voter tourism,” allowing any Hungarian citizen to legally register to vote in any district. Before the election, evidence surfaced that voters were being strategically moved into districts that might otherwise be close, with hundreds of voters registered at single residences. On Election Day, monitors documented minibuses delivering clusters of voters to polls.

Beyond rule-rigging, Orban so dominates the broadcast and print media landscape that the opposition could hardly get its message out.

In addition, Fidesz spent almost 10 times more than the opposition on billboards, overshooting legal campaign finance limits on billboards alone. But Fidesz has repeatedly escaped enforcement of campaign finance rules because it controls the office that enforces them, while other parties have been fined nearly out of existence.

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A horrible war

At first, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine embarrassed Orban, who in early February had visited Russian President Vladimir Putin to seek and receive nearly endless supplies of cheap Russian gas for his voters. For a decade, Orban had been Putin’s only friend among European Union leaders. But this position looked untenable after the invasion.

Pivoting quickly, however, Orban advocated what he calls “Hungary First,” proclaiming that Hungary would not take sides. Forbidding transit of weapons from NATO states through Hungarian territory to Ukraine, Orban offered to be a peacemaker while baselessly accusing Marki-Zay of wanting to take the country into war.

Orban also reminded his voters that Ukraine had enacted a law requiring that Ukrainian be spoken in all state institutions and abolishing the system of bilingual schools, including those just over the Hungarian border that taught ethnic Hungarians. Why should Hungary defend Ukraine when it had not defended its Hungarian ethnic minority, Orban asked.

Orban also weaponized Ukrainian refugees. As they flooded across the border, the Hungarian government offered no money, no workers and no services, placing the burden on nongovernmental organizations, local mayors and church representatives, who would otherwise have been mobilizing opposition voters for the election.

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Autocratic cheating

Almost by definition, autocratic governments cheat at elections, and Hungary is not a democracy. Autocrats — Orban included — cheat by using incumbency to blur state and party. Autocrats also dole out goodies in the run-up to an election with little threat of consequences.

During the campaign, the government exempted young people from paying personal income taxes, increased the minimum wage and paid retirees an additional month’s pension. The government also protected Hungarians from the inflation that is racking the globe by freezing mortgage interest rates, food prices and fuel costs. These social benefits, delivered in the run-up to the election, probably swayed voters who were on the fence.

On Election Day itself, Orban’s government pressured public employees to vote, as political scientists Isabel Mares and Lauren Young have shown it did during the 2014 election. Preliminary reports from domestic election monitors pointed to “chain voting,” in which voters are instructed to take a premarked ballot into the poll and return with a clean one so that their handlers can verify how they voted. Even direct payments for votes in cash or food were on display outside polling stations.

Given Orban’s immense power to distort the election, his election victory was no surprise. Its magnitude was. But in a country that is no longer a democracy, we should not expect elections to be free or fair. This is what an unfree and unfair election looks like.

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Kim Lane Scheppele (@KimLaneLaw) is the Laurence S. Rockefeller professor of sociology and international affairs at Princeton University. She lived and worked in Hungary for many years as a researcher at the Hungarian Constitutional Court and founding director of the gender studies program at Central European University when the university was still in Budapest.

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