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Hungary's Point of No Return
Viktor Orbán has set his sights on political hegemony.
by Edit Zgut
In the Hungarian election held on Sunday, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán won his 4th consecutive term after gaining 136 seats in parliament, an even larger supermajority than he won in 2014. It was, he claimed, a “victory so big you can see it from the moon... and Brussels.”
His opponents, composed of six ideologically divided parties that united in order to defeat Orbán, failed to undercut his populism. Although multiple crises—including Covid and the war in Ukraine—provided an opportunity to unbalance Orbán’s Fidesz party, the United Opposition could not build momentum. Their performance was so insufficient, it’s likely that Orbán would have defeated them no matter what—something that many in Fidesz and on the Western right will be keen to point out.
But the fact remains that in Hungary, even if the opposition does everything right, it is nearly impossible to replace Fidesz during elections. Since the party returned to power in 2010, the country has seen the deepest erosion of democracy in the European Union. Orbán has successfully manipulated Hungary’s system in order to translate popular support into an unbeatable electoral majority. He provides a textbook example of how autocrats can erode liberal democracy while facing minimal consequences.
The Hungarian model is a mix of both formal and informal threats to democracy. On the formal and legal side, the regime has put a great emphasis on what Kim Lane Scheppele calls “autocratic legalism.” Orbán is one of the new autocrats of the EU who are undermining constitutionalism while claiming the legitimacy of a democratic mandate to rewrite the constitutional rules for their own benefit. As a result of a recent law, private foundations have been allowed to capture an unprecedented amount of public money. Due to gerrymandering, which packs opposition voters into only a handful of constituencies, it is fair to say that Fidesz voters had effectively two votes where an opposition voter had only one.
But you cannot understand the regime without understanding the informal power that underpins it. These are the uncodified and informally enforced interactions that go beyond legalism, and through which the regime can further tilt the electoral playing field in its favor.
Through massive media capture, Fidesz has used its structural advantage to wage a constant civil war on dissidents, financed by taxpayers' money. The opposition was either excluded from state media or negatively framed in ways which fit Orbán’s narrative. Fidesz could spend 8 times more on billboard ads than the opposition and pushed the envelope with massive macro-targeting on social media. In such a distorted public sphere, mistakes made by oppositional frontrunner Péter Márki-Zay—such as his botched televised debate on weapons delivery to Ukraine—seemed more significant than they actually were.
Meanwhile, serious electoral malfeasance took place both before and after voting. For Hungarian voters living in Serbia, postal voting packages were reportedly delivered by the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians, an ethnic Hungarian party allied with Orbán, instead of the Serbian postal services. Elsewhere, postal votes for the opposition were removed from ballot boxes and burnt, such as in Romania.
Intimidation of the poor, and threats to withdraw social benefits, are also prominent in Hungarian politics. Hungary’s Roma community are especially vulnerable to electoral clientelism, in particular coercive vote-buying. In exchange for votes, local mayors and party representatives often provide cash handouts and food in elections. According to media reports, five portions of fresh pork meat and 10,000 forints (equivalent to 29 dollars) was the price of a vote in two smaller settlements.
One of the most efficient tools is the government’s politicization of the so-called public workforce program, which provides Hungarians with stable employment for a low wage. The dark side of this instrument is that the most deprived groups practically become dependent on local mayors who could threaten to cut off their benefits if they do not cast the right ballot during elections. In this way, the ruling party has created a massive system of dependency within the electorate.
Of course, none of this should prevent us from acknowledging that Orbán also articulates a popular identity among the Hungarian electorate that speaks to their grievances. The prime minister perfectly understands the soul of the Hungarian nation and successfully rides the wave of existential fears.
80% of the Hungarian population identifies as Christian, and Fidesz is positioning itself as a leading Christian Democratic party in Europe. In contrast to Poland, the Orbán regime can hardly be described as possessing a cohesive ideological conservative worldview; it is more accurate to say that it is using only those elements of conservative-collectivist values which serve its interests. It wants to blame Brussels for using rule-of-law criticism as a pretext to attack Fidesz, which presents itself as “protecting” Christian values against the “LGBTQ lobby.”
This campaign also resonated well with the country’s poor. As with the elections in 2014, Orbán attracted low-income voters with state-regulated food prices and lowered utility costs. This is called rezsicsökkentés, and was a central buzzword of the campaign. Such measures gave an extra layer of comfort to those heavily impacted by the combined economic effects of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. It provided legal employment for those who have no other options in the most deprived northeastern and southwestern provinces of Hungary. This particularly affected the Roma, and the United Opposition missed a huge opportunity to invite Roma civil society representatives to discuss the pressing issues facing them.
Finally, there is the “security and stability” agenda to which the campaign shifted after Russia invaded Ukraine. Orbán successfully presented a false dichotomy by arguing that people need to choose between “peace [Fidesz] and war [the opposition].” He fuelled outrageous anti-Ukrainian sentiments and used President Zelensky as a punching bag.
What really mattered in this election was that Orbán could effectively secure the bottom needs of the political Maslow pyramid. He centered the campaign around cheap food, cheap electricity and security, all the while claiming that “Hungary moves forward, not backward.”
Since informal manipulation is as important as legal norms (if not more important), Orbán will keep operating under the radar of the EU. Despite developing a mechanism that will permit the slashing of funds to Hungary unless it strengthens the rule of law, the EU cannot address the damage caused by informal power. Corruption and electoral clientelism have much more complex underpinnings, which ultimately allow the regime to play hide-and-seek with Brussels.
And Orbán won’t stop here. Employing a tried and tested toolkit, his government will continue to capture the remaining civic referees by putting more pressure on the general court system. It will restrict public discourse even further by politicizing more independent media. By dissolving the remaining autonomous spheres of civic society, dividing the electorate between “us” and “them,” and delegitimizing dissidents, Orbán has ensured that autocratization and toxic polarization mutually reinforce each other.
In this election, Fidesz won significant popular support. But it’s unlikely that Orbán will willingly give up power even if that support evaporates in the future. The Hungarian political system may have reached a point of no return.
Edit Zgut is a political scientist and a DemocraCE fellow at Visegrad Insight, researching informal power, democratic backsliding, and populism in Hungary and Poland.