The Long Shot Battle to Save Hungarian Democracy

A newly united opposition has a real chance of winning the next elections. But Viktor Orbán has taken steps to ensure his survival.

By Celestine Bohlen

If there is one thing that Hungary’s opposition has learned over the past ten years, it is that no one political party has a prayer of beating Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his party, Fidesz, in an election.

“One of the guarantees of his reelection each time was the fragmentation of the opposition,’’ says András Bíró-Nagy, director of Policy Solutions, a Budapest-based think tank. “It took the opposition ten years to realize that they cannot win like that.’’

This year, six different parties, ranging from small parties on the center-left to Jobbik on the far right, came up with a solution: They would set aside their considerable political differences and combine forces ahead of parliamentary elections next spring in order to credibly challenge Mr. Orbán’s continuing domination of Hungary’s politics, its judiciary, its media and society.

It is a testament to Mr. Orbán’s outsized shadow—not just over Hungary, but over Europe generally—that the opposition has felt compelled to make an alliance against him.

Mr. Orbán has come by his considerable power legally, according to rules that he has been able to rewrite. Over the last decade, since his reelection in 2010, he has used a parliamentary supermajority to ram through laws that have tightened his grip on the country and its institutions, laying the foundation for what he calls an “illiberal democracy”, and others call a one-party state.

With their control over two-thirds of the Parliament, Fidesz deputies have enacted repeated changes to the Hungarian constitution, weakening the powers of the Constitutional Court to act as a check on the power of the government. Other laws have undermined the independence of the judiciary, giving the justice minister the right to name judges and decide their budgets and promotions. The government has also asserted its control over the prosecutor’s office, by granting its current occupant an unusual nine-year term, and eroded the independence of the national media watchdog agency and the central bank.

This near-monopoly on power has led to pervasive corruption, with the spoils, including media outlets, divided among Orbán friends and relatives. 

Other laws have rejiggered the electoral system in ways that help guarantee Fidesz’s electoral victories, such as a gerrymandered map that made left-leaning parliamentary districts larger than more “loyal” districts, thus diluting the opposition vote. Fidesz and the opposition are neck and neck in recent polls. But according to some analysts I've talked to, Orbán's opponents would have to win by more than three percent of the national vote to defeat his party next spring.

Crucially, Fidesz has succeeded in making it almost impossible for a new government to reverse course. Without a supermajority of its own, the opposition coalition would be hard-pressed to dislodge Orbán appointees from key positions of power, let alone push forward their own agenda. That is, if they manage to stay together long enough to form a government.

Still, despite the minefield that lies ahead, the opposition seems determined to maintain their “rainbow” coalition until elections next April. “They have no other choice,” says Mr. Bíró-Nagy. “The voters would punish any politician who tries to break the unity of the opposition.’’

The mechanism for this collective effort is a series of primaries, funded by the parties themselves, that will allow Mr. Orbán’s opponents to pre-select a single candidate for prime minister, who will head the coalition’s list, and 106 parliamentary candidates who will run in the country’s single mandate districts.

The two final candidates competing for the prime-ministerial nomination are Klára Dobrev, the wife of an unpopular former Socialist prime minister, and Péter Márki-Zay, the mayor of the small Hungarian city of Hódmezővásárhely, who catapulted onto the national scene in 2018 when he unseated a powerful Fidesz politician. In a surprise move announced on Oct. 8, Gergely Karácsony, the mayor of Budapest, pulled out of the final round, throwing his support to Márki-Zay.

“I came to the conclusion that if I do not [step aside], then Viktor Orbán will remain,’’ said Karácsony at a press conference. “I believe that Peter Márki-Zay can unite the opposition.’’

It was Mr. Karácsony’s victory in local Budapest elections in 2019 that convinced the opposition that it was capable of presenting a united front, says David Korányi, senior adviser to the Budapest mayor. “It was the opposition’s first major victory since 2010. The message was: if you join us, you have a chance to win.”

But while Budapest represents about 17 percent of Hungary’s population, it does not dominate its politics. Mr. Orbán’s strength lies in the country’s small towns and villages, whose voters are the core of Fidesz’s support. This is where his nationalist, conservative message has most resonated—where voters resent being told by the Budapest elite or Brussels bureaucrats what to think about issues they find threatening, such as migration and gay rights.

In 2018, Mr. Orbán campaigned heavily on the issue of immigration, whipping up popular fears that had lingered from Europe’s 2015 migrant crisis, when Syrian refugees were pressing on Hungarian borders. Virtually all of those migrants had left Hungary by then, but Mr. Orbán succeeded in persuading his voters that he was protecting “Christian culture in Europe.”

For the 2022 election, Fidesz has somewhat shifted off the migrant theme and moved onto a campaign targeting Hungary’s LGBTQ community, borrowing a theme from Polish politics. The Hungarian government touts its recent law that bans sharing content on homosexuality or sex reassignment among children under 18, and recent changes to the Hungarian constitution exclude gay and transgender people from the definition of “family”.

By contrast, some analysts argue that the anti-Brussels campaign, for years a key pillar of Orbán’s strategy, may be wearing thin, after the European Union recently threatened to cut funds to Hungary over its stand on gay rights and concerns about the independence of the Hungarian judiciary. Recent comments from Fidesz officials about quitting the European Union—a HUXIT, after Great Britain’s BREXIT—got a negative reaction, and the idea seems to have been dropped.

But Brussels still remains a scapegoat in the Fidesz lexicon. “Brussels can be anything you want it to be,’’ says Zselyke Csaky, research director for Europe and Eurasia for Freedom House. “It’s full of bureaucrats who know nothing about Hungary, it is a faraway city overrun with migrants and transfolks.’’

At the core of the Fidesz campaign is an appeal to popular fears of uncertainty and instability—whether a return to the economic crises that marked the pre-Orbán era, or of threats to the nation posed by foreign immigrants, or to the traditional family by gay couples. This was political terrain once occupied by Jobbik, Hungary’s far-right party whose candidate lost out in the first round of the opposition’s primaries. Where former Jobbik voters go could be key in the general election.

Given Fidesz’ dominance in government and in the media, it is likely that the party will be setting the themes and the tone of the campaign, forcing the opposition’s candidate—whoever it is—to be reactive and on the defensive. But Mr. Orbán and his allies are clearly taking the measure of the threat facing them next spring.“I think they are worried,’’ said Mr. Korányi. “They see there is a viable opposition that can mount a credible challenge.”

Outright defeat of Fidesz at the polls next April is unlikely, given the hurdles facing the unified opposition, and the electoral advantages enjoyed by Orbán’s party. But if it stays together, the opposition stands a chance at least to put a dent in Fidesz’ parliamentary majority and halt any further slide towards the return of one-party rule at the heart of Europe.

Thirty-three years after the collapse of communism, next year’s elections will give Hungary’s young democracy another chance.

Celestine Bohlen is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times who served as Budapest bureau chief from 1989 to 1991.