Hungarian election: Orbán’s landslide victory against ‘not Orbán’

Parliamentary elections were held in Hungary on 3 April 2022. Viktor Orbán's Fidesz party has won a supermajority for the fourth consecutive time. On this occasion, they won against an opposition that united a whole range of parties, from the right-wing Jobbik to the supposedly left-wing Socialist Party. While the opposition lost more than 800,000 voters compared to their combined vote in 2018, the far-right Mi Hazánk, founded in 2018 by former Jobbik politicians, entered parliament.

Only downwards

After three major electoral defeats, the opposition parties decided to join forces and run a single list, with common candidates for all the constituencies and the position of prime minister. The opposition alliance included a liberal bourgeois party (Momentum); two centre-left parties; two green parties; and the right-wing Jobbik.

The opposition parties decided on their joint candidate for prime minister in a two-round primary in September and October. The turnout was relatively high compared to their previous mobilisation capacity, with 630,000 people participating in total, and the result was surprising. The only candidate not belonging to any party came out on top: Péter Márki-Zay (MZP), the independent mayor of Hódmezővásárhely.

The fact that the winning candidate was not a member of any party was a clear rejection of all the opposition parties, even by opposition voters. Evidently, people don’t believe they represent any real alternative to the Orbán regime. However, the same is true of MZP. Whilst he was seen by some as an ‘outsider’, he is a self-professed Catholic conservative and avowedly pro-market former Fidesz-voting figure. Furthermore, many of his allies or prominent supporters were representatives of the pre-2010 ‘socialist’-liberal government, whose austerity measures and liberalising economic policies were among the main reasons why the left has been discredited in Hungary, allowing Fidesz into power with a supermajority in 2010.

However, at the time of the primaries, the opposition was neck-and-neck with Fidesz, with some polls even measuring an opposition lead. At this time, their camp was well mobilised and the alliance could successfully set the political agenda. However, as the campaign progressed, Márki-Zay’s popularity collapsed ("Only upwards” was MZP's campaign slogan) at a speed that the pollsters could not follow – it only became visible on election night.

The myth of “anti-corruption” vs. class politics

Márki-Zay presented himself as a ‘corruption-free’, pro-EU, US and NATO version of Orbán. He painted himself in the model of the ‘young Orbán’, whom he often quoted, emphasising how much he sympathised with him in the past. At the same time, he swept away almost all the progressive reforms that were occasionally proposed by the opposition alliance (such as the introduction of a multi-rate tax system). He pointed out, for example, that: “My only request is not to raise taxes, because that's all Fidesz will talk about in the campaign, that the opposition wants to raise taxes”.

MZP essentially reduced everything in the opposition campaign to the abstract idea of 'anti-corruption' and an East-West ‘civilisational conflict’ (which has been typical of the opposition in the past as well). To the surprise of nobody, this was not enough for the Hungarian electorate. With their emphasis on Orbán’s “hate politics” and “corruption”, the opposition obscures his real objective: building up a national Hungarian bourgeoisie, with an independent policy, not dictated by Western Europe.

Márki Zay Péter Image Sióréti Gábor Wikimedia CommonsMárki-Zay Péter essentially reduced everything in the opposition campaign to the abstract idea of 'anti-corruption' and an East-West ‘civilisational conflict’ / Image: Sióréti Gábor, Wikimedia Commons

The only credible opposition to Fidesz could have come in the form of working-class politics. People want an alternative – they all face low wages, a lack of social security, and a lack of free time, while minority groups face severe oppression. However, so long as no real alternative is offered, for most people the only two options seem to be between, on the one hand, resistance to the ‘global world order’, as represented by Fidesz and, on the other, the ‘progressive neoliberalism’ fostered by the opposition.

What you can say about Fidesz is that at least they offer some kind of explanation about Hungary’s position in the capitalist world system. After the restoration of capitalism in Hungary in the late 1980s, there was a consensus within the new regime that the only possible way for the people to prosper is through modernisation, western integration and liberal democracy. By 2010, this modernisation project had completely failed in the eyes of the public. The 2008 crisis and internal political tensions (including violent demonstrations against the then ruling Hungarian Socialist Party in 2006) resulted in the notorious setback of its political representatives: that is the centre-left and liberal parties.

Fidesz exploited this by providing some concessions to workers and the poor. For example, it unveiled various government work schemes, which many people in the countryside rely on; and has ensured loans and tax breaks for newlyweds. Under Orbán, whilst inflation was close to 40 percent, average earnings more than doubled, and the minimum wage is almost three times higher now than in 2010. This has led to a real improvement of living standards for many Hungarians. When you contrast this against the pro-free market opposition, who would look to overturn even these minor reforms Orbán has carried out, it is no surprise that they have failed to garner much support. As long as those who oppose Orbán do not understand the reasons why Fidesz could emerge in the first place, they won’t be able to counter the party’s hegemony.

The opposition bases its whole critique of Orbán on a fight against corruption. But this can never attract the vast majority of people who experienced the corruption of the Socialist Party government, which didn’t stand up for their interests. In the minds of the Hungarian masses, all the parties and politicians are corrupt! These voters would, however, have been drawn to class politics, and a real alternative not only to Orbán but to the extremely unequal social system. Even if the opposition had campaigned on mild social democratic reforms, Fidesz’s supermajority could have been avoided. However, with Márki-Zay as the leader, the opposition’s only message was, as he often repeated: “Orbán or not Orbán?”

The global context

Even before Márki-Zay came on the scene, the opposition parties tended to present international political developments and Hungary's foreign policy through the lens of conflict between the East and West. Ultimately, this is a case of which bloc of imperialists is invited to dominate Hungarian politics. In their minds, Hungary's place is in the Western alliance, but Orbán is instead orienting the country eastwards – doing business and political deals with Russia, China and Turkey. Following this outlook, the opposition has not shied away from even the most virulent racist, especially anti-China and anti-Russia remarks.

Fudan University, which previously planned to set up a campus in Budapest, was labelled by opposition politicians as a 'Chinese communist' institution. It was contrasted with the ousting of the Central European University, founded by the Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros, which was said to represent 'Western values'. The project could have been rightly criticised. This elite Chinese university would have been built on the site of the planned student city of 10,000 students just at a time where there is a housing crisis in Budapest, which makes it very hard for students from low income families to rent a flat. This development would, therefore, only make this situation worse.

biden putin tanks Image Socialist AppealThe outbreak of the war in Ukraine could have been quite damaging for Orbán since he has made major political and business deals with the Russian government / Image: Socialist Appeal

The outbreak of war – in domestic political terms – could have been quite damaging for Orbán since he has made major political and business deals with the Russian government to ease Hungary's energy dependence. This has included, among other things, one of the most significant investments in Hungary in recent decades, the new nuclear reactor project Paks II, which is being built by Russia's State Atomiс Energy Corporation, Rosatom. Because of these political and economic dependencies, Orbán chose not to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with the vehemence of, say, the Czech and Polish leaderships. However, he has categorically condemned the war itself, and – under international pressure – has supported the EU sanctions imposed so far (hesitating for a while on SWIFT divestment), and fulfilled the obligations of NATO membership by allowing the deployment of allied troops inside the country (but only in the western part of Hungary).

At the same time, Orbán has made it clear that he does not support any Western military intervention, nor will Hungary allow arms shipments to pass directly through its territory into Ukraine. In addition, he ruled out support for sanctions on the energy sector. Orbán has, therefore, been balancing between two competing sides. On the one hand, he needs to maintain Hungary’s membership of the EU for economic reasons. Hungary is dependent on subsidies from the EU and its economy is tied closely to that of Germany. On the other hand, Hungary relies on the import of cheap Russian gas and Orbán has based much of his support on gas subsidies for many people in Hungary. This is why he criticised Putin, but tried to do it as softly as possible. This approach ultimately allowed Orbán to present himself as a stable leader who is on the side of peace and who will not take the country to war.

Meanwhile, it was very unclear what Péter Márki-Zay would really do about this conflict if he came to power. From the beginning, he attributed the war exclusively to Russia's aggression and tried to build his campaign on the claim that Orbán is the Hungarian Putin. At one point, however, he even said that “Orbán is single-handedly responsible for the war”, due to previously blocking Ukraine's accession to NATO membership, because of the systemic suppression of Hungarian minority rights and language use in Ukraine. Márki-Zay has been ambiguous, often contradicting his previous positions or those of his party allies, about a possible military intervention, arms supplies or energy sanctions.

On one occasion, for example, Márki-Zay said:

“Whatever NATO decides within the framework of the alliance, it can provide all kinds of support and assistance. If NATO decides so, even militarily (...) Hungary has already participated in similar missions from Afghanistan to the Middle East, Africa, etc. (...) It cannot be ruled out that there will be such a mission to Ukraine one day.”

Then on opposition television ATV he said:

“Hungary must implement NATO's joint decisions. So if NATO decides to support Ukraine with weapons, we will of course support it.”

Fidesz immediately turned its campaign machinery on these and similar statements. The whole country was flooded with posters and advertisements stating that “Márki Zay would send Hungarian soldiers to Ukraine", or that “the Márki-Zay-led alliance would cut off Russian gas” to stop Putin.

After realising that these statements were overwhelmingly rejected by the Hungarian population, Márki-Zay’s campaign team tried to defend him by claiming that these were sentences taken out of context, and that they would not support either the arms transfer or a possible military intervention. By this time, however, it was difficult to recover his credibility.

The first signs of an economic crisis already appeared before the war broke out. The government introduced state price controls on basic foodstuffs such as sugar, wheat flour, sunflower oil, legs of pork, chicken breast and milk due to inflation. They also introduced price controls for fuel. By now, market prices are well above the government's price, by as much as 20-30 percent. Some smaller petrol stations have already closed because they were unable to cover their losses.

The opposition, instead of pointing out that price controls will not solve anything in the long run – nor address the global problem of shortages and inflation – has argued that Orbán is pursuing a communist policy with state controls. One of the key figures of the opposition, Ákos Hadházy, for example, responded to the food price controls by saying “Lenin Lived, Lenin Lives, and Lenin Will Always Live”. This ridiculous demagogy will only have alienated the vast majority of working-class Hungarians suffering from inflation.

By the time of the election, it was common to see shops and petrol stations displaying how many cartons of milk, flour or sugar a customer could buy, or how many litres of petrol could be bought at once. Similar restrictions or warnings of future shortages of sunflower oil (among other goods) have been seen in Spain, the UK, Greece, France and Turkey.

The Hungarian government also started a significant social spending drive before the election. Pay rises for health workers and teachers were carried out, a pension increase was given and pension bonuses distributed. Families were reimbursed for the personal income tax paid in 2021. However, these have not solved the problems of workers in the sectors concerned, who still earn humiliatingly little. The government had to take the measures just to allow these sections of the working class to keep up with soaring inflation. As a result, the budget deficit has reached a multi-decade high. The consequences will have to be dealt with by the new government. What will come is austerity, which will eventually force the working class into conflict with Fidesz.

Time to build

On the day after the elections, the front pages of liberal Hungarian newspapers once again carried reports and opinion pieces suggesting that international actors might punish the Hungarian government if it could not be defeated in the election. The Financial Times, for example, has issued an editorial calling on the European Union to put pressure on Orbán by withholding funds and investigating corruption. Two days after the election, the European Commission announced that it would launch a rule-of-law disciplinary procedure against Hungary.

It is clear, however, that these measures have been – and will continue to be – ineffective against the Orbán regime – if anything, it will only strengthen its popularity. It is also typical that European leaders who use strong words against Orbán do this mostly for domestic political purposes, as a message to their own electorate, while taking no real economic action (see Merkel's Germany) that could really shake Orbán's political stability. These characters are no friends of ours.

What these elections demonstrate is that the policy of lesser evilism leads nowhere. There is no doubt that we are facing a deep crisis. The national teachers’ strike and the upcoming strike of the train drivers could easily be followed by strikes in many other areas. Rising inflation and increasing global supply difficulties could further fuel discontent. At such times, many people will be looking for explanations, answers and alternatives. The election should prove something for the left in Hungary, however. There can be no faith in the liberals to oppose Orbán. Joining up with other parties may, on the face of it, make it seem like you have greater forces, but joining up with bourgeois and right-wing parties only means you have to water down your programme to be nothing but ‘anti-Orbán’. This election shows this strategy does not work. A clear, class-based opposition has the best chance of defeating Orbán. And ultimately, only a socialist programme that ends the misery and inequality afflicting Hungarian society.