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The Luckiest People in Hungary

How is it that the ruling party is on track to an easy win in elections next year?

by Balint Szlanko 20 November 2013

Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party looks set to win next year’s elections in Hungary. Polls have been remarkably constant in predicting this: as of early November, the party had been leading the opinion surveys for a remarkable 87 months. At the moment it commands 51 percent support, very close to the 53 percent of votes Fidesz took in the 2010 elections.


How to explain such political success? The economy, though recovering slightly, is weak. Meager growth in 2010 and 2011 (1.3 percent and 1.7 percent, respectively) was followed by a drop in GDP of 1.7 percent last year. This year’s third-quarter growth figure is 1.7 percent.


That’s hardly enough to make people feel better in a country where more than half live at or below the subsistence level. Real wages fell last year by half a percentage point. Unemployment has dropped a bit, but it’s still nearly 10 percent, high by recent standards. No wonder polls show that more than half the country (56 percent) thinks things are going in the wrong direction – though the percentage of those who are more optimistic has doubled in a year, from 16 percent to 37 percent.


Part of Orban’s success is surely due to the weakness of the opposition. The once-dominant Socialists hemorrhaged votes at the last election and they haven’t been able to recover. Their leadership is gray or downright horrifying. One Socialist ex-prime minister even broke off to form a new party, though it attracts only about 5 percent in the polls.


And they are down to the basest trickery: the latest scandal concerns a faked video that purports to show some Roma operatives discussing the second round of a by-election in October in which they were allegedly paid to vote for Fidesz. No one knows who produced the video, but it was leaked to the media by a Socialist press officer, who later resigned.


The scandal was a well-deserved kick in the crotch for the Socialists, but it obscures another important story about that by-election: a court finding that Fidesz broke the law in the first round by busing its supporters to the precincts.


The big disappointment is Gordon Bajnai, Orban’s predecessor, a silent, technocratic type who launched his new party a year ago amid much hope on the left. He has since failed to make an impression on voters, partly because he’s not much of a politician (though he was a decent prime minister). Two weeks ago he said implementing his program “will hurt,” which makes you wonder whether he actually wants to lose.


Another factor in Orban’s success is his naked populism. Lately the government’s main policy has been to lower public-utility charges by statute, which naturally goes down well with the hard-pressed populace. But since most of the utility providers in Hungary are owned by the state or local governments, the taxpayers ultimately make up for those lower bills anyway.


Fotav, the company that heats many flats and houses in Budapest, estimates it will lose more than 30 million euros ($40.5 million) this year and the next under the new scheme. Inevitably that will lead to a drop in investment, so soon we might be back to where we were when I was a kid in the 1980s, when power kept cutting off. All of this, of course, is basic economics, forgotten in the mad rush for votes.


Apathy might also be a factor, though to be sure that’s not a new problem. The latest polls indicate an expected turnout of little more than 50 percent in the spring 2014 elections, though it always ends up being higher. Where are all the votes the left lost? Some went to Fidesz; some, oddly, to the far right; but most are staying away. Apathy will hand another big victory to Orban, by way of lack of an attractive alternative.


The most interesting development is the makeover of Jobbik, the far-right party that got into parliament in 2010 on an openly anti-Roma and slightly less openly anti-Semitic platform. The hatred is still there, but the presentation has become far smoother. Jobbik is now trying to position itself as the cool alternative to the aging prime minister, who looks increasingly like a mafia boss.


Jobbik gets about 14 percent approval in opinion polls – less than the 16 percent of votes it won in 2010, but still formidable. Frighteningly, it is especially popular among the young – indeed, the most popular party among college students, according to a summer poll. It could end up making much mischief still.


Yet it’s not Jobbik I worry about, but Fidesz. In his arrogant undoing of the post-1989 liberal and democratic consensus – primarily his destruction of meaningful judicial review and his casual and regular revision of the constitution whenever it suits his political aims – Orban has done much damage. He will do more. Who needs a far-right party when you have a center-right like this?

Balint Szlanko
 is a journalist in Budapest.
 His most recent book is about democracy.
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