On Sunday, April 3, parliamentary elections will be held in Hungary. As usual in Europe, the country’s MPs, in turn, elect the prime minister, making these the elections that will steer the course of national politics for the next 4 years.
For the first time since he took office in 2010, Viktor Orbán faces a real electoral challenge. After sweeping in that year and 2014 and 2018, winning supermajorities of ⅔ in all three cases, he faces a united opposition fielding a single candidate, Péter Márki-Zay, mayor of Hódmezővásárhely, a traditional Orbán power center.
For this reason, and because Hungary has become a model of governance for many conservatives and has been a country fraught with controversy over its clashes with European bureaucracy and its closeness to Putin’s Russia, this is perhaps the most defining election in this country’s democratic history. Never before has so much attention been paid in the United States to the elections of a country so small and so far away.
The two main contenders for the position of Prime Minister are the conservative Viktor Orbán, who has been in power since 2010 (and had a previous term between 1998 and 2002), and the aforementioned Marki-Záy.
Orbán is the leader of the Fidesz party (the Hungarian Civic Alliance), which was founded as a liberal right-wing movement and evolved over time into a conservative party. Marki-Záy leads a strange opposition coalition, which includes the Socialist Party, the liberal Momentum party, the Green Party, and the once anti-Semitic Jobbik party, among other political forces.
Outside of the two major alliances, only the far-right Our Motherland movement, which is a split from Jobbik and the joke party MKKP, have any chance of entering Parliament.
The electoral system
On Sunday, the National Assembly of Hungary, the only chamber of the legislative power of the country, composed of 199 MPs, will be renewed in full on Sunday.
Elections are held under the FTTP (first-past-the-post) system, whereby the candidate with the most votes is elected without a second round. This has been considered unfair by some opposition commentators as it tends to favor the predominant party. However, there is also a list ballot that elects 40% of the members of Parliament.
If the Hungarian system were similar to the British system, in 2010, Fidesz would have won all but 3 seats in Parliament, but due to the list vote, the opposition obtained a larger representation.
In turn, there will be 899 international observers and 368 interpreters for these observers. Interestingly, any journalist or member of an international NGO can apply to be an international observer and watch the counting and certification of the votes by filling out an online form, something that is not possible in many U.S. states, especially those dominated by Democrats.
Orbán has been accused of favoritism by several European organizations and local politicians and journalists. For example, one report indicated that Orbán spent 8 times more than the opposition on election propaganda, tripling the legal limit. However, according to Hungarian journalist Mátyás Kohán, this information is being taken out of context.
“The only way to postulate such astronomical differences between government and opposition spending on political advertisements is by adding political ads run by pro-government NGOs to government spending, while refusing to do the same to political ads run by opposition-aligned NGOs,” Kohán, who writes for Hungary’s second-largest weekly, Mandiner, told El American.
“There is a slew of NGOs in Hungary that are engaged in wall-to-wall anti-Orbán political campaigns in and outside the actual electoral campaign period. Any report that fails to take them into account when counting the opposition’s campaign spending, while adding spending by CÖF/the Civilian Alliance Forum, which organizes the pro-government March for Peace, to Fidesz spending, is severely biased,” he added.
Others have accused Fidesz of gerrymandering, that is, drawing constituencies in a way that favors the ruling party. This led him to win ⅔ of the seats in parliament in 2014 and 2018 with only 45% and 49% of the vote respectively. However, while the system may not be perfect, it is not a rarity in Europe. Macron won 54% of the French National Assembly with 43% of the vote in 2017, just to mention one example. Plus, the disunity in the opposition helped Fidesz to be able to win in many districts without large percentages of the vote.
The opposition has not been without controversy either. For example, one of the largest media close to the government, Magyar Nemzet, accused the opposition of illegally using the personal data of more than one million people to send them political messages against the Orbán government.
Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the election had several priority issues: public services, inflation, relations with the EU, and corruption, among others.
Now, however, it is the war that is on everyone’s lips. Marki-Záy’s campaign has focused on asking Hungarians to “choose the West over the East” and Orbán on choosing “peace over war.” Orbán has been criticized in Hungary and the West for his closeness to the Russian regime due to the deep trade ties between the two countries. El American consulted various energy experts and estimates say that 80-95% of Hungary’s energy is dependent on Russia.
“The current Hungarian government has always stood with the Western alliances in condemning Russian aggression against its neighboring countries. This does not mean that Hungary would not cooperate with Russia on energy policy. Considering Hungary’s geographic position, it is clear that ensuring affordable gas supply for the population has to be a practical matter, not an ideological one,” foreign policy analyst and Axióma editor Marcell Bákos told El American.
Hungary is in the awkward position of being a small landlocked country, without really other viable nearby options from which to obtain gas nor without much nuclear energy power, which has led the country to rely on Russian gas.
“The national interest for every country should include the populace having easy access to things such as cheap energy and food. Also, this needs to be secure. This is why Hungary signed a fifteen-year gas deal with Russia recently and is also receiving their help to update their nuclear energy facilities as well. From the Hungarian perspective, this is the best bet,” Budapest Foundation energy and international relations analyst Tate Sanders told El American.
“As for lack of resources, Hungary has to import the majority of their energy needs, and much of this is from Russia. When you are a resource-poor nation, choices become much more black and white,” Sanders added.
While this stance has earned him criticism from the West and it does not appear to be viable for Hungary to be so dependent on Russia in the long run, internally, it has improved Orbán’s electoral prospects. For example, Nézőpont Intézet polls provided to El American give Fidesz an 8% lead, up from 5% before the war, while Medián, a pollster close to the opposition, gives Fidesz a 10% lead and Politico Europe gives Fidesz a 6% lead.
With these numbers, all indications are that Fidesz will win the election again, although it may not have a parliamentary supermajority for the first time. The Medián poll indicates a majority of 128 seats, while the most optimistic opposition estimate is 105 seats for Fidesz.
However, some analysts do not rule out the existence of a rural silent vote in favor of the opposition and the 10-15% who remained undecided until the latest polls. In turn, Orbán is favored by the fact that he has an advantage of almost 90% among the Roma minority, the largest in the country, for two main reasons: war and migration. There are many Roma in the army, so their families tend to support Fidesz’s isolationist stance, and they view migration from the Middle East and Africa with suspicion because many of them work in the informal trade or as laborers.
Without a parliamentary supermajority, Fidesz will probably have to work more closely with moderate elements of the opposition to push through its government plans. Will it finally be time for Fidesz to show whether it has a democratic streak?