Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister won a third consecutive term on 8 April and his Fidesz party regained its super-majority in parliament. The success of his anti-migration platform, the lack of a level playing field in the campaign, and the fragmentation of the opposition all contributed to another landslide victory for Fidesz.
Orbán decided to fight the 2018 election campaign focusing exclusively on migration, while the opposition parties (from left to far-right) based their messages on corruption and social issues, especially the tragic state of the country’s healthcare and education systems. Stressing only his anti-immigration track record and offering protection against the „Muslim invasion” was a double or nothing bet from Orbán, and he won. The Hungarian Prime Minister placed migration at the top of his agenda in 2015 and has skillfully exploited the issue since then by spending millions of euros on public information (in reality, propaganda) campaigns that have had a great effect both on the public debate and attitudes. For 48% of the voters (more than 2.5 million people), fear from migration proved to be more important than systemic corruption and other problems in their everyday lives.
Hungary elections lacked a level playing field, the opposition would have needed a miracle to overcome the hurdles that Orbán has put in place. Electoral rules that favour Fidesz, biased media coverage and a “pervasive overlap between state and ruling party resources” undermined the opposition parties’ ability to compete on an equal basis, OSCE concluded. Strange irregularities at hundreds of polling stations that favoured Fidesz and weakened the opposition also cast a shadow over the electoral process.
The transformation of the media landscape was especially important for the government to help spread its messages. The speed at which businessmen close to Orbán are expanding their influence in the Hungarian media points towards a goal of total domination. Fidesz has converted public media into a 24/7 propaganda machine and diverted massive amounts of public funds into a growing array of newly created or recently acquired commercial media that are quickly assimilated into the pro-Fidesz machinery. The total takeover of the regional newspaper market also contributed to the fact that the government has practically monopolised the flow of information to the uncommitted and uninformed in the countryside.
Today, opposition voices have very little ability to reach those rural voters who do not use
the Internet. This trend has led to an increasing urban-rural divide and thus to a landslide Fidesz victory in villages. Xenophobia, conspiracy theories and fake news about foreign actors and Hungarian opposition politicians were the ingredients of a campaign that mobilised the Fidesz base effectively, and even won new voters in rural Hungary.
Orbán’s confident win would not have been possible without the opposition’s own mistakes either. Since the collapse of the Socialist Party (MSZP) and the rise of far-right Jobbik in the 2006-2010 parliamentary term, Fidesz has managed to establish itself as the “central political force,” the only major party on the scene, with the opposition divided into left-wing and far-right blocs. With an electoral system that favours big parties, the fragmentation of the opposition is the guarantee of another Fidesz victory. Hungary’s left-wing and liberal opposition parties did not learn the lessons of their 2014 defeat, and this year they cooperated even less than at the last elections.
These parties should have focused all their energies on offering a joint alternative to Orbán’s illiberal regime; instead, there was an intense competition between the Socialists, the left-liberal Democratic Coalition, and the Greens for the leading position on the left. The outcome was disastrous: the combined result of the three left-wing and liberal parties that reached the parliamentary threshold was worse than in 2014. It is safe to conclude that Fidesz’s super-majority deepened on the lack of unity on the left. The task for the next years is clear: the left should join forces and their politics should be rebuilt completely, both in terms of vision (and attractive policies) and organisational background (including media and grassroots networks in rural Hungary).
Regarding what would come next, Orbán already offered some guidelines in the campaign. In a major speech, he promised to seek “moral, political and legal amends” against his opponents after the elections. It would be wishful thinking to expect any kind of self-moderation from Orbán – his threats to civil society, critical media and the Central European University should be taken seriously. This seems to be the chronicle of an assassination foretold. Local governments and the judiciary that have managed to keep relative independence so far are also possible targets. From a European perspective, the question is until what point the continent’s leaders – especially those in the European People’s Party – will tolerate the Hungarian government’s increasingly authoritarian policies. If the EU’s powerful center-right alliance keeps on providing political cover for the autocratic rule of Orban, Hungary’s democratic backsliding, dissemination of misinformation about Brussels, and misuse of EU funds will surely continue.