Four weeks ago everyone was resigned that Fidesz would win again on April 8. Today, no self-respecting analyst would dare to make a prediction.
Voters are ready to mobilize and cast their votes against Orbán in one last effort of hope. But even if the opposition pulls itself together, the election system may still defeat them.
Before the February by-election, Fidesz’ reelection was taken for granted. Not because the majority wanted them – but because the opposition was in no shape to vote for. No, the opposition didn’t pull itself together since February. But the voters did. And suddenly all bets are off.
The stakes are high. This may be the last chance when Orbán can be reigned in with democratic tools. But even more importantly, this may be the last chance to restore the sense of control. This may be the last chance voters can do something – anything – that makes a difference. This may be one last rush of mobilization that may finally break the crippling sense of being helpless against the regime. Because internalized helplessness is the best friend of every aspiring autocrat.
Opinions polls are not reliable anymore
It all started with Hódmezővásárhely, a town of less than 50 000 people and a perennial Fidesz stronghold. In a routine mayoral by-election in February, the Fidesz candidate suffered a shocking defeat. In short, 9000 citizens of Hódmezővásárhely, who had never voted before turned up and voted against Fidesz.
Opinion polls didn’t show anything was brewing – let alone a 58% majority to the opposition. Those 9000 extra people didn’t only hide their hatred for Fidesz – they were even hiding their intention to vote. Even during the exit poll interviews, local media didn’t find a single person who would admit that she voted for the opposition candidate. But once the results were in, a small fiesta broke out.
The hiding of political views has never been more severe. As a pollster put it, only one out of five people are usually willing to answer political surveys (because they don’t trust anonymity). In a recent poll, the ratio fell even further, to one out of eleven and so the survey had to be dropped.
Voters are hiding not just their party preference but their intention to vote
On top of the hiding voters, pollsters have to take into account that Fidesz results are regularly overreported, but not because the polling firms are biased. (Or not just because of that). Since its surprise defeat in 2002, Fidesz has always received significantly less votes than surveys predicted. The phenomenon is completely unexplained.
Add this to the hiding opposition voters are you realize it doesn’t matter what the above chart shows. Four out of five people didn’t even answer the survey out of fear.
This can be explained by Orbán’s well-known vindictiveness against those who don’t fall in line. It didn’t help that in his March 15 speech, Orbán did exactly that and explicitly threatened the opposition with consequences.
“We will seek moral, legal and political revengeafter the elections.”
–PM Viktor Orbán on the opposition and civil society who supposedly work to bring in millions of Africans and people from the Middle East into Hungary as paid ‘mercenaries’ of ‘Uncle George’ (George Soros).
15 March, 2018
High mobilization hurts Fidesz
After Orbán’s speech and the Hódmezővásárhely results, voting intention skyrocketed.
Not only did the newly minted Hungarian citizens in the Serbian, Romanian, Ukrainian and Slovakian diasporas (who are expected to vote for Orbán) register in record numbers, but so did Western European expats (who aren’t).
Students have also started to mobilize. After their teachers and their parents’ generation gave up or fell in line, high school students who are barely coming of age went to the streets, protesting. If anyone can break apathy and resignation and jolt their parents out of apathy, it is them.
And Hódmezővásárhely wasn’t the only surprise. Last Sunday, the infamous mayor of Érpatak lost his seat 72-28%. Érpatak is a small village of 1800 people and Mihály Zoltán Orosz was its uncontested and aggressive little overlord for more than a decade. He ruled by intimidating people, his critics were beaten up, their houses firebombed, spreading fear in his village. In the meantime he enriched himself spectacularly but allegations of corruption and countless court cases against him were fought back using the village’s tight budget. Jobbik celebrated his “Érpatak model“, which meant cutting out all welfare payments and using the public work program to force the unemployed to work on his land.
Once again, the voter turnout in Érpatak was extremely high, at 70%. And just like in Hódmezővásárhely, the election results were welcomed with a little fiesta, huge relief and a sense of breakthrough.
It is never wise to extrapolate from local cases. But Hódmezővásárhely was such a Fidesz stronghold that even if the whole country turned away from Fidesz, they would be still expected to vote for them. These cases also fit into a less well-known trend: that Fidesz tends to lose at every relevant local and by-election since 2014. And it is always unexpected.
Elections will be free but not fair
No one doubts that the votes will be counted accurately. That’s not how you steal an election these days. There is information warfare instead – something the whole world is only starting to grasp. And then there is the election law.
The new election law was created in 2011 by Fidesz to benefit itself. To be precise, it benefits any party that is big and undivided. (In other words, Fidesz.) Fidesz is a monolithic, top-down one-man show of Viktor Orbán, who had always been the uncontested leader of his gang. (Seriously, what did you expect from a party like that?)
During the last eight years, Orbán has made sure that his opposition remained fragmented and thus un-electable under the law. They are so busy with infighting and character murdering each other that they pose no risk to Fidesz. Some would even argue that Orbán must have blackmailed and/or bribed them to act so stupidly and serve as a token opposition of an illiberal autocracy.
The nationwide polls can only tell us about the fate of the 93 mandates on the national list. The dilemma for the opposition voter is the five percent threshold. If his choice of opposition party doesn’t make it (and look at the chart, they are all on the edge of the cliff), those seats will also go to Fidesz due to the compensation that benefits the winner. (Yes, seriously.) From the only two opposition parties that are safely above 5%, one is Jobbik – and the other one (MSZP-PM) runs on a joint list and thus needs to get 10% to get in. Which is not so sure.
All in all, the opposition parties might all just fall out of the national list – except Jobbik.
There are other issues with the fairness of the elections. There is the pro-Fidesz diaspora that is treated preferentially to the Western European expats. For expats, voting is made just a little bit more difficult at every turn. Expats are not authoritarians and many were forced to leave because of this regime or the zombie economy.
On the other hand, many of the diaspora Hungarians have also been alienated by Orbán recently. Orbán pissed off Slovakian Hungarians when he called the protests sparked by the murder of a journalist couple a provocation by George Soros. Orbán also stubbornly endorsed Robert Fico, the prime minister who had been implicated in Italian mafia affairs and then resigned to avoid a by-election. Neither of those arrogant moves went down well. Romanian voters were similarly put off by Fidesz’ local corruption scandals. All in all, despite the one million new citizens, only 380 thousand registered to vote until the deadline.
Then there is campaign financing. Fidesz constantly campaigns on the taxpayers’ money, as ‘government information’. Orbán even collected donations to continue the “government information campaign” of the last two years as his own party’s election campaign. But there is no one to call him out on it.
The media is also heavily biased. The public broadcaster only gave 5 minutes of air time to each opposition party – that leaves Fidesz with 49 days, 23 hours and 55 minutes out of the 50-day campaign. Much of the privately owned media is also in the hands of Fidesz loyalists and run as part of the same propaganda machine. No fines or complaints can deter them, the wrath of Orbán is more threatening than any official authority in the country.
Can the opposition pull itself together for the 106 local mandates?
The nationwide poll data only matters when it comes to the national list, but 106 seats go to local MPs in a first-past-the-post system. And this is where the responsibility of the opposition is huge.
Firstly, this is where Orbán’s policy of weak candidates that enjoy little local support may backfire. They may be loyal to Orbán only, but they are irrevocably linked to the Fidesz brand – for better and for worse. Corruption and the arrogance of the Fidesz’ nouveau riche is also more visible locally.
The question of everyone’s mind is whether the opposition can coordinate in local districts so they don’t defeat each other and split the anti-Fidesz votes. They appear to be negotiating, but they are still more busy discrediting one another than withdrawing candidates. And while trying to figure out who has the most chance in each district, they have to rely on the above mentioned opinion polls. Luckily for them, however, this election is not about their popularity or even about their programs. It is about defeating Orbán or letting him finish the job.
It seems that the anti-Fidesz voters are ready to hold their noses and make a tactical vote – but the stupidity of the opposition might defeat voters.
Even Fidesz voters have a problem with Fidesz
Fidesz’ branding is still strong and some will deny any evidence to the contrary. The politically religious types and those who relapsed into the authoritarian habit of communism would always fall in line to survive any regime. They will always follow the strongest strongman out there. Others are genuinely terrified that migrants would eat their babies without Orbán.
But those who criticize Fidesz do so because Fidesz had stopped hiding that they are stealing. And while investigative journalists and courts need evidence and a paper trail, local voters don’t. The feudalistic land grab of Fidesz strongmen outraged many countrywide, and if national politicians are arrogant – local ones are ten times more so.
So corruption is not hidden, they are not ashamed of it, they even rub it in. And even when a scandal comes to the surface, they don’t apologize, no one ever resigns, and the stealing does not stop. Voters are thus conditioned to stop getting outraged to avoid the disappointment. Just shrug and give in. You can get angry only so many times and not see any consequences. That is the logic of inducing helplessness. A strongman can stay in power by pushing ever bigger scandals down your throat until you finally become helpless, resigned, and stop trying. Apathy used to be palpable in this country.
But that is what changed.
So what can happen?
The major scenarios are:
- Fidesz supermajority (2/3 or above)
- Fidesz majority (50%+)
- Fidesz minority government (hard to imagine who would form a coalition government with them)
The chance of any one opposition party to win a majority is non-existent so they won’t be asked to form a government. Their ability to govern in such a hostile constitutional setup would be wildly limited anyway. If Fidesz would not win, there would be problems – albeit much more preferable to the problems posed by one more Fidesz government.
So what changed is the peak voting intention and the biggest ever share of voters who are hiding their party preference. If the opposition can get over itself and coordinate local candidates, the voters seem to be willing to do their job. Many regard this as our last chance to remove Orbán democratically. Against the odds and on a tilted playing field, but the people may have one last spark of resistance left.