Orbán will be asked to form a government after the elections on Sunday thanks to his own election law. But the stakes are still huge. A visible decline in electoral support would weaken his legitimacy, the myth of his invincibility would crumble and the sense of democratic control would be restored.
Apathy and resignation are the autocrat’s best friend
Feeling helpless against a strongman keeps the strongman in power – without having to spend on enforcement. After all, there aren’t enough guns to boss around everyone, so if it has to be done by guns, it is not working.
This is why even the harshest dictatorships rest on more than just enforcement. They depend on the passive submission of their victims. Aspiring autocrats go out of their ways to instill the sense of helplessness, so eventually their victims come to believe that nothing can be done, it is better to cooperate. Maybe they misjudged this poor dictator. Maybe he really wants to protect. Maybe they actually love him.
To remain in power, a ruler needs to instill the sense of helplessness. And it can be achieved by something as simple as spreading the myth of his own legitimacy, by pretending to have broader support than he actually has. If everyone believes that others must be supporting him – his rule will be unchallenged. And we have seen a lot of that during that last eight years. People who don’t support Orbán helplessly shrugged that others do. That others are subservient and others don’t want to live in a free society. Others are mortally afraid of the mirage of migrants and want soft communism back.
If victims regard each other as subservient subjects, they all become subservient objects. The belief that you are alone with your dissent also makes you stop trying. And nothing suggested to Hungarians that the majority is not mortally scared of the apocalyptic vision of migrant hordes – promoted by Orbán without shame or any shed of inhibitions left.
The belief that he is invincible also does miracles to an autocrat’s support. The shield of invincibility protects him from potential challengers. If people believe that nothing can be done against him, no one even tries.
Voting as a collective action problem
Voters are in a peculiarly sticky situation when it comes to fighting helplessness. Achieving anything by voting depends on the actions of millions of other voters. Coordinating millions of strangers is a disheartening collective action problem – and thus a bottomless pit of helplessness.
Fidesz has just learned that discontent is so high, even their stronghold could be lost. On the same day, the opposition learned that they have numbers on their side. But most importantly, the voters have learned that something can be done. That they are not alone with their discontent. And this was the biggest crack on Orbán’s shield of invincibility so far.
Orbán had infused the sense of helplessness in Hungarians for years. They feel legally helpless. Economically helpless. Politically helpless. Outrageous policies and mind-boggling corruption scandals passed without any consequence. At least not for the perpetrators. Protests never achieved anything. And every new attempt made people more and more cautious about getting outraged. It hurts to get disappointed, so after a while you lower your hopes.
There have been five cracks of Orbán’s plan so far – all greater than the last:
- The first was just a hairline crack. It happened in 2012 when a months-long online protest and scathing ridicule has forced the President, Pál Schmitt, to resign for plagiarism. The president is a weightless, symbolic figure, but Schmitt was Orbán’s loyal friend, a sport-related political persona – and one of the pillars of Budapest’s Olympic bid. He was irrelevant, but Orbán didn’t want to lose face and let him resign. After all, every time consequences fail to come to a member of his clan, his power grows and the chance of future challenge wanes. He put his own weight behind Schmitt, but eventually he let go of him.
- The second crack happened in 2014 when a petty detail, a proposed internet tax incensed the otherwise apathetic public and huge protests brought over hundred thousand Hungarians to the streets – Europe-wide. The idea was sent to a committee then let to fizzle out. As I said, petty things. Our pension savings, for instance, were nationalized in the meantime.
- Then in 2016 Fidesz had to perform a U-turn on the mandatory Sunday closure of retail stores. The policy was uncalled for and it produced farcical results. It was only introduced to divert attention from the scandal of the day, the fact that leading Hungarian officials were just banned from travelling to the US due to monumental corruption issues. The closure did distract attention from that, especially because it was wildly unpopular, even among Fidesz voters. But Orbán only let go of it when a referendum (!) became possible (despite bald thugs and every possible legal obstacle put in its way). Orbán even threatened to extend the closure when the pressure became too strong – but after a weekend retreat some minion was dispatched to announce that they give in and let us do our shopping whenever we want. It infuriated Orbán, we were punished for it. It was a reversal of an actual policy, so the biggest crack thus far. But it was still only passive resistance (shown in opinion polls). There was no activism, no citizen resistance. That came later.
- In 2017 a miracle happened. The Olympic delusion of a sport-crazed prime minister (and a monumental corruption opportunity) was thwarted by a new generation entering politics. The Momentum movement collected a shocking number of signatures demanding a referendum on the Olympics being hosted by Budapest – and that was when everyone learned that others were also against it. This was a new level of resistance. The young activists gave their names and faces to the campaign – but those who signed their sheets also had to give their name, address and ID number. And by 2017 it was far from obvious that anyone would dare to do that.
- But the most hopeful development happened in February 2018, six weeks before the general elections, when everyone already resigned that Orbán would win again and probably manages to cement his power into eternity. A major Fidesz-stronghold was lost at a by-election by a breathtaking margin and never before seen participation level. Once again, the voters have learned that they are not alone.
After the election Fidesz will be asked to form the new government – but they can still suffer a mortal blow to their legitimacy and invincibility
Fidesz will be the biggest party and thus asked to form a government – there is no doubt about that. But above a 70% turnout Fidesz might lose its parliamentary majority – despite the heavily pro-Fidesz election rules.
And depending of the results, both his legitimacy and the myth of his invincibility might suffer a mighty blow. He may become a mere mortal again, having to compete for popularity. What he tirelessly painted as a historic shift in 2010 might turn out to be just two terms on government – not a new geological era. God knows, he maybe even have to write a program and start governing.
1. The shield of legitimacy would crumble
If Orbán’s popular support would decrease significantly, his shield of legitimacy would crumble.
In 2014 44% of the votes delivered Orbán 67% of the mandates at a 62% turnout – because of the compensation of the biggest party and the votes of the diaspora Hungarians Orbán had naturalized for this very purpose.
Parading around as “Mr 2/3″ has been his party trick since 2010 – both at home and abroad. He walked around wagging his two-third and rubbing it in like Trump was wagging his red button. Apparently, whose (majority at home) is bigger is still a valid argument in international politics. But the size of your majority is not indicative of the rightness of your argument.
With his 2/3 he gave himself the authority to ignore everyone. He reshaped the country, rewrote the constitution, the election law, the economic rules of the game, reshuffling wealth to his friends and family (often falsely described as ‘economic patriotism’). Behind all this stood the unspoken premise that 2/3 of the mandates gives someone total entitlement over the 1/3 of mandates (or 56% of the votes) and the constitutional system.
Depending on how little a percentage will secure him the majority this time, his legitimacy could suffer a serious blow. If the shield of his legitimacy would crumble, the sense of democratic control would be restored in voters. For the first time in years Hungarians seem to be in the spirit of delivering a punch. The opposition doesn’t make it easier. But everyone looks stoked.
2. The myth of invincibility would be gone
It is hard to overstate what an electoral blow would mean to the myth of Orbán’s invincibility. A strongman must not appear weak. The perception of invincibility is every autocrat’s best friend. It has been Orbán’s best ally so far. Even his opposition stop believing that he can be beaten – so they were busy attacking each other instead.
In February, voters have realized that they might have an actual power – and that opposition might have their numbers on their side. Voting might be an infinitely inconsequential thing to do, but now it seems like delivering your own, tiny punch to the powerful is possible – and has consequences. For once, Orbán seems to be more afraid of the voters than the voters are of him.
If Orbán would be pushed into a minority government (the wildest dream on the table) things would not be jolly the day after. But things have been pretty awful already. Orbán is a sore loser, we know that since 2006. But whatever comes after a shake-up would just be a different kind of bad. But it would restore the spirit of empowerment.
A weakening of Fidesz may trigger a much greater discontent with corruption, economic feudalism and the unfair electoral system that made it possiblet. People may even demand a decent opposition that actually wants to govern.
A broken spirit is worse than a broken political system. A broken system can be repaired as long as there is an intention. But the sense of helplessness causes lasting social and individual damage.