The Central Force Field may sound like a thing from Star Wars, but it’s really just a name Orbán gave himself. It means that the splintered (by him) group of opposition parties couldn’t divide against him even if they wanted to because Orbán occupied the middle. Until October 2019.
One of the most poignant hypotheses within Fidesz to explain the reasons of their non-victory at the October municipal elections was the end of the Central Force Field.
The Central Force Field was the term Orbán coined to describe himself as the sun and stars of Hungarians, the political entity that occupied the middle and thus rendered an all-opposition coalition against him impossible. And because of the election system he created, only a unified party could compete with a running chance, multiple little parties would all punch under their weight.
At least at the general elections. But the municipal elections did not have such a monstrously distorting winner-compensation potential that elevated Fidesz from 48% of the votes to two-thirds of the seats on parliament at the last general elections. And that was just the beginning of the differences between April 2018 and October 2019. At the municipal elections Orbán’s freshly minted one million new voters from neighboring countries could not vote – whether by unchecked mail or homing pigeons. Nor did votes disappear en masse after ballots closed and the central computer system also didn’t freeze (for so long).
Another difference between the two election was the time that passed. In February 2018, weeks before the general elections came the first hint at what was coming to Fidesz. A Fidesz stronghold was lost to an all-opposition candidate at a mayoral byelection – by an absolute shock of a participation rate. No one saw that coming and all Fidesz’ alarms went off immediately. But it was only a few weeks before general elections and opposition parties couldn’t get their ducks in a row in such a short time (between February and April 2018) and in every district. Fidesz could by and large stop them from successfully uniting their forces for the general elections.
But the European elections in May 2019 came to the rescue. Lacking the grossly distorting vote counting mechanism, small parties could measure their popularity – and with that, two opposition parties clearly emerged as winners of the non-Fidesz side. They scored a surprise result, sending two MEPs to Brussels each. (Those MEPs turned out to be more than just politicians-for-a-living in comfy seats. They have used all their resources to spread the news about Orbán – causing Fidesz politicians and voters to call them traitors.)
Some argue that looking at the EP-election numbers made it clear that something was up. Indeed, the district by district breakdown of votes forecast the challenges for Fidesz at the municipal elections – it was just that everyone had lost hope by then and Fidesz grew complacent. It is easier with hindsight.
And so October 2019, Orbán’s last election challenge arrived, with everyone anticipating another crushing victory over the dispirited non-Fidesz parties. Opposition parties stood divided and conquered. Partly because they would never have voted at each other’s candidates – or so Fidesz thought. After all, the non-Fidesz parties (which I normally refuse to even differentiate because they truly don’t matter) were fragmented, acted stupid, and they included both the nazis and the so-called democratic opposition (for lack of a better word) on the other side of Orbán. If ideology still a thing, this should have given Fidesz the edge. But the thing is, ideology is over. It is just about naked war for power, only dummies buy into the ideological sauce, and even they only do so to justify their side-taking, no other reason.
What didn’t work between February and April of 2018 was managed by October 2019: non-Fidesz parties managed to agree on the local level, in many towns and cities, in a common candidate. There were threats, there were very visible efforts by Fidesz to block these coalitions. But the complete lack of a chance and the pressure from voters to present an alternative had finally worked. And ideology didn’t.
If there is one obvious trend in the world is that despite the loud and relentless yapping of talentless politicians and fearmongering spin doctors, ideology gave way to naked power hunger. No one would go through election hell for a chance to represent the public good. The expensive and brutal performance running at elections complete with sucking up to sponsors and milkshaking is only ever done by anyone to gain power. Ideas and principles can’t be afforded anymore.
Same stands for Hungary. Only communication and corruption. There is no ideology, there is no policy anymore – at least none that doesn’t also serve communication and corruption purposes. So what exactly would stop a non-Fidesz voter from voting for an all-opposition candidate just because he is from the other side of the long-forgotten ideological spectrum?
In one sense Orbán is still the sun and stars of Hungarian politics: the single most important motivation for voting and the single most important dividing line is his person.
Some hysterically adore him and fear that a black hole would swallow the country without him. Others equally hysterically want to be rid of him and don’t want a cult of a person and the rule of his gang to determine the future of the country. Since only an all-opposition candidate can have a chance against Fidesz, the emergence of one is a powerful motivation to go out to vote. Apparently more powerful than the urge to play petty ideological cat fights between opposition parties.
The third factor that Orbán forgot is that he is the most extreme right politician now. It really started in 2014 when he fell out with his former oligarch-in-chief. Said oligarch left with a bang and put his weight behind Jobbik, the party that was supposed to be even further right than Orbán. Jobbik started to reshape their image because only a people’s party can defeat Orbán – or so they thoughts. The party leader even took photos with puppies – and suffered a particularly disgusting smear campaign at the hands of the Fidesz media.
Jobbik didn’t break Fidesz in 2014. By the 2018 elections they splintered and went into disarray. But by then, Orbán was by far the most radical, right-wing, xenophobic, racist political force in Hungary. The brutal campaign didn’t mince words and neither did he. Even seasoned neo-nazis complained that Orbán stole their platform, things they’ve kept saying for decades (about gypsies and Jews) and got them shunned were now mainstream and said by Orbán himself.
The most authoritarian right wingers are also the ones hopelessly in love with power – and Orbán had power. He was already in power. It is infinitely more rewarding for the authoritarian mind to be on the side of the powerful than to support tiny, radical parties endlessly for their ideological purity. They are like Putin that way. They support the radical troublemakers – but only as long as they don’t have a governing party to support instead. (Or until they grow old.) And Orbán said all they wanted to hear so they voted for him.
For years, Orbán kept posing in the west as the bastion that heroically protects the world from the extreme right flood and everyone was supposed to shut up and give him a pass because he only said things to stop the strengthening of the extremists. He did that by becoming them.
The Central Force Field was now an extremist overshoot, the Jedi was now Darth Vader.
In the end, this bipolar election system is damaging in more than one way. It only allows for two parties to compete – and the logical conclusion of that appears to be identity-based trench warfare to the death. In every country. Truth, policy, public interest, even dumb ideology can go to hell – there is only loyalty to one’s own identity. For decades they taught in political science classes how two-party system are supposed to be moderate because both parties aspire to occupy the same middle ground and compete for the same moderate voters. That they even wear the same tie because that polled the least rejected. Well, that hypothesis is dead.
A bipartisan trench war election system is by no means desirable. And that is what we are stuck with. If the answer to a monolithic, top-down, autocratic party is another competing conglomerate, another top-down, autocratic one-person party, a counter-populist with a bidding war in lieu of a program, we are all screwed.