For the first time in years, the opposition needs to be discussed when it comes to Hungarian politics. Not because they have become competent, but because they are back in the game.
This blog hasn’t wasted any breath introducing the Hungarian opposition for two reasons:
1) Because they have been beaten and dead. The opposition parties didn’t have a heartbeat, their members and supporters were in disarray, mired in internal struggles and ineptness, dispirited and resigned.
They didn’t even deserve to be called by their individual party names because it simply didn’t matter. What they were is non-Orbán. Anti-Orbán. Non-Fidesz. That was their strongest defining quality and only common denominator – often within each party.
2) We could make fun of them but only daft, authoritarian minds think that kicking into those who are down is humorous. And the non-Fidesz side has been down.
Even their supposed ideological stance didn’t matter. Partly because they couldn’t enforce it anyway, and partly because we are past the age when parties had programs. We are down to feel-good and feel-bad slogans in lieu of party programs. Fidesz started that trend, that is true. But any non-Fidesz party that would bother with a program now would be burned by it, by providing a target for criticism, nothing else. A program cannot win you voters, only give an excuse who need one to vote for Orbán.
Before the 2019 local elections non-Fidesz parties have been completely off the political map due to the combination of being fragmented, underfunded, and their own incompetence in formulating messages – other than reacting to Orbán. Indeed, the mantra was that those who are not OfFidesz don’t even exist – and the opposition illustrated that mantra splendidly.
The fact that they are back in the game is huge and it necessitates the analysis of opposition parties – but it doesn’t mean that their little ideas suddenly matter.
1. They are not more competent
Their surprise victory also doesn’t mean that they are any more competent than they were before. All they have proven in 2019 was that they could unify and finally tackle one of the barriers erected by Fidesz, namely an election system that only allows two parties to compete with a chance to win. A fragmented opposition never stood a chance, but a rainbow coalition born out of hopelessness is not necessarily viable either – and it is bad news for those who believe in ideology.
2. They still have no platform
The non-defeat also doesn’t mean that opposition parties finally have something so say. Much of their votes come from protest against Orbán’s way of owning the country – not from any sort of sympathy for them. The climate lends itself as a catchy issue to rally behind – it works for political forces in the first world – but Hungarians, even youth, are notoriously unconcerned with anything beyond their pay grade and imminent economic survival. It is the impact of authoritarian submission, where they are wildly discouraged from such “luxury problems” as the environment.
3. In 2019 their chancelessness made coalition possible. In 2022 they will fight each other harder
In 2022 the pressure on opposition parties to build coalitions will be enormous. And so will be the pressure against it. For one thing, they are not completely chanceless anymore – there are juicy seats awaiting their starving loyalists – and that will make coalition building that much more difficult.
4. Orbán is the opposition’s biggest chance
He makes mistakes – and those are greater than any impact the opposition could have.
So the opposition can be easily thwarted if only Orbán doesn’t make any more mistakes. Weirdly enough, Orbán’s mistakes, his complacency and hubris, his anger and tendency for petty revenge, his personal weaknesses have always been the biggest boon for his opposition.
5. The price of the coalition will get even higher
Naturally, the usual political obstacles will be thrown at them. Every opposition party in every district will be approached to run independently. Random people will find it in themselves to run for their fraction of a percentage of accidental votes. Fake parties built into the election law by offering generous funding for those who deliver enough nominating signatures will also be running. They have always got away without any legal consequence. The opposition parties that are lagging behind and on the brink of extinction will also be eager for running – for a little encouragement, from Fidesz. And with no more elections until 2022, their respective weights will also be a question during negotiations – especially with polls being so unreliable.
6. Who will be the joint prime minister candidate?
Possibly the greatest challenge facing the joint opposition will be the need to nominate a shared candidate for prime minister. In the local elections they could get away without it, but in 2022 ambitions will clash, and the clash will be deepened by Fidesz. Also, if their shared candidate would end up being the hyperactive former PM Gyurcsány, many voters would rather cut off their hands than vote for him.
7. What to do with the corrupt ones?
A clash between the “old” and “new” opposition can also be expected, between those who had been on government/in parliament before and those who have not. If nothing else, old comrades are more accustomed to corruption, and that will alienate the newcomers.
8. Whether “left” and “extreme right” can cooperate is not the real problem
Everyone wonders how the liberals, the greens and the left will feel about voting together with Jobbik, the extreme right nationalist party, the one that used to be even further right than Orbán – until Orbán occupied their platform and became the poster boy of identitarianistnationalism and extreme right in Europe. In 2022 Orbán might embrace Jobbik – or a part of it that is willing to walk into the embrace – as a coalition partner, just to avoid their votes going to the anti-Orbán opposition. He had already made remarks to the Austrian chancellor about the merits of such a coalition. Some part of Jobbik will be repulsed (those running under the anti-corruption, anti-establishment platform), but members of Jobbik have proven to be amenable to Orbán’s interests before. Indeed, their splinter fractions are generally considered to be of Orbán’s making and their behavior doesn’t contradict that theory. If Orbán embraces Jobbik (or digests them in all but name like he did with the non-existent Christian democratic party), he can take a bite out of the joint coalition’s votes – but it may also galvanize the non-Jobbik opposition.
9. New election rules
The election rules will very likely be changed to make opposition paralyzed again. But it is not urgent for Orbán. He has until 2022 to rewrite the election law. Orbán will do that when his attention is back from Brussels.
10. Existing election rules are bad enough
But according to the present election rules, opposition parties cannot compete against one another in the 106 individual districts – but that allows them only three national party lists, because a minimum of 27 individual candidates are required in order for a party to get a national list. And even those three party lists would mean a financial setback in their funding – even with today’s rules. With all the money and media at Fidesz’ disposal and the audit office on their case, opposition parties will be financially very tight, if not dead.
11. Independent candidates under attack
Fidesz identified independent candidates as the opposition’s miracle weapon. In districts where animosity between opposition parties was too much, they could sometimes still agree to stand behind an independent candidate. For misguided voters who still believe that politics has anything to do with ideology, voting for an independent candidate took the sting out of the presence of an unacceptable other party in the opposition coalition.
12. New procedural rules in parliament
Fidesz’ legislative proposals are attacking exactly that. There have been proposals since the October defeat that were meant to prevent the very same thing from happening again. Think tanks, communicators, opinionators have been out in force with suggestions on how to block even the last chance of the opposition. But only one of those proposals was put into action for now: the parliament’s new Rules of Procedure. In it the Fidesz supermajority voted in a few changes that were designed to make independent MPs toothless, and discourages running as an independent in the first place.
The new regulation stipulates that “Independent lawmakers and lawmakers who became independent cannot take part in the formation of parliamentary groups, and cannot join parliamentary groups.” MPs can only stay with the party they were elected in or become independent. “If an MP quit his group or was expelled from it, they are not allowed to join another parliamentary group. This provision also applies to MPs who won their mandates as independent candidates and MPs who ran as candidates of a party but did not participate in the formation of the parliamentary group.” And if they were elected as independent, they will miss out on all the perks and privileges only party-branded MPs enjoy.
The above rules are completely ignorant of or indifferent to the basic rules of representative parliament, but the following one is downright petty, a case of spiteful micromanagement. All-opposition candidates running under the logos of several parties was a common practice at the 2019 municipal elections. That will become more difficult in 2022 as they will be obliged to stay under the names they ran under, no matter how long it is. The new rules will not allow parliamentary fractions to split either, so they will have to stay under their long name and under the coalition brand they would rather forget for four years. Election rules can be expected to change before 2022 – but only for the worse for the opposition.
No way to tell
After the events in 2019 the opposition may still relapse into irrelevance. Orbán will return to domestic affairs and crack down on the challengers once his troubles in Europe are settled. And he may very easily succeed in submitting dissenters and the whole conundrum of October 2019 may be forgotten. Even his short temper and an a vindictive crackdown may end up working in his favor inasmuch as it intimidates dissenters and reinforces deeply rooted authoritarian thinking patterns. But unless it is all completely forgotten and buried by fearful minds, Orbán’s myth of invincibility will never be back.
With hindsight, the October defeat will be easy to pinpoint as the beginning of the end – if the cracks keep widening and lead to a retreat of Orbán. But they may not. The two years until the 2022 elections will decide whether Orbán enters history as the man who finally brought back autocracy to Hungary, or the man who tried but failed.