There is not much to love about opposition politicians. But when you are robbed of even the illusion of a democracy you relearn to appreciate even the slightest displays of normalcy.
Like public debates and a dumbass primary.
After the 2019 success at the municipal elections the Hungarian opposition has started to regain its sense of self and legitimacy.
The reason is partly the prospect of juicy jobs. Or any jobs at all. For the first time in a decade it looks like they might actually gain some footing – and that means jobs for them and their background. Orbán ran a policy of 0% to non-Orbánists, down to the lowest levels of society. Dissenters were not allowed to get anything, some couldn’t even get a civilian job and was forced to leave the country – or lose a decade of his life and career (and counting). (Most of your politicians are also in it for the jobs, don’t delude yourself.)
The possibility of maybe winning the elections, beat Orbán and get jobs has now made them to put aside some of their egos and run together – because that is what Orbán’s election law forces them to do.
In simplistic terms that means the nazis running with the left – but if you think that is a difficult match, you are mistaken. The real difference is between authoritarian left and right (nazis and socialists) versus the liberals. And it shows.
The way to put aside their egos is a controversial tool: opposition primaries.
Over a decade ago when the Hungarian left was idly apeing the American Democrats and were pondering to hold primaries, I would have advised against it. What is the point of providing an extra opportunity to throw mud – and have your candidates smear each other even before the other parties get to it?
Back then – as it is now – the purpose of the primaries would have been – no, not to test the candidates but to settle internal ego fights between hungry politicians. But back then, unlike now, it was about candidates within the same party, not a shared candidate of five very different parties from all sides of the political spectrum, authoritarian and liberal. And the need was not urgent. No one was forcing parties to create two dumb blocks of gangsters that run against each other and block out the sun.
Orbán forced them to do it. The election system he wrote for himself has been pointing in that direction, that only two block can compete with a chance to win, and small parties, ideological nuances and actual policy debates can go to hell. No, a two-party gang war is not normal. There are more than two ways to see the world – and there are real and important policy issues that are hidden from the public and replaced by divisive wedge issues the two gangs throw at us to distract and to stupefy.
But that wasn’t enough for the opposition to pull off the cooperation in 2018. Apart from the most suspicious vote counting in Hungarian democratic history, it was the fragmented opposition that allegedly gave Orbán another supermajority.
But after the 2019 election fiasco Orbán rewrote the election law again and explicitly forced the opposition parties to run together. Some think it was because he thought they could never run together: he can always pit them against each other when need be. And he is not wrong. Jobbik politicians insists on homophobic slurs and nazi hand gestures and voted with Orbán on his homophobic law. The left is coming up with first world problems and autocratic solutions to them. Orbán doesn’t even need to activate his sleeping agents in their ranks – they are stupid on their own account.
On the other hand legally forcing these entities to run together if they want Orbán out might backfire. If the current primaries are a success and they manage to stand up behind one candidate, Orbán has a formidable enemy. His disapproval has long surpassed his approval and the masses of undecided and passive voters are so because there seems to be no chance of beating him. An opposition conglomerate behind a shared candidate would completely change the voter calculation.
The opposition parties are thus now having primaries. It suffers from all the things you would expect: they don’t have the money, volunteers are used to vet the voters to avoid double voting, and there are endless lines and online waiting lists.
And If Orbán is smart, he can beat the opposition right now if enough of his supporters vote for the most divisive opposition candidate at the primaries.
But for now we have enjoyed a few peeks at normalcy that was not the case for the last decade: Orbán hasn’t attended a single prime ministerial debate since 2006. He hasn’t given a single interview to a media outlet that wasn’t controlled by him between 2010 and 2019, at which point he demonstrated a serious case of hubris and burned himself in foreign media outlets. His 2021 “interview” with the intellectual lightweight Tucker Carlson was also not really a challenging event: Carlson accepted money from one of Orbán’s “foundations” and his hospitality – that we know of – in exchange for subservient questions that render him the Oliver Stone of the American right.
Into that stale water of sinking into autocracy came the opposition primaries and televised debates. Most of them online because the opposition doesn’t have a lot of options. This month we have seen opposition politicians debating local issues as well as a televised debate for the prime ministerial candidacy, we heard policy discussions, we saw politicians vying for our support – these are things we are no longer used to.
No wonder Orbán’s media is in deafening silence about the opposition primaries. Not even smear is allowed. His public broadcaster is silent and his national news agency announced that the opposition primaries are not news according to their “sense of news”.
The sheer existence of policy debates and electoral competition is a reminder of normalcy. Something we lost a decade ago when a gang of politicians accidentally over-won themselves and decided that Hungary doesn’t deserve to be governed, only manipulated and ruled.