Election 2022

Would Orbán hand over power if he lost the elections?

In December 2021 a government spokesman reassured us in an interview that Orbán would hand over power to the opposition if they won. In other words, we have come to the point where it has to be said. 

Two questions go hand in hand: Whether the election would be allowed to result in an opposition victory – and whether Orbán would actually hand over power if they did. Does Orbán go all in to win yet another elections (and preferably with a constitutional overmajority) – or is he preparing to lose in April 2022? There are signs of both.

The current odds of Orbán winning the elections (with at least a simple majority) are 1:25 at betting sites, while the victory of the opposition pays 3 to 1. Part of the reason is that the opposition would have to get 2-5% more votes than Orbán just to break even in seats.

Another calculation highlights that a mere 0.5% lead for Orbán would result in a whopping 9.5% of lead in mandates going to Fidesz (an 18 seats lead in a 199 strong parliament). And that is just the mathematics of the elections. The state of the media, the complete overlap of government and party financing of the campaign, and the small issue of a potentially rigged elections are still just the surface of the story. It is not clear if a bad result (forOrbán) would be allowed at the elections. For the opposition it will be an uphill battle to say the least.

But the question remains: Would Orbán hand over power if he lost?

Mark Leonard and Jeremy Shapiro from the European Council of Foreign Relations predicted for 2022 that Orbán may remain in power despite losing the elections: “Orban’s Fidesz party will lose the Hungarian election to a newly unified opposition – or so outside election observers will assert. But, despite that, Orban will follow former US president Donald Trump’s playbook by claiming that he won. And he will improve upon Trump’s performance by actually remaining in power. This will create large street protests in Hungary and a crisis between Hungary and the EU.

They are not the only observers who wonder whether Hungary is past the point of peaceful power transitions. Many at home have asked themselves the same questions. Their concern is not mere paranoia. Wishful thinking and only considering only what had happened before as possible for the future allowed Orbán more benefit of the doubt in the past than he deserved. To illustrate the possibility of a contested election we should look at three incidents in the past that might give as a clue regarding Orbánists’ present attitudes to democratic power transitions.

The first incident that may give us a clue happened in 2006. He brought politics to the street, contested the election results, and it worked for him.

Some context: Orbán has been the uncontested leader of his own party, Fidesz, ever since the 1990s. The weakest he had ever been (still without challenger) was after he lost the elections (again) in 2006. He then made the fateful decision to bring politics to the streets and it solidified his position within his party. In other words, it worked – and Orbán is not the kind of guy who forgets a move that was rewarding to him.

Between the election in Spring 2006 and October the same year Orbán built up a coordinated outrage campaign (complete with activists with loudspeakers driving around Budapest and playing the most outrageous parts of the speech) and started to question the election results. The infamous Budapest riots ensued and according to some reports the only reason he didn’t join them personally because his party leadership even considered opposing him if he did so. They didn’t have to do it in the end, Orbán stayed away from the riots.

So bringing politics to the streets has worked for him once and so did bashing Gyurcsány. When Orbán decided to base his 2022 campaign on Gyurcsány, a 15-year-old scare story, it was obvious that he was reverting back a tool that once worked for him. Maybe bringing politics to the streets is also such a tool that once worked to strengthen his grip on power within his own party. (He keeps doing that with referendums, another tool that worked for him splendidly once. We will have a referendum about LGBT people together with the general elections in April.)

And to illustrate how much he believes he was right: By 2021 he came to the point where he celebrated the events of 2006 – rather than the anti-Russian revolution of 1956, the revolution Hungarians normally celebrate on October 23.

Today he has even less resistance within his own party. If Orbán wants to use his tried and tested method, if he gets the admiration of his illiberal allies from abroad, from Trump to Salvini to Putin, if he chooses to contest the results on the streets or to refuse to accept the count – what exactly can anyone do about it? This should be the question anyone asks when pondering what an autocrat can or cannot do: what would be the consequences for him, personally.

The second incident is more recent and it is a clue that even Orbán’s men aren’t sure whether they should ever hand over power again. It was the infamous potted plant incident of 2019.

In March 2019 Hungary was deep in the throat of Orbánism, legally as well as mentally. Orbán’s loyalists were under the impression that the opposition is so illegitimate, so obviously traitors, that allowing them to exist is an act of inexplicable generosity and mercy. At any rate, they can not get power back, ever, and Orbánists were past the point of pretending (domestically) that this is still a democracy. (And they weren’t alone with that view, the opposition also felt illegitimate to themselves.)

In this mental fog an anomaly has happened. In the town of Szombathely Fidesz has lost its majority in the local council. (Not to an election but by alienating a loyalist who swapped sides.) Shocked and confused as to how to act in such a situation the local Fidesz representatives locked themselves in the meeting room in panic, blocking the door with a potted plant. They have been waiting for their Fidesz MP (and thus the local Orbánist strongman) to arrive from Budapest to tell them what to do.

The third incident worth pondering happened when Orbán unexpectedly lost the municipal elections of 2019 in half of the major cities.

The results were a shock to the country – and to Orbánists: they have probably forgot to pay as much attention to the vote counting as they did in 2018. No one saw it coming. After the elections, however, the same question was raised: will Orbánist mayors really just up and leave if they lost? With all the contracts and evidence left behind in their offices? They were so certain of their victory that some of them were planning to go on a holiday the day after the elections.

There was more than one district where such a smooth and self-evident transition didn’t happen. Either because contracts and evidence have been removed or because the entire local administration resigned en masse – just to avoid working for a non-Orbánist mayor.

On one occasion Orbánists’ outrage at the opposition victory was even publicized: they rejected the position of deputy mayor because they refused to “do politics” with the opposition again. In other words they have considered themselves beyond politics, i.e. beyond the point where they would hand over power just because some voters voted against them. They were firmly under the impression that Orbán can and would make sure the opposition is not allowed to win anymore. They can play elections but not with a chance to lose them.

Of course, the blame for the deterioration of democratic standards must be shared. Donald Trump’s January 6 shenanigans are an obvious example of why such a question might even occur to someone regarding Hungary. But ultimately it all comes down to Putin’s success in the mental deterioration of the west, sowing divisions to the point where hystericized crowds see the other party of their country as a bigger threat than they see Russian influence operations. But the question remains whether Orbán would just accept negative election results.

But this is just the political aspect of the question. The role of the military in Orbánism is also under question.

Can the militarization of the regime really not happen?

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