Viktor Orban, at a rally near the Romanian border in May 2017.

▲Viktor Orban, at a rally near the Romanian border in May 2017 [Károly Árvai/Hungarian government].

ANALYSIS / Elena López-Doriga

On April 8, 2018, parliamentary elections were held in Hungary for the renewal of the 199 members of the National Assembly, the only chamber of the Hungarian Parliament. The high turnout of 68.13% exceeded that of the 2010 elections, when 64.36% of the electoral roll turned out to vote, a record high not seen since 2002. Prime Minister Viktor Orban, in power since 2010, secured a fourth term, the third in a row, as his party, Fidesz, and its ally, the Christian Democratic People's Party, won 134 of the 199 seats. Orban, the longest-serving European leader as head of government after Angela Merkel, has in some respects become as influential a leader as the German chancellor.

These electoral data -the high turnout and the broad support achieved by a leader not well regarded by all in Brussels- raise some questions. Why has there been so much social mobilization at the time of voting? Why is the result of these elections in the spotlight of the European Union?

Historical background

Hungary is a country located in Central Europe bordering Austria, Croatia, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Ukraine. The second largest river in Europe, the Danube, crosses the entire country and divides the capital of Budapest into two different territories (Buda and Pest).

Hungary joined the European Union in 2004. This event was longed for by Hungarians as they saw it as an advance in their democracy, a step forward for the country's development and a rapprochement with the admired West. It was the desire to make a change of course in their history, since, after the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, the country lived under two totalitarian regimes since World War II: first under the rule of the Arrow Cross Party (fascist, pro-German and anti-Semitic), during which 80,000 people were deported to Auschwitz, and later by the occupation of the Soviet Union and its post-war policies. In those times individual freedoms and freedom of speech ceased to exist, arbitrary imprisonment became commonplace, and the Hungarian secret police carried out series of purges both within and outside the Party hierarchies. Thus, Hungarian society suffered great repression from the beginning of World War II in 1945, which did not stop until the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989.

In economic terms, the transition from communism to capitalism was very hard for vast social sectors. From a centralized Economics with highly protected sectors and heavy agricultural subsidies, a particularly severe adjustment plan was adopted by the government elected in March 1990 in the first free elections.

Accession to the European Union symbolized a turning point in Hungary's history, in a process of incorporation to the West that was previously marked by entrance in NATO in 1999. Becoming part of the EU was the step towards the democracy that Hungary desired, and this broad social consensus was evidenced by the majority support that the accession obtained - 83% of the votes - in the referendum of 2003.

Hungary in the European Union

Becoming a new EU member had a positive impact on Hungary's Economics , leading to an obvious development and providing competitive advantages for foreign companies establishing a permanent presence in the country. But despite these appreciable advances and the enthusiasm shown by Hungary upon accession to the EU, the picture has changed a lot since then, so that Euroskepticism has spread markedly among Hungarians. In recent years, a strong disagreement with the Brussels policies adopted during the 2015 refugee crisis has emerged in the domestic public opinion.

That year, Brussels decided to relocate the 120,000 refugees who had arrived in Hungary (from Syria, who were moving along the Balkan route to Germany and Austria) and Italy (mostly from North Africa). To distribute the refugees, quotas were established, setting the issue number of refugees that each country should take in based on its size and GDP. The quota policy was challenged by the group Visegrad countries (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia) and Romania. Hungary erected a fence several hundred kilometers long on its southern border and refused to accept the reception quotas.

This attitude of closing borders and refusing to take in refugees was criticized by the leaders of the Union, who went so far as to threaten these countries with sanctions. The difficulty of a consensus led to the signing in 2016 of a agreement with Turkey so that this country would retain the flow of Syrian refugees. In 2017 the quotas for the distribution through the EU of the refugees who had previously arrived expired, without fill in thus the relocation initially raised. Although the moment of greatest political confrontation on this issue in the EU has passed, the refugee crisis has created a great divergence between the two targeted blocs, eroding the supposedly common European project .

In light of this status, Hungary's parliamentary elections on April 8, 2018 were particularly important, as the citizens of that country were going to have the opportunity to pronounce themselves on the ongoing pulse between Budapest and Brussels.

The main candidates

Going into the election, the front-runner was the coalition of the conservative Fidesz party and the Christian Democratic People's Party, with 54-year-old Viktor Orbán as candidate. Orbán first came to prominence in 1989 when, at the age of 26, he defied the communist regime and began to champion liberal principles, making him a symbol of Hungarians' aspirations to break free from totalitarianism and embrace Western values. However, his return to power in 2010, after a first term in office between 1998 and 2002, was marked by a shift towards a conservative tendency, characterized by greater control over the Economics, the media and the judiciary. Orban claims to be an advocate of an "illiberal democracy": a system in which, although the Constitution may formally limit the powers of the Government, in internship certain freedoms such as freedom of speech or thought are restricted. Orban often puts to test the red lines of the EU by presenting himself as a defender of a "Christian Europe" and detractor of irregular immigration.

The party that intended to pose the main electoral challenge to Fidesz, taking away a good part of its voters, was surprisingly one located even further to the right: Jobbik (Movement for a Better Hungary), founded in 2003 and considered one of the most powerful extreme right-wing political organizations in the European Union. For years, this party did not hide its xenophobic, anti-Roma, anti-Semitic, nationalist and radically opposed to the prevailing political system in the EU, betting on a Hungary outside it. However, from 2013 onwards he moderated his language. While Orban was adopting an increasingly radical line, the leader of Jobbik, Gábor Vona, was tempering the positions of his party to present it as a conservative option, alternative to Fidesz, capable of attracting votes from the center. Gyöngyösi, one of the party's nationalist leaders, said: "We are the party of the 21st century, while Fidesz is from the last century and represents the old. The division between left and right no longer makes sense, it is part of the past, of the old politics".

On the other side of the political spectrum, a list formed by the Socialist Party(MSZP) and the center-left environmentalist party Parbeszed ("Dialogue"), headed by a leader of the latter, Gargely Karacsony, was running in the elections. The left-wing candidate had broad support from the MSZP, but not from his former colleagues in the environmentalist LMP party, from which he split five years ago, which could lead to a split vote.


Completed a second fence at the border with Serbia in April 2017.

Completed a second fence at the border with Serbia, in April 2017 [Gergely Botár/Hungarian government].


The election campaign

During the campaign there was speculation about a possible loss of votes for Fidesz due to a series of corruption scandals involving government officials accused of embezzling European aid money. Jobbik and other groups of civil service examination took advantage of this status to promote themselves as anti-corruption parties, focusing a good part of their campaign on this issue and advocating for an improvement of public services, especially healthcare. 

However, the most prominent topic of the election campaign was not corruption, the malfunctioning of the public health system or low wages, but immigration. The Orbán government had refused to accept the refugee quotas imposed by the EU from Brussels, arguing that taking in migrants is a matter of domestic policy in which foreign organizations should not intervene. He insisted that Hungary has the right to refuse to receive immigrants, especially if they are Muslims, reiterating his rejection of multiculturalism, which he considers a mere illusion. Orbán was of the opinion that the refugees arriving at Hungary's gates were not fighting for their lives, but were economic migrants in search of a better life. Therefore, Orbán's political campaign was a clear message: Illegal immigrants in Hungary: yes or no? Who should decide about Hungary's future, the Hungarians or Brussels?

Reducing the electoral call to one question had the main effect of a broad social mobilization. According to civil service examination, Orbán used the topic of migration to draw popular attention away from widespread corruption.

Another point core topic in Fidesz's political campaign was the constant accusations against George Soros, whom Orbán identified as the main enemy of the State. Soros is an American billionaire, of Jewish-Hungarian origin, who through his Open Society Foundation (OSF) finances various NGOs dedicated to promote liberal, progressive and multicultural values in different parts of the world. In 1989 Soros funded Viktor Orban to study in England, and in 2010 he donated $1 million to his government to help with environmental cleanup after a chemical accident. But Soros' reputation in Hungary took a hit during the 2015 migration crisis. His advocacy of human attention to refugees ran up against Orban's attitude. During the campaign, the latter accused Soros of using OSF to "flood" Europe with a million migrants a year and undermine the continent's "Christian culture."

In addition, prior to the elections, Fidesz passed an amendment to the Hungarian higher Education law, which sets new conditions for foreign universities in Hungary, something that has been seen as a direct attack on the Central European University of Budapest. The Soros-funded institution is highly regarded for promoting critical thinking, liberal values and academic freedom. The new legislation threatens university autonomy, the free hiring of professors and the international character of degrees.

The European Commission showed its differences with the Orbán government on several of the issues that occupied the electoral campaign. Thus, it expressed its dissatisfaction with the new university law, considering that it is not compatible with the fundamental freedoms of the EU internal market, as it "would violate the freedom to provide services and the freedom of establishment". He also criticized that Orbán had not complied with the refugee quota, despite the ruling of the Court of Justice, and that he had campaigned using the disagreement he has with the EU for electoral purposes.

The result of the elections

In the April 8, 2018 elections, the Fidesz party (in its alliance with the Christian Democratic People's Party) won a third consecutive wide victory, even bigger than the previous one, with almost half of the popular vote (48.89%) and its third two-thirds absolute majority (134 out of 199 seats). It was the first time since the fall of communism in 1989 that a party had won three elections in a row.

The Jobbik party managed to become the leading party on civil service examination, coming in second place with 19.33% of the vote and 25 seats. However, its vote growth was minimal and it gained only two extra seats, remaining virtually stagnant at the 2014 figures. Jobbik's second place was rather propitiated by the weakness of the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), whose debacle pushed it into third place, with 12.25% of the vote and 20 seats. It was the first time since 1990 that the MSZP did not come in first or second place, putting an end to the bipartisanship it had maintained with Fidesz since 1998.

On the other hand, since its return to government in 2010, Fidesz has significantly modified the electoral system, reducing the issue number of legislators from 386 to 199 and eliminating the second round, which does not favor the smaller parties, which could form alliances between rounds of voting. By securing two thirds of the chamber, Fidesz will be able to continue governing comfortably and reforming the Constitution to suit itself.

EU reaction

A week after the elections, tens of thousands of opponents took to the streets of Budapest, disagreeing with an electoral system described as "unfair", which has given Prime Minister Viktor Orban a landslide victory at the polls after a campaign based on a refusal to accept refugees.

The congratulatory letter that the president of the European committee , Donald Tusk, addressed to Orban was considered by various media to be cooler than the one issued on other similar occasions. The EU is concerned that Orban continues with his defense of an "illiberal" democracy and that he seems to be leading the country towards authoritarian tendencies. The government's purchase of many media outlets in recent years, in order to isolate civil service examination and make more propaganda, resembles what has happened in countries such as Russia and Turkey.

It is true that with Orban at the head of the government Hungary has grown economically at a good pace and that the middle classes have improved their status, but his latest victory has been due not only to the good economic management , but the defense of values that the Hungarian people consider important (essentialism, Christianity, respect for borders).

European socialists have not been pleased with Orban's new victory, insinuating that it is a setback for democracy in Hungary. The joy that the populist parties have expressed over his victory is test that Orban, whose training Fidesz still belongs to the European People's Party, has become an exponent of modern ultra-nationalism, which threatens democratic ideas of the European Union.

For the time being, Brussels is being cautious with Hungary, even more so than with the British Brexit, since Viktor Orban, seen by many as "the EU rebel", unlike the UK, wants to remain within the bloc, but change part of the ideals he represents.

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