Hungarian elections: Orbán's victory through fear

Last Sunday, Hungarians went to the polls following a campaign period the likes of which has been unseen since the fall of Stalinism. One of the functions of bourgeois democracy is to create a false sense of participation. Previous elections were generally conducted in an atmosphere of anticipation, with the public following debates between political parties in the media, and discussing developments on street corners and at work. The people felt they had some say over their destinies. In the last eight years however, there has been a fundamental change in the character of Hungary’s democratic process.

During the pre-election period this year, 28 years after the return of capitalism to Hungary, there was no visible political campaigning, with barely a poster anywhere, and there was a subdued mood, as if the population was awaiting its fate in silence. The typical Hungarian rumour-mill was at full speed, for nobody knew what was likely to happen. Did the government lose so much support that they couldn’t find enough volunteers to put up election posters? Or perhaps they wanted a low key affair, just in case the opposition notices their machinations?

Despite all the rumours, the ruling party, Fidesz, won a resounding victory. With a record high 68 percent voter turnout, Fidesz won 91 of the 106 directly elected seats. Only in Budapest did the opposition win 12 of the 18 seats. In the second vote, which decided the 93 proportionally allocated seats on the basis of lists, Fidesz won 49 percent, 4 percent more than in the previous elections and thereby gained another 42 seats. Thus Fidesz will take 134 of the 199 seats in parliament and have a two-thirds majority for the third time in a row.

The left disorientated

Sunday’s results do not suggest voter apathy. On the contrary, there were plenty of emotions, views and fears expressed. The outcome has disorientated the liberals and so-called left. How can it be that Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz, in coalition with the KDNP (Christian Democratic People’s Party), was returned with a two-thirds majority once again, enabling it to carry on building its undemocratic regime? How could Hungary’s political map go orange – the colour of the ruling Fidesz party? How could this ‘landslide’ take place?

Hungary elections graph Image fair useThe Fidesz-KDNP coalition was returned with a two-thirds majority / Image: fair use

To understand the results, one has to look at Fidesz’s record over the last eight years or so. Hungarians’ initial enthusiasm of at the fall of Stalinism was followed by serious disillusionment halfway through the 1990s, which resulted in the return of the Socialists (MSZP) in 1994. But instead of addressing the needs and aspirations of the working class, this party, the successor of the Euro-communist wing in the old CP, turned to the right, and along with its sister parties in the West, tried to manage capitalism better than the capitalists themselves. The result was austerity and attacks on living standards coupled with rampant corruption. This heavily discredited the left in the eyes of the population.

With the decline of the Socialists, Fidesz could ride to power as a pair of ‘clean hands’, free of the corruption scandals of other parties. The party came to power for the first time in 1998 and set about introducing its agenda of returning to old values of morality, religion, conservatism and the family. Of course, they also immediately set about establishing a corrupt regime that enabled supporters to take up powerful positions not only in government, but in commerce, industry, banking, agriculture and other important sectors of both the political and business life of Hungary. In 2002 the Socialists (MSZP) were again returned, initially in coalition with the Liberals, later on their own. But after eight years of abandoning socialism and trying to manage a capitalist economy through austerity in the wake of the financial crisis, coupled with continuing corruption, the MSZP lost the elections in 2010.

Fidesz in opposition

But while MSZP was busy discrediting itself between 2002 and 2010, Fidesz in opposition was beavering away behind the scenes to set up structures, agitate in the countryside, secretly make alliances with the extreme right and build on the growing anti-establishment mood amongst more backward layers of the masses. They also brought in the services of political scientists from abroad to determine not only how to get back into power, but also how to discredit all the opposition parties in the process.

This they did with great success, by recruiting informants from the opposition’s ranks, organising secret groups (some of a quasi-military character), to restore the pre-war days in which the extreme right was in power. They then made use of a clause in the constitution that gave unprecedented freedoms in parliament to a government with a two-thirds majority, which they successfully achieved in 2010.

The second Fidesz government

Between 2010 and 2014 they manoeuvred their friendly oligarchs into positions of power and began a wholescale looting of state assets, which was made possible by their re-written constitution, bank reform, law reform, land reform and so on. This institutionalised corruption resulted in many journalists referring to Viktor Orbán’s regime as a mafia state. The subtle and relentless dismantling of the checks and balances expected under a bourgeois democracy – gagging the free press, television and radio; seeking early retirement of judges not in the government’s pocket; re-appointing High Court judges and the Attorney General, while placing cronies in all aspects of political life – ultimately exerted an effect on the population.

Of course, all of this led to rising dissatisfaction. There was, and still is, a great deal of discontent. There have been frequent large-scale demonstrations on a variety of topics, against attacks on wages and working conditions, for free education and demanding free access to the internet. However, there has been no real leadership for these movements based on clear and coherent ideas, nor a proper call to action. Thus, for the most part, the masses on the streets have gone home from these demonstrations feeling depressed and disillusioned.

The constant zig-zags (but overall right-wing drift) of the so-called left, with MSZP at its head, lost them much of the support they enjoyed in the first 10 to 15 years after 1990. For ordinary people, the Socialists were seen as a part of the rotten establishment. They could clearly see that these parties wouldn’t deliver on their promises while in government. A succession of smaller, mostly liberal groupings sprung up and then disappeared without a trace, as none of them had any clear program, demands or the means of achieving them. Thus the mood of dissatisfaction did not find a political outlet.

Building the ‘illiberal state’

As we know, politics abhors a vacuum. Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz-KDNP coalition have come up with a very simple idea, much loved by populists, demagogues and dictators world over: ruling through fear. In a country where billions from the EU mostly disappear into corrupt pockets, and where millions eke out a living on workfare and fear for their own survival, it is very easy to create a common enemy. Especially when there is no political alternative.

The countryside, which is backward in places, brutalised by poverty in others and easier to manipulate than the towns by dint of its isolation, was much more susceptible to Fidesz propaganda than the towns. Furthermore, many phony parties were set up by individuals close to the government for the purpose of not only splitting the opposition vote, but also to cause confusion among less politically informed layers of society.

Moreover, the new Media Law brought in quite early in Fidesz’s reign established an appointed, unaccountable Media Council, which follows the government’s dictates in allocating broadcast licences. It issues severe fines for so-called infringements of the Media Law and is making possible the wholescale transfer of both paper and broadcast media into the hands of regime-friendly oligarchs. Some of the financial backing for these takeovers has been provided by state banks, which were taken over by Orbán’s cronies following new Banking Regulations. As a result of this, Fidesz propaganda flows non-stop from every outlet and there is a systematic eradication of any and all opposition media. Only those that speak and read foreign languages can obtain relatively balanced news, mostly on the internet.

The Hungarian parliamentary voting system

At the same time, the whole parliamentary system has been tilted to favour the larger, more powerful parties. The Hungarian parliamentary voting system is based on a duality of constituency and party lists elections. There are 199 seats in parliament, of which 106 are elected in constituencies on a first-past-the-post system, and 93 by the votes cast for parties on a list that may or may not stand individual candidates in the constituency part of the election. Add to this, the parliamentary threshold is 5 percent for having MPs allocated, or if a coalition is formed, then it will be a multiple of 5 percent for each party in the coalition.

Hungary elections ballot Image fair useFidesz exploited Hungary's electoral system, which hands large parties a significant advantage / Image: fair use

Furthermore there is another twist that means that some votes count twice. The logic is as follows: after somebody wins a constituency, all votes for that candidate beyond the one extra vote he or she needed to win over their closest opponent become superfluous and are therefore reallocated to the candidate’s party list. Large parties with large numbers of candidates therefore have a very unfair advantage.

This is how Fidesz made the two-thirds majority in 2014 (aka 66.67 percent) of MPs in parliament with only 45 percent of the popular votes cast. And that is almost exactly what they have done again. When a system is this crooked, it is not easy to unseat an entrenched mafia government.

Hungary elections results Image fair useImage: fair use

Above you can see the votes gained by the 5 parties that had more than 5 percent of the vote and therefore could take their share from the reallocated ‘surplus’ votes. The first column on the left is the name of the party, the next is the number of actual votes cast, then the reallocated votes and finally the total. The smaller parties do have proportionally more votes reallocated than the large parties, but numerically no amount of proportionality can make up for the injustice of having some votes count twice.

In addition to this, three days after the election it is slowly becoming clear that not only the biased electoral system favours Fidesz, but the government may have engaged in traditional electoral fraud as well. There is some momentum behind the demand for a national recount, or at least for those constituencies where there were anomalies between the constituency and party list sections of the vote. The complete breakdown of the national electoral computer system as early as 11am on Sunday (and a promise that it would only come back online the following weekend) have also raised questions. The preliminary report of OSCE monitors also points to “intimidating and xenophobic rhetoric, media bias and opaque financing”.

The refugee crisis and its effect on voting behaviour

In the conditions of widespread poverty and backwardness, and given the lack of any credible opposition, Orbán also whipped up of xenophobic hysteria to rally a part of the population behind him. The refugee crisis of the last two or three years gave him and his party a marvellous opportunity to use migrants as ready-made scapegoats, against whom to lead a crusade.

When hundreds-of-thousands passed through Hungary in 2015 on their way to Germany and Scandinavia in one of the biggest refugee waves seen in modern times, none of them wanted to settle in Hungary. However, the cruel treatment they received from the Hungarian government and hostile media coverage created some crisis situations that made them visible to the population. They slept on the streets, in railway stations and so on, which they didn’t want to do, but were forced to by government obstruction of any means of transport.

Hungary elections refugees Image fair useOrbán scapegoated migrants to create a climate of fear / Image: fair use

The total lack of care towards them in terms of sanitation, food, drink and so on enforced by the Hungarian government, was used by the media to portray the desperate migrants as barbarian hordes invading the country. In the eyes of the middle-class ladies and gentlemen, as well as the desperately poor, this was bound to provoke a reaction of fear and panic. The unpleasant scenes on the Serbian border at Röszke in 2015, video of which travelled around the world at the time, was presented as an attack on the police by the “foreign hordes”, even though the truth was the exact opposite. The building of the razor wire-topped fence all along the Serbian and Croatian border and the inhumane treatment of the few refugees, who have applied to remain in Hungary, was then used to add to the hysteria and display the ruling party and the strongman Orbán, as the protectors of the Hungarian people.

By moving further and further to the right and becoming barely distinguishable from Jobbik (the extreme-right party), it is very likely that many Jobbik supporters joined and voted for Fidesz as the bigger party where there was more chance of getting closer to the trough. Despite many expectations to the contrary, Jobbik did very badly, with their leader, Gábor Vona, losing his own seat.

The “Stop Soros” campaign

Furthermore Orbán, similar to other demagogues such as Donald Trump and Recep Tayyib Erdogan in Turkey, has been trying to channel the anti-establishment mood towards the EU and the big international capitalists.

Hungary elections stop Soros Image fair useThe anti-Semitic campaign against George Soros leaned on a mood of hatred towards multinationals / Image: fair use

One target of this campaign was George Soros, a Jewish billionaire of Hungarian descent, who was singled out using the propaganda methods similar to those described and ridiculed in Orwell’s 1984. This resulted in billions of forints being spent on giant posters demonising Soros as someone who employs agents in Hungary to work for him, and who would help him force millions of refugees into the country, if Fidesz did not win again. This also flows into the general rise of anti-Semitism, upon which the Orbán government, while very good friends with Israel’s extreme right, has increasingly relied, along with anti-Roma propaganda.

All of this is a demagogic appeal to the mood of hatred towards multinational companies who, assisted by previous Socialist governments, tore apart the state companies that formed the basis of the previous planned economy, and in general led the onslaught against the working class after the end of Stalinist rule. Thus, while Orbán presides over a monstrously corrupt government of the super rich, he was able to present himself as an anti-establishment figure.

Orbánomics

Finally, as opposed to Western Europe, the Hungarian economy has been growing between 1 and 3 percent on a yearly basis since 2013. In 2017 alone it is estimated that the economy grew around 4 percent. This growth is based on the one hand on massive EU subsidies, but also the influx of capital. Hungary’s cheap labour, proximity to Western Europe and its membership of the EU makes it an attractive area of investment in production. In 2016, Exports amounted to almost 90 percent of the GDP. Of these, to take an example, 17 percent came from the exports of Audi, Opel and Suzuki products.

The economic growth has also given the government some room to manoeuvre. For instance, while unemployment benefits have been sharply reduced, the government has expanded the ‘workfare’ scheme, which now encompasses hundreds of thousands of people. The scheme pays people roughly 70 percent of the meagre minimum wage, but more than double the starvation rate of unemployment benefits. In return the participants are given odd public tasks such as cleaning, or building the razor wire fence along the country’s borders to block out migrants from entering the country.

In many periods however, people on workfare have little to do. Although long-term unemployment is still high, at around 50 percent, official unemployment declined from 11 percent in 2011-2012 to 3.8 percent in February 2018. Of course, the scheme will also push down the wages in the public sector in the long run. Other, similar subsidy schemes to support home-buyers and young families are aimed at the middle classes. Essentially, Orbán is using a small part of the economic growth to pay his way to social peace.

To take an example, in one small village of approximately 350 inhabitants which had left leanings in the past, the vote was as follows:

  • Fidesz (government party): 128
  • Jobbik (far-right): 50
  • MSZP (socialist party): 7
  • LMP (one of the liberal parties): 3
  • Independent: 1
  • The Common Denominator (a phony party): 1

The switch to Fidesz is marked, considering the very poor performance of a Fidesz candidate in last year’s mayoral election in the same village. A large proportion of the population in this village are on workfare. They have no particular illusions in Fidesz, but the here and now is a strict master. When you are on workfare and you could lose it at the stroke of a pen, the choices in front of you are very few. When you live in the deepest poverty, as many do today in Hungary, a bag of potatoes, some schnapps or bread will make sure you vote the ‘right way’.

Orbán’s (probably correct) threats that schemes like workfare would be abolished and people’s livelihoods would be at risk if Fidesz was not returned, was calculated to create an atmosphere of existential fear, in order to make people suggestible in the election. The poor millions, the dispossessed Roma in the poorer parts of the countryside, but also many townsfolk and educated people, who swallowed Orbán’s hate campaigns whole, turned out in large numbers on Sunday to vote for Fidesz and against the perceived threat to their livelihood, jobs and security.

Orbán is right that the present parties are not interested in the fate of the poor, but then again, neither is he. The difference is that, as opposed to the other parties, the Orbán government is seen to have provided a certain stability, although this has been mainly connected the general state of the world economy.

How to move forward from this?

Many of the left intellectuals (with the usual, haughty sense of petty-bourgeois superiority) blame the stupid, suggestible country folk, who seem to have voted against their own best interests. There is also a tendency to blame the lack of unity on the left. This might have an element of truth to it, but the proponents of a popular front, which would have included the extreme right Jobbik party, in order to unseat the government, tend to forget that unprincipled alliances make no sense, don’t last long and play into the hands of those in power.

Disillusioned with their own failure, many of the gilded youths and petty-bourgeois lefties looked for other options. Apparently, the most often Googled word on Monday morning in Hungary was “emigration”. Fine for them, but what should ordinary people do: they don’t have this option. The question these ladies and gentlemen do not ask is, what was the alternative to Fidesz? Where have the policies of the so-called left differed from the liberal right wingers?

For the vast majority of Hungarians, the Socialists have nothing to their name but a record of cuts, austerity, rampant corruption, widespread privatisation and wholesale selloffs of the old state companies to multinational companies. Meanwhile in these people’s eyes, Fidesz used the economic upswing to offer a tiny slice of stability via their social schemes. The Socialist leaders give no hope of continuing this if they were elected.

In these conditions, Orbán could easily whip up terror amongst the millions of Hungarian poor. When the level of poverty and desperation is this rampant, the empty promises of bourgeois democratic reforms (and they are empty), are not enough to fill the stomachs of the poor. Thus, being offered no better alternative, the poor rallied behind Fidesz out of fear. The Socialists were heavily punished, losing 13 percent compared to the previous elections. Besides a few pockets of support for the left (or rather pockets that Fidesz failed to penetrate), mostly in Budapest and Szeged, the party saw a complete collapse in the polls.

Of course, there have since been protests and calls for new, different ideas, different people, different methods to beat Fidesz. But no one is proposing an alternative that breaks with the capitalist regime in the country; that, is no one is proposing an alternative at all. In these conditions, the Orbán government is given space to manoeuvre. But in the meantime, the enormous pressures on the lives of the masses will continue to accumulate. For now, their frustrations lack an outlet.

Hungary 56 Image public domainHungary has an insurrectionary tradition and deserves a genuine socialist alternative / Image: public domain

The Hungarian masses have great traditions of fighting injustice, not the sort of shadow boxing that Orbán is doing against imaginary enemies to draw the attention of people away from thievery, embezzlement and corruption. They can and will fight against the ruling class, whether foreign or domestic; those exploiters, who take a big chunk of the wealth the masses create and put it into their own pockets. And that is only the legal robbery engaged in all over the capitalist world. The fact that institutionalised thieving is promoted, enabled and encouraged by a mafia state, whose laws are especially designed to keep millions in poverty, is widely recognised in Hungary. Once the masses move, they will demand revenge against these gangsters and their system.

The election results have blinded the liberals and the reformists, but their real problem is that they cannot see outside the frameworks of the capitalist system. And therefore their ‘alternatives’ fail to garner any support. From this, they falsely deduce that the people are content with Orbán and his gangster capitalist clique. But the truth is that Hungary is ripe for a new revolutionary force, one that gives a lead, that has the ideas and courage to move forward on a plan to break with the capitalist system and lead the working class to power. This would honour those who gave their lives in 1848 and 1956 in the fight for freedom, prosperity, peace and a future for all. That is a rallying call that many would heed.