Hungary has made it to the headlines of international news in the last few years: it has implemented an anti-LGBTQ law, a dictator-law, and Viktor Orban endorsed Donald Trump in the American elections. These could give the picture of a far-right dictator in middle Europe; however, the situation is much more complex. Hungarian politics went through a lot in the last 20 years, which led to the current political situation, and the news appearing in the international press is only the tip of the iceberg. But what exactly happened since 2002, and how did we end up here?
Hungary did not have a lot of experience with modern democracy. The first democratic elections were held in 1990, after the collapse of the socialist regime. The transitory years came with economic recession, rising unemployment, and therefore a general disappointment in the capitalist and democratic system. In 2002, a politician from the Hungarian Socialist Party called Peter Medgyessy won the election with the slogan “welfare transition”. The underlying idea of the slogan was that Hungary went through the political and economic transition when the country transformed into a capitalist and democratic nation, but the people had not been better off thus far; therefore, they deserve the welfare transition, that is to live a better life. To achieve this, he promised many subsidies, pay raises, and infrastructure development as well. This political program was both populist and popular, winning the elections for the Hungarian Socialist Party. Medgyessy kept his word and finished the welfare transition; the only problem was that it was done by increasing the national debt.
In 2004, Medgyessy had to resign from the office because of internal conflicts, and Ferenc Gyurcsany became the Prime Minister until the elections in 2006, which the Socialist Party won again in a close election with head-to-head results with Fidesz (the party of Viktor Orban). However, in the fall of 2006, a speech got leaked in which Gyurcsany says sentences like “we fucked up”, “this fucking country”, or “we were lying day and night”. The speech was trying to be motivational, to govern better than they did before, but the public reacted harshly and organized protests. These protests were met with police brutality, sending many people to hospitals. These protests were a fundamental step in the communication of Orban, but more on that later.
Protests in 2006. Source: https://magyarnarancs.hu/republikon/oszod-mozgalomkutato-szemmel-100881
Even though it seemed like Gyurcsany would survive these protests, the financial crisis hit hard. As the country was in debt (65% of GDP) and had a budget deficit of 5.1%, the government needed additional revenues, which led to them borrowing money from the IMF. The IMF in exchange asked for financial restrictions, leading to the end of the “welfare transition”. Long story short, this was not a popular move, and Gyurcsany resigned from office in 2009. After one year of crisis management and financial restrictions, the 2010 elections brought the landslide victory of Fidesz and Viktor Orban, acquiring an absolute majority in the parliament.
Before jumping into the reign of Orban from 2010, let’s take a look at his earlier career. He started politics as a liberal politician. He was the first one to publicly say that the Soviets should go home. However, when the first democratic government of Hungary lost the elections, the governing conservative party collapsed, leaving a vacuum on the right side of the political spectrum. This led to the transformation of Fidesz and Orban, promoting a conservative political program. This narrative led to a victory for the party in the 1998 elections, resulting in four years of conservative governance. As mentioned before, they lost the following election because of the campaign of Medgyessy, the “welfare transition”.
Liberal Viktor Orban. Source: https://24.hu/belfold/2020/03/03/orban-viktor-rendszervaltas/
Viktor Orban used his time in opposition building up a strong voter base in the countryside. He took advantage of the political crisis around the socialist government after 2006 and offered an alternative, stronger government to the people, which was desirable in that chaotic period. Therefore, as the government struggled and Orban offered a seemingly better alternative, the landslide victory was predictable.
Back to 2010: Viktor Orban led his party to an absolute majority. This enabled them to rewrite the constitution, amend the voting law, restructure national media, and transform the role of the supreme court. The absolute majority also enabled Fidesz to put loyal people in positions such as the public prosecutor. In the background, Lajos Simicska, a university friend of Orban, was building up the media and economic empire. His companies only in 2010 and 2011 won around 2 billion euros worth of procurements, building highways, or railways. Simicska owned television channels, newspapers, and last but not least, he also owned an advertisement company, possessing many advertisement surfaces around the country, such as the public transport vehicles in Budapest or billboards.
Meanwhile, Orban kept up a strong political communication, similar to those done a few months before an election. There was a strongly defined enemy: banks and big companies. Orban communicated that he was fighting against these actors to defend the Hungarian people from exploitation. This led to the taxation of banks and a proposed goal to have 50% of the Hungarian banking system in Hungarian hands. The government also presented the program of utility-decrease, lowering the costs of households by regulating the energy prices.
During this period, the opposition could not actively react to the policy of Fidesz. Therefore, the combination of a well-defined common enemy (banks and multinational companies), a really popular policy (utility-decrease), the modified voting laws, and a destroyed opposition led to another landslide victory of Fidesz and Orban in 2014, achieving an absolute majority once again.
However, the fall of 2014 brought a change: disappointment started to rise, and the government could not offer a new narrative for the people to believe in. One of the biggest protests in Hungary happened in the fall of 2014 against a plan of an ‘internet tax’. This protest was successful, and the government did not implement such a policy. This period of dissatisfaction was topped by the breakup of Orban and Simicska at the beginning of 2015; the public reason was a media tax that was implemented earlier, hurting the profits of Simicska, but words are that there was a much bigger conflict in the background. Simicska was really powerful inside of Fidesz, leading to a rivalry between Orban and him. A famous day came in Hungarian politics: on the 6th of February in 2015, Simicska fired most people from his media companies, and repeatedly said to the press that ‘Orban is a sperm’ (a more vulgar word for sperm, which is not translatable). This was the end of the career of Simicska inside of Fidesz, and even though he tried to fight with Orban for a few more years, he ultimately lost this battle.
The end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015 was a weak point for the government of Orban. No doubt that the migrant crisis came at the best time for him, when the national-conservative politics could be renewed. However, this resulted in much more aggressive communication built around xenophobia. This was the point where Orban started the campaign of Christian democracy, and about the importance of defending Hungary, and the Hungarian borders. The high importance of national sovereignty also led to conflicts with and a strong campaign against Brussels and the European Union.
This was the one and only topic in Hungary until the 2018 elections. In 2016, there was a referendum proposed by Orban where people could raise their voices about whether they wanted illegal migrants in Hungary or not. In 2017, a heavy campaign started against Brussels and George Soros, saying that they planned to bring illegal migrants into Hungary, destroying the nation. This narrative was dominating public discourse, while perfectly defining the common enemy. It became an us-and-them kind of situation: critics of the government would become the soldiers of George Soros and they are the enemy of the state.
Information campaign by the government of Hungary in 2018. Source: https://444.hu/2018/03/31/az-nvb-szerint-a-kormany-rasszista-plakatjainak-semmi-koze-a-valasztasi-kampanyhoz
At this point, the available media empire, including national television, was so loyal that the spreading of political messages and propaganda was an easy task to do. The government had the media empire purchased by Simicska, while the national television had become a party television, not even trying to act impartial, calling the opposition “Hungarian-, and Christian-haters”. This superiority in media gave a significant advantage to Fidesz in national politics.
Before the 2018 elections, political opposition parties tried to break through this propaganda. Since it is mandated by law to enable every party a 15 minutes interview on national television, they used up this time to reach out to people whose number one news source is the national television. This was done in many forms, either through parody or by talking about corruption.
Even though there was more cooperation in 2018 between the opposition parties, this was not enough, and Fidesz got their third absolute majority. The political campaign lacked programs and future narratives, as they were dominated by the topic of migrants, George Soros, and the war against Brussels. This was the final straw for Simicska, who sold all of his remaining media interests to the circles of Orban, exiting politics. This gave Orban almost total control over Hungarian media, with only a few exceptions.
However, the fall of 2019 brought the wind of change: before the municipal elections, the opposition started to cooperate, and five centrist/left-wing parties organized preliminary voting to determine a mutual candidate for the mayor of Budapest. Moreover, these parties coordinated in other voting areas as well to have only one candidate in each voting district. This tactic was successful, and even though the majority of people voted for Fidesz, they lost Budapest and other big cities as well, such as Szombathely, or Pécs. This prototype of coordinated running seemed to be successful, and from then it has been inevitable that the opposition will run together in the 2022 elections.
The municipality elections did not change the mainstream communication of Orban. Even at the end of February 2020, in his radio interview, he emphasized the danger of migrants, while acknowledging the fact that the Covid-19 would eventually appear in Hungary. This changed quickly: after the first cases happened in Hungary, the government prioritized the topic of the coronavirus, framing it as a war. This led to the implementation of an emergency, and an internationally famous coronaviruslaw, which legally enabled Orban to govern by decrees. This law got the attention of the international community, which feared that this law would make Hungary a dictatorship. In reality, though, this law was only a formal change, as the government already had an absolute majority in the parliament, therefore not limiting the wants and plans.
It could be another article in itself to describe the Covid-19 policy of the Hungarian government. Long story short, the government emphasized communication, and military metaphors, while they were criticized for delayed actions and excessive deaths. They also used the chaotic period to prohibit sex-changing surgeries, shift state-owned properties, such as universities or parks to private hands, and they also got one of the biggest online newspapers in the summer of 2020.
In 2021, as the vaccines seemed to end the coronavirus crisis, there was a need for a new common enemy: LGBTQ+ communities. The parliament accepted a pedophile law that actively blurs the boundary between homosexuality and pedophilia while prohibiting any kind of sexual education on LGBTQ+ communities. Orban also announced a referendum “in the defense of the Hungarian children” about sexual minorities, which will be held on the same day as the general elections.
What we see today in the communication of Orban and Fidesz is that they serve the interests of the people. They defend people, decrease prices, fight the virus and ensure stability. It seems that a large part of voters needs this stability after the chaotic times of the previous government, and the government makes sure that people remember those times. As Ferenc Gyurcsany is still an active politician, it is easy to connect the chaotic times in the past with a possible government by the opposition. Even though the current coalition in the opposition has a leader, Peter Marki-Zay, who is explicitly against both the governments of Orban and Gurcsany and aims at opening a new chapter in Hungarian politics, the communication of the government blurs these two people together by saying that the “real leader” is Gyurcsany.
As mentioned earlier, the opposition realized that their only chance at winning the election is to run together. This forced six parties, the 5 centrist/left-wing and one right-wing party to cooperate and hold primaries in each voting district and for the mutual prime minister candidate. The turnout was relatively high: 853.802 people participated altogether in both rounds of voting, which is more than 10% of the voting-age population. This shows that there is an interest in democratic politics in Hungary. Peter Marki-Zay was voted to be the leader of the united opposition, even though he comes outside of the party and political scheme of Hungary; his name was firstly in the news in 2018 when he won one by-election against the candidate of Fidesz.
Peter Marki-Zay is a conservative politician with a strong catholic belief, however, he supports liberal policies, such as gay marriage, or cannabis decriminalization. His communication style is more than radical, he actively criticizes the government on personal grounds; one example might be his unproved statement that the son of Viktor Orban is homosexual. He says that Fidesz can only be beaten by turning their own weapons against them.
The elections are less than 50 days away. What we currently see is that there are two political blocks that seem similar in size. So far, every poll suggests that the election will be a really close one, making it the first election in Hungary to be unpredictable since 2006. However, Fidesz and Viktor Orban have a large advantage both in monetary and communication terms. Moreover, even if the united opposition won the elections, there would still be many tools in the hands of Orban to sabotage a new government. First of all, the president of Hungary will be elected by the parliament in one month, whose role is mainly ceremonial, but he/she can decide to veto laws. This person will be chosen by the current majority in the parliament. Secondly, the budget is in a bad state, with an 80% debt-to-GDP ratio in 2020, and currently, the government is in campaign-spending mode, giving subsidies to many voter groups. To rebalance the country’s economy, financial restrictions will be needed, which will not be popular. Thirdly, a 6-party coalition is never easy to manage, possibly resulting in one or more government crises. Lastly, there are other bodies, such as the Supreme Court, or the media authority, which are under the influence of Fidesz, but the personnel could only be modified through an absolute majority.
There is a theoretical debate about the possible legal steps of an opposition-led government. There are plans to modify the constitution by only a simple majority, strengthening it with a referendum. However, the legality of this action is at least questionable. Thus, the situation of the opposition is far from easy. Even if they win the election (which will not be easy in itself), they will need to either govern in a hostile environment or take steps that are hardly legitimized. This gives a chance to Orban to return to power in 2026, even if he loses this year’s election.
There has been so much happening in the last 20 years in Hungary that is impossible to summarize it in one article, therefore some things have been left out. However, the main points in recent history are included, showing a general trend of the political environment in Hungary. Although the opposition has the best chance at winning the election in 12 years, it will still be a hard task to do so, and the true challenge will be to govern with Orban in opposition. On the other hand, another term for Viktor Orban could have a disastrous effect on Hungarian democracy. Therefore, the upcoming election has a big stake, which could determine the future of Hungary.