In Hungary, Viktor Orbán faces two challenges: his eroding power and a liberal Budapest6 min read

 In Analysis, Central Europe, Politics

After opposition groups scored big in local elections, Hungary’s right-wing prime minister needs to decide where to take his party.

In early January, when Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán held a press conference, he faced several unusual questions. Orbán –– who rarely addresses the press, and even when he does, has no time for independent media outlets –– had to explain why his governing party, Fidesz, had suffered a blow in the last municipal elections. He was surprisingly self-critical. In a country where Orbán has been in office since 2010, and won the last three general elections with a two-thirds majority in parliament, this is a sign of change.

Since last October’s general elections, the tone of the Hungarian political language has changed. Although Orbán’s party won in the rural areas and small towns of Hungary, it lost in Hungary’s larger cities, such as Szombathely, Miskolc, and Pécs. In total, 11 of the 23 largest cities went to opposition candidates, many of them independent but with the support of opposition parties. In the capital city, Budapest, the opposition candidate Gergely Karácsony defeated Fidesz incumbent István Tarlós, who had been in power for nine years. Even though the position is symbolic in many ways, since the government still has financial control over Budapest, Karácsony’s victory demonstrated that Orbán and his party are not invincible. The elections also challenged the view among supporters of the opposition parties that in a system where elections are free but not fair (according to impartial observers), and the majority of media outlets are under the control of the government, the opposition cannot win elections, or, in other words, Orbán cannot be defeated.

Polls show that Fidesz is still the most popular political party in Hungary by far, and it is important to take into account the fact that while Orbán’s party lost many cities, it did not lose a significant number of voters. This is not a paradox: opposition around were able to rally together against Fidesz. In the past, the opposition had been fragmented; their candidates competed not just with Fidesz but also with each other. But in October they realized that the only way to victory was cooperation. Parties from the right (Jobbik), the left (MSZP), and the liberal-green field (Momentum, DK, Párbeszéd, LMP) joined forces.

Budapest’s municipal elections were the litmus test of this strategy. The campaign was dominated by a sex tape scandal involving the Fidesz-backed mayor of Győr, Zsolt Borkai, who had participated in an orgy on a luxury yacht in Croatia. While video of the orgy definitely helped Borkai’s opposition, it’s not enough to explain the blow to Fidesz. As Gábor Török, an eminent former lecturer of political science at the Corvinus University of Budapest puts it, some people in Fidesz ‘‘think that the party already lost the 2022 general elections.’’

‘‘We cannot say for sure that Viktor Orbán will be a dominant figure in Hungarian politics three years from now,” he also said.

Orbán’s choice

Orbán, who has been in politics since the late 1980s and is considered one of the de facto leaders of the populist, right-wing political block in Europe, now faces criticism from two sides: not just from the opposition, but also some of his party members. Prominent members of Fidesz such as Tibor Navracsics, a former deputy prime minister and minister of justice, and János Lázár, a former minister, raised their concerns about the future of the party. It’s a question for Orbán too.

Fidesz politics are based mainly on anti-immigration rhetoric. They materialized when the government built a fence along Hungary’s southern border with Serbia and Croatia to keep out migrants from the Middle East. The government has also campaigned against American-Hungarian billionaire philanthropist George Soros, civil society, and various NGOs for years. By going after migrants and Soros, and by offering financial incentives to large families, Orbán has managed success after electoral success so far. It seems, however, that might not be enough anymore. 

Orbán has turned around a political party before. In the 1990s, he redefined the then-liberal Fidesz as a conservative party. There are no clear signs that he might do that again, but he said at his January press conference that ‘‘Fidesz can be fixed’’. Since the local elections, for example, Fidesz has started speaking about climate strategy, a topic which was not part of the party’s political agenda before, and which could be a sign that the party has become aware of the rising importance of climate change in Hungary. But apart from that, it seems Orbán’s strategy has not changed, and Fidesz will continue its defensive and highly controversial politics. 

In recent weeks, Orbán and other representatives of Fidesz have stated that the government would, despite a court order, refuse to compensate former prisoners for having endured inhumane living conditions in Hungarian prisons. The government argues that the prisoners have built a business on their claims, while critics see the government’s response as evidence that Orbán’s party have found a new enemy in the courts and ex-prisoners. 

Orbán also said that his government was not going to pay any compensation to the Roma people affected by school segregation in the Hungarian town of Gyöngyöspata. That would be a violation of a court order as well, but, according to news reports, the campaign against the Roma people, judges, and court orders are part of the government’s new communications strategy.

Orbán, whose party has been suspended from the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) since last March due to violations of rule of law, also needs to deal with the new leadership of Budapest. Although the government has expressed interest in cooperating with the new mayor, the last weeks have called their intentions into question. When Fidesz introduced new legislation in December which would offer the government greater control over theatres, especially in the country’s capital, many people saw the bill as the first step toward weakening the power of Budapest and Karácsony. Thousands of protesters demonstrated against the bill on the streets of Budapest, but the Hungarian parliament still passed it.

The opposition’s dilemma

For Orbán, the state of the opposition parties may give hope. While the opposition cooperated efficiently in municipal elections, these parties are still individual political entities from every side of the political palette, with differences and rivalries. At the moment, they are not sure in which form they would like to participate in the next general election, and it is questionable whether or not they have learnt their lesson from 2018. In that year, when Fidesz was re-elected its for third term, the months before the general election saw battles between the opposition parties which they all ended up losing. But if the opposition can unite in time, and find a joint candidate to run for Hungary’s next prime minister, they could pose a threat to Fidesz and Viktor Orbán.

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