Viktor Orbán, not yet sixty, is the longest serving Prime Minister in Hungarian history, as well as in contemporary Europe. On April 3, Orbán was elected to lead the country for a fourth consecutive term, his fifth term in total. His party, Fidesz, has once again secured a constitutional supermajority of more than two-thirds of all parliamentary mandates in what many analysts regard as a political system deeply distorted in the incumbent’s favor in subtle and not so subtle ways. Hungarian voters have thus granted their controversial illiberal leader the chance to continue remaking the country’s political and legal order at will for a minimum of 16 years.
While the turnout and the resulting distribution of mandates both closely resemble those from four years ago, Fidesz has in fact increased its popularity further. It finished ahead of the recently formed united opposition by a wholly unexpected margin of some 18% and won nearly every individual constituency outside Budapest. The hopes of recent months that the broad oppositional platform – which included right-wing populists and disaffected conservatives as well as liberals, greens, and leftists – would seriously challenge the incumbent turned out to be illusionary.
Uniting the opposition may have been the only way to challenge Fidesz in individual constituencies under the new electoral law, but the united opposition performed significantly worse than the sum of its parts four years ago – not least because the formerly far right Jobbik party may have joined it but failed to mobilize most of its former voters, still over a million strong in 2018, for the common cause. The rather comforting idea, often repeated in recent years, that Hungary remains divided into two equally large blocs – the illiberal incumbent and its unfairly disadvantaged democratic opposition – is simply no longer tenable after Sunday’s outcome.
Being systematically disadvantaged has to be part of any explanation of the opposition’s performance. Having pursued its gradual and systematic illiberal state building for twelve years, the ruling party has permeated Hungarian state institutions and society ever more profoundly. However, pointing to that crucial fact does not offer a full account of the opposition’s miserable performance. The nominally united opposition’s project to challenge the Orbán regime proved to be remarkably broad but also way too shallow. The development of a new, more professional, and more socially embedded opposition is long overdue – and increasingly unlikely now that the playing field is most likely to get even more heavily tilted.
With his support of around half or even slightly more of the electorate, Orbán has managed to emphatically defeat four notably different constellations of the Hungarian opposition forces. This time, Fidesz was particularly successful at mobilizing members of the most vulnerable strata of society, people with limited education and political awareness. As in so many other countries, the divergence between the capital city and the countryside and between those with degrees and those without have thus grown even sharper. While the composition of its electorate has indeed shifted, Fidesz’s overall level of support has barely changed in the last two decades: it is the long-term stability of Orbán’s support that is striking in a world that is changing so rapidly and in such cataclysmic ways.
There are several broader lessons that Hungary’s dramatic change of political course since 2010 holds. Illiberal, authoritarian, ultraconservative and far right views enjoy vocal political support across large parts of the globe today, including in several long-established democracies, such as the US, France, or Italy. Such international parallels cannot hide the fact that the hegemonic political culture and value orientation in Hungary today diverge rather sharply from Western European ones. What makes Hungary sadly special is that parties propagating the just mentioned platforms have consistently received 60 to 70% of the vote for over a decade now.
While other countries may have fallen in democratic rankings at comparable speed (think of Russia, Turkey, or Serbia), arguably no country has fallen so sharply from so high. In other words, the case of Hungary shows, perhaps more clearly than any other country, that liberal democracy is never consolidated. Its sustenance can never be taken for granted and in fact requires continuous effort. That is precisely what should make the country’s democratic decline such a global concern.
The country also shows in a striking fashion just how little international organizations and foreign policy considerations might matter even within an EU member state – and how slow and inefficient the EU can prove when attempting to counter democratic decline. Orbán’s damaged reputation in the West and Fidesz’s growing isolation in EU politics played almost no role in realigning electoral preferences in the election. Despite being citizens of the EU since 2004, large segments of this peripheral European society apparently continue to view the world through parochial lenses.
Next to the intention to restore the constitutional order and achieve a measure of accountability, a key message of the opposition concerned the country’s return to Europe and the West – messages that resonated widely back in the 1990s. Today, the opposition’s principled discourse failed to attract voters whereas Fidesz’s references to more tangible concerns such as peace, security, gas, or pensions evidently struck a chord. It is difficult to avoid the impression that the seeming eagerness of Hungarians to Westernize and Europeanize in the years after 1989 has produced very partial results and turned out to be rather superficial.
In the meantime, Orbán has employed calculated ambiguity when it comes to the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine. The evident popularity of the Prime Minister’s insistence on “assuring peace and security” in Hungary by remaining as neutral as possible has revealed just how many Hungarians lack a sense of their own agency, not to mention empathy, when it comes to international affairs – even when a brutal invasion is raging right next door.
This calculated ambiguity has served Orbán well during his reelection bid but has cost him much of his limited remaining credibility within the EU. With the pragmatic alliance between Poland and Hungary under strain at the moment, chances for the regime’s further isolation within the EU have increased. Whether such isolation would help foster a more democratic future in Hungary is, however, far from assured.