Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz-Christian Democratic government cruised to reelection on Sunday, aided by a government-decreed cut in household utility prices and an opposition hobbled by internal divisions and an uninspiring campaign.
Critics who have spent the past four years accusing Orbán of authoritarian leanings could only stand and watch as Fidesz swept 44.54 percent of the party-list vote. This will give the governing party 133 mandates in the country’s new 199-seat Parliament, according to the National Election Office.
If the results stand, Fidesz will retain the two-thirds parliamentary supermajority that has given Orbán a free hand to reshape the country and its institutions over the past four years. Orbán is the first Hungarian prime minister to win back-to-back elections since 1990.
“We racked up a crushing victory, the meaning of which we still cannot fathom tonight,” Orbán said in his victory speech. “I am proud that I received a mandate to continue my work.”
A final winner still cannot be declared in five nail-biter races in Budapest and Miskolc. Should Fidesz lose even one seat as a result of a recount, its two-thirds majority will be in jeopardy.
Opposition Cries Foul
Orbán’s vanquished opponents are crying foul, saying the vote was conducted under new electoral regulations that Fidesz tailored to benefit itself. Hvg.hu, a news site, points out that Fidesz won some 800,000 fewer votes than in 2010 and its share of the vote declined by 8 percent, yet its two-thirds majority appears to remain intact under the new system.
The Unity Alliance, an umbrella group of left-liberal opposition parties, placed a distant second, with 25.99 percent. They are on track to win 38 seats in the next Parliament.
“I acknowledge the results of the election, but I cannot offer my congratulations,” said Attila Mesterházy, president of the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) and the Unity Alliance’s candidate for prime minister, in his concession speech. “We have not experienced such unfavorable winds at any time in the past 24 years.”
Jobbik, an anti-European Union party known for slurs against Hungary’s Roma (Gypsy) and Jewish minorities, raised its share of the vote to 20.54 percent from 16.67 percent four years ago. This translates into 23 seats in Parliament.
“Jobbik managed to reach a better result than the pollsters predicted for us,” party president Gábor Vona said after the election. “But we have to acknowledge that we were unable to achieve the goal we set for ourselves in the election campaign… we failed to bring a close to the last 24 years.”
Politics Can Be Different (LMP), an ideologically heterodox green party that refused to join the Unity ticket. scored 5.26% of the vote, squeaking past the 5 percent threshold needed for parliamentary representation. They will have five seats. The Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP), a nominally independent group that ran all of its candidates jointly with Fidesz, will also have a caucus in the new Parliament.
Today’s landslide is remarkable given that opinion polls show that most Hungarians have been unhappy with Orbán’s leadership for nearly his entire term in office.
The left-liberal opposition accuses Fidesz of bending the law to secure its own reelection – a claim that even Fidesz vice president Lajos Kósa seconded in an unguarded moment last year. However, most analysts argue that Unity would have lost under any circumstances. As politics.hu’s Zoltán Csipke wrote, the opposition suffers from an acute leadership drought. Unity is dominated by many of the same men who plunged Hungary into a morass of fiscal chaos and corruption between 2002 and 2010. They helped unleash the tsunami of voter outrage that swept Fidesz to a 68 percent parliamentary majority – a prize that has allowed the Orbán administration to pass virtually any law it pleases.
Yet Orbán’s reforms have hardly been a magnet for popularity. Upon taking office, he ran into criticism that he was using his supermajority to cement himself in power. Fidesz pushed through a new Constitution that watered down checks on executive power. The administration packed the Constitutional Court with party loyalists and narrowed its scope of its authority. Parliament became little more than a rubber stamp, critics charge.
The state bore down on the media, passing a law that granted Fidesz-appointed regulators sweeping powers to levy fines on media outlets for vague infractions. Hungary’s state broadcasters, which had never enjoyed true independence under any administration, became de facto Fidesz mouthpieces.
The government’s fiscal policies included a raft of new taxes and a controversial decision to nationalize Hungary’s compulsory private-pension system. The government used this HUF 2.9 trillion in workers’ retirement savings – roughly equivalent to 10 percent of GDP – to pay off debt and plug holes in the budget. Today, the private-pension kitty has been almost entirely depleted.
By July 2012, Orbán’s approval rating had plunged to an all-time low of 25 percent among all voters, compared with 53 percent when he took office. His party had slid to 16 percent from 42 percent just after the 2010 election, according to pollster Ipsos. Still, neither the Socialists nor Jobbik were able to turn Fidesz’s dwindling fortunes into political profit.
Just when the government’s prospects were at their dimmest, Fidesz struck upon the cornerstone of its successful reelection campaign: Government-decreed cuts in household utility prices.
In late 2012, Fidesz unveiled a plan to force utility providers to slash household bills for water, electricity and gas by 10 percent. The so-called rezsicsökkentés program later lowered the price cuts to 20 percent, with more reductions in the works. Utility companies were required to promote the government program by telling customers how much they had saved on each of their monthly bills.
When the mostly foreign-owned utility providers protested, Orbán brilliantly cast their complaints as an outside attack on Hungary. In March 2013, gas companies won a lawsuit that would have obstructed the price reductions; Fidesz responded by launching a petition drive to prove that Hungarians wanted to pay less. Orbán said these signature sheets would have the force of a referendum.
“The international service providers have strong friends” that Hungary has a hard time standing up to, Orbán said in an interview with state radio. “It is necessary to unite for the sake of the national will, and protect the utility-price reductions… This is a difficult battle, and my back is scarred by whips and cudgels… but in spite of it all, I’m happy.”
Mesterházy, Unity’s prime minister candidate, complained that cheaper utility bills are the only policy that Fidesz can offer voters. “No matter how hard I searched, I could not find Fidesz’s political program, apart from the single slogan of fighting utility prices,” he said last month.
Fidesz’s poll numbers began to rebound the moment the utility bill reductions went into force, according to Ipsos data. József Szájer, a Fidesz member of European Parliament who led efforts to redraft the country’s constitution after 2010, examined the possibility of guaranteeing low utility prices via constitutional amendment. Meanwhile, Fidesz used the signatures from the petitions to set up a database of supporters ahead of today’s election.
In his handling of rezsicsökkentés, Orbán made a clear choice to play the role of patriotic martyr fighting against hostile foreign forces. This has proven to be one of Orbán’s greatest assets, and helps explain his charismatic appeal: He instinctively understands the insecurity that many Hungarians feel about their relationship with stronger European powers.
Orban has a talent for addressing Hungarians’ sense of victimhood, which stems from a history of defeat – from the 1848 Revolution to World War I to the 1956 Revolution. He makes people feel important, justified and vindicated about their “Hungarian-ness.” Among opposition parties, Jobbik alone has a knack for this kind of politics.
The prime minister was in his element the eve of the election, when a Magyar Nemzet journalist asked him what a second two-thirds majority would mean to him.
“Two thirds would mean much more than self-justification,” Orbán said. “It would be the kind of inspirational victory that expands our horizons, that would make us believe that we, the Hungarians, are truly capable of anything.”