Hungary’s governing Fidesz-Hungarian Civic Alliance scored another crushing victory in today’s election for European Parliament. But tonight, the spotlight is on the ultranationalist Jobbik, which finished in second place despite bombshell allegations that one of its MEPs was a spy for Russia, and Hungary’s bruised and fractured left.
With a turnout of around 29 percent – a record low – Fidesz and its tiny ally, the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) swept 51.5 percent of the vote, just slightly less than their result in the 2009 election for European Parliament. Jobbik, a party that critics label as anti-Roma and anti-Jewish, scored 14.7 percent, essentially the same as five years ago.
It was electoral Armageddon for the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), which mustered just 10.9 percent – its worst result in any nationwide election since 1990 and a significant decrease on the 17.4 percent it took in 2009. Following the vote, Socialist leader Attila Mesterházy tendered his resignation along with the entire party executive board. The MSZP leadership committee is set to decide whether to accept the resignations on Saturday.
The Socialists’ poor showing tonight is partly explained by the fact that they had to compete with two left-wing splinter parties that did not exist five years ago. The Democratic Coalition (DK), a euro-enthusiast party headed by former Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, scored 9.8 percent. Gordon Bajnai, who served as prime minister in a Socialist minority government in 2009-2010, led his Together-PM (E-PM) party to a 7.2 percent share of the vote. Also, the green Politics Can Be Different (LMP), which did not win enough votes to make it into the European Parliament in 2009, squeaked past the threshold for representation with 5.01 percent.
Fidesz will take 12 seats in the European Parliament, Jobbik will have three, the MSZP and the DK will take two each, and E-PM and the LMP will have one apiece. Election officials are set to release final tallies on May 29.
Poor turnout, poor campaigning
Hungary’s 21 members of the European Parliament (MEPs) represent but a drop in a 751-MEP bucket, but their work on EU budgetary matters may be critical for the country. In 2012 alone, Hungary’s net income from the EU was more than €3 billion, or 3.2 percent of GDP. That’s €308 per Hungarian citizen, according to calculations by Czech economist Petr Mach.
Yet most voters in Hungary, as in other member states, did not cast an EP ballot. The lack of voter interest was mirrored by politicians’ refusal to treat the election seriously. Neither Fidesz nor the MSZP bothered publishing an electoral program. The top men on the DK’s and E-PM’s respective lists, Gyurcsány and Bajnai, never had any intention of taking seats in the European Parliament and ran only as figureheads. Parties campaigned on hot-button domestic issues, many of which had nothing to do with the European Parliament.
Fidesz: Spoiling for a fight
Fidesz relied on its tried-and-true formula: Drumming up an image of the EU as a den of mustache-twirling capitalists scheming against Hungary, and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán as a battle-ready champion of Hungarian sovereignty. Their campaign billboards featured an image of the prime minister demanding, “Respect for Hungarians!”
Orbán promised to stop the EU from meddling with Hungary’s government-decreed cuts in utility prices, a hugely popular policy that helped Fidesz sail to victory in last month’s national election. Fidesz darkly warned that the EU may seek to attack the price cuts, even though the European Commission has not set any infringement proceedings in motion.
Fidesz pledged to fight EU interference with Hungary’s ban on foreign ownership of farmland. The Orbán administration has clashed with EU partners, notably Austria, by continuing to prohibit non-Hungarians from owning agricultural land after a Brussels-approved moratorium on sales to foreigners expired this month. The European Commission is examining whether Hungary’s rules are compatible with the free movement of capital – a cornerstone of EU law.
Orbán also blasted the EU for its objections over Hungary’s laws on tax-free spirit distillation and Hungary’s policy of sentencing serious criminals to life without parole. Were it not for the Peace Marchers (békemenet), a group that periodically holds parades in support of Fidesz, forces “from outside” might try to topple Hungary’s government, the prime minister said.
Yesterday, Orbán made waves within the center-right European People’s Party, the caucus to which Fidesz belongs in the European Parliament, by becoming the first EPP leader to publicly oppose the EPP’s expected candidate for European Commission president, former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker. Orbán’s curt statement about Juncker will likely strike many EPP colleagues as indelicate at best, given the support EPP leaders lent Orbán’s government during its censure by the EP for alleged democratic backsliding.
Euroskeptic Spy Scandal
Yet for all Orbán’s fist-shaking at Brussels, Fidesz consistently said it wants to reform the EU, not abandon it. The Euroskeptic territory was occupied by Jobbik, which casts the EU as an existential threat to Hungary and wants to leave the bloc should Brussels expand its powers any further.
“Two value systems are facing off against each other. One is the value system of big capital, multinational companies and banks; the other belongs to workers, small-business owners and yeoman farmers,” read the opening lines of Jobbik’s election manifesto. “The European Union presently represents the first value system. That is one of its big problems. The injustice and inhumanity.”
Fidesz reacted to this threat from the Euroskeptic right by attacking Jobbik over allegations that one of its MEPs – Béla Kovács – served as a spy for Russia. While Kovács and his party deny the charges, Orbán publicly mused about “traitors” in Hungary’s ultranationalist camp in the days before the election.
The MSZP seemed to dash its own chances by running a list of second-tier politicians under the vague slogan “Security in Europe.” The list leader, Tibor Szanyi, achieved notoriety in 2010 after detractors accused him of delivering a speech in Hungary’s Parliament while drunk. In 2013, he was fined for making a vulgar gesture at hecklers on the Parliament floor. Szanyi has recently slimmed down considerably and reinvented himself as a tan, suave working-class hero. That didn’t prevent critics from lambasting him in connection with a fondness for pálinka.