On 3 April 2022, the political alliance that has ruled Hungary for the last 12 years won the parliamentary elections with a two-thirds majority for the fourth time in a row. The coalition consisting of Fidesz, led by Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and the minor Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) won 135 of 199 seats, and can also count on the support of one ethnic German MP, Imre Ritter. In total, Fidesz won more than 3 million votes in a country of 9.5 million — the highest-ever result for any party since the introduction of democratic elections in 1990.
Árpád Kocsis is a writer, translator, and philosopher, and an editor at Mérce, Hungary’s leading left-wing online magazine.
Hungary’s political establishment has been the subject of debate and concern for some time, with analysts at home and abroad routinely talking of a “kleptocracy” and “mafia state”, while forgetting that Fidesz, true to its credo from the 1990s, is a staunchly liberal party whose legislative moves are carefully crafted. Thus, without a critique of law, one of the basic tools of the capitalist economy, judgments about pervasive “corruption” remain trapped at the level of generality, while their ability to mobilize a powerful opposition is also negligible. The issue is presented as a moral scruple — which may be correct, but fails to capture the class struggle that Fidesz is waging from above, an important element of which is its redistribution of wealth upwards.
The concept of the “mafia state” is similarly misleading, because unlike the mafia, which entered the state from below, Fidesz has grown from above and through the state. Today, the government and the state, along with the pro-government media and the public media, are essentially inseparable. The idea of an “organized society” implies an extensive family business with the prime minister enthroned as family patriarch — but “Hungary PLC”, so to speak, does not even remotely resemble a pre-capitalist “business” of the sort that necessarily clashes with the modern state and its monopoly on violence. The regime in Hungary is very much in tune with capitalist relations and manages the country rather than governs it. If it does resort to violence, it never does so visibly, but covertly, outsourcing it.
Another widespread take is that “Hungary is becoming a Putin-type regime”. At the very least, this view fails to take into account the two countries’ incomparable geopolitical positions and roles, which became highly evident during the war in Ukraine and also had a decisive influence on the election. As a member of the European Union and NATO, Hungary has proven to be a quite law-abiding country in recent years, supporting EU sanctions and economic policies while participating in NATO’s arms race. The country has spent heavily on defence and concluded military agreements with Brazil, Turkey, and Germany.
While it is not clear whether the Hungarian government has truly become a “system” in its own right, or rather is simply the Hungarian variant of the same crisis afflicting all countries in the region, Orbán’s recent victory nevertheless calls for interpretation and explanation. What is the nature of the Fidesz state, and where is it heading?
Scandals and Success
In October 2021, when the conservative co-founder of the Everybody’s Hungary Movement, Péter Márki-Zay, won the opposition primary and thus became the candidate of the six-party alliance known as United for Hungary, a change of government seemed possible. Opinion polls suggested that the alliance between the Democratic Coalition (DK), the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), Momentum, Politics Can Be Different (LMP), Jobbik, and Dialogue for Hungary (PM) could win the elections. More importantly, Fidesz was also preparing for change, and appointed new leaders to head several key state bodies for the first time in many years.
This possibility was reinforced by Fidesz’s weakened position. Many may remember the wave of protests in December 2018, sparked by the ruling parties’ repeated tightening of the Labour Code to the detriment of workers. Among other things, the government’s new overtime law increased the maximum number of overtime hours worked in a year from 250 to 400, and the maximum accounting period from 12 to 36 months. However, as is typical, criticism of the overtime law did not feature prominently in the campaign for the 2022 elections: Fidesz’s parliamentary leader Lajos Kósa won his constituency, while the law’s co-author, Kristóf Szatmáry, was only defeated by his opposition challenger at the last minute.
The government also underperformed in the pandemic, with Hungary long among the top countries in terms of deaths per capita. COVID also appeared to finally destroy the fragile rule of law in the country: the so-called “Act on Protecting against the Coronavirus” drafted in March 2020 allowed the government to rule by decree essentially indefinitely. Fidesz did not govern against the pandemic, so to speak, but with it: during the economic crisis triggered by COVID, it placed all higher education institutions except five under the control of private foundations headed by figures close to Fidesz. At the same time, the health care sector, under-funded and straining under decades of neoliberal policies, underwent a decisive change: a ban on dismissals was introduced and new, stricter legal conditions imposed on health workers.
Although nearly one fifth of the population was already feeling the effects of the economic crisis in 2020, Fidesz came to the aid of employers first and foremost. Workers who lost their jobs were either left to take on debt, or, if they were not creditworthy, granted an extremely meagre three months of benefits. The state also fell into debt and inflation looked increasingly untameable, reaching a 15-year high as the pandemic subsided.
Meanwhile, the Hungarian government was beset by more and more scandals. In March 2021, Fidesz was expelled from the European People’s Party, found itself at the centre of the Pegasus scandal, and was even suspected of using the secret services to investigate Hungarian President János Áder, while Pál Völner, the State Secretary for Justice, was accused of accepting bribes.
It was in that atmosphere that the results of the opposition primaries were announced, with Péter Márki-Zay declaring victory and promising to “defeat Orbán” in April. But then, with six months to go before the elections, the opposition disappeared from public view. While it was preoccupied with organizational questions, debates over the allocation of future parliamentary seats, and other comparatively trivial issues, Fidesz was busy mobilizing some 100,000 activists for its campaign. By the time the opposition launched its own campaign, Fidesz was again leading in the polls.
Hungary’s Usefully Useless Opposition
The political opposition has a definite role to play in Hungary’s so-called “System of National Cooperation” (NER), a euphemism for the semi-peripheral accumulation regime imposed by the Orbán government in 2010. In the NER, the opposition functions above all as legitimation for the claim that the country still operates within a “democratic” framework. After all, the opposition can stand in elections, take seats in the (increasingly rubber-stamp) National Assembly, conduct parliamentary inquiries, enjoy a five-minute slot on public television before elections, and receive state funding for its campaigns.
The opposition also serves as a (negative) point of reference: Ferenc Gyurcsány, chairman of the Democratic Coalition and previously prime minister for the MSZP, is an indispensable figure in Fidesz campaigns. As the embodiment of the pre-NER system, he is constantly used to remind voters of the austerity policies associated with “the Left”. In the 2022 campaign, Gyurcsány probably had the most billboards— his name appeared on more Fidesz posters than Viktor Orbán’s. In this sense, and despite its intentions, the weak, disorganized opposition has become a political tool.
It also played a decisive role in ensuring that the aforementioned 2018 protests died down. With the emergence of opposition figures, the workers’ protests turned into protests against the state media and ultimately became a farce. It is no coincidence that opposition parties were not welcome at the protests. The teachers’ protests that gained momentum during the 2022 campaign mobilized without the opposition parties and largely bypassed the unions, while news of teachers’ poor working conditions and low pay dominated what remains of the free press.
On many issues, the opposition and government are in fact almost indistinguishable. The opposition is perhaps just a shade less anti-refugee than Fidesz, and equally supportive of the government’s unfair family support system, which disproportionately favours the wealthy. Indeed, Márki-Zay appeared to have structured his campaign around turning Fidesz’s message against it. If Fidesz railed against the presence of “gays” in the country, Márki-Zay started talking about “Fidesz gays”. If the governing parties called for allowing more migration, the opposition candidate would go on the attack, denouncing Fidesz for letting migrants into the country.
The opposition is a coalition of bourgeois parties whose voter base is drawn from the middle and upper-middle classes of Budapest and other provincial cities. These voters are only interested in the issue of “corruption” because they are still in the running for state subsidies. It is thus little surprise that social issues were largely ignored by United for Hungary’s campaign — at most, they were emphasized by candidates in individual districts, such as the social democrat András Jámbor, who ultimately won the district of Józsefváros-Ferencváros.
Fidesz’s Fourth Estate
So what is Fidesz’s secret? The ruling party makes no secret of it: the secret is that it wins, and it wins because it has a habit of winning. This may sound like empty talk, but for those who have had few opportunities for success since the party took over, Fidesz’s victory is like an opiate. Fidesz can only ever win against something, and if it claims there is an enemy (which in most cases does not exist), its victory is all the more certain.
That said, the party does not win this game with psychology alone. Elections in Hungary fail to meet even the most basic democratic requirements. Since the 2013 amendment to the electoral law, parliamentary elections have been single-round elections, with 106 of the 199 seats allocated to individual constituencies. Districts are drawn up unilaterally by the state, leading to widespread gerrymandering, and the law is based on the winner-takes-all principle.
The legislation was designed to create two large political blocs, fostering the creation of an opposition camp spanning from the far-right to the centre-left — a political formula never before seen in Hungary. A large number of companies close to the NER are involved in organizing the elections. Added to this are parties with dubious backgrounds who only emerge around elections and seek to draw votes from the opposition, increased obstacles to voting for émigré Hungarians, or facilitating the re-registration of voters in constituencies.
Still not satisfied, Fidesz even scheduled a referendum on election day over the homophobic law the National Assembly had passed only a few months earlier banning the “portrayal and promotion of gender identity different from sex at birth”. Although a fifth of respondents gave an invalid response, and participation remained below 50 percent, the referendum undoubtedly divided right-wing voters in favour of the law.
The ruling party’s mobilizing resources are endless, as it can rally the state behind it, with even the vaccination registration website typically broadcasting government messages. In addition, the NER controls the majority of the media market in Hungary, even owning some “oppositional” outlets. The media empire linked to the NER has essentially grown into a branch of the state: it punishes and exalts, rewards and tramples.
A telling example of its power is that almost half of opposition voters and two-thirds of Fidesz supporters were unaware of the devastation caused by the pandemic in Hungary. Indeed, the pro-government media empire accomplished no less a task than to portray a coalition dominated by the far-right Jobbik party, the centre-right DK, the conservative-liberal Momentum, and the unpredictable MSZP as “left-wing”.
It is not that the opposition has been silenced so much as the noise from the government’s media empire has proven deafening. In the 2022 campaign, the state and NER-affiliated media spent nearly 2 billion Hungarian forint, or 5 million euro, on targeted Facebook advertising alone. Shortly after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Péter Márki-Zay said that if he were elected, Hungary would even provide military assistance to Ukraine if NATO requested it. This proved to be an easy ball for the Fidesz media, and the press was soon swept up by reports of a “pro-war Left”. The result, as we know, was a resounding victory for the government.
Hungary Is More than Viktor Orbán
The party that received the harshest treatment in the recent election was the former “people’s party”, Jobbik. The once far-right party lost half of its support, a significant portion of which either sided with Fidesz, supported Jobbik’s successor party, Our Homeland, or stayed home. The underperformance of the Hungarian Two-Tailed Dog Party (MKKP), a satirical party that dropped out of United for Hungary to run an independent campaign, suggests that the left-wing electorate (consisting of a few hundred-thousand people) put its faith in Péter Márki-Zay.
Undoubtedly the most worrying development is that the fascist Our Homeland party will have six MPs in the new legislature. Founded by former Jobbik vice-president László Toroczkai under the racist slogan “Hungary will not be a gypsy country!”, the party received 6 percent of the vote. Its main demand was the withdrawal of the pandemic measures, which it continued to demand undeterred even after the government suspended them in early spring. Our Homeland’s success is deeply concerning, as is its intention to chair the National Security Committee in the new parliament.
Although another two-thirds victory for the Fidesz–KDNP alliance appears to show that the ruling parties remain strong, we should be cautious. So far, we have been too glib in talking about “Fidesz”, when there is no evidence that the party actually exists. There has been no talk of internal disputes or factions for years, but all the more of rivalries between bloated, overgrown government ministries. Fidesz has not drafted a party programme in over two decades. Last election, the party’s slogan was “We will continue”. In 2022, it was the equally meaningless “Hungary goes forward, not backwards”.
It is impossible to say what Fidesz intends to do next. What is left is Viktor Orbán, who dominates European political discourse to a degree that far outstrips Hungary’s relative importance — although this is a reflection not of his qualities as such, but of the state of the EU as a whole. In any case, he is the source of almost all political emotion in Hungary: Péter Márki-Zay, for example, made it a point to mention the prime minister’s name at least 50 times in a few minutes of his speeches.
This myopic focus on Orbán obscures Hungary’s broader social and political reality — that has been true for a long time. That said, the future remains open, as we are currently in the middle of a worsening economic crisis that is already eroding the support the governing parties cobbled together over the past six months, while a war continues to rage in the country’s geopolitical backyard.
At the same time, Hungary is becoming increasingly isolated. For a country with large ethnic minorities living in neighbouring countries, this could be a tragic development. Just as tragic, however, is that — due to the overwhelming dominance of pro-Fidesz media and the sense of external threat maintained by the government — most Hungarians remain unaware of both the causes of that crisis as well as their country’s growing isolation.