Hungarian voters disenchanted with the cronyism, pseudo-populism and creeping authoritarianism of the ruling Fidesz-KDNP government have a bewildering array of opposition parties to choose from. Indeed, that may be part of the problem. Apart from the MSZP or Hungarian Socialist Party, which evolved from the former Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party, they include the Democratic Coalition (DK), led by ex-premier Ferenc Gyurcsány, Politics can be Different (LMP), Together (Együtt), Dialogue for Hungary (Párbeszéd), Modern Movement for Hungary (MoMa), the Liberal Party and the far-right Jobbik, which has made strenuous if not entirely convincing efforts to reposition itself as a mainstream political movement.
Last September, Katalin Lévai, a former Socialist minister, announced the formation of a new political party, For Hungary with Vigour (Lendülettel Magyarországért), which plans to put forward 106 candidates in parliamentary elections to be held in April.
Yet, despite having been in office for eight years and mounting public dissatisfaction with the state of education and healthcare – as well as widespread concern at continuing high levels of emigration, particularly by young, better-educated Hungarians – Fidesz-KDNP are widely tipped to win the forthcoming elections with ease. How can we account for this phenomenon?
One recent explanation, which has been put forward, suggests that, despite inevitable grumblings, Fidesz-KDNP remain popular with Hungarian electors because, unlike most of the country’s opposition parties, they address the public’s fears about largescale immigration, particularly from countries outside Europe that are beset by chronic poverty, civil conflict or both. According to this narrative, the Fidesz government’s electoral success has also been due to its unflinching commitment to the preservation of national sovereignty, which, allegedly, is under threat from an overweening EU.
However, this ‘explanation’ begs as many questions as it appears to answer. For example, it ignores the extent to which public sentiment has been cynically manipulated in Hungary since 2015, with a succession of massive, mostly government-funded propaganda campaigns calculated to create and sustain a full-blown moral panic about the existential ‘threat’ to Hungary posed by migrants and by the EU’s alleged efforts to prevent Hungary from controlling its own borders. In recent weeks, the Fidesz-KDNP government has placed whole page advertisements in ‘sympathetic’ newspapers and paid for thousands of billboards falsely accusing the Hungarian-born financier and philanthropist, George Soros, of wanting to “settle millions of migrants from Africa and the Middle East”. If ordinary Hungarians fear large-scale immigration from outside Europe and believe that only Fidesz will protect them from the supposed machinations of Soros that is because government propaganda has succeeded in convincing them that such fears are reasonable and well-founded.
The weakness of Hungary’s opposition parties is only partly due to their political ineptitude, their inability or unwillingness to form effective, long-term alliances or their alleged failure to promote policies that are genuinely popular with the electorate. Quite simply, Hungary’s opposition parties lack the resources or the means to counter the insidious anti-immigrant, anti-EU, anti-globalist and anti-opposition propaganda, which projects Fidesz-KDNP as the ‘saviour’ of the Hungarian nation at a time, so Hungarians are constantly warned, of unparalleled crisis. One of the latest advertisements placed by Fidesz, now appearing in newspapers and on billboards, shows a grinning Soros in front of a partially destroyed fence. Several of Hungary’s leading opposition politicians – Bernadett Szél of LMP, Ferencz Gyurcsány of DK, Gábor Vona of Jobbik and Gergély Karácsony of Párbeszéd – are pictured standing on either side of the financier. In this carefully crafted advertisement, each of the politicians is brandishing giant wirecutters. The message to Hungary’s electorate could not be clearer or more deceitful – a vote for some of Hungary’s most popular opposition figures would lead to the rapid dismantling of Hungary’s border defences, resulting in a potential onslaught by ’alien hordes’.
The robust performance of Fidesz-KDNP in opinion polls – together with the continuing weakness of the opposition parties – also stems from the growing control exerted by Orbán and his allies over Hungary’s print and electronic media. Marius Dragomir, Director of the Center for Media, Data and Society at the beleaguered Central European University, estimates that ’some 90% of all media in Hungary is now directly or indirectly controlled by Fidesz. That will indisputably give them a major lead in the elections’. In addition to public sector radio and television, which have been transformed into a platform for government propaganda, the bulk of supposedly ‘independent’ print and electronic media outlets in Hungary are now owned by business interests aligned with Fidesz. As emphasised by Dragomir, ‘Hungary is a classic case of media capture where the government’s head honchos, hand in glove with the country’s oligarchs, have used policy and public funding to turn independent media into a mere government establishment.’
Dragomir’s thesis is amply supported by other sources. For example, in its latest survey of press freedom in Hungary, Freedom House condemns the pro-government bias of the bulk of print and electronic media in Hungary and the use of the state-controlled media to discredit opposition parties:
Hungary’s constitution protects freedoms of speech and the press, but complex and extensive media legislation enacted under Orbán’s administration has undermined these guarantees. Outlets friendly to Fidesz dominate the media market. The public broadcaster clearly favors Fidesz and its policy goals and has increasingly been used to discredit the party’s political opponents. The government also seeks to control the media through the selective awarding of advertising contracts and radio broadcasting frequencies. A number of outlets, most of them online, feature critical or investigative reporting, but their status is precarious in the face of government pressures.
EU steps in
It would be naïve to imagine that the popularity of Fidesz and the weakness of Hungary’s opposition parties can be explained in terms of the supposed ‘merits’ of Fidesz and the apparent inadequacy of the opposition. As Franz Timmermans, First Vice-President of the European Commission, cautioned last April, in a debate on Hungary in the European Parliament: “[r]ecent developments in Hungary have got many people worried in the EU but also in the outside world.”
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The routine denigration of opposition politicians by much of Hungary’s media – in contrast to their uncritical treatment of the public and private affairs of government ministers – has given Fidesz a massive advantage. However, this is merely one element in the systematic enfeeblement of democracy in Hungary, which prompted the EU Commission to progress infringement proceedings against the country, in December, by referring two cases to the Court of Justice. These concern Hungary’s recently enacted Higher Education Law, with its potentially devastating impact on the continued operation of the Budapest-based Central European University, and a controversial new statute on foreign-funded NGOs.