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2022 was Viktor Orbán's best year in politics since 2010, but will be tough to replicate - Bíró-Nagy

Updated: Jan 25

Left-leaning political think tank Policy Solutions, in co-operation with the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Budapest, launched the latest edition of its popular annual review of Hungarian politics on January 20. It forecasts hard times ahead for the Fidesz government, but even tougher times for the fractured opposition.

Image: the cover of Policy Solutions' latest analysis of politics in Hungary


Here, we present András Bíró-Nagy's summary presentation of this latest publication, with a link to the full report.


András Bíró-Nagy is the Director of Policy Solutions

Hungarian Government


Let’s start with how we evaluate 2022 from the perspective of the Hungarian government.

2022 was Viktor Orbán's best year in domestic politics since he came back to power in 2010. We believe that this was the case because his party’s convincing election victory came together with the collapse of the opposition.


In a well-functioning democracy, such a level of public support after 12 years in government would be truly extraordinary. In Hungary, it is both a proof of the effective system that Fidesz has built (including its media empire) and the Prime Minister’s genuine popular appeal: his ability to frame issues in a way that resonates with large segments of the Hungarian public.


Factors such as Fidesz winning the clash of narratives on the Russia-Ukraine war and protecting its economic legitimacy during a cost-of-living crisis by issuing government handouts and introducing price caps on fuel and basic food products, also contributed to the larger than-expected election victory.


The biggest success was not merely the victory in the election, but the fact that Fidesz managed to turn the issue that seemed most likely to damage it on its head.


This issue was the invasion of Ukraine by Orbán's friend Vladimir Putin. Fidesz's communication machine proved effective in a critical situation. Fidesz used the war to convince previously uncertain or unlikely voters, and also some previously opposition voters, that only Viktor Orbán could be trusted to manage Hungarian affairs in times of war and economic crisis. Even as the Fidesz media looked insecure in the first days of the war, they later went full in on portraying Viktor Orbán and Fidesz as the sole guarantors of Hungary's peace and economic stability.


Despite its fourth election success in a row, it was safe to say after the elections that the Orbán government could not expect a honeymoon period. A huge budget hole created by its own measures awaited it, record-high inflation was in sight, the Hungarian currency significantly weakened and European Union funds were not flowing to Hungary because of concerns about corruption and the rule of law.


The fifth Orbán government also has to deal with Hungary’s place in the world. It seems that its reputation has suffered lasting damage from how the government approached the war in Ukraine.


All in all, the state of the economy and foreign policy challenges have made it sure that in spite of another big victory, 2022-2026 would be a difficult term for the Orbán government.


Despite all these difficulties, after a slight drop in Fidesz's support in the general opinion overall, the ruling party has stabilised its support at a very high level: roughly a third of the adult public overall, and half of likely voters, continue to support Fidesz. Equally important is the fact that the opposition has not benefitted from this slight drop in support. This means the election result would be roughly the same in early 2023 as it was in April last year.


The question that everybody asks from us is why is Fidesz's support so stable? Why is Fidesz defying political gravity, despite several austerity measures, like the reform of the residential energy subsidy programme, abolishing the tax scheme, Kata, for small enterprises and abolishing price cap on petrol?


There may be many answers to this, but I give you here 3 possible reasons:


1, One of the major reasons why the government has not suffered a major blowback from the crisis thus far is that the crisis is global in scope and the government's media is successfully portraying it as the failure of actors outside Hungary. It is true that Hungarians are currently experiencing economic hardships and challenges that are the spillover effects of global events beyond the control of government, but Fidesz has managed to avoid being blamed for its own policies that made Hungary more vulnerable to a crisis.


These measures include vastly increasing the budget deficit before the election at a time when a fiscal crunch was already emerging; failing to use EU funds to modernise and prepare the Hungarian economy; deliberately increasing energy dependence on Russia; and relying on a weak forint as the main instrument for attracting investments.


The actual portrayal of the crisis and its causes is often one-sided and manipulated, blaming the policies of the West without addressing problems caused by the Putin regime in Russia, for example.


2, In times of crisis, the Prime Minister's experience is also seen as a major bonus by many. As we have argued for many years, the main theme of Fidesz is protection. The image of the Orbán government protecting the Hungarian people while the opposition is fractured and focused on itself is another major reason why the crisis has mostly left Fidesz's support intact.


3, This brings us to what we consider the most important strategic asset for Fidesz: the weakness of the opposition, which has still not recovered from the electoral defeat. We believe that the lack of viable political alternatives is one of the linchpins of Fidesz's success.


All in all, we conclude that despite all the economic problems, and its poor international positions, politically speaking, in terms of domestic politics Fidesz is in an enviable position. The governing party is able to set public policy without any relevant checks and balances, and currently has no real competitors. This gives Fidesz the chance to define the political agenda more than ever since the last elections.


Photo: András Bíró-Nagy during his presentation on 20th of January. Courtesy photo.


The Opposition


The 2022 election was without question the low point for the Hungarian opposition. Even if an election victory seemed like a long shot, a close race and significantly cutting into Fidesz's parliamentary majority seemed realistic [prior to the vote].


From the opposition’s perspective, the most significant upset at the last elections was not Fidesz’s share of the votes, but its own performance, which fell short of both the polls and especially the united opposition parties’ 2018 results. In the 2022 Hungarian elections, the six parties that formed a united opposition list received 757,000 fewer votes than the total number cast for the six parties separately at the 2018 parliamentary elections.


This means that the Hungarian opposition lost 28% of its 2018 voters in 2022.


A clear lesson from the 2022 elections for the opposition is that formal unity in itself is not enough. The opposition campaign lacked coordination, unity of purpose and messaging, and focused on issues that were not the priorities of Hungarian voters. It appears that the opposition parties overestimated the importance of the issues of corruption, democracy and Hungary’s foreign policy orientation while they underestimated the key role of stability and security (both physical and financial security), which proved decisive at the time of the Russian war against Ukraine.


In the current deepening crisis, the opposition's best chance is the same as it would have been in the campaign: to point out the flaws of Fidesz's governance by focusing mostly on cost-of-living issues, and to offer the country a more just alternative based on solidarity.


Even when the opposition parties find the right issues – high inflation, the poor state of public services, energy efficiency in housing in times of energy crisis, and so on – they fail to speak in a coherent and united manner that would make it more likely for the voters to see them as a viable alternative. Instead, there are several small parties that each represent a few percent of the total public and have little media access.


This year the unity question will not go away. Opposition politics is in serious crisis, indicated by the fact that five of the six opposition parties saw a change in leadership last year.


Some argue that a coherent, strong single party rather than an alliance of necessity would have to emerge to challenge Fidesz. Since the elections, the Democratic Coalition has explicitly taken this position and has been acting accordingly. Yet, the reality remains that the opposition landscape is divided and dominated by parties and individuals who are unlikely to give up their own positions.


Regarding the future structure of the opposition, it is important to keep in mind that whatever success the opposition has had in the past years, starting with the street demonstrations in 2018 over the municipal elections in 2019, and then the successful primaries, they came when voters genuinely perceived the opposition as united.


To work on establishing some kind of unity is a must for the opposition parties this year, as it needs to be decided by this autumn in which format and which candidates will represent the opposition at the European parliamentary and the local elections next Spring.


I think it can be stated already that in order to keep their positions and gain new seats at the local elections, the opposition cannot allow itself to be fragmented, and has to put forward a single candidate in each city [for the mayoral positions].


Progressive politics in Hungary also suffers from a lack of resources and activism, and especially the geographical distribution of the latter. The problem is especially serious in rural areas where the opposition desperately needs to improve the situation in order to become more competitive nationally. This is why we argue that establishing a solid rural activist base remains one of the most vital challenges for the opposition.


There is no easy solution to this problem, and it is going to be a long process, but it must be clear that the future success of progressive politics hinges to a large extent on remedying this deficiency.


Foreign Policy


Regarding the European scene, besides the sanctions over the war, the most important development of 2022 was that European Union funds emerged as the key issue between the EU and Hungary. The EU is finally using its only major leverage over the Hungarian government, the disbursement of EU funds. Given the absence of key elections in 2023, the question of the EU funds and the negotiations about them will be the most pressing issue for the government.


Although the pro-government media talked about the deal reached in December as Orbán’s big victory, it has been widely seen as a major victory for the EU, since the Hungarian government dropped two key vetoes (on assistance to Ukraine and the global tax on multinational companies) in return for marginal concessions, and gained no immediate access to EU funds.


Many in the EU also see it as a significant step forward, as the EU has indeed upheld key principles such as the independence of the judiciary and the fight against corruption. Although the funding remains accessible to Hungary, its actual disbursement will depend on satisfying the strict guidelines, the so-called super milestones of the Commission.


In this yearbook we argue that in reality, the problem was not solved last December, it has only been postponed to this year. The Hungarian government is still trying to figure out how little of actual concessions it can get away with to gain access to the funds. At the same time, the EU still faces the problem of how far it wants to go in escalating tensions with the Hungarian government, as there is a substantial risk of the Hungarian government using its vetoes to obstruct the EU's operations.


The Hungarian economy needs EU funds, and at the moment, it does not look like the government can make that happen without genuine concessions as the frontlines between the government and the European Commission have hardened.


The next months will be the real test of the Hungarian government: the moment of truth will come around late March. This will be the moment when we will know whether the Hungarian government is really willing to make concessions in order to unlock these funds. While Orbán can make tactical concessions that will ultimately get him the funds, that will not solve the EU's problem. And this problem is that any solution with the Hungarian government is temporary.


Society


When it comes to the major developments in Hungarian society, it seems that the biggest domestic challenge for the government in 2023 could be the teachers, who remain determined to protest despite the government’s ban on strikes and the firings of a number of teachers. We expect that public education will remain a key battleground in 2023.


Teachers who dare publicly challenge the government, and a generation of students supporting their teachers in doing so, indicates that Fidesz's control still runs into some limitations in Hungarian society.


The other major problem for the government will be to reconcile the increasing gap between the reality of economic problems and its claim that it is the most effective player when it comes to protecting Hungarians from difficulties. It is highly unlikely that Hungarians will not perceive that in many cases their incomes will lag far behind inflation. Since there will not be enough money to compensate for falling real incomes, in the absence of economic prosperity, the government is likely to focus on where it tends to be successful: finding and attacking enemies.

Its dominance in the media will be the most important tool to address an increasingly inconvenient economic reality and the widespread perception that public services are failing under Fidesz. It is likely that the government will trigger more culture war issues, with the intention of deflecting attention from the cost-of-living problems by focusing on minorities, the LGBTQ+ community or migration [and thereby] provoking liberals in Hungary and our European partners, with the aim of shoring up the support of the rural conservative base. With “Brussels” already being blamed for economic problems in 2022, it is likely that the EU will remain a key target in 2023 as well.


Conclusion


To sum up, 2023 will be the year of a resilience test for the Orbán regime. We think that this year will not be as successful for Fidesz as 2022, and not only because there will be no national elections this year. Even without any electoral test, with a cost-of-living and economic crisis, it will be tougher than ever to close the gap between the everyday experience of people and the image of Hungary being economically stable and moving dynamically forward.


However, a key point is that the measure of success in a time of crisis is different. The impact of the global financial crisis of 2008 also contributed to Viktor Orbán's two-thirds majority, which was the final nail in the coffin of the unpopular centre-left government that was in office before 2010. Orbán understands the politically destructive power of economic crises, and he has systematically built a political regime and media environment that are meant to resist the impact of such a crisis.


After 12 years, this system will be tested in 2023, and our expectation is that it will likely prove resilient.


The full booklet Hungarian Politics in 2022 can be downloaded from here:

https://www.policysolutions.hu/en/news/589/hungarian-politics-in-2022_publication

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