Hungary in 2023 was still recovering from the Corona virus (second worst record in Europe*), boasted the worst inflation on the continent and saw its education system bleeding teachers – yet December polls showed support for the governing party still at a commanding 45-50% of decided voters – Budapest think-tank Policy Solutions.
Photo: András Bíró-Nagy, founder and director of Policy Solutions.
Mr Bíró-Nagy gave the following introduction (very slightly edited) to his think-tank's assessment of Hungary's political scene on Friday, January 19th.
1. Hungarian government
Let’s start with how we evaluate 2023 from the perspective of the Hungarian government. 2023 was the year of a resilience test of the Orbán regime. With an economic crisis, a cost-of-living crisis, record-high inflation, a decline in real wages, a decline in private consumption and frozen EU funds, the key question of last year was whether the political regime that has been built systematically since 2010 could resist the impact of such a crisis. In 2023, this system was tested, and it proved resilient.
One of the most important indicators of the strength of this system is that Hungarian society has experienced several crises in recent years, and yet none of them has led to a significant drop in Fidesz’s support. A slight drop has happened over the last year, but Fidesz’s support is still between 45-50% of likely voters, which is a high number in the context of the economic difficulties. Equally important is the fact that the opposition has not benefitted from this slight drop.
The question that everybody has been asking from us for several years is why is Fidesz's support so stable? Why is Fidesz defying political gravity despite several crises? There may be many answers to this, but I give you here a few possible reasons:
1, A more structural reason is that Fidesz has entrenched itself in Hungarian society in the last 14 years, and this has had an impact on the governing party’s electoral success. The two-thirds majority, the institutional control, Fidesz’s control over large segments of the media, a growing slice of the economy, cultural and educational institutions, the vast resources, and the fact that Fidesz is perceived by many as the natural party of government mutually reinforce each other. The last time that another party was seen as competent in government was more than 15 years ago. Stepping out of what has been the “natural state” for many voters for 14 years will take a sense of adventure for some voters. This creates a vicious circle for the opposition that is difficult to break.
2, Another key factor is the governance based on shaping fears and concerns of Hungarians so that the government can present itself as the sole saviour of Hungary. Aside from the fact that it has been governing for a long time, Fidesz’s perceived competence is based on its control over information and its ability to drive up the fears of Hungarians over the dangers in the world. These include migration, gender issues, economic difficulties, the war in Ukraine, liberalism, Brussels, etc., and Fidesz is assuring the public that there is a political force that can manage these – the governing party, of course.
3, A fragmented opposition. Among Fidesz's most significant strategic assets is that its opposition is divided. Even if its support were to fall significantly, to 40% [of decided voters] for example, against a divided opposition, it would keep winning the vast majority of seats and thus control a majority in parliament. This is simple mathematics. We still believe that the lack of viable political alternatives is one of the linchpins of Fidesz's success.
4, Heavy negative campaigns. When an opposition figure or party is seen as becoming too strong, they will be subject to an attack of coordinated government propaganda. Budapest mayor Gergely Karácsony, the former PM candidate Péter-Marki-Zay, Gábor Vona, the former leader of Jobbik, and former PM Ferenc Gyurcsány have all experienced very similar media storms that went deeply into personal matters. Creating a potent challenger under such conditions will be a tough challenge for the opposition.
5, Physical presence. It is also important to point out that Fidesz is the only party with a deep local presence throughout Hungary. This factor is also clearly relevant to the governing party’s dominance of the political system, especially in rural Hungary.
6, The gift that keeps on giving: the supermajority. It is important to highlight the crucial role of Fidesz’s two-thirds majority. The two-thirds majority has basically removed all outside control over Fidesz and it can be used to modify the political system whenever it is in the interests of the governing party. The recent amendment of the municipal election law, which aims to make it more difficult for the opposition to reach a majority in the Budapest City Council, is a good example of that.
Regarding policy priorities, the most important issue for Fidesz in 2024 is the state of the economy. Inflation rates, economic growth, the global economic climate, energy prices and the demand for the goods that the Hungarian export industry has specialised in will be among the most important issues shaping the political climate.
Policy Solutions' polls indicate that the cost-of-living crisis has affected vast segments of Hungarian society, including many Fidesz voters. In terms of its polling, Fidesz has thus far survived the growing dissatisfaction with the economic situation.
Government supporters are buying into Fidesz's version of events, namely that the EU is to blame for rising energy prices and inflation. But Viktor Orbán is aware that financial security is the single most important issue for Hungarians and that he needs inflation to be under control and economic growth to pick up.
Regarding the communication priorities of Fidesz, what is clearly taking shape now is that the government's communication will focus on the issue of sovereignty. This has been the focus for a while now, but the term "sovereignty protection" itself has only recently emerged as the defining issue in government campaigns. Highlighting its role is the recent introduction of the "Sovereignty Protection Act", which will establish a new authority to review the foreign influence in Hungarian politics, media, and the civil sphere. Due to the vagueness of the language in the bill, not much is known yet about the new institution or the use of the law. However, what it does make clear is that Fidesz will make Hungary's sovereignty a central issue in the 2024 European and municipal election campaign, and beyond.
With less than half a year to go until the municipal and European elections in June 2024, the Hungarian opposition is as divided and fragmented as it has ever been since Fidesz came to power in 2010. The opposition is in a phase of competition, which means that they compete with each other for the division of the opposition electorate.
For the European elections, the opposition parties will be clearly racing with one another, each hoping to secure a relatively larger piece of the pie left over to them by Fidesz. The Democratic Coalition (DK) has established itself as the largest player: it stands at 18-20% in the poll of likely voters. DK is well-positioned to delegate the most opposition politicians to serve in the European Parliament in 2024. This is especially likely since both EP and municipal elections tend to be low-turnout ballots, which benefit parties with very disciplined bases, especially Fidesz and DK.
For the opposition, the question of how they perform compared to each other will be the most crucial. Parties that reach the threshold for the European elections will certainly have a more important role in the electoral coordination for the 2026 parliamentary elections. Based on current opinion polls, it seems likely that the Democratic Coalition will have the strongest position in that process.
Another big question for the 2024 European elections is how many of the six parties that cooperated in the 2022 general elections will reach the 5% [threshold] needed to get in [via the party list]. This is the stake of the European elections for the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), Jobbik, LMP and Dialogue.
Of these, the two green parties, LMP and Dialogue, seem to be further away from this target, while MSZP and Jobbik are somewhat closer. Among the six-party opposition, besides DK, only Momentum is considered by pollsters to be certain of reaching the threshold.
Although the polls show that Momentum will get into the EP, there is a real risk that they may not repeat their excellent 2019 result [of two elected MEPs].
At the same time, it is also possible that the Hungarian party system may be experiencing another transformation. This would mean a breakthrough performance of far-right Our Homeland and the satirical, anti-establishment Two-Tailed Dog Party. In the beginning of 2024, both seem to have a good chance of entering the European Parliament.
At this point, one might say the situation of the Hungarian opposition can hardly get worse. But the truth is that it could. Now, in 2024, the opposition must at least defend its municipal positions. Even that will be a challenge, given that in 2019, the mainstream opposition ran together and monopolised almost the entire anti-Fidesz vote.
This time, there will not be an alliance of all major opposition parties against Fidesz. In many municipalities, mainstream left-liberal opposition will be competing against two other relatively strong opposition parties – the far-right Our Homeland and the satirical Two-Tailed Dog Party – that will further fragment the "non-Fidesz" segment of the electorate.
Under these circumstances, a draw, that is a roughly similar result in the municipal elections as five years ago, would be a success for the opposition.
For voters, it is increasingly difficult to get excited about the question of which opposition party receives a few points more than the other. The relevant development is whether at some point in the future, one party or party alliance will grow large enough to dominate the opposition, become similar in size to Fidesz and thus emerge as a genuine alternative. 2024 will not be that year. Despite rivalry and competition, the unity question will not go away, and we expect that the challenges surrounding opposition cooperation will be the key issue on the opposition side of politics after the European elections and before the next parliamentary elections in 2026.
But as we know from 2022, formal unity in itself is not enough. One of the opposition’s biggest liabilities is that it is not perceived as a genuine alternative that one could think of as an effective governmental power. They should tackle this perception by working on the content of future electoral cooperation as well. However, by spending most of 2024 with internal competition they do not improve their chances for 2026.
3. Foreign policy
Regarding the European scene, the most important development of 2023 was that EU funds emerged as the key issue between the EU and Hungary. Given that more than 20 billion euros of EU funds are still frozen due to corruption and rule-of-law concerns, the question of EU funds and the negotiations about them will be a crucial issue for the government in 2024 as well – in a year when Hungary will celebrate 20 years in the EU and hold the EU Presidency in the second half of the year.
It is crucial to note that the timing of the most recent amendment of the election law, the adoption of the “Sovereignty Protection Act” and the most recent national consultation, which included a long line of attacks against the European Union, coincided with reports that the European Commission released a substantial chunk of the frozen EU funds. This example shows that even the super-milestones requested by the European Commission cannot stop the continuous erosion of democracy and rule of law.
In this yearbook we argue that in reality, for PM Orbán it does not make sense to leave the European Union. Instead, the goal is to “occupy Brussels” and play a pioneering role in changing the European Union. 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, and making progress on European integration with the current rules in place, with Orbán’s veto threats is painfully difficult.
However, the strategic breakthrough that Viktor Orbán is hoping for in the European elections, in which the centre-right European People's Party could form a majority with Eurosceptic right-wing political groups, is unlikely to happen. We expect that despite the far-right surge in the EP, the same political groups will give the majority that did so in the previous terms.
In 2024, it is not only the European elections that will influence the Hungarian government's international position. The most important election is, of course, the US presidential election, where the Hungarian PM placed his bets early: he went all in on Trump a while ago, and it is no longer considered a crazy bet. Trump’s return to the White House would indeed be a huge foreign policy boost for Orbán. It is also true that Orbán has no backup strategy. That is, as long as the Democrats stay in power, he considers the US administration an enemy. As a result, Hungarian-American relations are at lows unseen since the regime transition.
When it comes to the major trends in the Hungarian society, the yearbook provides a detailed analysis of the media trends and the state of education. But what I would highlight here briefly is that on several critical issues, including the state of healthcare, education, and inequalities, the public perceptions and the facts about Hungary clash with the government's claims about the reality.
Generally speaking, the more an issue is present in their own personal life, e.g. healthcare, education, and the cost of living, the more likely Hungarians are to be unhappy with the reality, while the more remote it is from their everyday experience (e.g. Soros, migrants, the attack on Hungarian sovereignty, etc.), the more likely they are to perceive the government as doing a good job at handling it.
It can be stated that despite the government's strong influence in the media, on many issues a majority of Hungarians take a different view of the social reality. At the same time this has not had direct consequences on Fidesz’s support so far. Why is that?
The answer is complex, but one key aspect is that the government has managed to put other issues into the foreground, such as war, migration, sovereignty, "Brussels" and "Soros". As a consequence, the issues where Hungarians' perceptions differ significantly from that of the government are less likely to appear in the political discourse.
Fidesz needs to ensure that it stays this way and that the public perception remains that the governing party is the only competent force on the key issues of today. For Fidesz to stay this popular, Hungarians (or at least Fidesz voters) need to be more concerned about imaginary struggles concerning sovereignty, the role of George Soros, culture war issues and Brussels than about the policy developments concerning which they experience first-hand that Hungary is not doing as well as claimed by the government.
And if they are still worried about inflation, the high cost of living, or austerity measures, then they should blame somebody else, the European Union, for example.
Maintaining this perception is the job of the Fidesz government’s communication machine. And an essential part of this job is to control social perceptions through the media and other institutions. The dominance over the public agenda is an effort for which the government not only needs a friendly media, but it should be supplemented in the long run with educational and cultural institutions that strengthen the government’s worldview.
The long-term goal is to achieve “cultural hegemony”, which requires a long-term perspective and gradual institution-building – and this is exactly what the Orbán government has been doing for some years now.
All in all, we think that another important question to track in 2024 is how long the Hungarian public will accept the gap between its own assessment of the institutions that play a vital role in their everyday life and Fidesz's different presentation of these trends.
To sum up, Fidesz’s dominance in Hungary can be measured by the fact that the crises of the past years, including the mismanagement of the Covid pandemic, the massive inflation that was the worst in the EU, the cost-of-living crisis, and the failure to secure EU funds have barely had an impact in the ruling party’s popularity.
To some, this may seem like an unprecedented success for a democratic party; to others, with a direct view of the situation on the ground, it seems like the result of an increasingly authoritarian political regime.
From a communications perspective, Fidesz will almost certainly be the winner of the upcoming elections: even if it loses a few points in terms of its national support as compared to the 2022 elections – and that appears likely – it will portray itself as the largest party without a genuine rival in the Hungarian system. And given the state of opposition politics in 2024, that will be true.
However, if the result of the European and municipal elections is that Fidesz’s support has decreased, (in light of previous election results, anything below 45% would be disappointing for Fidesz at the European elections) then the ruling party may well perceive this as an indication that its communication has not been effective enough or that its treatment of real and imagined “enemies” has not been sufficiently harsh.
Experience shows that this would speed up the process of further limiting the rights of the opposition, civil society, and the media.
Thank you very much for your attention! I hope you will enjoy reading our yearbook.
Hungary currently has 5,092 deaths from Covid per 1 million population. Bulgaria has 5,657.
For comparison, Slovakia stands at 3,881, Czech Republic 4,048, Romania 3,614.
The full report by Policy Solutions is available here: https://www.policysolutions.hu/userfiles/Policy_Solutions_Hungarian_Politics_in_2023.pdf