Hungary’s election, and Viktor Orbán’s choice

The decisive victory of Hungary’s centre-right - and the advance of the extreme right - presents the mercurial Viktor Orbán with a singular test of political character, says Anton Pelinka.

The electoral triumph of the Fidesz party in the first round of Hungary’s parliamentary elections on 11 April 2010, expected as it was, represents more than a shift to the right. Even before the second round takes place on 25 April, the right-of-centre Fidesz has already secured an overall majority - and now has an excellent chance to reach the two-thirds majority that would enable the party to change Hungary’s constitution.

Fidesz is a party that resists easy description. It emerged from the dissident movement which towards the end of Hungary’s communist regime (relatively liberal in later years) prepared the peaceful transformation that arrived in 1989-90. The party’s full name - the Fiatal Demokraták Szövetsége (Alliance of Young Democrats) - itself projected a liberal rather than a conservative signal. Its main rival in the country’s emerging political landscape, the conservative Magyar Demokrata Fórum (Hungarian Democratic Forum / MDF), won the first democratic elections in 1990 and governed until 1994; but as it began its decline, Fidesz shifted politically to occupy the position of the dominant formation of the centre-right. In turn Fidesz’s main adversary became the Magyar Szocialista Párt (MSZP, the reformed ex-ruling party of the communist era), which reclaimed power in 1994 (until 1998) and then governed for much of the next decade (2002-10).

Fidesz’s transition can be measured in its switch of alignment on the European stage from the Federation of European Liberals to the European People’s Party, the umbrella organisation of European conservatives. But there is an important element of continuity (and constraint) in the Fidesz story - its leader, Viktor Orbán, responsible in 2010 as he was in 1998 for the party’s electoral success. Moreover, Orbán is clear that he and his party do not belong to the extreme-right “family”; he wants to be perceived as the Hungarian equivalent not of Jean-Marie Le Pen but of Nicolas Sarkozy (his compatriot-at-one-remove) or Angela Merkel.

Orbán’s victory in itself might seem unremarkable: after all, anti-incumbent swings are routine in democratic politics. Fidesz received 52.8% of the vote (up from 42% in 2006), a signal that after the left had been in power for a punishing eight years the people felt it was time for a change. But what is remarkable are two other trends: the dramatic collapse of the socialist vote, and the rise of the hardline nationalist but in addition openly racist Jobbik (Movement for a Better Hungary).

The MSZP’s 19.3% represented less than half of the 43.2% it won in 2006, thus securing second place only narrowly ahead of Jobbik (16.7%). A fourth party gained seats in parliament: the green LMP (from its slogan: Lehet Más a Politika! [Politics can be different]), with 7.4%. But the success of this newcomer, seen as a moderate left-liberal force, is eclipsed by the most significant outcome of the 11 April elections: the Hungarian party-system has become unbalanced.

The call

The change can be put like this: from a system somewhat balanced between a moderate right (until 1994, MDF; then Fidesz) and a moderate left (MSZP), the democratic right has now become dominant - and the democratic left has been reduced almost to the proportions of the anti-democratic right.

It seems good news for Viktor Orbán. But he and his government face a huge challenge. A major reason for the left’s steep fall is the world economic crisis which has affected Hungary more severely than almost every other post-communist country in east-central Europe. Since global conditions shape the contours of this crisis, Hungary’s new prime minister will find it impossible to produce any significant economic upswing in the near future. Unemployment will stay high, and Fidesz will have to implement what its socialist predecessors already did - a policy of austerity. Many Fidesz voters will be disappointed. This brings Jobbik into the picture.

Jobbik represents the worst of Hungary’s political tradition. The party has a militia - the Magyar Garda (Hungarian Guard). The guards’ uniform reminds any observer with a minimal sense of history of the Nazi SS. Jobbik uses a flag whose symbols closely resemble those of Hungary’s Arrow Cross, Hitler’s most reliable partner in the execution of the holocaust. Jobbik’s main energy is devoted to provoking and instrumentalising conflicts with Hungary’s biggest ethnic-minority community: the Roma. The Roma population, which lives on the fringes of Hungary’s society, is the traditional and convenient scapegoat for those who wish to mobilise the frustration of the losers from modernisation.

But these extreme Hungarian nationalists have a second “defining other”: the Jews. Jobbik’s anti-semitic rhetoric is explicit and direct. It is a style of discourse that has become socially and politically unacceptable in western Europe, where even far-right parties prefer a much more indirect way of playing the anti-semitic card (references to the “east coast” or the “financial capital”, for example). Hungary’s extreme-right has no qualms about referring to “Jewish capital”, and Jobbik calls its opponents (including Fidesz) puppets of a “Jewish conspiracy”.

Jobbik’s electoral base is not so different from that of what has become known as “rightwing populism” in western Europe. Its local stronghold is Hungary’s economically less-developed east. More generally, it is the younger, undereducated sections of the population which is especially attracted by Jobbik’s aggressive chauvinism.

It can be safely predicted that Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz will avoid an alliance with Jobbik. But Jobbik, the second big winner of the elections (albeit it just missed second place in the voting), will act as a reminder of Fidesz’s campaign promises. And if Orbán cannot deliver as prime minister, Jobbik will accuse Orbán of selling out to “world Jewry” (or to the almost equally sinister “Brussels bureaucrats”).

The test

What can and what will Viktor Orbán do, if and when he is confronted with this kind of attack? He will not favour anti-Roma policies - such as upgrading the de-facto ghettos the Roma are obliged to live in to legally established ones. Neither will he participate in the debate about sinister “American-Jewish” plans to control the world in general and Hungary in particular. But Orbán will be tempted to employ a more mainstreamed version of nationalism to fight off Jobbik’s accusations.

Fidesz, for example, is on record as favouring dual citizenship for ethnic Hungarians living outside Hungary. This kind of ethnic-identity politics may seem comparatively harmless. But it will create new and/or intensify existing conflicts between Hungary and its neighbours, especially Romania and Slovakia. In each country the suspicion exists that Hungarian nationalism is prepared to use Hungarian minorities to undermine its integrity as a state.

Viktor Orbán could in principle become in his second period as prime minister a reliable and consistent moderate-conservative who acts within the European framework. But Viktor Orbán could also show his other face: that of a Hungarian nationalist who flees from the not-so-promising fields of economic austerity into the toxic vagueness and insinuation of identity politics, competing with the extreme right for acceptance by Hungary’s xenophobic currents.

There is no certainty about when or if the Hungarian Dr Jekyll transfigures into Mr Hyde. But there is another safe prediction: for Hungary, and for Europe too, living with Viktor Orbán is going to be a bumpy ride.

About the author

Anton Pelinka is a professor of political science and nationalism studies at the Central European University. His books include Politics of the Lesser Evil: Leadership, Democracy, and Jaruzelski's Poland (Transaction, 1999); (co-ed, with Ruth Wodak) The Haider Phenomenon in Austria (Transaction, 2002); and Democracy Indian Style: Subhas Chandra Bose and the Creation of India's Political Culture (Transaction, 2003)

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Anton Pelinka is a professor of political science and nationalism studies at the Central European University. His books include Politics of the Lesser Evil: Leadership, Democracy, and Jaruzelski's Poland (Transaction, 1999); (co-ed, with Ruth Wodak) The Haider Phenomenon in Austria (Transaction, 2002); and Democracy Indian Style: Subhas Chandra Bose and the Creation of India's Political Culture (Transaction, 2003)

Also by Anton Pelinka in openDemocracy:

"Austria's sour victory" (5 October 2006)

"Austria's democratic wound" (2 October 2008)

"Jörg Haider, the polariser" (16 October 2008)