Fidesz won again because the opposition’s only policy was hating Orbán
The far-Right party’s opponents needed to fight for people’s lives, not technocratic norms. But it’s Roma and LGBTQ people who will pay the price
The Hungarian election result is a horror for Roma people, disastrous for LGBTQ people, and a threat to progressives across Europe.
With 98% of votes counted, Viktor Orbán’s far-Right Fidesz has increased its majority over the now united opposition, which could only muster 35% of the vote, and two constituencies outside its Budapest stronghold. The six main opposition parties, standing as an alliance, got six fewer seats than they managed in 2018 as separate entities.
Persecution of the Roma community in the country in recent years has intensified to the extent that many have fled. Most, as EU citizens, go elsewhere in Europe. But thousands more seek asylum in Canada, where the vast majority are able to demonstrate that they have been badly enough treated to qualify as refugees – one of the few pieces of concrete data about Roma people fleeing Hungary.
While reporting from Hungary, I’ve spoken to teachers at segregated schools – in one case, Roma kids are taught on a different floor, which doesn’t have a toilet, and one was kicked down the stairs by the headmaster when he tried to sneak to a loo upstairs; I’ve interviewed Roma teenagers forced to sit at the front of the tram, away from everyone else; and police officers who want all Roma children taken from their parents.
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Alongside the election itself, the re-elected prime minister Viktor Orbán ran a referendum on banning the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools and opposing access to gender-affirming care for young trans people. It didn’t meet the required turnout threshold, but you can be sure he’ll be bashing queer people for another half-decade, rallying transphobes and homophobes across the continent.
The attacks on the free press will continue – there are barely any outlets left that don’t just copy and paste government press releases. With the Central European University essentially kicked out of Hungary during Orbán’s last term, we can expect a further crackdown on academia.
I can’t help but think of homeless people, who have been banned from sleeping in the streets of Budapest in an attempt to cleanse the capital – of Kálmán Sütö, who I interviewed in 2018, who had to walk out to the forests around the city every night to find somewhere to sleep before returning to his spot outside the parliament, where he sold the equivalent of the Big Issue.
But this disaster for European democracy doesn’t just lie at the feet of Orbán and his allies. They are the victors: they got what they wanted. No, it is also the responsibility of the opposition that failed to defeat him.
In this election, almost every other party allied together in an attempt to unseat Fidesz. And in some cases, this made sense – fracturing the progressive vote between a smattering of outfits was a disaster in a system where most MPs are elected using first past the post. The collapse of Hungary’s social democratic party over the last decade has scattered the Left, and reuniting is vital.
But politics isn’t an exercise in arithmetic. You can’t just add together votes in columns and ignore that each one is a person with a mind and thoughts who needs to be persuaded and enthused. Politics is about conflict, and argument and power. By stretching their alliance to the far-Right party Jobbik, and anointing Peter Marki-Záy, a conservative, as candidate for PM, the opposition muted itself. Out of mutual desperation to rid the country of its increasingly autocratic ruler, they seemingly forgot to stand for anything.
If your alliance wanders so far you can’t agree on key messages about what you’ll do, you can’t make an argument about how you’ll improve people’s lives. If you choose as your leader someone who broadly agrees with your opponent on major issues impacting on people’s daily lives, then you have little choice but to centre your campaign on the turgid turf where your camps still differ – in this case, abstract constitutional issues, which are rarely the stuff of great electoral victories. (Perhaps this sounds familiar to the UK’s Labour Party? But that’s for another day.)
If the only thing that unites you is hating Viktor Orbán, then you ensure the election is all about Orbán.
The opposition needed to be an inspiring movement for a new generation of Hungarians, not a grumbling coalition of misfits who don’t like the boss.
That kind of movement doesn’t start in electoral politics and it doesn’t come from dodging fights and triangulating away any principles. It comes from challenge and conflict and grit.
One furious friend in Hungary messaged me this morning: “The liberal Left in Hungary have chosen not to confront racism. [It’s a] deliberate choice. It’s what they don’t do, and what they don’t say. There is no serious anti-racist campaign in Hungary. Nothing.”
Marki-Záy’s campaign was worse than silent, though, running posters attacking Orbán for being too soft on migration.
In Hungary, attacks on migrants – of whom there are very few – are always dogwhistle attacks on the Roma community.
There are lots of brilliant Roma people fighting for their own rights, and a few heroic radicals who stand with them. But too many of Fidesz’s other opponents are willing to accept the basic premises of Orbán’s arguments, and just try to argue that they’d be better administrators.
Fight for people's lives
Ultimately, if you talk to Fidesz voters around Hungary, most of them aren’t particularly enthusiastic. They keep re-electing the government because they feel like they’re getting richer – house prices keep inflating, wages continue to rise. The share of people living in poverty has fallen by about 10% over the last decade, as the country has become a manufacturing hub for German cars. Joining the EU has done wonders for the Hungarian economy, and, as the incumbent government for most of the time since then, Fidesz has been rewarded.
But that doesn’t mean everything is good. Hungary has, for example, one of the worst healthcare systems in Europe. Rising house prices mean housing costs are spiralling for younger voters. The cost of living is going up. Roma people, LGBTQI people, working women and many other minorities have suffered.
There is space for a progressive alliance to win in Hungary, but it needs to be a movement to improve the lives of ordinary Hungarians, and particularly those who have done badly from the Fidesz domination – not a series of rants about abstract issues such as how, as Marki-Záy put it repeatedly, “there’s no rule of law”.
And in the meantime, the Roma and LGBTQ people of Hungary will need our solidarity more than ever.
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