Hungary’s political future lies in the balance as voters head to the polls
Roar writer James Westmacott on if a united opposition can finally topple Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s regime and what implications the election has for Hungary’s future
On a bright, crisp Budapest spring morning, with the sun glittering down onto the pristine, gentle flow of the Danube, there is a great sense of serenity. Once described as the most beautiful city in the world, the charming soul of Hungary’s capital swiftly becomes apparent with its stunning neo-gothic architectural masterpieces and quintessentially romantic coffee houses. Sauntering around the city’s cobbled streets, a discernible weight of history settles all around you. This is a place that has truly seen it all, each historical epoch leaving its indelible mark on a culture that’s stood the test of time.
Hungary’s past has been tumultuous to the say the least. Even since the beginning of the 20th century, the intense magnitude of expeditious change appears frightening. The vicious White Terror of the early 1920s, the sheer tyranny of Miklós Horthy’s despotic regime, the barbarism of the Second World War, the undulation of Soviet communism including the infamous revolution of 1956, along with the nation’s struggle in its aftermath, all distinctly accentuate the vociferous nature of Hungarian political life. Such clamour has without doubt shaped the Hungary of today, each historical moment helping create the path for the latest chapter of political severity. From communism to Viktor Orbán’s right-wing populism, Hungary has seemingly lurched from one extreme to another. With the quadrennial Hungarian parliamentary elections once more upon us, April 3rd thus represents a vital day in moulding the course of Hungarian and European politics. A break from Orbán’s decade-long rule is certainly possible, though perhaps more likely is that he will win yet another term.
Having enjoyed the last 12 years in power, Orbán’s Fidesz Party’s asphyxiant grip over Hungarian politics has strangulated the country’s institutions to a point whereby the nation is no longer even a democracy. Fidesz’s hegemony over domestic politics has provided opposition parties with an intoxicated political landscape, one that remains so utterly detrimental to their flourishing. Leading opposition parties such as Jobbik, Dialogue for Hungary, the Democratic Coalition, the Socialists and the Greens have all fought inefficacious challenges to the ruling regime since Orbán came to power, with no party coming close to toppling the tinpot dictator. Though, something has changed. A momentous tactic has been deployed.
What makes the upcoming election unique is the fact that Orbán and Fidesz will be up against a united alliance of opposition parties. The crushing force of Orbán’s regime has left opposition politicians from all over the political spectrum with little choice but to accept that the amalgamation of forces is the only feasible way of deposing the Fidesz government. Whilst they are by no means guaranteed success, such a move has unquestionably taken the election from a foregone conclusion, to a close race, where a different future is eminently possible. In the previous 2018 election, the closest challengers to Fidesz’s seemingly indomitable throne were Jobbik, winning 23% of the vote, compared to Fidesz’s 47%. This time round, despite Fidesz still expected to triumph, polling at 49%, the opposition alliance currently polls at 44%, indicating a much more closely fought election is on the cards thanks to the opposition’s unity.
The person leading the challenge is none other than Péter Márki-Zay, who, like Orbán, is a fierce conservative. Prodigiously religious and fervently nationalist, at first glance it may appear tricky to uncover how Márki-Zay as a candidate differentiates himself markedly from the incumbent he’s trying to defeat. A key tactic has been to one-up Orbán within the conservative political realm, by suggesting that it is he who is the real Christian and the real defender of traditional Hungarian values.
Despite describing himself as a right-wing Christian and a former Fidesz voter, Márki-Zay has publicly elucidated his support for European integration and remains zealous of Hungary’s NATO membership. Márki-Zay has vowed to restore the rule of law in the country, whilst simultaneously looking to introduce more progressive social policies such as the authorisation of same-sex marriage, a topic that has ravaged the nation’s political discourse in recent times. So much so, that the parliamentary election remarkably isn’t the only vote to take place on April 3rd. On the very same day, there will also be a referendum on whether or not LGBT material should be taught to children in schools, with Orbán’s rampant hostility towards the acceptance of an LGBT culture having unequivocally been made known.
Though if the opposition alliance is really to upend Orbán and his regime, Márki-Zay is indisputably not the progressive, innovative reformist that many were hoping for. His politics remains staunchly neo-liberal, he remained opposed to a minimum wage, and even proposed Hungary “become a tax haven”, highlighting how radical change is certainly not on the horizon. It would therefore appear that Márki-Zay only really offers Hungarians a change in terms of maintaining a greater respect for democracy. But perhaps that’s enough. After over a decade of Orbán and his ever-increasing merciless rule, even just another conservative, but one with a greater respect for democracy and the rule of law would constitute a positive move forward.
However, in spite of Márki-Zay’s promise of change, the uncomfortable truth remains that Orbán is the favourite to win yet another term. His government enjoys huge supremacy within the media landscape, utilising this prerogative to besmirch Márki-Zay by perpetuating the notion that he simply is not Christian or right-wing enough. Orbán remains popular with Hungarians, with support for his long-standing castigation of liberal intellectuals, migrants, and the European Union seemingly having not waned at all. Many voters love that Orbán is the so-called champion of traditional values against the “liberal elites”, whilst in the eyes of many more, he is the man to have rehabilitated Hungary’s sense of pride after decades of lamentable stagnation.
In light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Orbán’s position as President Vladimir Putin’s closest EU ally has rightfully been brought under the microscope, though he quickly made clear that Hungary would not engage in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. For a nation that shares a border with Ukraine, Russia’s recent invasion feels undesirably intimate, hence why Orban’s reluctance to become embroiled in it, has been manifestly welcomed.
What it is exactly that has engendered such an autocratic figure remains hotly contested within Hungarian political discourse, though the country’s turbulent political history has clearly played a role. Orbán’s religiously-infused conservatism undoubtedly has its appeal to much of the nation’s voters, though perhaps it’s the nation’s struggle with its post-communist identity that has disconcerted the populace the most. As sports historian Jonathan Wilson notes, “for centuries Hungary stood as the frontline of the Christian West, seeing off attempted invasions by the Tartars and the Ottomans, and then, under Communist rule, Hungarians took pride in being the most western of the Soviet bloc, both geographically and mentally”. He notes that a great sense of Hungarian exceptionalism lingered, fuelled by the country’s disproportionate number of Nobel laureates, Olympic gold medallists and of course the Aranycsapat (Golden Team, referring to the great Hungarian football team of the mid twentieth century). Hungarians have always felt different, and that’s okay. But as with any sentiment of national exceptionalism, it inevitably spills over into something far grimmer.
Hungarian academic János Bali, a former lecturer in ethnological studies at Budapest University, posits the claim that with the disintegration of communism, along with Hungary’s EU accession in 2004, Hungary lost its unique role. According to Bali, Hungary today is merely a satellite state of Brussels and Strasbourg, “a cheap destination for stag weekends with a happy chocolate-box capital to draw the tourists”, which in his view has resulted in a pervasive inferiority complex amongst Hungarians with a sense of peripheral status anxiety burdening the Hungarian mind. Not only is Hungarian democracy at stake, but so is its identity.
The election therefore raises great existential questions for Hungarians. Walking around Budapest, there is a great sense of what could be. What is Hungary? What do Hungarians want Hungary to become? Backward political steps have undoubtedly been taken, but a country of such beauty, such romanticism, and such wonderful people, surely can never be too far away from redemption.