Expect a Viktor Orbán Win Next Month
On April 3 Hungarians will cast their votes in a national election that many observers expect to be close. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán does not appear overly concerned. He never bothers to mention his opponent by name and has refused to debate him. Instead of a candidate, Orbán considers himself the father of the nation and a man of the people.
In one campaign video Orbán stops by a village to join in a traditional Hungarian pig killing. He downs shots of brandy with the men and shows he knows how to peel skin off a pig. So richly do these images evoke Hungarian folk traditions that many viewers may have been reminded of popular folktale about a pig killing that goes horribly awry. According to the story, a poor family slaughters its only pig and hangs the stomach in the attic to be used later to make a special kind of Hungarian sausage. One day the mother sends her eldest daughter to fetch the stomach, but when the poor girl enters the attic the little pig tummy opens wide and swallows her up. After waiting for what seems like a reasonable amount time, the mother sends her second daughter to the attic, who gets similarly inhaled. The next child suffers the same fate, until even the parents are eaten up by the insatiable pig belly. By this point the belly has grown so big and fat that it breaks off the hook on which it is hanging, rolls out of the house and into the street. From there it consumes everyone and everything in its path until, having grown enormously large, the stomach explodes, freeing the digested villagers to return to their lives as if nothing had happened.
That rapacious and gluttonous pig belly might be taken as a symbol of Viktor Orbán, whose own stomach has grown quite large during the years in which he has built a decadent kleptocracy. Perhaps like the villagers in the folktale, Hungarians will finally escape the clutches of the autocrat whose lust for power and money seems insatiable. Or perhaps, like the interminable propaganda one sees on Hungarian state TV, this folktale never ends.
Alas, the latter is more likely to prove true, because Viktor Orbán is almost certainly going to win. Here are three big things to watch for.
1. Orbán has fortified his hold on power by manipulating the electoral system.
Orbán has been in power for twelve years. One key to his success has been the ability to create a political environment in which credible alternatives to his government are never able to emerge. To achieve this, Orbán radically reworked the electoral system after coming to power in 2010. Previously, parliamentary elections in Hungary had consisted of two rounds. A scheme of proportional representation allocated mandates (or seats) in a manner that generated a multiparty system. That old framework was replaced by a single round, winner-take-all system. This might have produced a functioning two-party democracy similar to Britain or the United States if it had been introduced on a level playing field. But Orbán imposed the new framework on what had formerly been a multiparty system. The only large party was Orbán’s Fidesz. The other parties were small and fragmented. None could emerge as a clear alternative to the ruling government.
After twelve years of fighting among themselves, Hungary’s fractious opposition finally realized that the single hope of defeating Orbán was to join forces across the political spectrum and run a united ticket. Last year they held a primary to select a candidate for prime minister. Voters chose a former Fidesz supporter and self-described Christian conservative named Péter Márki-Zay. Many polls show the race neck and neck, giving rise to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast. Yet Orbán has built the electoral system in such a way that he can only lose if he gets thoroughly walloped.
Here’s how the process works: When Hungarians go to the polls on April 3 they will actually cast two votes. One vote will be on a national list, where they will choose between Fidesz and the opposition. The other vote will be for their local representative, who belongs to one of the parties. The combination of these two sets of votes will determine the distribution of mandates in parliament. However, the electoral “compensation” provision complicates things. When a candidate wins his local district, votes are added to the national list based on the margin of victory. If he wins by 1,000 votes, then 1,000 votes are added to the national list. There is also a provision for losers’ compensation, but winners are compensated more, which generates disproportionate representation in parliament.
In addition, gerrymandering has ensured that more districts are pro-Fidesz than pro-opposition. When a Fidesz candidate blows out his opponent in a gerrymandered district, his big margin of victory adds Fidesz votes to the national list. Historically this has meant that the percentage of Fidesz mandates has far surpassed the percentage of Fidesz vote share. The system is deliberately disproportionate, which explains why Orbán has been able to govern with a near-permanent supermajority despite never enjoying anything close to that level of support among the population.
Given the structural disparities Orbán has created, the opposition must significantly outperform Fidesz in the popular vote to have a chance of winning. According to a study published by 21 Research Center, a Hungarian think tank, the united opposition needs to beat Fidesz by 3 to 4 percent in order to eke out a slim majority in parliament. A 3 to 4 percent margin of victory probably means the opposition has to get 52 percent of the overall vote.
If this estimate is correct, then the opposition is dead on arrival. Since 1989 no party in Hungary has secured 52 percent of the vote—with the single exception of Fidesz in 2010, in the landslide election that swept Orbán into power. By Hungarian standards 52 percent is a landslide. The Hungarian electorate is highly polarized, and polarized electorates don’t produce landslides. Given its structural advantages, though, Fidesz can achieve a majority in parliament with only 47 percent.
2. Orbán will probably try to cheat.
Critics have long claimed that elections under Orbán are “free but not fair.” In 2018 the OSCE issued a report sharply critical of that year’s election in Hungary, objecting to the adverse media environment and tremendous disparities in campaign financing. Although the report also raised concerns about the way the election was administered, it did not go so far as to allege electoral abuse. In hindsight that was a mistake. Almost as soon as the OSCE released its report, activists in Hungary started pointing to evidence of election fraud.
An NGO called Unhack Democracy, founded by Hungarians outraged over the 2018 election, has spent the last four years compiling evidence of voting irregularities and outright fraud. Some of the problems Unhack Democracy has identified—such as improper tabulation and certification of votes—might, upon a very generous construal, be attributed to simple incompetence. However, the shoddy manner in which Hungary administers its elections should not be viewed in isolation from other evidence of fraud. The composite picture strongly suggests that elections in Hungary are not only unfair, but in certain respects less than fully free.
The most blatant case of organized election fraud has been “voter tourism.” During the 2018 election, ethnic Hungarians were bused into Hungary from Ukraine to cast votes in certain districts. The incident was so well documented that even Hungary’s Supreme Court, packed with Orbán loyalists, was forced to acknowledge that fraud had occurred. It did not, however, offer legal redress. Hungary’s parliament, rather than looking for ways to stop the practice, passed legislation that made it legal. This year Hungarian citizens can vote in districts where they do not have residency.
You read that right: In Hungary voter tourism is legal. It’s also a great way to tip the scale in a closely contested district.
But let’s not dwell on that. Anecdotal evidence and social science research also suggest that local Fidesz politicians bribe and intimidate voters in poorer parts of the country. Hungary has a large public-employment program, a form of “workfare” where people receive welfare in exchange for performing community service, like collecting trash off the road, sweeping sidewalks, and so on. Roughly 200,000 people in Hungary depend on these programs to make ends meet. Interestingly enough, a study conducted by two political scientists at Yale and UC-Davis found strong evidence of political clientelism in Hungary. Among other things, workfare employees may be threatened with loss of public employment if they don’t vote for a certain candidate. Analysis of past elections shows that Fidesz performs consistently better in voting districts where there are higher recipients of public employment. According to estimates, the “workfare vote” yielded Fidesz at least five to six parliamentary mandates in 2014.
And let’s not rule out good old-fashioned ballot stuffing, something that may be happening with mail-in votes. Many of the countries bordering Hungary have large numbers of ethnic Hungarians. In 2011 Orbán granted these minorities citizenship based on ius sanguinis, because they are descended from citizens of Greater Hungary. This means ethnic Hungarians who were not born in Hungary and may never have lived there can vote in Hungarian elections, and the overwhelming majority of those who chose to do so vote for Fidesz (around 95 percent). Their mail-in votes, however, are barely supervised.
Not long ago an activist and politician named Péter Juhász went undercover with a hidden microphone to visit Hungarian election centers in Romania. Pretending he had recently moved to Romania, Juhász asked election officials if he could cast votes on behalf of his children who were living in London. The openness with which the officials explained how to circumvent Hungarian election law is simply stunning. At one point when Juhász feigns uncertainty about how to proceed, an election official reassures him, “There’s a solution for everything.”
Concerns about the integrity of Hungary’s election are so great that this year the OSCE took the extraordinary step of recommending a full-scale deployment of election monitors into the country. One hopes their presence will make a difference, but election monitors themselves cannot prevent fraud.
3. There’s a chance, even if he wins, that Orbán will be weakened.
Given how much the field is tilted, some observers of Hungary (this author included) wonder whether a democratic transfer of power is even possible in Hungary without some kind of major upheaval, something like an economic crisis—or maybe a war.
Could Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine be the tectonic event that dislodges Orbán? Certainly, it has put Orbán in an embarrassing position. Under his government, Hungary has become highly dependent on Russian energy. In 2014 Orbán crafted a secret agreement with Putin to have Russia expand a Hungarian nuclear power plant near the city of Paks, and beyond that, Orbán has repeatedly negotiated long-term deals with Putin to purchase gas. But whatever one thinks about the wisdom of these decisions, Orban’s energy policies have not differed fundamentally from those pursued by many other countries in Europe over the last decade.
What sets Orbán apart from other Western countries is not his Russia-oriented energy policy but rather his cultivated relationship with Putin. In ways that are hard to understand, Orbán has frequently adopted pro-Russia policies at odds with Western interests. For example, Orbán allowed the Russian International Investment Bank (IIB), widely viewed as a front organization for Russian spies, to establish a headquarters in Budapest. Orbán also lends political and financial support to Milorad Dodik, a Bosnian Serb separatist viewed as a pariah in the West, for reasons that seem less aligned with Hungary’s national interests than with Russia’s.
And after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, Orbán repeatedly took steps to undermine Ukraine’s national security. He blocked initiatives to facilitate Ukrainian integration with the European Union and NATO. Only a few months ago, as Ukraine was being surrounded by the Russian army, Orbán blocked Ukrainian membership in NATO’s Cyber Defense Center. While visiting the White House in May 2019, Orbán helped turn President Trump against Volodymyr Zelensky (recall that Trump’s infamous phone call with Zelensky, the subject of his first impeachment, happened two months later).
None of this looks pretty, but it is hardly the kind of thing to get Hungarian voters up in arms. Hungary’s relationship with Ukraine has been strained for years, which probably affects perceptions of the country, at least among Orbán’s base. Meanwhile, coverage of the Ukraine war in Hungarian state media echoes Russian propaganda. According to the latest survey, 24 percent of Fidesz supporters blame Ukraine for the war, while 32 percent are uncertain who is to blame. And 81 percent of Fidesz supporters view Orbán’s relationship with Putin as satisfactory.
Indeed, one cannot rule out the possibility that the war in Ukraine will work to Orbán’s advantage, boosting his popularity and carrying Fidesz to another electoral landslide. Unlike in the past, however, that is not a foregone conclusion. A united opposition should perform better than in previous elections, and international monitors may reduce the level of fraud. If the opposition does well, they may deny Orbán a supermajority. That would make him weaker. Not that Orbán needs a supermajority to govern day to day, but he could have trouble addressing major challenges and crises without one.
And clouds are gathering on Orbán’s horizon. Thanks to the war, European politics is likely to reconfigure in ways that will make it hard for Orbán to keep on cultivating his relationship with Putin. Already, Orbán’s refusal to recalibrate that relationship is starting to isolate him. Relations with his closest ally, Poland, have suddenly soured. If Orbán is forced to distance himself from Russia, he will have no choice but to slink back to the European Union, where he has managed to burn quite a few bridges. Currently the EU is holding back recovery funds from Hungary due to rule-of-law concerns related to corruption. Meanwhile, on the home front, Hungary is wrestling with inflationary pressures exacerbated by economic fallout from the war. Orbán’s generous program of social spending, directed mostly to his base, has contributed to a ballooning national debt that is fast approaching 90 percent of GDP. Many economists believe Hungary will soon be forced to adopt austerity measures.
The surest prognostication about Hungary’s future, regardless of how the election shakes out, is that the next few years in this small illiberal paradise are going be tough and turbulent.