From Russia to Turkey to Hungary, the power of authoritarians reflects the weakness and dysfunction of their opponents. While often a result of government repression, the inability of the opposition to get its act together is sometimes self-inflicted and driven by the narcissism of small differences, political disagreements that may have mattered in earlier times but are irrelevant to the defeat of the local strongman.
For over a decade, the Hungarian opposition was fragmented, disorganized, and generally hapless. In the meantime, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s political movement, Fidesz, adopted a new constitution, packed the courts, repeatedly defied EU institutions, spouted conspiracy theories featuring George Soros, and cozied up to Russia—and rewrote the electoral rules. Today, Fidesz’s control of the government administration, public broadcasting, print media, and even much of the economy is near-complete. As the recent compromise on the EU’s budget shows, Europe has largely resigned itself to the situation.
The tide might be turning, however. In the 2022 parliamentary election, Hungary’s six leading opposition parties are planning to agree on a common manifesto, to draw a single electoral list—running one joint candidate to oppose Fidesz in each district, and to present a shared candidate for prime minister.
The move responds to the latest changes to Hungary’s highly complex electoral law, which distinguishes between national party lists and candidates fielded in specific constituencies. According to the most recent reform, rushed through parliament during the current state of emergency, national lists will be allowed only for parties that run candidates everywhere in the country. Not only is that condition onerous for smaller parties, but it also means a mutual cannibalization of opposition candidates.
Orbán is betting that the broad-based alliance, which includes the formerly far-right Jobbik, the Socialists, as well as the Greens and the liberal, pro-Western Momentum Movement, will fail. He may be right—not so long ago, Jobbik was a de facto neo-Nazi movement that once called for compiling lists of publicly active Jews. Since then, it has pivoted strongly to the center, because Orbán’s governing Fidesz leaves no room to its right, especially on issues of immigration and national identity. The Socialists are (reformed and democratized) heirs to Hungary’s pre-1989 Workers Party, still drawing, in part, on communist-era cadres. Meanwhile, Momentum has built its following among highly educated, liberal, young, and urban voters.
Yet there is a non-trivial chance that the Hungarian prime minister is overplaying his cards. Opinion polls suggest that a single opposition bloc would stand a decent chance of winning—and in fact turning Orbán’s highly majoritarian reforms against him.
A lot of uncertainty remains. The country may see a strong economic recovery after the pandemic. After having mobilized his supporters against globalist financiers, asylum seekers, and gays, Orbán will doubtless seek to set them against some other external threat. He will need to identify enemies, scapegoats, and hate figures to counterbalance rising dissatisfaction with the status quo, marked by a brain drain and (pre-pandemic) fragile economic growth.
Past experiences of opposition cooperation should make Fidesz nervous too. Shortly before the 2018 parliamentary election, the opposition, including Jobbik, agreed on a single candidate in a mayoral race in Fidesz’s stronghold of Hódmezővásárhely. The opposition candidate comfortably defeated Fidesz in a city that had not had a non-Fidesz mayor since the fall of communism. Last year, in a mayoral election in Budapest, much of the opposition united behind Gergely Karácsony. While Jobbik did not explicitly endorse him, it did not run its own candidate either, allowing Karácsony to win handily.
Of course, the obstacles to cooperation and coordination for the new opposition bloc are larger in national races than in local ones. At the same time, as Samuel Johnson famously argued, the prospect of being hanged in a fortnight concentrates one’s mind. Should Orbán win a fourth term in a country lacking basic checks and balances, the prospect of a democratic Hungary would be gone for good. The EU’s current tolerance of Orbán’s regime notwithstanding, the 2022 election will be about the country’s fundamental character—can Hungary still be a European democracy, or is the brief post-communist period of freedom and democracy emphatically over?
The answer to that question has ramifications beyond Hungary. Poland, under the Law and Justice party, has followed Hungary’s lead in breaking down checks and balances, centralizing power, and using scapegoats (in Poland’s case, mostly the “threat” of LGBT rights) to justify it. If Hungary can save itself, it could provide a model for the democratic opposition in Warsaw, and perhaps as far away as Ankara and Manila.
If the opposition fails, Hungarians will not have another chance to save their democracy. And while neither Washington nor Brussels can make the decision for them, the Biden administration should be clear about what kind of Hungary is in the West’s interest—and indeed in the long-term interest of the Hungarian public. Hint: not a cronyist, authoritarian one.