On September 12, by accepting a report on Hungary with a two-thirds vote, the European Parliament initiated a process, outlined in Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty, that could potentially lead to Hungary’s losing its voting rights in the European Council. The report, by rapporteur Judith Sargentini, voiced concerns over 12 issues ranging from corruption to the limitation of academic freedoms, curtailing media freedoms and civil rights.1 Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán denies the accusations and argues that some western European democracies are using the report to punish Hungary because of its anti-immigration sentiment.
Although the allegations listed in the Sargentini report are very serious, Hungarians do not seem to mind them. For instance, while the government categorically denies corruption charges, there are many highly visible signs that circles around Orbán thrive under his governance. A football stadium with 3,800 seats was built in Orbán’s birth village, which has a total population of 1,700. A toy train runs between the two parts of the village, transporting tourists to the stadium. Orbán’s neighbour, Lőrinc Mészáros, went from being a humble gas plumber to the second wealthiest man in Hungary in 12 years. While some say Mészáros is a straw man for the Prime Minister, Orbán claims that his neighbour is simply a very good businessman. Recently, Orbán’s son-in-law, István Tiborcz, also became involved in business. He started off installing street bulbs in municipalities led by mayors from Orbán’s party, and by now he is rapidly extending his business to hospitality.2
These are all issues around which the opposition parties would organize in a well-functioning democracy. But both Orbán and his party, the Alliance of Young Democrats (Fidesz), remain incredibly successful without meaningful opposition in sight. Of the nine elections that have been held since 1990, Orbán has won four times: in 1998, and in every election since 2010. In 2010, 2014 and 2018 Fidesz, in alliance with the Christian Democrats, won more than two thirds of the legislative seats and got a constitutional majority. Orbán’s popularity seems to be stable: in the election of April 8, 2018, his party received 47.4 per cent of the popular vote and for the third time managed to grab two thirds of the legislative seats. Orbán remains the third most popular politician in Hungary after two of his party mates.
Nobody denies that Viktor Orbán is a skillful politician. He got lucky as he was the opposition leader in 2008 when the economic crisis hit, but he was prepared to take over and took the opportunity that his sweeping victory in the 2010 election offered. After the victory Orbán transformed many of Hungary’s institutions to his advantage. He rewrote the constitution (which became the Fundamental Law of Hungary) in 2012, and changed the electoral rules starting with the 2014 election.
The number of parliamentarians fell from 386 to 199, which gave Fidesz a good opportunity to gerrymander new, favourable districts for the party. The two-round mixed-member majoritarian electoral system was changed to a one-round system, which gave the opposition much less opportunity to coordinate. A mixed-member electoral system has a list-proportional part and single-member districts part; in the new electoral system, the single-member districts became more prominent. In single-member district systems in the U.K, U.S. and Canada, a district will usually have two strong candidates. Hence, the inability of the opposition to coordinate in single-member districts in the 2014 and 2018 elections became detrimental to their seat shares in the legislature.
In democratic systems politicians like to change the rules of the game to their advantage if they can, so this move of Orbán’s was not surprising. However, the Sargentini report also noted some more problematic institutional changes. The freedom of the judicial system is threatened. The first constitution written on an iPad has curtailed the role of the Constitutional Court. Meanwhile, a new and less independent court system is being introduced which will deal with legal cases brought against the government. The government has also limited the people’s right to strike and to protest, and media freedom is under pressure as the government advertises exclusively in loyal media outlets.
While some of these changes are on the edge of being democratic, Fidesz’s electoral success cannot solely be attributed to the uneven playing field. Orbán has a populist message for the public and the world, but at the same time, behind the scenes he has built a very effective political machine that delivers votes for his party. From the arts through the media, academia and business, the central message of this machine is that no one can be successful outside of the regime.
The Populist Message
Populism appeals to the people and rallies them against forces that supposedly threaten them – often the elite or global forces. Viktor Orbán has managed to keep his base mobilized against a series of enemies since 2010. After losing the 2002 election, Orbán organized a solid base of supporters that he could always turn out to rally for him. First, the base protested the Socialist government. There was a strong sense of “us” and “them” in these rallies, where the “them” was the ruling (Socialist) elite with neoliberal economic and liberal social ideals. In 2006 this base support group was mobilized when a leaked speech by Ferenc Gyurcsány, then Prime Minister, revealed that the budget was in much worse shape than had been stated during the campaign. In 2008 the economic crisis hit Hungary, which together with the leadership crisis in the Socialist Party led to Orbán’s supermajority win of in 2010. The stage was set for populism. During the crisis the enemy became a mixture of neoliberal economic ideals, global capital and banks personified by Ferenc Gyurcsány. The Orbán government needed to make a series of fiscal adjustments, so Orbán was careful to remind his supporters that the actions of the previous government and global capital led to the unpopular policies.
Some of the government’s first steps were antiglobalist and anti-elitist. Thus, the government levied an extra tax on the banks and multinational companies. In 2010 and 2011, gas prices started to increase rapidly on the global market, and Orbán used this price increase to entrench his appeal. In 2010 he announced that the government would nationalize all utility companies and would distribute gas, electricity and water below the international price (unknown to most voters, by 2014, when international prices decreased, Hungarians paid more for utilities than the average European Union consumer). This move sustained Orbán’s popularity which, coupled with the inability of the opposition to organize, led to a second sweeping victory in the 2014 election. In 2015, the European Parliament made its first attempt to invoke Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty. Orbán claimed that this was an attack on Hungary because he had kept utility prices low, and the process became known in Hungary as the “Utilities War.”
Also in 2015, the European migrant crisis erupted. Again, Orbán saw an opportunity to create a new enemy for the masses. Thousands of illegal immigrants flooded from the Balkans to Hungary in transit to western Europe. At one point about a thousand of them were trying to get onto trains to Germany. The sight of the chaos frightened Hungarians, and the government has done everything in its power to keep this fear alive. In 2015 the government erected a metal fence on Hungary’s southern border. By now, the average number of migrants or refugees who try to enter the country in a week has fallen to 10, but the propaganda against migration has not stopped. The government declared a state of emergency in 2015, which has been extended until today. The public media, influenced by Fidesz, broadcast unfavourable news on immigrants and refugees.
However, Orbán has to walk a fine line. While he is loudly against immigration, Hungary is in desperate need of additional labour. Companies offer work visas to Ukrainians and various Latin American nationals. Thus, the anti-immigration campaign in Hungary has become narrow in scope, and it has a strong Islamophobic and racist undertone.
This campaign took another turn when, in the name of solidarity, the European Union tried to introduce a Common European Asylum System under which Hungary would have had to evaluate the asylum claims of a limited number of migrants who entered the European Union from another country. Orbán started a countrywide “Stop Brussels” campaign, in which the government insinuated that the European Union wanted to settle migrants in Hungary. This campaign was still somewhat vague. To personalize the enemy, George Soros was added as the mastermind behind this plan. The billboards changed from the message “Stop Brussels” to “Stop Soros” with a picture of the Hungarian-born American billionaire. In the 2018 election the primary message that Orbán conveyed is that the opposition parties would allow uncontrolled immigration. He is planning to use the same message in the upcoming European Union election, and the message resonates strongly in the country.
However, Orbán has not stopped finding new foes. The latest enemies are liberal values, liberal education and liberal arts. The government shuts down gender studies programs across universities, threatens the Central European University and tries to get the Hungarian Science Foundation to sponsor only ideologically approved research. Orbán blames liberal values for the declining fertility rate and his next ambition is to promote conservative values.
One tool that Orbán uses to further his populist ends is the so called “national consultation.” Since 2010, when the government has tried to highlight a topic, it has sent out a questionnaire to the citizens with a set of loaded questions. So far there have been six national consultations corresponding to the phases of Orbán’s populism: in 2010 on pensions, in 2011 on the constitution, in 2011 on government spending (including the utilities problem), in 2012 on the economy, in 2015 on immigration and terrorism and in 2017 on “Stop Brussels.” As these consultations are not official referendums it is unclear how to interpret the results, but it seems to be a good tool to mobilize the base around a topic and convey the government’s ideas. In each of these consultations, about 700,000 people send in answers, which shows the size of the government’s most dedicated base.
The Methods of Machine Politics
Populism is not the only reason Viktor Orbán stays in power. Beyond populist speeches and national consultations, he wants to make sure that the votes arrive. To this end he has built a very successful political machine. Machine politics or clientelism is not a new phenomenon in the world: it existed in the United States in the late 19th century and exists in several Third Word countries today. Orbán calls his regime the “Nemzeti Együttműködés Rendszere” (NER), which roughly translates to System of National Cooperation.
First, Orbán centralized formerly decentralized policy areas, such as education and distribution of EU development funds, so that local governments became little more than empty shells without any real function. Second, he made it clear that only people who supported his regime could get perks from the regime. Fidesz is a highly centralized organization, and local Fidesz politicians are handpicked by Orbán. Every single one of them owes their position to Orbán, and any second-line politician who becomes too popular or expresses dissent is promptly demoted. This has happened to former ministers Pokorni and Lázár. Outside the party, people contracted on any level by the government may fear that they could lose their livelihoods if they do not support the government. Any criticism of the government is instantly avenged, and loyalty is rewarded.3 In local elections the government communicates the message that only cities and villages that vote for Fidesz receive government funding.
This is why most people on average are not disturbed by the sudden fortunes of Orbán’s family and friends. Local government officials, bureaucrats and people working in government-contracted companies feel that they can benefit from the distribution system of perks if they remain loyal to the government and, most importantly, if they can bring voters to the ballot box. Machine politics is especially effective in villages where people know one another and can easily monitor voter turnout. The campaign never stops in small villages. In the cities, the government uses a different strategy. It has co-opted middle class families with generous tax cuts. Families receive tax benefits if both parents earn salaries, and middle-class people with children receive hefty support for buying homes.
Populism and machine politics together make Viktor Orbán’s regime politically successful. We have yet to see whether the European Union can put an end to the “System of National Cooperation,” although Poland has already announced its veto in the European Council. In any case, Orbán is gearing up for the fight. A new national billboard campaign has started suggesting that the Sargentini report was created by Soros, the European Union and Sargentini together. At the same time, a new national consultation on “women and fertility” is about to start. As the European Parliament election and local elections approach, Viktor Orbán is preparing for a new fight and a new day.