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Hungary Why Orbáns right-wing populism is here to stay

Parliament building in Budapest. (Quelle: Leonhard Niederwimmer / Unsplash )

In April, the right-wing populist Fidesz party, led by autocrat Viktor Orbán, once again secured a record majority. The extreme right-wing party „Mi Hazánk“ was also able to enter Parliament. Hungary is governed by a far right Parliament. Belltower.News talked to Tamás Gerőcs and Emilia Róza Barna about the background of the election and possible consequences, both are members of the Budapest-based Working Group for Public Sociology „Helyzet”.

Tamás Gerőcs is a political economist who has currently finished his PhD at the Corvinus University of Budapest in Hungary. He is an external research fellow at the Institute of World Eco­nomics and Centre of Economic and Regional Studies.

Emilia Róza Barna is a sociologist and Associate Professor at the Department of Sociology and Communication at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics.

Belltower.News: Viktor Orbán, old and new prime minister and leader of the right-wing populist Fidesz party, once again secured two-thirds of the vote in the April 2022 elections. Could this be the beginning of the end of democracy in Hungary? 

Tamás Gerőcs: It’s not, yesterday, democracy was there and tomorrow it’s gone. But there are a lot of social processes evolving for a long time, that are impacting the institutional set up of the state. I don’t really interpret it as democratic backsliding. That is misleading to some extent. One could easily bring in counter arguments, like the fact that Orbán secured three million votes. No other party has ever secured three million votes in Hungary since 1990. So it’s problematic to just call it undemocratic at that level. We have to put it into context. We can elaborate on how this state operates or what kind of regime it is that it’s able to mobilise and demobilise other people at the same time? Of course, both happened at the same time. It’s never a one way process, but a lot of people were in a way excluded or their voice was moved down or fragmented.

Emilia Barna: I agree. I wouldn’t view this point as the beginning of something or the end of something. Rather, it fits into a process that has been ongoing, and I wouldn’t even say that has been ongoing since 2010. We see deep social problems, class based divisions, that go back much longer. Nevertheless, regarding democracy, there are arguments that emphasise that even though three million people voted for Fidesz, that factors like Fidesz’s incorporation of the media and mass media especially, create a public sphere which strongly predicts or influences on people’s voting behaviour.

In addition to the media, there are other factors, such as electoral reforms on the distribution of constituencies and adjustments to the size of parliament that have taken place over the years. Tamás, you said you wouldn’t call it an undemocratic vote, but it definitely wasn’t a fair election either. How are these circumstances perceived by the opposition?

Gerőcs: On the opposition, the broad coalition side, people start questioning whether it is even possible to challenge this hegemonic regime within the confines of this electoral mechanism where it’s not possible the way it is now. I feel like these voices might get louder. It is a strategy question of how you want to mobilise people. Whether outside of the institutional framework or you still accept the rules of the game. So far, no alternative strategy has been tried, but playing the game according to the rules written by Fidesz.

Looking at the analytics of the election, it shows very clearly that Budapest voted mostly for the opposition alliance, while the rest of the country, except for a few exceptions voted for Fidesz. How divided is Hungary?

Barna: The results show a strong division. But it also shows the lack of embeddedness of oppositional and small parties and their reach. Part of this is the reach and the control of the media, but also the lack of local embeddedness of oppositional parties or the small parties. There is certainly a huge divide between those classes that have benefited from the Fidesz governments and those who have not, in the years leading up to the pandemic. Fidesz has been targeting, with various policies, the middle classes as opposed to working classes or lower classes. But that’s not how the votes are divided. It seems that the Budapest-based middle class primarily favoured the opposition, while the lower classes tend to vote for Fidesz.

Gerőcs: It is a very disproportionate electoral system. So you can see the election results and outcomes at the level of the different constituencies, but they’re not very representative. There is a spatial disparity that is quite steep, that’s for sure. But there are also large opposition percentages in certain areas, and that will be a very interesting situation for the upcoming local elections 2024. The electoral system for local elections is different from that for national elections.

Does this spatial divide show how the Fidesz government influenced the elections?

Gerőcs: Yes, because Fidesz has not only influenced the votes through the mechanisms of the media, but also changed political procedures to its advantage. In some municipalities, the government is the only remaining employer. So at the end of the day, if you go outside to a large part of the country, you will see a kind of an uncontested apparatus of the state, which is almost monopolistic. It’s very uncontested and very deeply embedded in the local institutions. No one disagrees with this on the local level. In urban spaces, clientelism that favours individual groups politically must function differently.

Barna: This also shows what the right to vote means or does not mean in Hungary. Some people have basically no agency because of these kinds of patronage relations, which dominate all aspects of life and leave little choice.

But many people did vote. The turnout was pretty good at around 70 per cent…. 

Barna: This is also a result of the mentioned locally embedded patron-client relations of dependency. People feel that they have to vote and not only vote, but vote Fidesz.

How would you describe the atmosphere after the elections? Also very much divided?

Barna: Within my own social environment, I see a lot of Budapest based intellectuals, younger or older ones and university students too, who took part in a movement to mobilise oppositional voters as well as to volunteer to count votes and administer the elections in various locations outside of Budapest. They spent a lot time in small towns, villages and they have been sharing their experiences on social media. This led to an active discussion around their experiences outside of Budapest. A recurring element is how surprised they are at those power relations and the lack of agency and how everyone is a Fidesz voter in a small village. Even though this may at first sight seem like self-reflection on the part of intellectuals, it rather shows a general lack of knowledge or understanding of Hungarian society and social problems.

Gerőcs: Hope is not totally lost. For example, one of the most progressive candidates from the leftist organisation „Szikra“ [eng. spark] won a constituency in Budapest. An old working class district, largely gentrified so it’s a very interesting mix of people: very young urban intellectuals as well as old working class people and also highly ethnicized populations living together  in a very dynamic demographic shift. This goes back to the question of what comes next and what kind of tactic is paying off, not just at a national level but at the local communal level. And so that’s the question. How are you going to mobilise locally?

Who will be most negatively affected by Orbán’s re-election? 

Barna: You have social groups that have been marginalised: lower classes, people in rural areas, Roma people. You have material, economic and symbolic marginalisation of groups that do not fit into the middle class family based ideal and that includes gender minorities, single parents, ethnic minorities and migrant populations. Now that you have not only a Fidesz super majority, but also „Mi Hazánk”, a far right party, in the Parliament, these ideological discourses will only escalate.

Gerőcs: This has been a relatively peaceful period up until the COVID crisis and the war now. The way the state operated was not super unbeneficial for a lot of the people. It was actually beneficial to a lot of the middle classes and even to poor people. Of course, they wouldn’t call it beneficial to them, but relatively speaking, there was never an outcry about the economic situation or politics. Now this is going to change. We will have a totally different atmosphere that’s going to negatively affect almost everyone in different ways. And the state will play a role in how they can play these groups against each other and who would still be protected more than others. The new far right party making it into the parliament will actually change the landscape quite a bit. Who’s going to be the most negatively impacted? The most negatively impacted people by a Fidesz government are voting for Fidesz. Why are they voting for Fidesz is the question we have to answer. The sub-question is why is there this lack of interest on behalf of urban intellectuals? It’s a symptom of a deeper structural distance. We have been talking about a process, which has reproduced hegemonic relations through state institutions. However it’s not just the state, it’s a social hegemony.

What exactly do you mean by social hegemony?

Gerőcs: That it is not just a political hegemony, it has a class based anchor. Orbán is reorganising a particular capitalist state in crisis mode and turning towards more fascism, but not ideological fascism. It’s kind of like a class relationship that he has been managing. The core concept here is reorganising important sections of capital, mostly German industrial capital, with the Hungarian national capital, the national bourgeoisie. This is a hegemony, not of a party, but of a social alliance. The party is the political articulation, but it’s all across the board, including other public institutions, private entities and international connections.

So people who benefited from the system, the middle class, people working in higher education are simultaneously its harshest critics, whereas people from marginalised groups are supporting Fidesz. Why? 

Gerőcs: The problem is the structural distance, the urban rural division, which is very much interest based. A lot of the intellectual urban middle-classes in Hungary mobilise against Fidesz based on identity politics and not social issues. The real issues have been underaddressed by the oppositional candidates. So there was a gap of articulation of interest.

And how exactly did this articulate itself in the elections?

Gerőcs: It was giving free hand to Orbán to thematize social issues the way he wants. He is using these mechanisms to hide issues and create narratives for people, creating a false consciousness with false narratives in which these questions are seemingly addressed. Orbáns harsh campaign against migration or his anti-LGBTQ stance are examples of this. A lot of the time he’s using identity politics and that’s really stirring up the urban intellectual middle classes to mobilise against it. And it’s really mobilising people deeply affected by the social contradictions. That is where all these contradictions are coming from. This is the kind of distance people are experiencing, but not understanding. „Szikra“ did address this in the local context and it really showed in the positive outcome. If you are able to address it, then you are able to undo the hegemonic narrative of Fidesz.

Is the government going to be able to keep this hegemonic narrative intact?

Gerőcs: Until now Fidesz was relatively well subsidised with EU money, German and Chinese credit, you name it. Fidesz had money to please people to play these games. Now we’ll be much more limited, with the crisis going deeper. We have yet to see how far this is going to escalate and what reactions we’re going to have. I am personally very pessimistic because of the set up of the parliament. I would call it a far right parliament. Fidesz has a majority, „Jobbik“ is actually a far right party and now „Mi Hazánk”. If you count the far-right members of the parliament right now it is around 80 plus or 90 plus percent, far-right. It’s a far right parliament with a few liberals, there are activists who still hesitate about ‚What are we going to do there? Should we even attend these meetings?’

About the EU money: Orbán is on a collision course with the EU. What do you think about the possible sanctions through the rule of law conditionality regulation

Gerőcs: Sanctions is a strong word. We’re yet to see whether the funds will be fully suspended. Orbán is actually very pragmatic and not a very ideological person, changing beliefs easily overnight. Of course, we see like the war in Ukraine has changed the course and we are yet to see how Orbán will reorient himself. So far, he’s going into more isolation, especially because of the V4 countries, which really became divided by the war. It’s a huge loss for Orban, and he has to do something about it.

What does this mean for Orbáns future plans and his international relations?

Gerőcs: Orbán will have to readjust to avoid further isolating himself. He cannot afford the  contradiction of having an intact, unchallenged, uncontested hegemony at home, but total isolation otherwise. He seemingly wants to use his hegemony for global geopolitical purposes on the international level. He even hinted that he’s not super interested in Hungarian politics anymore. It’s just boring for him because he keeps winning. He really wants to translate into geopolitics. And that’s why he has become the face of this sort of new illiberalism globally. I think there’s two idealised scenarios here. Probably he’ll experiment with some kind of combination of the two. One is that he has two very unhappily, you know, reaffirms his commitments in the transatlantic alliance because he cannot afford to be left out. So when things get settled, he would really want to diversify his relationship outside of the transatlantic. Russia seems to be very problematic here, but also, even if China, India, others would regroup, then he would be very much interested in what they tend to call a new non-aligned group.

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