Quarterly Concerns

January 06, 2022

Hungary in the Spotlight

The opposition in Hungary had seemed to be losing momentum, but a recent corruption scandal has damaged the ruling Fidesz party. Will it be enough to unseat longtime Prime Minister Viktor Orbán?

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A Viktor Orbán illustration
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“Brussels is finally trying to rein in the country’s pugnacious leader, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán,” claims The New York Times at the beginning of 2022. “Change of Guard, Ambitious Plans for Europe by Macron’s EU Presidency,” forecasts Portfolio, a Hungarian financial daily. Analysts from left and right have started examining Europe’s post-pandemic future, mapping out in the intra-European Union political chess games that may affect the upcoming April parliamentary election in Hungary. The one thing all sides seem to agree on is that Orbán’s re-election could easily jeopardize the status quo—and even the future of the European Union.

Macron’s Visit

“Common European thinking and joint action is what we need in order to protect Europe and its borders in the future.” So said President Emmanuel Macron, only a fortnight before Paris took over the EU Council Presidency on January 1, 2022, on a visit to Budapest—the first one by a French president in 14 years, following that of Nicholas Sarkozy who is of Hungarian descent.

Why exactly Macron chose to visit Budapest in December is widely disputed, but his actions— Macron’s schedule for his one-day visit to the Central European capital—are a more powerful statement than any quote he or his predecessors have ever given. Officially he traveled for a meeting with the “Visegrad Four” countries leaders (Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia), in preparation for France’s EU presidential term. But he found time to pay his respects first at the grave of Agnes Heller, the world-renowned and often cited liberal philosopher, whose passing Orbán’s “illiberal democratic” press never even cared to mention—or investigate, as her drowning in the shallow waters of Lake Balaton seemed quite odd to many. 

“We both love our homeland and we both work toward strengthening Europe,” said Orbán at his joint press conference with Macron after meeting with the French president for an hour. Little did he know then that Macron was about to depart Buda Castle, the prime ministerial residence, only to also meet with the representatives of the opposition parties that have joined forces to try to oust the Hungarian long-time prime minister and his Fidesz party in the spring election. They would move Hungary closer to the values professor Heller preached and the EU regards as its core values.

“Macron’s visit is a draw domestically,” said Dániel Pál Rényi, analyst for the daily news website 444. “Both sides, Fidesz and the opposition parties, had the chance to feel a bit stronger about their own political relevance because of it—Orbán communicating to his followers that the strongest European leaders view him as a partner, and the opposition-coalition had the chance to debut on the international political scene.”

The World Is Watching

And Macron isn’t the only leader Hungarians are taking note of. “He might be nicknamed a smurf, but his smurf troop’s effect on European policies shouldn’t be underestimated,” warned Sándor Komócsin, an analyst with UniCredit, in a note on Olaf Scholz’ chancellorship in Germany and its impact on Hungary. Germany’s car manufacturers’ assembly lines employ a vast number of Orbán’s electorate and the wages German companies pay for their mostly blue-collared workers have generated above-average living standards in cities in the plants’ vicinity, according to the National Statistics Office’s data. In fact, with former US President Donald Trump having endorsed Orbán for re-election, it feels like the whole world is watching Hungary. “It is not very often that Moscow or Beijing would have a direct stake in the outcome of the election results in a small, Central European country. This time around could be the exception,” said András Rácz of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).

China may be particularly interested. The rebuilding of the Budapest-Belgrade train tracks and the construction of the Budapest-based Fudan University campus are the two major projects Orbán agreed to carry out in the future, using Chinese funds lent to Hungary and Chinese workers to build on Hungarian soil. Peter Márki-Zay, the prime ministerial nominee of the Opposition Parties Alliance, is currently campaigning against the Fudan project, on tour around the country to try to get the 200,000 signatures required to enable a national referendum on the question.

Choosing a Candidate

According to Gergely Karácsony, the mayor of Budapest, a member of the Párbeszéd party, and an ardent advocate of the Opposition Parties Alliance, “The Fudan project has done more for the formation of the Alliance than any other issue or party in the past.” Choosing a prime ministerial candidate for the opposition parties already—a novelty in Hungary’s history—on September 22, 2021, was an act of unusual mass mobilization in a country so tightly controlled by Fidesz.

“More than 600,000 people cast their votes across the country, often waiting for hours in the heat,” said Balazs Lang, a former spokesperson for the Socialist Party. “During the past decade none of the opposition parties alone could get even 20 percent of the votes, especially after the constituencies were redrawn and the new election law took effect in 2011. By 2017 we knew something had to be done, yet we tried to play the game by the rules of a normal democracy.”

Playing it differently may not work out for Hungary’s opposition, though. Surveys carried out at the end of September indicated that the support of Klara Dobrev, the wife of the former socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, representing the Democratic Coalition Party and the Liberal Party, was just as strong as that of Budapest mayor Karácsony, representing the Parbeszéd, the Socialist, and LMP Green party. Newcomer Márki-Zay, the newly elected mayor of Hódmezővásárhely, was expected to only garner a few percentage points.

Winners and Losers

Dobrev won the first round, attracting 34.8 percent; then second-placed Karácsony dropped out of the race two days before the second round, and Márki-Zay won against Dobrev, with 56.7 percent. Since then, support for the Opposition Party Alliance has dropped again, and by early November, polls showed that Fidesz’ popularity had gained momentum again. Apparently, the move by Karácsony, who had stayed silent for a months while the governing Fidesz ran daily attacks, caused confusion and bred distrust among the opposition voters. By early December, polls showed only 32 percent of the electorate would cast their ballot for the Alliance whilst Fidesz’ support was back at the usual 50 percent.

What’s more, the appetite for change now seemed limited. Only 43 percent thought a change of government was needed, while 52 percent were satisfied with the work Orban’s party was doing, such as protecting the country’s energy prices from hikes on the world energy market. Many of the surveyed Fidesz supporters acknowledged that corruption existed, citing the lavish lifestyles of prominent government members and their families, but did not seem to mind it.

The Völner Scandal

Then the far-right Jobbik party broke the so-called Völner scandal—"digging the pit for the final fall of the Fidesz government and paving the way for Hungary’s democracy and economic growth to come,” according to Péter Jakab, Jobbik’s president.

The case revolved around Deputy Minister Pál Völner, accused of taking bribes for turning a blind eye to institutionalized corruption targeting the poorest for the benefit of Fidesz-related businesses. Völner was appointed to a state secretarial position two years ago, to oversee the rightful and humane operation of the country’s 182 debt collection agencies, that were responsible for the confiscation of several thousand homes that were purchased against Swiss franc loans by the owners.

During the 2008 world financial crisis, the Hungarian forint lost much of its value against the Swiss franc, which then raised the repayable amount on the mortgages by as much as 300 percent. Nearly 600,000 households were affected. “After years of delays and failed financial solution plans, many people ended on the streets homeless, penniless, and eventually losing their jobs, too,” said Attila Kristóf, a sociologist. Evictions accelerated, as banks sought to regain some of their money. Völner was appointed to address the ever-growing number of complaints by monitoring the debt collectors’ behavior and making sure they kept to the rules. “But instead, he seemed to have kept millions in cash that the director of the debt collectors’ association paid him off with,” according to Kristóf.

Völner has since resigned, but the affair has damaged Fidesz, opinion polls show. It has given Márky-Zay’s collection of signatures for the Fudan referendum, and thus the opposition campaign in general, a boost. “The plan is to hold the referendum on the same day as the parliamentary elections in April, so that Hungarians will have a direct say on the fate of Orbán,” said Márky-Zay. Given the twisted ways of Hungarian politics, however, it may be too early to say whether Orbán’s luck is really running out.

Ani Horvath is a freelance journalist in Budapest reporting for international news outlets, including the BBC, CNN, and Deutsche Welle.