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Hungarian general elections: the future of Europe is in play

The Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán speaks on March 15 in Budapest. He’s running for reelection. Attila Kisbenedek/AFP

This Sunday, April 8, Hungarian voters will go to the polls to elect their 199 representatives for the National Assembly and indirectly nominate their prime minister. The incumbent, Viktor Orbán, electrifies both the domestic political debate and the European political scene in a country that has been called an “illiberal democracy”. Like Vladimir Putin, his reputation on the international scene is inversely proportional to his popularity on the domestic political stage.

To understand the structural issues of these general elections in a pivotal state of the EU, it is necessary to go beyond the divisive and controversial statements of the Hungarian leader. By posing as a protector of national sovereignty in the face of migrant quotas by Brussels, by advocating (until recently) the lifting of sanctions on Russia, or by playing the role of defender of the Christian identity of the Europe in a largely secularised country, Viktor Orbán blurs the image of the country in the EU.

This country of 9.8 million people faces three major challenges that the next legislature will have to grapple with. And the future of Hungary will influence the future of Europe: we see it in Poland, Austria and the Czech Republic, the future of the Union depends on the evolutions of the Mitteleuropa, as we often wrote it in New Eastern Europe.

1. Will the political landscape evolve?

The general elections will take place at a time when the political momentum is favouring Orbán’s party, the Fidesz. In office from 1998 to 2002 and from 2010 onwards, it dominates the national political scene. It has real strongholds on the Eastern borders’ but in general, support for Fidesz is hard to pinpoint on a geographical basis. In previous general elections in 2014, with a 61% turnout, the coalition formed by Fidesz (44% of the votes) and the closely allied KDNP, Christian Democrats Party, (25% of the votes) won an absolute two-thirds majority with 133 seats in all, leaving the far-right Jobbik party (20%) well behind. Similarly, in 2017, the Fidesz-backed candidate for the Presidency of the Republic, János Áder, a close associate of Viktor Orbán, was re-elected. Yet will the victory of Fidesz and a new Primature of Orbán be assured on April 8?

The Jobbik party is in a dynamic of contesting the leadership of Orbán: it is now credited with 15% to 18% intention to vote. And by 2014, it had almost won in Fidesz strongholds, as in Miskolc. For a long time explicitly anti-Semitic, anti-Roma and anti-European, it has nowadays relaxed at least in his rhetoric, under the leadership of his young creator and leader, Gábor Vona. Like the French National Front and the Austrian FPÖ, it is trying to rebrand itself in order to gain ministerial positions. The whole question today is the score of Jobbik: will it exceed the 20% of votes as in the legislative elections of 2014? And will it be able to challenge Fidesz? The answer for almost for sure is no. They have been increasingly discredited by the Fidesz in particular in the areas where they had a good shot – this will show in their results. Left-leaning or liberal voters are unlikely to vote for them even if they are the only opponents.

The other for the outgoing majority, an “all but Fidesz” front seemed to be sketched in a local election: in February, in Hódmezővásárhely, a stronghold of Fidesz, the independent candidate had managed to largely defeat the candidate Fidesz by winning a hugely surprising 57% of the votes by rallying different opposition parties and mobilising on local, social and economic issues. This unusual situation where only one opponent eventually ran against Fidesz is however hardly transposable to the national scene, since the one-off rally of opposition forces was not a planned move from national parties and was a protest vote.

The actual stakes of these elections are not so much whether Fidesz will win, but rather the conditions of their announced victory: if the rate of abstention is low or participation high, if the competing parties coalesce or withdraw candidates in each other’s favour to minimise the fragmentation of the vote at the local level and if its main rival, the Jobbik, exceeds its score of 2014, then the hegemony of Fidesz will be shaken.

2. Will economy be the next mandate priority, at last?

The second issue of the election and of the next term of office is obvious: economic development must become the central theme of Hungarian public life: this country, full of potential, is in dire need of it. Macroeconomic risks are accumulating and the slowdown in investment has reduced growth to 2% in 2016, the economic stakes are the major ones, but they remain absent from the electoral debate. Major economic reforms are not at the centre of programs, and parties do not clash on either the economic record of the incumbent government or the economic outlook. The fact is not new: since the transition, the socioeconomic determinants of the vote are more significantly the level of education and precise geographical situation (city/campaign, or electoral strongholds) than voters’ individual income or the strength of their local economy.

The vote will take place a few weeks after the Commission’s discussion of triggering Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty for Poland and Hungary. It is the repercussions of this triggering that could have the greatest impact on the Hungarian economy in the medium term, because the European funds for the next cycle (2021-2027) are discussed while if the situation escalates, the two countries could have their voting rights suspended in the Council.

Elections are most relevant to this process, as the Article 7 sanctions a “serious breach by a Member State of the values” of the Union (democracy, equality, rule of law, etc.). It is precisely the institutional reforms decided by Fidesz over their past eight years in power that led the Commission to propose the triggering. Depending on the balance of power post-March 8, that trend will accelerate or reverse. The economic stakes are considerable for Hungary: European net transfers represent 6% of the national economy, an absolute record (Bulgaria, second at 4.5%, is far behind). In the short term, however, the economic stakes of the election seem small, as the regulated sectors have been systematically reformed and their interests locked up by long concessions or acquisitions. The centres of power and decision are also sufficiently under control so that no capital outflow is to be feared if Fidesz loses its majority or an influx should be expected if it regains the two-thirds majority. It is in the long term that the issue of the April 2018 election weighs heavily on the Hungarian economy: on the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index indicator, Hungary slipped between 2009 and 2017 from the 46th to the 66th place, behind Jordan, Cuba or Montenegro.

In the nexus of politics and economics, the most original feature of these elections lies outside of the country’s borders, particularly in the Romanian region of Transylvania. Since 2010, Romanians of Hungarian origin have the right to Hungarian citizenship as well as the right to vote in national elections. In 2014, Fidesz and its local allies helped almost 130,000 Romanians to register, and harvested 95.5% of the vote.

Turnout in Transylvania will determine for a large part the extent of Fidesz’ victory. It is all the more paradoxical since these voters will hardly be affected by the ballot’s results. Apart from a few projects subsidised by the Orbán government in some villages highly targeted electorally, the Hungarian budget and national economy has no impact on this crucial electorate’s life and prospects, unless they migrate out of Romania.

3. Toward a repositioning of Hungary in Europe?

The coming elections will also have a European impact, just as the presidential elections in the Czech Republic in February had attracted the attention of the whole continent. The whole question is whether and how Viktor Orbán will keep on fighting with the EU institutions.

Since at least 2015, Viktor Orbán has indeed nurtured tension with the EU: he challenged the decision of the Union to allow quotas of refugees in Europe in order to share the burden; he actively contributed to the Visegrád Group in promoting national sovereignty against federal policies; he openly backed the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition in Austria; he insisted on the need to maintain cooperation with Russia; he even claimed 500 million euros from the European institutions to compensate for the expenses incurred by Hungary to cope with the influx of migrants. In return, the EU initiated procedures, in particular concerning the management of the structural funds in Hungary.

However, the new mandate of Orbán will take place in a context that may require a more flexible and cooperative approach. First of all, during the crisis following the Skripal affair, Hungary unexpectedly asserted itself as a hard-liner on the expulsion of Russian diplomats. Moreover, since the German coalition government has been formed and initiatives for the revival of European construction have been carried out since the election of Emmanuel Macron, Hungary will no longer be in a position of strength to keep a highly sovereignist stance. A few days before the parliamentary elections, a European repositioning of Hungary is quite possible. It is even desirable: just as Hungary cannot do without Europe, so Europe cannot do without Hungary.

This article was originally published in French

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