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Hungarian elections: Why is Viktor Orbán set to win big?


Orbán with Croatian Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor, President Van Rompuy, Commission President Barroso.

Orbán with Croatian Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor, President Van Rompuy, Commission President Barroso.

With the Hungarian parliamentary elections just days away, Western media remains perplexed by the popularity of Viktor Orbán and his ruling Fidesz party in polls. Having been denounced time and again as a power-abusing autocrat by outsiders, Orbán’s image within his home country remains relatively unscathed.

Many observers have misunderstood the reality of Orbán’s popularity among the Hungarian electorate. With parliamentary elections coming up on April 6, some clarifications need to be made as to why Orbán is set to win big.

Divided opposition

Journalists and leaders alike have all too quickly denounced the Fidesz party’s recent electoral reform as unjustly benefiting the Orbán regime and undermining the ability of other parties to win power. In reality, though, by easing the requirements that smaller political groupings and independent candidates have to meet to get on the ballot, the new changes have created a more open system than before, in ways that don’t necessarily benefit the ruling alliance. Those criticisms aside, Hungary’s electoral laws do not explain the continued dominance of Fidesz in the polls.

Fidesz currently boasts a whopping 49 percent support among likely voters, compared with 26 percent for the left opposition alliance led by Socialist Party President Attila Mesterhazy. One of the reasons for the party’s commanding lead can be attributed to the failure of the opposition to present themselves as a true political force and capture the interest of the electorate.

According to Tibor Zavecz, chief of polling agency Ipsos, there would need to be a “sea change” for the opposition alliance to bring home a victory, indicating the woeful lack of public support for the socialists. These negative developments are largely the result of internal wrangling and a lack of coherence among coalition members. The alliance has offered few policy alternatives for the future of Hungary and has been continuously beset by political scandals.

Their prospects were further undermined after the former vice president of the Socialist party, Gabor Simon, found himself caught in quite the political pickle. In early February, it was discovered that the Socialist politician had been holding the hefty sum of 770,000 euros in an Austrian bank account, which he conveniently failed to mention in his declaration of assets (required of all MPs by Hungarian law). Since then, further bank accounts in his name have been discovered, and he continues to deny that the money is his own. Having disgraced his party just before the elections, Simon resigned and has been taken into custody. These recent allegations of corruption at the highest levels of the Socialist party certainly do not help the party’s standing in the eyes of an already skeptical Hungarian public.

It’s the economy, stupid!

The country’s stable and recovering economy gives us additional insights into Orbán’s lead in the polls. Statistics indicate that Hungary’s economic-sentiment index, hovering in the negatives for over a decade, has climbed to a 12-year record, coupled with a forecast of two percent growth in economic output for 2014. Prior to the elections, citizens feel more optimistic about the outlook for the economy and are gradually able to save more, explaining the positive sentiment toward the party in government. At a time when Europe is still preaching austerity policies, Orbán has secured the trust of the citizens by delivering sound economic outcomes.

Orbán has vowed to govern under a policy of continuation, proceeding with cuts to energy prices, which have been widely popular among the population. “I voted for Fidesz in 2010 and I wasn’t disappointed,” preached Peter Enyedi, a 26-year-old Hungarian citizen awaiting further reductions in his household bills.

Preaching to the choir

In stark contrast to international media, the dominant narrative in the Hungarian press is that Orbán has served the country’s interests and proven able to steer Hungary away from the brink of collapse, staving off a Greek-type default and protecting his citizens from exploitation by foreign banks. The “average Joe” image he dons, coupled with his “freedom fighter” credentials, has made Orbán a well-liked politician, respected for his decisiveness and candor.

While the EU all too often treats Hungary as a sort of outlier in need of guidance, Orbán appeals to Hungarian national pride, a theme he has cunningly illustrated by not caving into European demands and pursing his own economic path. Hungarians often feel that their European neighbors misjudge theirs country’s heritage and, like any tactful leader, Orbán has monopolized on this populist sentiment, launching well-calculated responses to the EU while standing up for Hungary’s independence.

While international outsiders continue their cries of indignation, the Hungarian people seem to be impressed with the progress made by Orbán’s governance.  Further integration with the EU is clearly an end goal for Hungary and its citizens, but the international community should respect the party and policies European citizens choose at home.