“We’re looking better and better. Probably we’ve never looked as good as we do tonight,” were the words of Viktor Orban as he addressed a crowd of supporters in Hungary’s capital. This was following his crushing victory in the country’s parliamentary elections on April 3rd,and it might be difficult to contradict him. The result marked the nationalist leader’s fourth consecutive win in the Hungarian parliamentary elections, and is probably one that will solidify his already strong grip on power in the central European country.
Viktor Orban, or “the dictator,”
, as Jean-Claude Junker jokingly called him at an EU Summit in 2015, is a well-known figure in the European public eye. The politician has been making headlines for some time, whether it was during the 2015 refugee crisis when he refused to welcome any migrants into Hungary, or more recently, when he organized a referendum that planned to ban the promotion of ideas referring to sexual orientation in schools. Orban has long been perceived as the textbook example of what a nationalist politician looks like: concerned over family values and skeptical of European institutions. His party’s policies and public discourse can be seen in similar form elsewhere in Europe, from France, to Germany, to Italy.
And yet despite the similarities between FIDESZ and other extremist parties, Hungary’s situation is different: there is no other European nationalist party which has been as successful in attracting voters and holding onto power. The 2022 elections portray just that: despite the unification of opposition parties under the common prime-minister candidate Peter Marky-Zoy, FIDESZ has still managed to win a comfortable majority in parliament. This is no coincidence. Ever since they ascended to power in 2010, Orban and his allies have redrawn electoral districts, dismantled independent media, and implemented arbitrary social programs, all with the aim of maintaining control of the country. For us to better understand authoritarianism, we find it important to discuss some of the methods FIDESZ has employed in consolidating its power which have helped it remain unbeaten, and as of now, unbeatable.
Following FIDESZ’s win in the 2010 elections, the party swiftly moved towards reshaping the Hungarian electoral system. It began by cutting in half the number of representatives in parliament and distributing a larger proportion of seats to constituency representatives (which are elected on a winner-takes-it-all basis) rather than to officials elected directly through the party lists. Additionally, it introduced the “Cardinal Law” of 2011, which redrew the country’s constituencies to adapt to changes in population dynamics. However, while in most parts of the world
, an independent or multi-party commission is devised responsible of this task, district laws and divisions in Hungary were approved by the FIDESZ controlled parliament. According to a report by the independent Hungarian think-thank, “Political Capital,” There is a strong bias towards the ruling party in the way districts are drawn. The organization has noted that districts where shaped so that anti-FIDESZ/left-wing constituencies would have on average 5000-6000 more voters than the predominantly pro-government ones.
Moreover, another strategy of the party consisted in slashing anti-Orban districts in half and integrating them into pro-government ones, so as to blend opposition voters into pro-FIDESZ constituencies and minimize the chance of other parties winning additional representatives. Finally, the two-round
Probably the scariest transformation Hungary has gone through concerns the country’s relation with the media. Between 2010 and 2021, Hungary fell from 23rd to 92nd place in the World Press Freedom Index conducted by Reporters without Borders. These numbers are no coincidence. In fact, in 2019, the Mertek media monitoring group predicted that 80% of media outlets in Hungary are either partly or fully controlled by the government.
Orban has managed to build his media empire with the help of a system of connections with oligarchs and government-friendly businessmen, as well as by changing the law altogether. His first move consisted in the introduction of a series of Media Laws in 2010, which created the National Media and communications Authority (NMHH), an institution overseeing Hungarian press outlets. NMHH’s board is appointed by parliament and is in large part loyal to FIDESZ’ requests.
However, the most important step consisted in ensuring that media outlets are controlled by a government-friendly figure, usually a former friend of Viktor Orban. Perhaps the most well know media oligarch is Lorincz Meszaros, who in 2016 acquired the media group Mediaworks, a publisher of multiple newspapers and media outlets across the country. Today, the businessman has taken control over 205 media titles in Hungary, all of which are now loyal to the ruling government. No media outlet is safe from these aggressive takeovers, as we have seen in the case of some of the most well-known newspapers in Hungary which have either been closed completely (Népszabadság) or pressured into changing ideological orientation (Index).
GENEROUS SOCIAL PROGRAMS
FIDESZ’s economic and social policy could probably be summarized through a quote by Orban himself: “I believe in simple things – work, homeland, families.” (March 2018). Consequently, the party’s priority has been centered on supporting families through various social plans, especially aiming at encouraging women to have more children. In 2019, Viktor Orban introduced the “Family Protection Action Plan” a policy which devoted 4.8% of GDP towards family-oriented programs. Some of the measures include the Family Housing Allowance Program, which offers homeownership grants for families with kids, along with other financial benefits, such as advantageous loans, and reductions in Value-Added Tax. FIDESZ claims these programs were put in place to curb the decreasing child-birth rate. Indeed, between 2010 and 2019 child-birth rate has increased in Hungary from an average of 1.25 per woman to 1.49 per woman, which is better, but not far from the European average. However, what mattered most is that these measures ensured the capture of a loyal electorate, that would look away from the alarming democratic backsliding happening in the country.
These represent only a handful of the reforms that have allowed FIDESZ to comfortably keep its position of power, without being questioned or facing any serious internal challengers. Aside from controlling state mechanisms, FIDESZ’s discourse on social issues has contributed towards the rising support for the conservative formation. From the obsession with businessman George Soros, to the blaming of Brussels and the LGBT community for ‘destroying Hungarian values,” Orban has always managed to find a scapegoat to make use of.
NO END IN SIGHT?
Following the defeat of the United Opposition in the last elections, it seems as there is no current feasible challenger to Orban within Hungary. As we have seen in the structure of the media and the electoral system, the system is biased towards the ruling government. More importantly though, positive sentiment for Orban in rural areas looks virtually unbreakable.
Abroad, Orban has always relied on support from his ideological friends to gain popularity and social capital, whether through organizing international “demography summits” in Budapest, to strengthening ties with former US president Donald Trump. His biggest ally abroad was undoubtedly Poland, with which he shared similar social values and disdain for the EU.
However, this seems to be changing
It is therefore hard to predict what the Hungarian state will look like in 4 years’ time, when the next parliamentary elections will take place. What we know for sure is that FIDESZ will take every measure in its hands to hold on to the power it has consolidated and will continue propagating its ideological values across Hungary and abroad. The only barrier, as Orban has stated himself, is that of religion and God:” Parliament sets the boundaries, power is shared, but the ultimate barrier is nothing more than the fear of God”.