Zoltan Pogátsa points out that the rise of Viktor Orbán and Fidesz has less to do with its virtues, than with the lack of a progressive alternative. We have seen the alternative in Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Britain, where due to a strong leftist movement; up to now we not not seen the rise of an ultra-right party. Neo-liberalism has nothing against extreme right populists, or against centre-right or social democratic parties, as long as they enforce the neo-liberal regimen.
Zoltan Pogátsa is a Lecturer in political economy at the University of West Hungary, Central European University
Most commentators will tell you that Viktor Orbán’s Hungary has a crisis because of its ethno-traditionalist, populist Right. Such an analysis would have seemed convincing in 2010, when Orbán stood almost alone in this field, but not as convincing after Kaczynski, Trump, Brexit, Le Pen, Wilders, Netanyahu and the rise of the Austrian and Italian right. Orbán’s populism might be more concentrated, but he is part of a trend rather than an exception.
Nor is he particularly popular. It is also a common mistake to assume that Orbán has won the hearts and minds of the majority of Hungarians. In fact he commands somewhere around 2.5 million voters in a voting population of 8 million. Not bad, but nothing particularly outstanding. He is doing his job.
The reason why he stays in power and wins one two-thirds majority after another has more to do with his opposition than with him being extraordinary. In order to understand this, we need to go back to the last election the Hungarian Left and Liberal forces won: back in 2006. Not exactly today, but not in historical time either.
At that point they received 2.6 million votes, more than what the Right could garner. The following four years of catastrophic misgovernance by a Socialist-Liberal coalition led by PM Ferenc Gyurcsány saw the Hungarian state almost default, only to be saved by an IMF loan. The media was full of the news about corruption. Gyurcsány gave his infamous leaked “lie speech”, in which he admitted that the government was spreading falsehoods “day and night”, and had no idea what to do with the economy. However, he refused to resign for a number of years. Not surprisingly, voters turned away from the governing parties in droves. In 2010, the Liberals were unable to even run in the elections. The Socialists were down to a million voters. Together, the governing parties managed to lose about 1.7 million Hungarian voters, to be left with no more than a million.
These four years of Gyurcsány are the key to understanding the rise and staying power of Orbán and his Fidesz party. Ferenc Gyurcsány is still active in Hungarian politics today, reminding voters every single day of what it had meant when today’s opposition were in power. The Socialist have not changed much either. They have no meaningful platform to speak of, they managed to oust their own candidate for Prime Minister, only to have to borrow another one from another party. There was simply no politician left within the Socialist Party who was charismatic enough. Their dated politicians from ten to twenty years ago are simply not up to convincing voters that they represent a credible alternative. There is constant and bitter infighting, petty betrayals, and mutual accusations of corruption and collaboration with Fidesz.
Not surprisingly, voters were not convinced. While Orbán once again managed to herd his usual 2.5 million to the voting booths, the old school Socialist and Liberal opposition received less than a million votes: their worst result since Orbán’s rise . It is time for them to face up to the bitter reality: They will receive no sympathy from outside of Hungary either for their fight against Orbán, if they are unable to leave behind discredited politicians, views, and a political culture.
Hope lies with newly founded political forces. The eco-socialist “Politics Can be Different” party managed to increase their votes significantly, and a new young centrist force called Momentum also appeared on the scene, providing an alternative for Liberal voters. Even the Two Tailed Dog joke party received almost two percent, revealing the enormous credibility gap in the Hungarian opposition