Can the Hungarian opposition win in 2022?

, by Jan Sztanka-Tóth

Can the Hungarian opposition win in 2022?
This Pride march through Budapest shows that there is huge resistance towards the oppression of the LGBTQ+ community in Hungary. Photo credit: Cristo, Licence: Creative Commons

In recent months Hungary has made sure that it is amply represented in mainstream Western newspapers. Although, as a Hungarian myself, I welcome such interest in my country, the fact that this happened for the wrong reasons again is disappointing, but also not surprising. The truth is that in anticipation of the 2022 parliamentary elections, domestic politics have been escalating and the occasional overspill has reached the European newspapers. Notably the examples of the adoption of Eastern vaccines, the planned Fudan University in Budapest, and the anti- LGBT+ law (which came into effect yesterday) come to mind. But what do these policies on the part of the Hungarian government mean for the upcoming election? Given the fact that for the first time the opposition parties decided to unite and run as one against Fidesz, another question also needs to be answered: what are the chances of a potential opposition win?

The above described three topics share an interesting dichotomy. It seems that the decision to pursue these policies has been primarily motivated only either by domestic, or foreign politics. As such, considerations for the effects of how foreign policy might affect the domestic public, or vice-versa have not been taken into account. Although, in the case of the Eastern vaccines this is more complicated, the point remains that rarely does the Orbán’s government roll out policies that are aimed both at the domestic and foreign politics. This tactic has worked for over a decade now, as was exemplified over and over by Orbán’s fiery speeches against the EU in Budapest while presenting a soft spoken argument for the defence of Hungary in Brussels. However, the conflict from this might finally result in crises that will be the doom of Orbán, as the following topics might suggest.

Vaccination policy in Hungary

Among European nations, Hungary was the only one which vaccinated masses with vaccines of Eastern origin, namely, the Russian Sputnik and Chinese Bejing CNBG. Doing so against the advice of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control was not only a symbolic middle finger to the EU, but also a foreign and domestic policy objective. Both of these points have achieved their effect, although the efficacy rate of the latter vaccine has been questioned, even by China itself. As such, it is not surprising that with the emerging Delta variant already projected to dominate Europe by the end of August, Merkel was skeptical about allowing full sized crowds during the Euro 2020 matches in Budapest. To sum up, Orbán continuously used the Covid-19 pandemic as a tool of his corrupt politics to the detriment of public health. This effectively meant playing into the hands of Eastern powers such as China and Russia. These policies resulted in partly justified mistrust in the Eastern jabs had hindered vaccination efforts in Hungary. In general, the relatively quick reopening of the country has been widely seen as a success story for Fidesz. However, the significant problems with the vaccine rollout in early 2021 and the fiasco around the access to the EU vaccination passports in Hungary, both show how unprepared the government has been to handle such a crisis.

Fudan University Campus in Budapest

More recently, in September 2020, the government announced plans for building a campus for the Chinese Fudan University in Budapest. It was particularly strange, since it was only about a year ago when the government forced the autonomous Central European University, a highly regarded institution, to gradually leave Budapest for Vienna. The location of this new University has also been controversial. Not only was it promised the same real estate on which developments were planned for Hungarian students called the “student town project”, but also the construction was to be financed by a Chinese loan and built by Chinese workers. The combination of these factors, and the fact that all over the world Chinese influence is seen with growing worry, resulted in the first major protests since the pandemic began and forced the government to back-pedal. Firstly, the government is promising a referendum in Budapest on whether to go ahead with the project, while also examining options for covering the construction from different sources.

The public’s and opposition’s reaction, so far, has been very strong. It is not surprising, since according to a recent poll 90% of the habitants of Budapest oppose the University. All this is also compounded by the inability of the government to explain why a Chinese antireligious communist dictatorship would be a good partner for a government that sees itself as a democratic free nation rooted in Christian values. This conflict is probably best exemplified by how a local council renamed the streets on which the university is being proposed to “Uyghur Martyrs’ Road”, “Free Hong Kong Road”, “Dalai Lama Road”, and the fourth named after a Chinese Catholic Bishop: “Xie Shiguang”. In conclusion, while Orbán’s government is attempting to play a geopolitical game, it has struggled so far to explain these actions to the domestic public, consequently alienating even its own electorate.

Anti-LGBT+ law

The most recent and the still ongoing crisis was the implementation of Putin-style anti-LGBT+ laws which effectively ban the teaching about LGBT+ people to under-18s. To add insult to injury, the law clearly mentioned LGBT+ people in the same bracket as pedophiles. The reasons for the rapid adoption of such a law has not yet been fully clear, but there are two leading theories that are not mutually exclusive. The first states that ahead of the 2022 elections, and in the absence of a public enemy no.1, Orbán decided to follow the Polish example and gather support through hatred towards LGBT+ people. The second says that this was an attempt to fracture the united opposition which consists of both far-right and far-left parties. Whatever the aim was, it seems that Orbán has overplayed his hand, since the new law resulted in a huge international backlash, as well as domestic protests. The disconnect has been plainly visible during the European Council meetings on 23rd June. Orbán attempted again as always, to smooth things over by stating that Hungary is a committed member of the EU and the western world, going on to say that he has always been a defender of LGBT+ rights. However, it seems that other EU leaders had had enough, like the Dutch PM who clearly stated: “If you don’t like LGBT rights, you can leave the EU”, or other senior leaders who expect the introduction of sanctions against Hungary. As such, we see another example of how a policy clearly created for a domestic audience has further derailed Hungary’s standing within the EU, but this time there might be real consequences.

United Opposition

The failure of the Hungarian decision making process in regards to the ramifications of these above policies has had an adverse effect on their chances for reelection. But as we go forward, the likelihood of controversial politics is probably going to rise, thus heating up the campaign to come. The main reason for this might be, that after a series of lost elections, the opposition parties decided to overcome the unfair electoral system by banding together and agreeing on candidates. Fractured they do not stand a chance, but united they might be able to beat Fidesz at least according to the polls.

As a consequence the next elections could be the first time in more than a decade in which Fidesz has a real chance of losing its grip on power. Therefore, the upcoming months of campaigning will surely be tough and dirty, as Orbán will use every tool in his toolkit to hang on to power. What remains to be seen is how far he will go, which largely depends on how far the international community will let him. For now, even though the far-right Jobbik voted for the LGBT+ bill, the United Opposition is still strong in its resolve to stay together for the greater good. This is exemplified best by the primary elections they are organising to find the best candidates for PM and local MPs. Meanwhile, the work on a joint program for a potential government has been smoother than expected, but this might be because the parties have deliberately avoided culture-war issues that divide them most.. Although this kind of wide ranging coalition is at great risk of fracturing,and its vulnerabilities will be surely tested by Fidesz, such an alliance is not without chance, especially if we consider that Benjamin Netanyahu has been unseated in similar circumstances. However, at this point other than following the polls, it is almost impossible to judge who will win. One thing is for sure: this will not be such an easy fight for Orbán, like the previous elections.

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