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Right turn ahead. The Hungarian general election

March 30th, 2018

Hungary is the holding pen of Europe. Sat on the Great Hungarian Plain, which is effectively the most westward of the steppes, it is no coincidence that successive invasions over many eras have come through Hungary and stopped at Vienna, from the Mongols to the Turks to the waves of migrants in 2015 – it is the line of least resistance.

The last hundred years have not been good for Hungary. It lost two thirds of its territory at the Treaty of Trianon and it has seen a Communist government, an authoritarian right wing dictatorship, a fascist puppet state and USSR-dominated Communist government. In that time, Budapest has been occupied by three different armies in that time, those of Romania, Germany and the USSR.

Its democratic history effectively started in 1989. One man, Viktor Orbán, has been prominent in public life throughout that time. He has been Prime Minister for the last eight years and he is looking for re-election on 8 April. The election does not look like a cliffhanger. His ruling party Fidesz is set for a landslide if the polls are to be believed. Nevertheless, the election is likely to be of significance for Europe as a whole.

What of the electoral system? The Hungarian Parliament is elected using a method that’s a bit like the Italian system. It has 199 MPs. 106 are to be elected by first past the post. The other 93 MPs are elected by proportional representation, with a threshold of 5%. In 2014 Fidesz just managed a two thirds majority on 43% of the vote.

The election will be free but not fair. The votes will be counted correctly and parties are freely able to organise: if anything Hungary’s opposition parties are too numerous rather than too few. But Fidesz’s dominance of the media is unlike anything seen in western Europe. The cards are stacked in their favour. They are on track to take something like half the vote if the admittedly volatile Hungarian polls are to be believed.

Who are the other runners and riders? The socialists split into three after their 2010 defeat and remain divided. The far right Jobbik continue to thrive. A greeny-liberal party called LMP have some popularity among young leftish urban professionals. Young rightish urban professionals have the option of Momentum. Few are taking it.

Hungary’s economy is doing well. Its economy, admiittedly fuelled by a pre-election loosening of the purse strings, is growing at just under 4% a year at the moment. Unemployment has halved in the last five years. Those who have visited Budapest in the last few years will be aware that it is a modern European city.

Just as London is not Britain, however, Budapest is not Hungary. The east of the country remains poorer than the west. The jobs and wealth are largely created in the big cities and large parts of the countryside are being left behind. Outside the tourist areas and the wine-growing regions, opportunities in rural areas are few. Unsurprisingly, the young are leaving. It’s routine for smart young Hungarians to head for Germany, Britain, Canada or the USA. The rural decline in many areas is stark. You can rent or buy whole villages.

Viktor Orbán’s support is derived primarily not from Budapest but from the countryside. He has launched a succession of initiatives designed to appeal to older, less educated, culturally conservative voters. In Britain, earnest academics would be urging us to listen to the concerns of these Somewheres. At 1000 miles distance, it’s easier for outsiders to label their concerns as racist and backward. There are probably at least two lessons to be learned from that differential treatment.

So the current government introduced a Sunday trading ban – now repealed, campaigned against external influences personified in George Soros (who not coincidentally is a key figure in the Central European University which is one of the few Hungarian institutions outside Fidesz’s control and which the government also sought to dismantle, before holding fire in the face of international pressure) and has launched a national consultation about the EU (you will not be surprised to learn that the Hungarian government is unenthusiastic).

Meanwhile, the highest levels of government have become notable for their unexplained wealth. Hungarians do not live to Scandinavian standards of probity – locals will negotiate with the traffic police and it is socially compulsory to tip the doctor even though it is officially illegal. So a certain amount of feathering the nest is expected from all governments, if not exactly approved of.

The current government is perceived to have been taking this to a whole new level. An English word “strawman” has entered the Hungarian dictionary under the spelling “stroman” to refer to the front men who have been enabling the Orbán family to acquire businesses and land. Public cynicism about this spans the political spectrum.

The opportunity has been seized by Jobbik. For some time they have been campaigning with posters like the one at the top of the thread (which translates “You work. They steal.”). These are sentiments that hit home right across the political spectrum, with which impeccable liberals would firmly agree.

Jobbik clearly now have big money behind them because Budapest is festooned with Jobbik posters in a similar style that can be translated “We grow. You win.” with various simple campaign promises such as “European wages”. In my view, these latest posters miss the mark a little, drawing an implicit contrast between “We” and “You” (the point is rather stronger in Hungarian, where personal pronouns are used mainly for emphasis – verb endings normally do the work unassisted). Nevertheless, Jobbik are making all the running in opposition to Fidesz. They might well outperform their average polling and finish a clear second.

It is against this background that Viktor Orbán has been campaigning almost exclusively against migration. He is evidently determined not to be outflanked on the right and his rhetoric about George Soros would make even a Telegraph journalist blush. The Hungarian public, many of whom outside Budapest have next to no experience of immigration, lap it up. But Hungary’s population has been in decline for a generation, with no end in sight. It appears that immigration is unpopular, regardless of the fundamentals. That’s one lesson that one does not need to travel 1000 miles from Britain to learn.

Alastair Meeks