Shifting Political Landscapes: The Rise and Fall of Opposition Parties Amidst Fidesz’s Dominance in Hungary

Peter Magyar, a popular opposition politician of celebrity status meeting the press at the site of a soccer arena and miniature train station in Viktor Orban's village in Felcsut, Hungary. on May 24, 2024. Photo: Blue Corner Studio.

The EP election results in Hungary indicate interesting dynamics. The governing Fidesz party achieved a somewhat pyrrhic victory. Although it won 44.82% of the votes, making it the winner, this result is the worst the party has ever achieved in its EP election history. The big winner of the EP election is Magyar’s Tisza party, which received 29.6% of the votes and may send seven representatives to the EP. Given that the party practically did not exist in the minds of voters a few months prior, becoming the largest opposition party was a significant success. A big question now is, in which faction of the EP will the Hungarian parties find their political home?

By Robert Csehi* 

For the first time in history, the European Parliamentary elections in Hungary were held simultaneously with local municipal elections. This dual campaign posed a unique challenge for political actors, as they had to address both local and European issues in their messages. However, in this summary, I will focus solely on the results of the European Parliamentary election.

The governing party, Fidesz, in coalition with the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP), launched its European Parliament campaign in late April and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán encapsulated the party’s core message with the slogan: ‘no migration, no gender, no war.’ This slogan was supposed to reflect an antagonistic relationship between the position of Fidesz and that of ‘Brussels.’ Orbán claimed to stop illegal migration into Hungary despite the EU’s alleged liberal policies and called for resistance against ‘gender ideology’ in the name of safeguarding Hungarian children against the alleged LGBTQ+ propaganda. While these two elements featured in the social media messages of the governing party in the beginning, the third message, ‘no war,’ gained ever-increasing attention in Orbán’s campaign and ultimately eclipsed the other two. 

Orbán, relying on a populist discourse, crafted an artificial cleavage between the ‘pro-peace’ (Fidesz) and ‘pro-war’ (practically everybody else) political actors. He and his party used this differentiation not only domestically but also extended it to the European political scene, claiming that most European leaders were suffering from ‘war psychosis.’ He appealed to the most basic fears of the population, constantly portraying the European Parliamentary elections as a decisive battle between war and peace, life and death. The party messages often featured European politicians, from Emmanuel Macron and Manfred Weber to Ursula von der Leyen, as war propagators, along with their alleged domestic alliances with relevant opposition figures like former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, MEPs Klára Dobrev, Anna Donáth, and Katalin Cseh, and new political actor Péter Magyar. Interestingly, the social media campaign of the governing party never mentioned Russia as responsible for the war in Ukraine but rather blamed European actors and NATO for escalating the conflict by supporting Ukraine with money and weapons. Throughout the campaign, it was unclear what Orbán and his party meant by ‘peace’ and how they intended to achieve it once their candidates appeared in the European Parliament.

The greatest challenger to Fidesz and Orbán proved to be a completely new political actor, Péter Magyar, and his party, Tisza (Respect and Freedom). Magyar, a former bureaucrat and the ex-husband of Orbán’s former Justice Minister, Judit Varga, gained attention following a political scandal. This scandal arose after the former Hungarian President Katalin Novák and Varga granted clemency to a convicted paedophile accomplice, with Varga supposed to lead Fidesz’s EP list.

Magyar’s EU program remained somewhat vague during the election campaign. However, it was known that he wanted Hungary to join the European Public Prosecutor’s Office, aimed to gain access to the suspended EU funds for Hungary, and supported a strong Europe of strong nations rather than a European federation. He consistently blamed the government for making Hungary the second most corrupt and second-poorest country in the EU despite the substantial funds received from the union since 2004. As a newcomer, the Tisza party did not invest much in online campaigns but relied on Magyar’s countrywide tour and his social media platform.

The leftist-environmentalist coalition (DK-MSZP-P) led by Klára Dobrev campaigned with a federalist view of Europe, claiming to be the most Europeanist party in Hungary, and focused on European wages, pensions, and welfare. The liberal Momentum built its EP campaign around the two MEPs, Anna Donáth and Katalin Cseh, highlighting their contributions. They claimed to have played a role in the suspension of EU funds to Hungary to limit corruption but also stressed that, thanks to them, Hungarian SMEs, CSOs, and municipalities can now apply for more EU funds directly, bypassing the corrupt channels of the Hungarian government. They also contributed to the Media Freedom Act, which combats political interference in editorial decisions. 

Finally, the radical right party, Our Homeland, campaigned with negative messages about the EU. László Toroczkai blamed the EU for its undemocratic nature, globalist agenda, and corrupt dealings.

The EP election results indicate interesting dynamics. Fidesz has achieved a somewhat pyrrhic victory. Although it won 44.82% of the votes, making them the winners, this result is the worst the party has ever achieved in its EP election history. Pro-government commentators are quick to highlight that the party received over two million votes, more than it ever received before, thanks to the higher-than-average turnout due to the double election. However, this does not change the fact that the governing party-coalition has lost two mandates in the EP and will send 11 representatives this time.

It is also noteworthy that Orbán promised to achieve a mobilization record and pushed the campaign to the extreme by appealing to the electorate’s greatest fears, equating the election with a choice between life or death, war and peace. Additionally, the governing party spent an enormous amount of money on the campaign, both online and offline, compared to its main challenger, Magyar’s Tisza party. Overall, support for Fidesz has decreased, and it is not yet clear how Orbán will manage the situation with looming economic and acute political challenges. Nevertheless, one cannot underestimate the strength of Fidesz.

The big winner of the EP election is Magyar’s Tisza party, which received 29.6% of the votes and may send seven representatives to the EP. Given that the party practically did not exist in the minds of voters a few months prior, becoming the largest opposition party was a great success. Although about 10% of Tisza supporters came from Fidesz, according to surveys, the party had a more devastating impact on the existing opposition parties. 

The leftist-environmentalist coalition (DK-MSZP-P) managed to secure only two seats, compared to their previous five (DK: 4, MSZP-P: 1). In the 2019 EP election, DK received 16.05% of the votes, whereas now the coalition managed only 8.03%. While the leftist coalition survived Tisza’s challenge, the liberal Momentum did not. The party received only 3.7% of the votes, losing its two mandates in the EP. 

Another winner of the election was the radical Our Homeland party (Jobbik), which secured one seat in the EP with a vote share of 6.71%. However, this should not be overestimated, given that Jobbik, the previously far-right party, also had one representative in the EP during its last term. While eleven parties competed for mandates, in the end, only four parties (or party coalitions) will represent the Hungarian people in the EP.

A big question is, in which faction of the EP will these parties find their political home? It is clear that the leftist-environmentalist coalition will continue within the S&D faction. Magyar recently met with Manfred Weber, the leader of the European People’s Party (EPP), and both seemed pleased with the prospect of joining political forces. As a result, KDNP, Fidesz’s coalition partner which remained in the EPP after Fidesz left the center-right bloc in 2021, announced they will also leave the EPP. The governing parties appear to strive to join the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group led by Italy’s Georgia Meloni, despite potential friction over certain policies. For instance, Meloni, Kaczynski, and smaller Finnish, Latvian, and Lithuanian members within the ECR have diametrically opposed views on the Ukraine war and voted overwhelmingly for financial assistance to Ukraine. The Identity and Democracy (ID) faction, with Le Pen and Salvini, voted against this measure, but other policies seem to keep Orbán away from this faction.

The far-right Our Homeland party planned to create a new faction with Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), whose leader visited Hungarian counterpart László Torockai before the election. However, AfD officials have already signaled their aim to return to the ID faction. If Torockai decides to join this faction as well, it is questionable whether Fidesz MEPs would then join. This situation illustrates how far Fidesz has drifted from its center-right position on European matters. Consequently, it is unlikely that Fidesz will tone down its Eurosceptic populist voice in the coming years.

(*) Dr. Robert Csehi is an Assistant Professor at Corvinus University of Budapest.

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