A System of National Cooperation, or a Symptom of National Fragmentation?

29 May 2019

The EP election results in Hungary are an expression of three axes of current Hungarian political life. First, there is the tacit acceptance, if not clear-eyed approval, among many segments of the educated, white upper-middle class strata of Hungarian society of Fidesz’s System of National Cooperation, from which they benefit greatly. That support has essentially resulted in the Fidesz-KDNP list’s success in this election cycle, especially in Budapest and Pest County—albeit supported by a minority of the total amount of eligible voters. Second, there is a continued effort among opposition parties to vie for individual representation at the European and national levels at the expense of unified oppositional tickets—a repeat of the failed anti-Fidesz tactics during the April 2018 parliamentary elections. Third, the polarization of Hungarian political life into two ever-disparate camps: pro- and anti-EU. The latter camp is dominated by an incredibly disciplined right-wing political and cultural discourse centered on Fidesz-KDNP hegemony. In contrast, “pro-EU” functions as a floating political signifier, within which the far-right-turned-less-extreme, centrists, nominal socialists, and greens can find common ground. One key consequence of this tripartite setup has been the consolidation of the field of ideological representation from Hungary at the level of the European Parliament since the 2014 EP elections.


Although final results have not yet been released, the National Election Office (Nemzeti Választási Iroda, hereafter NVI) has provided provisional results with 99.98 percent of the ballots counted at the time of writing. Out of a total of 8,008,353 people eligible to vote in the Hungarian 2019 EP elections, the NVI counts 3,441,594 as having participated—roughly 43 percent of the electorate, a clear minority (as a friend told me, “The EP elections aren’t sexy”)—but fairly average when compared across other member states, and quite an increase within Hungary compared to the previous EP election cycles. Among those that voted, 52.8 percent (1,806,059 voters) cast their ballots for the Fidesz-KDNP list (KDNP, the Christian Democratic People’s Party, is essentially a Fidesz satellite). Surprisingly, this actually marks a decrease of one million votes from the April 2018 national elections, in which Fidesz-KDNP took about 2.8 million votes. (In that election, that result garnered the Fidesz-KDNP list 49 percent of the votes. Again, a minority of the voting electorate, but a plurality nevertheless, which is all that was needed to give Fidesz-KDNP the two-thirds “supermajority” in the National Assembly that it currently enjoys due to the rules set up by the “reformed” electoral law ratified in 2012). In every large electoral district in the country—with the exceptions of Budapest and Csongrád County (which includes the city of Szeged)—the Fidesz-KDNP list garnered at or above 50 percent of the vote in this EP election cycle.


Although it is too early to make ae analytically definitive claims about the reasons why this drop occurred, one can hazard a few educated guesses. The first guess is that the hardline anti-EU propaganda techniques used by the Fidesz-KDNP government at least since 2015 (tied primarily to the flow of refugees fleeing instability, bloodshed, and general strife in the Levant and North Africa) inadvertently, and contrary to the original intention, worked. Why cast a vote for an institution that your national government constantly berates as unable to defend the values it holds rhetorically dear? Full disclosure: This guess is predicated upon the author’s assumption that enough people actually accept and believe the anti-EU tirades espoused the Fidesz-KDNP government and expressly reproduce this in their voting behavior. A second guess points to an overwhelming sense of apathy and resignation among oppositional voters that the Fidesz-KDNP victory was a foregone conclusion. Why bother showing up in the first place? While the campaign materials of the MSZP-Párbeszéd coalition (the nominally Hungarian Socialist Party and “Dialogue,” a minor red-green party) made clear graphic and textual references that voters should “not stay in their armchairs” come election day, it is a fact that 57 percent of possible voters stayed home or otherwise avoided the ballot box by the end of voting on 26 May. Still, it should be pointed out that the actual Fidesz-KDNP result turned out to be one or two seats less than the optimistic predictions among Fidesz circles and government-aligned media outlets.


With their 52.8 percent share, Fidesz-KDNP won 13 seats for its list. Yet, these MEPs are not guaranteed to remain within the European People’s Party group. While negotiations go on within the EPP about the place for Fidesz within the group (if there is one), there are also external pressures. For example, on Monday, Pascal Canfin, MEP for Macron’s Renaissance group slated to be aligned with ALDE, stated in an interview with France Inter Radio that “no alliance with the European People’s Party [and ALDE] can be imagined unless [the EPP can] do something about Orbán.” Whether Fidesz is a political liability, or rather a set of necessary seats for the EPP, is a constant question. While Manfred Weber attempts to recreate some sort of grand coalition that puts him on top as the EPP Spitzenkandidat, he will have to also weigh the interests of German auto manufacturers and their capital investments in Hungary versus the growing pressure on him to disavow Orbán and his party. Yet, barring a large announcement of defection in the coming days, which is entirely possible, Fidesz remains suspended but not expelled from the parliamentary group and must still decide upon which direction to take.


In contrast to the results from the 2014 EP elections, the field of political representation from Hungary to the European Parliament has actually shrunk, or at least consolidated. In 2014, Fidesz-KDNP (EPP), Jobbik (NI), MSZP (S&D), DK (S&D), Együtt – Párbeszéd (Greens/EFA), and LMP (Greens/EFA) were all represented. Now, only Fidesz-KDNP (now EPP, but future group TBD), DK (S&D), and the newcomer party Momentum (ALDE) hold more than one seat—MSZP-Párbeszéd (S&D) and Jobbik (NI) each dropped to one seat only. The Democratic Coalition (DK), part of the S&D group and the personal party of former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, gained two seats with 16.15 percent of the vote (555,286 ballots); Momentum, a nominally centrist but essentially technocratic party that cohered in the wake of their successful blocking of Budapest’s Olympic host bid and the subsequent CEU Affair, was the newest Hungarian party to enter the EP, gaining two seats and capturing 9.87 percent of the vote (339,249 ballots); the MSZP-Párbeszéd (Hungarian Socialist Party—Dialogue for Hungary) coalition dropped one seat and replaced the remaining incumbent MEP with the current head of the socialists, Bertalan Tóth—they only captured 6.64 percent of the vote, totaling some 228,350 ballots, down 450,000 votes from the 2018 parliamentary elections. Finally, Jobbik, the far-right party that now stands somewhat to the left of Fidesz-KDNP, did not even capture a quarter of a million votes. Jobbik is the smallest group that has made it into the Hungarian representation at the European Parliament, losing two seats from the 2014 elections, and walking away with only 219,731 votes (6.39 percent of the total ballots cast)—a quarter of the total votes it captured in the 2018 parliamentary elections.


Below the required 5 percent threshold, Mi Házank (Our Homeland), the party that emerged out of the post-2018 election splintering of Jobbik, and which recently created its own paramilitary wing, won 3.30 percent of the vote, roughly 113,792 votes. (Their EP election campaign slogan was “Magyarország a magyaroké!” (Hungary for the Hungarians!), resonating clearly with an old slogan of the openly fascist National Front in Britain.) The Hungarian Two-Tailed Dog Party (MKKP), a satirical party, only captured 2.62 percent of the vote. Politics Can Be Different (Lehet Más a Politika, LMP), the center-left green party that won one seat in the 2014 elections and eight seats in the 2018 Hungarian parliamentary elections, only received 74,797 votes, roughly 2.17 percent of the total.


What does this all mean? Certainly, it confirms Fidesz’s overwhelming hold on the national political culture of Hungary, even as it elects its international representation at the European level. It also demonstrates that although there was an increase in the participation among Hungarian voters versus the 2014 EP election cycle, a considerable amount of apathy still exists. Fidesz-KDNP was unable to mobilize the one million votes that it had received in the 2018 parliamentary elections. The opposition could not produce a unity ticket either, recreating long-standing factionalism among “older” parties, but still allowing a certain amount of resentment, protest voting, and small-scale mobilization to be channeled toward the visually and politically “young” Momentum. Anecdotally, the gains made by the Democratic Coalition (DK) demonstrate the possibility of successful oppositional mobilization, mostly through social media. Compared to the social media campaigns of Fidesz-KDNP and the other opposition parties, the Democratic Coalition was able to convince Facebook- and Instagram-savvy youth to give them their votes (a group young enough, by the way, to neither remember nor care much about former prime minister and DK-leader Ferenc Gyurcsány’s disastrous “secret speech” at the 2006 MSZP party leadership conference in Őszöd), along with the votes of some amount of fed-up pensioners. Though, this remains at the level of personal impression and anecdote. Once fully-fledged electoral statistics are released, it will be necessary to look at the precise demographic, socio-economic, ideological, and generational lines along which votes were organized this year. Once these numbers are released in full, it will be possible to provide a more robust picture of how the 2019 EP elections fit into contemporary Hungarian political culture in the era of the consolidated System of National Cooperation.


Photo Credit: Szilas, Demonstration of the Hungarian Two-Tailed Dog Party, via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.


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