Photo by Rian Bosse / Cronkite Borderlands Project

Splintered opposition poses little threat to Orban's majority rule

By Diego Mendoza-Moyers / Cronkite Borderlands Project

Published July 11, 2016

BUDAPEST, Hungary — On a cloudy, blustery afternoon in March, Tomas Kapuvari stands inside his newspaper kiosk flanking a busy street, along a well-traversed sidewalk.

“Köszönöm,” Kapuvari says to intermittent customers, Hungarian for “thank you.”

It’s an average weekday for a seemingly average young Hungarian. He is dressed in warm casual clothes. He speaks English with a jovial, welcoming tone. And he regularly breaks conversation to roll a cigarette — a fairly common habit in this central European nation.

But his unassuming appearance and low-key job belie his real passion and position. Kapuvari is part of a minority’s minority in Hungary. He is not just a liberal in a country dominated by hardcore conservatives, but a leader of 4K!, a small, neo-Marxist political party, one of many members of a badly splintered left-wing in Hungary. Although his party holds no seats in Parliament, it controls various district seats within Budapest along with other minor political offices.

“We need a new system change … I am still waiting for the awakening of the Hungarian society,” Kapuvari said. “In the history of Hungary, there haven’t been many revolutions like there was in France or [other places]. When we start a revolution, then we will get what we really need, then every stone will be moved, and I am still waiting for that point.”

And yet there is irony in the fact that this neo-Marxist leader is willingly selling publications funded by and promoting the right-wing government. It highlights the immense difficulty that people of Kapuvari’s background and ideology face in having their voices heard and making a difference in the nation’s quieted political forum.

“As a left-wing party with Marxist punch, we have quite different feelings about how the world is supposed to be run,” Kapuvari said. “Our main agenda is on the side of the working class and on the side of those who are unable to work, and those who we want to raise to become earning citizens of Hungary.”

A strong conservative wave had already overtaken Hungary when its Prime Minister Viktor Orban became the leader of the hardline anti-refugee movement, vowing to keep Hungary Christian and building fences along the country’s southern border. His fiery rhetoric and strongly nationalistic policies have strengthened him and his conservative ruling party, Fidesz, domestically and catapulted him into prominence -- several regional leaders are following his lead.

Fidesz controls over 66 percent of the 199 seats in the Parliament, or national assembly, following landslide victories in the 2010 and 2014 elections. The party now has a stranglehold on the Hungarian government. The even further right-wing Jobbik Party has gained the third-largest number of seats, at 23, another indication of the country’s political climate.

“This is a democratically elected government — elected twice, with a big majority. So to understand Orban and Fidesz, you have to understand Orban’s concept of democracy is majoritarian, not consensual,” Nick Thorpe, a BBC journalist who covers Hungary and Fidesz, said. “The winner takes all. He is a man with a mission. He is a man who feels almost messianic in political terms. There is no room for dissent in the party.”

A two-thirds parliamentary majority translates to large amounts of power for the majority party, and Orban has done a particularly effective job of silencing the left-wing opposition, as well as use the majority to amend the nation’s constitution to strengthen his party’s hold on the government.

Left-wing parties “are divided, and they are happy to commit suicide over time because they can’t agree. I don’t expect that these ‘left-wing parties’ will be very effective in counterbalancing Fidesz,” Attila Melegh, a political and social sciences professor at Corvinus University, said. “What the left needs to do is take back some of the original left-wing topics, because they have lost them. They need to learn something from Fidesz.”

The MSZP, social democratic party, holds 38 seats in parliament to Fidesz’ 133, with the left-wing as a whole completely fractured. The media could be listed as a large reason for Fidesz’ popularity. Independent media outlets garner 65 percent of television news viewership, and official government stations only 10 percent among viewers 18-49, according to well-known television journalist Gyorgy Balo. But many so-called independent outlets are government-funded and coaxed into producing favorable content, lest they lose their funding, according to Eva Balogh, editor of the left-leaning online publication, the Hungarian Spectrum.

The government has completely monopolized the media, especially the public television and radio stations,” Balogh said. “Pro-government papers receive huge amounts of money through government advertisements while the opposition papers get nothing. There is only one opposition radio in the whole country because the government doesn't give any liberal group frequency.

While critics have called Orban an “autocrat,” “fascist,” and the leader of a “mafia,” supporters have called him the “patron saint of the Balkans,” and he has amassed great popularity within Hungary.

“We have to see that this current government has received rather large political support, and this is partially due to the media because they control the public media, and various other media sources,” Melegh said. “Especially in the countryside, it’s difficult to be on the internet, to get much political coverage.”

Orban has built his self-coined “illiberal democracy” through powerful party control and by effectively playing to the public’s nationalist, traditional Hungarian ideals. He is staunchly Catholic, the predominant religion in the nation, and an avid soccer fan.

“He’s talking to the history books. He’s reached wherever he can reach in Hungary, reached two-thirds [majority in parliament] and created his own empire,” Kapuvari said. “He was able to get all the power, and he’s the one whose word can rise and destroy people.”

Fidesz Party officials in Budapest did not respond to repeated requests for interviews.

The refugee crisis has created more tension politically within Hungary and in the European Union. (Photo by Rian Bosse)
The refugee crisis has created more tension politically within Hungary and in the European Union. (Photo by Rian Bosse)

After the socialist soviet government controlling Hungary disbanded in 1990, the MSZP controlled government until the late 2000s. Mediocre economic performance and allegations of corruption during MSZP’s reign helped lift Orban and Fidesz to power, according to Melegh.

“One thing that made the appeal of Fidesz extremely strong was that they were promising to get some kind of an order after quite a lot of problems. There was a major problem of corruption, various mismanagement, and then, as I mentioned, in the longer run, Hungary has not come out of the trenches,” Melegh said. “What Fidesz did was that it started promising strong government, to reinstate order and most importantly, to defend Hungarian interest.”

Younger voters in Hungary are not influenced by the pre-1990 communism and have shifted to become more right wing, according to Aniko Bernat of Tarki Research Institute, an applied social research center based in Budapest. In recent years, the economy has improved in terms of gross domestic product and purchasing power, leaving a divide between those who strongly oppose the social politics of Fidesz, versus those who point to Orban’s charisma and notable political successes of the party.

“Basically, half of the voters...are not able to decide which party to support,” Bernat said. “But the other half that have any sort of party preferences, about one-third said they would most likely vote for Fidesz because Fidesz has a lot of very charming populist messages and measures.”

In a move that highlights the polarizing nature of Orban and his administration, the government lowered utility costs for homes throughout the country in a series of rate-cuts beginning in 2010. The lower prices were, naturally, well received by the public and seen as a victory for Orban. But the cheaper rates could jeopardize energy companies and their ability to perform necessary maintenance and make capital investments, putting the country’s infrastructure at risk, according to the researchers at Tarki.

While those moves by Orban have solidified him nationally, Fidesz candidates are getting push back in more localized elections.

“If you want to vote Orban out of office in two years’ time, you’re really scratching your head how to do it,” Thorpe said. “You can only do it, as we’ve seen, in many bi-elections, local elections recently. Fidesz seems incapable of winning those because the socialists and the Jobbik are getting together and beating [Fidesz].”

“The lone serious opposition, in the absence of a left-wing opposition, the only serious opposition that could rise against Fidesz would be from within Fidesz,” Thorpe said. “Orban has been very careful to prevent that, but how long can he prevent that for?”

In comes the Jobbik Party’s leader, Gabor Vona, who some see as one of Orban’s few legitimate political rivals, and perhaps one of the few who has even an outside chance of unseating Orban in the 2018 national elections.

“Gabor Vona is trying to convince people that he is the one who can overcome Viktor Orban,” Zoltan Fabian, another researcher at Tarki said. “We really don’t know [if Vona can win], we haven’t expected that Jobbik would win 20 percent [of parliamentary seats], so it was quite surprising. As we see with extreme right parties all over Europe, none of them are able to win an election. Have you expected Donald Trump to win this much? This is more or less a similar surprise.”

Since its inception in 2003, Jobbik has been known to have anti-Semitic sentiment deeply ingrained in the party, as well as holding prejudice towards the Roma people, a destitute minority group that lives on the fringes of society, which has led to Jobbik never gaining major ground in the already uphill battle against Fidesz.

However, in recent years Vona has attempted to moderate his party and shift more towards the middle of the political spectrum. The group released its manifesto and agenda online to attempt to quell notions that prejudice is still prevalent in the party, as well as lay out its economic and political policies. The party pushes for social and monetary assistance for native Hungarians, as well as centralizing the government without overly relying on foreign moneys. The group relies on “protecting Hungarian values and interests.”

“The public no longer sees Jobbik as a rightist, anti-Roma, anti-foreigner group. They see them as the main anti-corruption party. Fidesz has been in power now for six years, and like any party that stays in power for a long time, it kind of starts feeling it’s going to be in power forever and therefore the kind of things that might stop people from stealing kind of evaporated,” Thorpe said. “There’s a growing corruption, and in the eyes of the public, they want to punish that, and so they vote Jobbik. Not as a far-right party, but they’ve emerged in the absence of a left-wing party as the main anti-corruption party.”

Only time will tell if Jobbik gains more ground in parliament following the 2018 elections, but with the MSZP and the rest of the left-wing floundering in no particular direction, it would seem like an opportunity for a political party with a fresh ideology.

“In the beginning, Jobbik accepted support of a paramilitary group. Nowadays, Jobbik and Gabor Vona would like to take a distance from this extreme part of the party and would like to be more moderated and have run campaigns with a TV spokesman where they are in a big park with puppies and kids,” Bernat said. “A few years before they were marching in paramilitary uniforms, so it’s a huge distance between the two images within a few years.”

Jobbik officials declined requests for interviews by Cronkite reporters.

A group of 16-year-old boys flash emphatic thumbs-down at the mention of Orban; citizens walking down the grand avenues of Budapest are quick to point out this government’s inadequacies, or often attempt to draw negative comparisons of Orban to America’s Donald Trump. Yet his party continues to thrive, and it seems unlikely that it will cede much, if any power in the coming 2018 national election.

“Orban has built a kind of centralized management of the government. It has some advantages and has some clear disadvantages. We don’t know what’s going to happen when he faces real trouble,” Melegh said. “It is very much built on personal, immediate control. So Orban is using all his own people at all times. What happens if it starts collapsing, we don’t know.”

Hungary has been a country with a history of occupation by outside forces: from the Mongolian Tatars to the Ottoman Turks to an alliance with Nazi Germans and eventually to the Soviet Russians. Orban’s goal of establishing and maintaining a unique national identity to be shared among the people of this country is embraced by many native Hungarians.

By building the fence along the border in the summer of 2015 in order to keep Muslim refugees out of the country, Orban pressed the idea of “preventing a second Ottoman invasion” and warned refugees would take jobs and change the Hungarian way of life. Orban’s popularity, which had been declining, skyrocketed. His views were reinforced by an anti-refugee advertising campaign financed by the government.

“The thing that really saved [Fidesz] during the last year was this refugee crisis,” Melegh said. “Orban very quickly understood what would happen, and then started to campaign.”

While Orban’s response to the refugee crisis drew criticism from abroad, it seems to have solidified his hold on power at home.

“Orban thinks, genuinely, he is doing really good things for his country. So he’s created this very hierarchical political party. It’s not a party where you can form an alternative platform where there’s any kind of discussion within the party. What he says goes, and a lot of people are trying to please him,” Thorpe said. “So it’s a classic problem where they lose touch with political views because they’re surrounded by big fans.”

The government’s direct and indirect control of a large majority of national and local media outlets, as well as the parliamentary super-majority seem to have cemented Fidesz’ power for the near future.

“[Orban] has been very skillful in using some leftist topics, and right-wing topics and making some sort of magic out of this. There is a strong chance that this government, with some changes, and Jobbik support, might survive for a longer period,” Melegh said.

But Kapuvari, the young leftist, is quick to point out the country is still growing as a democracy and things could change more quickly than expected.

“Democracy must be learned, we just have to learn it, and 25 years [since the fall of communism], that has been a generation,” Kapuvari said. “It’s not easy, and it’s painful, and it’s going to be a long, long way, but we are slowly starting. When our party emerged in the second Orban government between 2010 and 2014, there was no resistance [to Fidesz], just apathy.”


Cronkite News is the news division of Arizona PBS. The daily news products are produced by the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

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