In search of clever voters

6. April 2018

by Andras Varga

Hungarian voteHungarians should brace themselves; elections are coming…On 8 April, general elections are taking place in Hungary. According to the polls, 45% of voters have indicated they still support the current PM and his ruling party. However, 46% have indicated they want a change in government. This high level of support for change is a new development in Hungarian politics. Corruption scandals, anti-EU policy measures and xenophobic rhetoric have made some voters turn away from Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party (Alliance for Young Democrats) and mobilised some of the passive ones the past few years. But despite the growing criticism, the governing party is still in the lead. How is this possible? Is there any hope for the opposition or is the game already over?

After eight years of a socialist government with a questionable track-record, Fidesz managed to obtain a two-thirds majority for the first time in 2010, which the party then used to redraw the country’s political system. Among the many changes they also introduced a new electoral law. The current ‘mixed’ system gives a huge advantage to the strongest political parties, through the so-called winner-compensation system. Votes cast for the ‘losers’ in the single constituencies are transferred to the compensation list to recuperate the ‘lost’ votes. In the case of winner-compensation, however, the winner can also transfer the ‘left-over’ votes cast for her or him, which were unnecessary to his or her victory. It is thanks to this innovation and to the weak performance of the opposition parties that Fidesz has been able to win the 2014 elections too, gaining a two-thirds majority again. Since then, several scandals – about corruption and the misuse of public funds  – have slashed public support for the government. But after losing at two mid-term elections in 2014 and 2015, Fidesz was determined to regain its popularity. Their solution was picking a fight with the EU, and blaming alternatively asylum seekers, migrants, George Soros and the UN.
First, the government harshly opposed joint EU action to resolve the refugee crisis, posting billboards all around the country with anti-immigration messages. Later, new enemies were created, like George Soros and the UN. The messages centre on the sovereignty of the country, which is supposedly threatened by these people and entities. This strategy actually worked: support for the government increased again, reaching 52% in 2016. Thanks to this communication war, Orban’s cabinet is still in the lead.

Another important advantage Fidesz has, is that they cover the centre-right of the ideological axis (the so-called ‘central power sphere’), making it very difficult for the other parties, who are either on the far-right or the left, to cooperate. This system has been quite successful in recent years, and it seemed for a while that the 2018 elections will be a ‘free lunch’ for Fidesz. However, there have been certain developments, which shocked the foundations of this ‘central power sphere’. This February, at a municipal mid-term election in a Fidesz stronghold, in Hódmezővásárhely, the party has been beaten by the candidate of the united opposition forces. It showed that if there is a high turn-out and only one contender candidate, Fidesz can be outvoted. This emboldened the opposition and given them new hope, especially because the poll had previously shown a huge Fidesz lead in the race. And as we all know ‘rebellions are built on hope…’

Among the opposition, there are five real players in the game, one right-wing and four liberal or left-wing parties. On the right side, the Jobbik (Movement for a Better Hungary) is a radical far-right movement which has been trying to become a mainstream right-wing party in the last few years. They are the most supported opposition party (17%), but they are not big enough to beat Fidesz on their own. On the left side, the strongest party is the MSZP (Hungarian Socialist Party) who created a coalition with a small green party (reaching the 12%). There is also the party of the former socialist Prime Minister Mr. Gyurcsany, the DK (Democratic Coalition) and the centrist-green party the LMP (Politics Can Be Different). Both of them are around 5-6 %. Last but not least, a new player has appeared: Momentum (Momentum Movement), a movement mostly formed by youngsters who have a strong pro-EU and anti-establishment character. The biggest challenge for the opposition is that the government’s supporters are well-organised and active. Fidesz will likely obtain at least 2-2,5 million votes. Although in 2014 more people voted for the opposition than for Fidesz, the anti-government vote have been split between the different opposition parties. If they are to take on Fidesz, they will have to work together.  Although in the beginning they tried to work across party lines in single constituencies, their cooperation was not successful.
At this stage, different NGOs have started to reach out to the voters through information campaigns. They have created the concept of ‘coordinated voting’, which seeks to change the current government without the cooperation of the opposition parties. They argue that every opposition voter should cast his or her vote to the strongest opposition candidate in the single constituency, regardless of his or her party affiliation. Party preference should only be followed when voting for the national list. But are the supporters of the opposition parties ready to be clever instead of party-loyal, and go for the idea of ‘coordinated voting’? I hope so, but we’ll have to wait until 8 April to get a final answer.