If we regard free elections as the celebration of democracy, we cannot rule out the possibility for campaigns to become a disgrace to that democracy. In 1843, Baron Zsigmond Kemény, the Hungarian novelist and the most incisive critic of public affairs of his day, published a pamphlet entitled Canvassing and Its Antidotes [Korteskedés és ellenszerei], painting a dismal picture of county elections, including not only the trafficking in votes but the most egregious examples of disdain for human decency and common sense. This was at a time when general elections by secret ballot and modern mass communications were unheard of in practice, with suffrage reserved strictly for the upper classes. However, for Kemény, these upper classes hardly constituted the elite. Far from it. Actually, speaking of the atrocities during the elections, he speaks of “clubocracy”, referring, in a very literal sense, to the bannered clubs used in campaign fights by electioneers.
Naturally for him, Kemény begins his argument by providing a broad historical context, from ancient Rome to an analysis of election law, both codified and common, in contemporary England and France. He comes to the devastating conclusion that election results virtually never embody the expression of the public will anywhere – least of all in Hungary, where he considers the relevant conditions downright vulgar and appalling. Sources from the era attest to the fact that this was particularly the case in 1843, prompting Kemény to pen his pamphlet. It seems as if every period in Hungarian history has its own uncommonly overstrained elections. Two examples that come to mind are the re-election of the Gyula Gömbös government in 1935 and, far more recently, the 2002 general elections, now under the aegis of democracy.
Let me set one thing straight: the 2018 elections did not fall into the above category, despite all the high-strung emotions and the violent “canvassing”, which did not stir genuine spiritual fervor but throve on boorish accusations and offensive intellectual depravity. Of course, if you know your critical thinkers who never failed to point to the inherent negative element in all elections, regardless of age or place, you fill find nothing surprising about the anomalies of this most recent campaign. You will be even less shocked if you are familiar with the unanimous creed (express or tacit) of the top campaign pundits today, who believe that the only campaign worth pursuing is a negative one. Admittedly, this is a bitter pill to swallow. Even more difficult to accept is the fact that campaigns do not cease when the elections are over. Indeed, a new campaign inevitably begins just as the previous one has ended. This time around, in Hungary, the situation is aggravated by the circumstance that we are looking ahead to two other rounds of elections within the span of just over one year: one being for the EU legislature, the other local elections.
Appeasement is not on the near horizon, then. It would be vain to expect the sentiments to subside or hope for an impending period of calm, peaceful governance and an attendant constructive political rivalry focused on real substantial issues. The campaign psychosis will continue to define public affairs in Hungary for the foreseeable future. Why, we are not even going to have the time for the victors to praise the sagacity of the people, and for the vanquished to blame it for its ignorance. Although, truth be told, the disgruntled in the latter camp are now more frustrated and vociferous than the average for decades running.
The defeated camp, very obviously in the minority, includes some who have questioned the legitimacy of the elections, organising themselves around the slogan of “We are the majority”. If you recall the election results of the past decades, you will not fail to see that the electoral system adopted in newly democratic Hungary in 1990 – a mixed system combining candidates running in individual districts with party lists – does make room for the misrepresentation of genuine majority interests. This is precisely what, in 1994, had made it possible for the MSZP, the Hungarian Socialist Party, which had refused even to name its candidate for prime minister, to win an absolute majority in Parliament by securing only one third of the vote. Decisively, it had come down to the fragmentation of votes among supporters of the right to centrist parties. Four years later, with a similar backing, the MSZP-dominated administration was ousted, because Viktor Orbán had managed to consolidate the previously scattered voter base on the right and rally it all behind the Fidesz party flag.
The last time we experienced comparable agitation during elections was in 2002. At the time, an astonishingly cut-throat race yielded a result at odds with forecasts and social expectations. The reasons for this included a positively restrained campaign favored by the incumbent administration and the mobilisation strategy employed by the would-be triumphant opposition, which was not immune to the transgression of the rules. Subsequently, a court ruling did determine that the some of the means the winners had used to mobilise their voters had been unlawful. In other words, supporters of the outgoing administration did have grounds to feel resentful. Due to these and many other reasons, the end result did not reflect the general mood of the electorate. “Maybe you should have taken the trouble to go to the polls”, the victors countered triumphantly.
It is a very different situation today. For all the artificially generated frenzy, the result perfectly corroborated all reasonable expectations and respectable public opinion polls, which had, essentially since the autumn of 2006, had repeatedly predicted an eventual landslide victory for the center right. This clearly suggests that the Fidesz Party has managed to keep, and will continue to retain, its clinch on the majority of the middle classes with nationalist leanings or persuasion, as well as win over plenty of voters from other camps. By comparison, this time it counts for precious little that the opposition forces, each bent on ousting the government but mutually incompatible in terms of proclaimed values, were unable to shore up a unified front. Had they done so, they would have risked the loss of votes from citizens they wanted to win over from the right, either because these citizens would then have refused to go to the polls at all, or else would have decided to stay on their home turf when casting the ballot. And this would have likely yielded a victory for the center right on an a scale even more massive than turned out to be the case.
The same prognosis – the re-election of the coalition headed by PM Viktor Orbán – could be read from the fact that the exchange rate of the Hungarian forint had shown no appreciable fluctuation as election day drew near. In other words, the international markets, always highly sensitive to political changes, obviously banked on the administration to be re-elected for another term. Under the circumstances, one is at a total loss to grasp the hysteria that rose its head among the opposition when the results had been posted. The losers went on and on crying fraud and the government’s terrorising public opinion – about how all of those who voted for the incumbent government were nothing but the sheepish mob, the gullible rednecks in the villages, and so and so forth. In reality, and contrary to the unfounded mud-slinging and all the seething diatribes, fueled by unbridled impetuosity, the repeated defeat of the losers was due to the persistently low flight of the opposition parties for years. If one can at all talk about a lack of intellectual performance and aptitude after the elections, this should be laid at the feet at the masterminds of the losing crowd, rather than of the victors and their voters. Had this not been the case, the opposition could have won. They had many things going for them, except sheer competence (as many, including certain famous former leaders of the leftist-liberal parties, have been ready to admit).
The key to the success of the Fidesz-KDNP coalition (beyond the sheer performance of their governance, which the opposition will naturally never endorse) lies in its ability to rebound from the bitter disenchantment of the 2002 and 2006 elections to reformulate its campaign strategy, with an emphasis on a pragmatism that has proven exceptionally conducive. One thing they learned in the process is that whether an administration is voted out or in to stay has far less to do with the quality of governance than with the efficacy of the campaign itself. Consequently, their main campaign message was not about their achievements over the previous two consecutive terms, for a total of eight years. Instead, they ran almost exclusively on a platform built on the opposition’s strategic mistakes in handling migration. Indeed, the coalition parties did not, nor did they need to, do anything other than retain the upper hand they had gained on the issue two years before. This in itself sufficed to lock in the coalition’s victory for the third time running. Moreover, they pulled it off with an unprecedented mass backing, which posterity will no doubt consider to be of historical significance. Let me add that, if this campaign had had no foundation in genuine governmental performance that could be felt by citizens and actually measured by numbers, it would hardly had sufficed for the kind of sweeping victory we have seen.
Apart from the immediate euphoria of success, however, the joy felt by the winners has not been entirely unembarrassed, and not simply because victory tends to release progressively less emotional energy as it becomes a habit, nor on account of the peculiar anomalies of the domestic situation. More importantly, their elation has been overshadowed by the disturbing processes around the globe, the threat of a latter-day mass migration to Europe in recent years being chief among them. This is a historic challenge far too momentous to be considered a mere campaign theme. The phenomenon has increasingly come to shape, and will continue to define, the outcome of elections across Europe. The perilous corollaries of peace and prosperity in Europe, which lasted for an unprecedented three quarters of a century – including environmental damage, overconsumption, impending demographic collapse, the retreat of planning for the long haul, the break of European thought with its genuine roots, and the general moral and intellectual crisis, among others – left the general public unperturbed in enjoying the benefits of the day while squandering its future.
The external threat emerging in recent years has now manifested itself in more than just the influx of masses from destitute continents in search of a better life. This is just the most readily apparent symptom of an ailing Europe drifting toward – in some places, already plunged in – a deep crisis. So far, Europe has failed to confront head-on the challenge provoked by its very own mistakes. The re-election of Hungary’s incumbent government bodes well for bolstering the leverage of the Central European cooperation it has revived, and reconfirms the policy of seeking answers to hitherto unaddressed strategic questions. No matter how profoundly disliked by the losers and their foreign supporters, this is undeniably a development of far-reaching consequences for Europe as a whole. The political struggle to shape the future of the continent will thus carry on and, as it always happens at times like this, the psychology of campaigns will continue to override the otherwise desirable limits of sober public affairs and responsibility.
Meanwhile, we have our problems to deal with on the home front. Some of these may be typically European in nature, but others are distinctly our own. This is another thing we ought to talk about. It is not enough that everyone can see how the Orbán governments had to cope with the disastrous heritage of 2002–2010, including various spiraling debt traps (national, corporate, personal), the passive stance of overall society, the unjust distribution of taxes and dues and, yes, in terms of fighting structural corruption. The latter is a universal phenomenon that can easily be enlisted in mobilising public opinion. That said, voters tend to be really irritated only by individual instances of corruption, even though these are practically dwarfed by corruption entrenched on a structural level. Suffice it to recall how the crime industry in Hungary was established by the endemic “oil- bleaching” in the mid-1990s. Although this episode of institutionalised corruption has now fallen into oblivion, at the time it caused a loss on the order of billions of forints to the national economy, which the state proceeded to unload upon its law-abiding taxpayers.
Public morals were left ravaged by organised crime in Hungary from the mid- 1990’s on, some of the more hidden threads of which are now being unraveled as we speak. Damage to public morals on a similar vast scale was done by the rampant practice of VAT fraud, as well as by the Socialist-Liberal administrations’ cynical condoning of certain globally connected “money pumps” in the financial and energy sectors. It took a major effort by the Orbán goverments to overcome these forms of institutionalised corruption between 2010 and 2018 to dislodge the labor market and domestic consumption from stagnation, and to set real wages on a path of dynamic growth – in short, to bring about a period of prosperity for the country and its citizens. Without prosperity, no problems can really be solved, in health any more than in education.
To understand the turnabout of 2002–2010 we have to recall the dramatic, even tragic, indebtedness of large segments of the population who took out foreign- exchange loans before 2008. The notion that the loan crisis was triggered by a combination of the citizens’ general lack of knowledge of how financing works and the thirst for profit of the banks is a fundamentally mistaken one, although these were undeniably part of the whole picture. In reality, the decisive factor behind the rampant and self-destructive use of foreign-exchange loans for housing purposes had been rooted in the country’s recent Communist past, when housing costs had simply not been built into the wage structure. This entitlement gradually eroded after 1990, and under the circumstances, families had no means of securing new housing in the early 2000s except by taking out loans (mostly in Swiss francs) which imposed an excessive burden on them.
Now that these loans are finally being paid off with the massive help of financial measures of the Orbán governments, while wages have been steadily on the rise, we are close to overcoming this problem, nearly three decades after the democratic turn. Incidentally, higher wages have the ancillary benefit of keeping more of the workforce from seeking a better life in foreign countries. Their higher earnings at home will now be enough to pay the rent or mortgage in Hungary, and they will no longer be at the mercy of their dwelling as their only asset. One could go on listing the newly re-elected government’s achievements between 2010 and 2018, which, being partial triumphs, at once assign to it further tasks down the line. Obviously, much remains to be done, for instance in terms of health care, education, closing the gap for regions and social groups lagging behind, improving demographic trends, family policy, and restoring the prestige of our cultural values – in other words, virtually in every area that matters in the life of a nation.
All of this can now be taken care of by the two-third parliamentary majority of the newly re-elected coalition, which is surely sufficient for governance, but not enough for many other things. The voter turnout of some 70 per cent suggests that the new Orbán government enjoys the active support of about one third of Hungarian society. This shows that humility would not be out of line. In order to for the nation to survive and accomplish the momentous tasks it faces, we need even broader cooperation. Indeed, the most complex and most daunting task of the new-old administration lies in figuring out how to convert its overwhelming parliamentary majority to winning the support of society on a similar scale.
Translated by Péter Balikó Lengyel