Hungary two months before the elections – can the opposition win? Zsolt Enyedi in conversation with Daniel Rona [Party Co-Op Series]

 Party Co-Op Special Series: Whether political parties pursue office or programmatic goals, competition should be their dominant form of coexistence. And yet parties frequently decide to cooperate with each other, not only in government and parliament, but also in the electoral arena. The drive towards cooperation is particularly manifest under the threat of authoritarianism, but it is present in consolidated democracies as well. In order to make party alliances effective, many challenges need to be met. In this special series, the Lead Researcher of the CEU Democacy Institute Re-/De-Democratization Work Group Zsolt Enyedi examines with the help of experts how such challenges are tackled, and what techniques of cooperation are employed.

In 2021, six opposition parties decided to select a prime ministerial candidate through a joint primary, to nominate a single candidate in every electoral district, and to run a common electoral list for the proportional part of the electoral system. One of the most influential Hungarian political scientists, Zsolt Enyedi, discusses with Daniel Rona, political scientist, director of the 21 research center, and former advisor to the Momentum Movement, the key questions related to the cooperation between the opposition parties before the April elections. 

Zsolt Enyedi: Let us start with the ideological profile of the parties. The opposition bloc is composed of six parties: Momentum, Jobbik, Democratic Coalition, Dialogue for Hungary, the Hungarian Socialist Party, and Politics Can Be Different (LMP). What are the most relevant differences between these parties?

Daniel Rona: First of all, it is important to stress the historically extraordinary nature of this coalition. The last time when all Hungarian opposition parties joined forces was before World War I under the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. This time, Hungarians may think that the road is very bumpy, and they may find the differences within the coalition annoying. But this wide alliance is utterly extraordinary from a historical perspective.

As for the differences, the most obvious one on the left-right spectrum concerns the presence of an ex-radical right party, Jobbik. When I wrote my doctoral dissertation about them, in 2014, they were closer to Fidesz than to the liberal-leftist parties. Another relevant difference is that some members of the alliance – namely Jobbik, Momentum, and Politics Can Be Different – were originally organized against the whole political elite, including the Socialist Party and the Democratic Coalition, parties that were in government before 2010. Some of the partners represent the old establishment, whereas others represent the challengers or the change-makers.

The current pact is from 2021, but there were earlier attempts at cooperating. For instance, in 2014.

Yes, this was indeed a gradual process that originally started with the initiative of Gergely Karácsony who advanced the idea of a cooperation between Jobbik and the liberal left in 2011. But at that time the idea was considered pretty extreme and neither of the parties wanted to act upon it. However, as long as Fidesz kept alienating them, they were moving ever closer to each other. Not least because of the electoral pressure they were feeling – as the polls and demonstrations proved.

Another important step was a mass demonstration following the 2018 election, when Fidesz gained a super-majority again. That was the first time when Jobbik’s voters demonstrated together with the liberal voters. The next step was the joint protest against the overtime law, one year later, when opposition politicians appeared together on the same stage. Later on, during the 2019 local elections, opposition parties endorsed many candidates jointly in different countryside towns and in Budapest. 

The local election was preceded by a primary in Budapest for the mayorship, won by Gergely Karácsony, where all the opposition parties nominated candidates, and they all accepted that the winner should be supported by each of them against Fidesz.

Indeed, this was a gradual process, and one where pressure has come partly from below, from the citizens themselves, as I understand.

The polls were very straightforward – it was impossible to misread them. The overwhelming majority of supporters demanded full cooperation from the parties. Voters were alienated from those politicians who refused to acknowledge this necessity. Indeed, those who resisted cooperation were marginalized by the voters. As a result, some politicians changed their mind and became champions of the coalition. 

In summary, we can say that the process was really driven by the electorate.

Was the idea of a party-merger ever discussed?

Not really, not seriously. These politicians have distinct identities, which are deeply connected to their own party. I believe that part of the electorate would like the idea, but politicians would not sacrifice their party – as far as I understand.

When you look at various forms of party cooperation around the world, you see examples of sharing of financial resources, campaign infrastructures, electorally relevant information, and media outlets. Has any of this ever occurred in Hungary?

Yes, many of these cases have already happened, and some of them are even occurring right now. For instance, during the primary, their buildings, their infrastructures, their money, their database, and their activists were all shared. And they all tried to be instrumental in organizing the primary, which was a huge logistical challenge. 

This is another thing I cannot stress enough: almost 1 million people attended the 2021 primary; it was the first time people had the chance to do so nation-wide, but it was not easy logistically. There were more than 800 settlements where people could vote. Virtually all aspects of party life are shaped by the cooperation.

Primaries are dangerous forms of cooperation between parties: they can hurt each other and new conflict can erupt. Did that happen in Hungary?

Yes, actually, many times. There were many fears concerning the primary: many worried that Fidesz would influence the outcome by supporting the weaker candidate, that not the best candidate would be chosen, or that people would simply not care about the primary. There were many reservations, which is understandable for a historical first. But with hindsight, most of the reservations proved groundless. I am aware that not every district-candidate is the best one, but most of the less-than-clean politicians, who were involved in some scandal or other sorts of controversial issues, lost their primary.

What about the resentment of the losers? Did it turn them against the alliance or against their own party?

Not yet. There are examples of losers who were not very glad to support the winner and who are not very active now in the campaign. However, no major violation of the rules has occurred. The candidates in the primary sometimes really harmed each other, but this happens in other countries too, such as the USA. It is a good question to wonder whether they crossed the line, but it is very hard to say where the line is. There were times when the parties debated the rules of the game, like whether one should allow online participation at the primary, but eventually they managed to work out the differences. The party list was not decided by the primary, but I do not think that the debates about the list will lead to an open dissolution of the cooperation. 

You made a reference to the national list that needs to be run in Hungary, next to the single member candidates. For the opposition, this means that they have to define the list jointly, determining who gets to the front of the list, who appears on the ballot, which party will be more visibly represented, and how many seats each party will receive, approximately, after the elections.

Exactly. And one of the shortcomings of the primary vote is that it has decided only the Prime Ministerial and the district candidates, not the list. This is a problem, for elections are about two months away and the public needs to see a manifesto, the main pledges, and not the internal conflicts about the list. These issues should have been solved by October 2021, when the primary ended. Thus, if the cooperation continues during the next elections, I would suggest including the list positions in the primary, because otherwise politicians cannot focus properly on the campaign. The opposition cannot afford such weaknesses – it should be united, disciplined, and 100% enthusiastic in order to beat Fidesz.

Do the parties try to influence what happens in the others?

Sometimes they do, but not too seriously. This happened during the primary when parties tried to convince each other not to run controversial candidates. Moreover, many facts were leaked by the press about the background of such politicians. In multiple cases the interventions were successful, and the parties stopped supporting their most problematic candidates. 

Whether party cooperation occurs or not depends, to a large extent, on the institutional background. Typically, the rules of party financing, electoral campaigns, and vote counting make a difference. In the case of Hungary, did these rules play a role in the successful cooperation that started in 2021? Is the institutional background enough to understand why party cooperation works when it does? If so, why did it not happen earlier?

The most important factor is the electoral system itself, which really favours the biggest party in each district. And, as you said, this is Fidesz. No other party on its own had the chance to beat it – with the exception of very few districts. But there are other factors too. For instance, Hungary is a hybrid regime: parties realize that the rules are bent by Fidesz in its own interest. This psychological factor obviously drove the opposition parties to cooperate. Many measures by Fidesz were considered outrageous by the other parties, and this outrage brought them together.

As for the timing, I would say that the opposition is a slow learner. It is also true that, while the situation has basically been the same since 2010, many outrageous facts occurred only later. The attacks against the CEU started, for example, only in 2017. In a sense, it took time for the opposition to decide they’d had enough.

Finally, one shouldn’t underestimate the need of the parties to identify themselves – to project to the world that they are unique and special, as well as better than other parties. If they cooperate with each other, their uniqueness may fade away: why would anyone vote for A rather than B? In fact, the self interest of the parties told them not to cooperate, and the same indication came from the campaign financing system. On the other hand, the electoral pressure we have discussed earlier dictated cooperation, and the latter eventually won out.

Electoral pressure takes us to the question of public opinion: to what extent did opinion polls play a role in shaping the nature of cooperation?

On the one hand, I believe that so far parties have not listened to the polls enough so far; they should have done so more often and earlier. On the other hand, sometimes parties take polls too seriously. When the question emerged of who should drop out from the primary, the polls decided. This is why Gergely Karácsony, mayor of Budapest, withdrew in favour of Péter Márki-Zay. Márki-Zay managed to exert a huge amount of pressure on the mayor of Budapest with these polls. Paradoxically, Karácsony was finished second in the first round, and Márki-Zay only finished third. So the withdrawal of Karácsony was counter-intuitive to say the least.

These polls were conducted by competent people; they were good polls. But they came with a huge amount of uncertainty for various reasons, such as the fact that the sample was very small. At the end of the day, the press could not provide a sophisticated enough picture of the complex situation the two politicians found themselves in. Also, many commentators misinterpreted the result of the polls. 

The fundamental problem was that the opposition parties followed public opinion instead of leading it. Conversely, Viktor Orbán is very good at leading public opinion, and he did it many times: he has won many battles from a starting position that was unfavourable according to the polls.

Prior to coming to the decision to form this pact, did the parties measure whether the alliance would have more or less support than each of the six parties individually?

Yes, I can say that I myself did many of the polls for the opposition politicians. They had a lot of numbers in their hands when they took the decision. From a strategic point of view, it was very obvious that politicians had no choice other than uniting, especially after Orbán amended the electoral law, thereby making an opposition victory even harder. Anyway, according to the polls, the joint list is significantly more popular than the parties running separately. 

Even if you combine their popularity as separate parties, it would still be less than the popularity of a joint list. However, the joint list crates a counter-reaction too: the popularity of Fidesz increases as well.

Looking at today’s polls, the difference between Fidesz and the opposition is almost none; the numbers are almost equal. A few months ago, when opposition parties had to decide whether or not to join forces, the alliance looked to be an even better option than it would today. However, no opposition party regretted the decision, and the polls do not suggest that it was a bad move. Of course, the picture is complex, but the polls clearly show that both the opposition electorate and the undecided voters think that a joint list is necessary. Even some of the Fidesz voters find the open internal conflicts of the opposition pathetic and take the opposition more seriously if it has a united front with a joint list.

The dynamic of the campaign itself proves there is no other solution. I believe that the problems the opposition is suffering from are not related to unification, but rather to the lack of unity.

I am not sure how much you followed the process of designing the joint list, but I wonder to what extent opinion polls are considered when politicians decide how many positions they allocate to the various parties, as well as the extent to which the individual popularity of politicians is considered when ranking them on the list.

Opinion polls are particularly monitored for the electoral districts, although there is a problem with the reliability of these surveys. We are talking about less than 100,000 people in each district, which makes it hard to survey. But I am sure that polls are taken seriously, both in terms of the distribution of preferences between parties, and the distribution of preferences between candidates. I believe these play a great role in the formulation of the strategy, and it could not be otherwise. Of course, these data are merged with social media data, data from previous elections, and data on the turnout in the primary, which increase the chances of developing a winning strategy.

But when it comes to the composition of the national joint list, there is a peculiar situation: even if one learns from the polls that a given party has only 3% or 4% support, one may want to give it a larger share of the list in order not to risk its exit from the coalition and a potential collapse of the whole alliance. In other words, the actual distribution of seats across parties may not be driven entirely by opinion polls, but also by a sort of elite agreement that seeks to provide each party with the chance to have itself reflected in parliament.

That is right, and it is another reason why I believe the issue of the list should have been settled during the primary, based on the electorate’s will, rather than as a result of an elite agreement. Today, however, it will likely be decided through an agreement between party elites, and I believe the actual ranking will not follow a hypothetical polling list: the fourth most popular politicians will not be in fourth place, and so on. But this should not have much significance now because, according to the electoral rules, only the first five politicians of the list will appear on the ballot. The electorate will not see the sixth placed candidate, the seventh and so on. True, Fidesz might change that, depending on which place will be occupied by Ferenc Gyurcsány (former Prime Minister of Hungary), but I don’t think this is a big issue: people will only care about the frontrunner. Decisions will not be based on the 20th politician on the list, whom most people do not even know.

Looking at the whole process of cooperation so far, what were the most contentious ideological, programmatic, or personal issues, and how were these tensions tackled?

The question of LGBTQ+ rights, and same-sex marriage, was certainly an issue provoked by the government. In that sense, Jobbik’s stance is very different from that of other parties in the coalition.

Some other smaller tensions concern nuclear power and sustainable energy, which green politicians feel strongly about. But these issues have little overall relevance in shaping the political landscape in Hungary.

As for personal issues, there are some politicians who do not like each other. Sometimes, these tensions are particularly visible, but none of them eventually caused the dissolution of the whole enterprise – for that would be detrimental also to each politician’s individual interests. The harder part will come after the elections, if the opposition win.

There is an issue that is partly personal and partly institutional: the six parties decided to run a primary to choose their candidate for the post of Prime Minister, but the contest was won by an outsider, who is not a member of any of the six parties, and someone who criticized these parties heavily. You have a candidate who is, in some sense, the leader of the opposition but, at the same time, is in tension with each of the opposition parties. How is this tension resolved?

It is not resolved, actually. It will be resolved, but not yet. Péter Márki-Zay wanted a seventh parliamentary group, but the six parties rejected the idea. He also wanted three Roma politicians to be on the list and, according to the press, they will not have the role that Márki-Zay envisioned; instead, their future participation is rather uncertain. These tensions are undeniably strange, because Márki-Zay is the leading candidate of the opposition. Should the opposition win, he could be the Prime Minister – the boss, in some sense. On the other hand, he will be faced by more than 100 politicians in the parliament who will be loyal to their own party, rather than the Prime Minister.

What I said earlier about the fact that the opposition parties need each other remains valid also after the election, even after a possible victory of the opposition. But it will be inevitably a delicate equilibrium of power, where the current candidate for Prime Minister will not be the only player. Obviously, he is a major player, for many choices in the campaign are taken by the candidate himself, and yet there are other matters where he will not have leverage. 

In other words, the possible future governance will be partly Márki-Zay’s government and partly the parties’ and parliamentary groups’ government. This is a very peculiar equilibrium.

Conversely, Fidesz is trying to convey the idea that Ferenc Gyurcsány is the boss, which we should take as merely a political campaign statement. But, as a political scientist, I should point out that Gyurcsány’s party – the Democratic Coalition – won less than one-third of the districts in the primary. And if we look at districts that are likely to be won by the opposition, it is less than one-quarter of the total. Thus, Gyurcsány’s power is also limited. Even the smallest party, LMP, can have a say in such an equilibrium, which may make the decision-making process very slow and annoying yet balanced. The actual situation, in other words, is not optimal for anyone, and yet better than nothing to everyone.

What are the options for citizens who want to support the alliance’s campaign? Can they make donations to the alliance or only to the member parties?

Yes, citizens can support the alliance directly, and I believe that most donations were for the central campaign – to Márki-Zay’s team. This tendency will only be reinforced during the next months. Also, another kind of contribution refers to the need of activists for the campaign, as well as people who carry out important functions such as answering emails, counting the votes, and other roles. It will be a hard battle between the government and the opposition, which calls upon fellow citizens for contributions. Even sharing Facebook posts proves crucial, as strange as it may sound. 

Facebook is ever more dominant in Hungary: almost 70% of the population has a Facebook account if we focus on voters. A survey about the time dedicated to Facebook shows that, on average, it is more than one hour per day. This social platform is a major source for people to collect politically relevant information, and its importance has increased during the pandemic, not only in Hungary.

While, to some extent, the success of the alliance may be determined only on the day of the elections (April 3rd), what do you think would happen if the opposition failed to win the election? Will the alliance remain in place?

That is a very good question, one I personally think a lot about. I would say it depends on the nature and the extent of the defeat. The electoral system favours Orbán. The districts are gerrymandered and the largest party is overrepresented in the parliament. The opposition needs more votes than Fidesz to get the same amount of seats in the parliament. 

The popularity of the opposition may exceed that of Fidesz by up to 4 percentage points and yet it may fail to win a majority. Actually, this is a very likely scenario.

In a situation like this, the electorate will blame the electoral rules rather than the opposition. Many people will recognize that the opposition did everything it could, but Fidesz simply cannot be beaten in this system. This would be some sort of endorsement of the alliance. On the other hand, if the opposition gains fewer votes than Fidesz, people will consider it ineffective, politicians will start to blame each other, and the cooperation could weaken. It also matters whether the difference in terms of vote is one percentage point or, let’s say, five percentage points. This difference will then shape the future of Hungarian politics and the behaviour of opposition politicians. At the same time, we cannot rule out the possibility that the coalition breaks down even after a successful campaign. 

The interview was conducted on 31 January 2022.

In collaboration with Giancarlo Grignaschi, Robert Nemeth and Oliver Garner

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