Hungary held its last free and fair election twelve years ago, when Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, together with its its coalition partner KDNP, won a “supermajority” in the Hungarian parliament that enabled it to change the country’s constitution.
Since then — and often under the protection of right-wing political forces in the European Union — Fidesz has slowly eroded the rule of law, democratic institutions and the integrity of the electoral process.
In response to the growing electoral disadvantages of the opposition, six political parties formed a joint list for the upcoming parliamentary election on 3 April. The playing field is highly unequal.
Since 2010, the Fidesz-dominated parliament has approved over 700 changes to the electoral system — often without public consultation, despite resistance from opposition parties and notably during the Covid-19 state of emergency. Crucially, this included the gradual gerrymandering of electoral constituencies to favor Fidesz candidates.
The party also rapidly brought most of the media under its control. Since its founding in 2018, the pro-government media conglomerate KESMA has absorbed a significant portion of the Hungarian media market, while the government systematically obstructed and intimidated independent media.
A 2022 report by the International Press Institute concludes that the party has “pursued the most advanced model of media capture ever developed within the European Union”, which it uses to amplify its attacks on minorities, migrants, political dissidents, and to prevent an alternative political discourse from emerging.
At the same time, the government increasingly blurred the boundaries between party and state resources, with public funds being used for so-called “government information campaigns” —but effectively for Fidesz’s electoral campaign — that prevent fair representation for all of Hungary’s political parties.
These, among other things, led the OSCE-ODIHR election observation mission to label the Hungarian elections in 2014 and 2018 as “free but not fair”.
Since 2018, Fidesz has taken additional steps putting the integrity of the electoral process into question, such as discrimination in how Hungarian citizens living abroad can vote, increased xenophobic and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, the capture of electoral bodies and political influence over courts, and arbitrary restrictions on the freedom of peaceful assembly and free expression. Most recently, when the Pegasus scandal broke in 2021, it was also revealed that the government also used NSO spyware to surveil independent journalists, protesters and activists.
On election day itself, there are growing concerns about irregularities. In November 2021, the governing party effectively legalised ‘voter tourism’ in Hungary. Without a requirement to live at the registered address, the change in the law allows the en masse registration of Hungarian citizens from neighboring countries — and might facilitate registering fictitious addresses. In 10 to 15 marginal districts, where the difference between two candidates may be fewer than 1000 votes, such election-day irregularities could become decisive.
In parallel to the erosion of fair electoral competition, Orbán has empowered a kleptocratic elite at the expense of the many. While he came into power after a backlash against IMF-imposed austerity following the 2008 financial crisis, his government soon reneged on promises to end austerity. Instead, Orbán empowered local billionaires — propped by EU subsidies and, in particular, German investments — and pushed through a range of anti-welfare and anti-labor policies.
In 2018, the Hungarian parliament adopted the so-called ‘slave law’: a new labor code that allows employers to demand hundreds of hours of overtime a year and delay payment for up to three years — to the benefit of multinational companies. At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic — when 4,000 Hungarians were losing their jobs every day — the government refused to extend help the newly unemployed. Most recently, the government attempted to use its emergency powers during the pandemic to ban the largest-ever mobilization by Hungarian teachers — and to suppress collective bargaining more broadly.
That is why the Progressive International (PI) is sending a delegation to Hungary ahead of the elections on 3 April. The delegation will meet with social movement leaders, trade unionists, independent media, activists, and representatives of political parties to monitor threats to the country’s democratic process and the suppression of popular struggles.
But the stakes of the PI’s delegation are not only national.
Ever since Fidesz came to power, it has sought alliance with the far right and anti-democratic forces across the globe. Together with 15 other far-right parties, Fidesz campaigned to protect “Europe’s Judeo-Christian heritage” during the European elections in 2019. Just in January this year, Donald Trump endorsed Viktor Orbán’s bid for re-election, who in turn extended an invitation to the former US president to join him on the campaign trail. The following month, Orbán received Brazil’s far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro, who called Hungary Brazil’s “little big brother” during the visit. Originally scheduled a week before the election, Orbán’s hosting of the “Conservative Political Action Conference” in Budapest, a conference linked to American conservatives, with Republican lawmakers, the leader of Spain’s far-right VOX party and Jair Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo on the speakers’ list, was postponed to May because of the war in Ukraine. At the same time, Orbán has remained Vladimir Putin’s closest political ally in the European Union until today.
But Hungary’s progressive forces are regrouping. In 2018, thousands of people and trade unionists came out on the streets of Budapest to protest the introduction of the ‘slave-law’. In May 2021, a large demonstration rallied around calls to solve the housing crisis and low wages in Hungary. In March 2022, Hungary’s teachers defied attempts by the government to ban their indefinite strike — and in this very moment, they continue to protest low wages, staff shortages, and a lack of resources and infrastructure that have brought Hungary’s educational sector to a breaking point.
Now, in the 2022 parliamentary elections, Hungary’s progressive forces demand a decent society grounded in solidarity, equality, and democracy.
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