Viktor Orban’s far-right Fidesz party won reelection with a two-thirds majority in parliament, allowing him to change the constitution in line with his anti-immigrant platform. Benjamin Novak of the Budapest Beacon analyzes the result
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Hungary’s far right party Fidesz managed to win a two-thirds majority in parliament on Sunday. This means that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is reelected for another four-year term. Observers said that the vote was generally free from fraud but that the governing party Fidesz made extensive use of its power and resources to sway voters in its favor. Also, electoral rules favored Fidesz tremendously, allowing it to win two-thirds majority with only 49 percent of the vote. Here’s what the head of the OSCE, that is, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, its electoral observer mission had to say, and this is the head of the mission Douglas Wake.
DOUGLAS WAKE: The 8 April parliamentary elections were characterized by a pervasive overlap between state and ruling party resources, undermining contestants’ ability to compete on an equal basis. Voters had a wide range of political options, but intimidating and xenophobic rhetoric, media bias, and opaque campaign financing constricted the space for genuine political debate.
SHARMINI PERIES: It is now expected that Orban, who has been moving steadily toward the right over the past few years, will begin a crackdown on liberal NGOs, and of course on immigrants, which most of his campaign was based on. Here’s what Orban had to say shortly after the results were announced.
VIKTOR ORBAN: Regarding the results of the election, I can tell you, my dear friends, that it was a big battle, and that we have gained a decisive victory. We now have the opportunity to defend our country. We have created that opportunity for ourselves.
SHARMINI PERIES: Joining me now to analyze the election results from Budapest is Benjamin Novak. Benjamin is senior correspondent for the Budapest Beacon. Benjamin, let’s start off with a technical point. How is it possible that with only 49 percent of the vote Orban managed to secure two thirds of the seats?
BENJAMIN NOVAK: Well, you change the election rules, the election laws. And the rules that Fidesz changed, what they did was they removed the two round election in Hungary, which meant that if in an individual electoral district, if you had multiple candidates running, if none of the candidates actually achieved 50 percent the top two candidates would have a runoff. So it was a two round system. Now, the the perks of this kind of a system, of course, is that opposition parties or the two leading parties will have to form some kind of compromise with smaller parties to get their candidates to win in the runoff.
And so what Fidesz did is they wiped this law away, this rule away, with the election law during the previous Orbán government. So it’s now a first past the post race in individual electoral districts. Now, what this means is that technically you can have candidates run for parliament and win receiving just, you know, maybe in the high 20s or low 30s percent, in the high 20s or low 30s percents. So that’s one of the ways. The other way is a tactic that many people around the world are, in democracies are familiar with, is gerrymandering. So this was another thing that happened under Fidesz, under the second Orbán government between 2010 and 2014. They gerrymandered the entire country.
And aside from this the media also plays an enormous role. It’s a very difficult and complex election system in Hungary that offers compensation to the winning party. But I don’t think we have enough time for me to get into the nuts and bolts of that. But I think what’s very important for, for the viewers here to to realize is that we’re talking about a country, we’re talking about a democracy, and I’m saying this in quotation marks here, where the election law was written unilaterally by one party. And it should really come as no surprise to people that regardless of what kind of numbers are turning up at the polls, we’re seeing that Fidesz continuously gets two-thirds supermajority. Why is this important? Because a two-thirds supermajority is what you call a constitutional supermajority. You can change the constitution at a whim. And so that, that is really the key to this kind of success at the polls.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Now, in that clip that we played from the observers who declared that, that’s the OSCE electoral observer mission, who mentioned that the advantages that Fidesz had by using state resources shaped the outcome of the election. Give us a sense of what specifically they did to do that.
BENJAMIN NOVAK: That was a very good, there was a very good point, a very good observation that the election observers made. So what’s very important to realize about, about Hungary, and we’re kind of stepping out of the, we’re stepping out of the political game and we’re just kind of, let’s look at the culture and the media landscape here, is Hungary is a linguistically isolated country. The Hungarian language is unlike any other language, really. There’s only perhaps, only like Finnish. Very difficult to understand. People in Hungary, especially in the countryside, don’t speak other languages. So what they rely on primarily is Hungarian news.
Now, this is where we get to the media section of our discussion. The media environment in Hungary has become consolidated under Fidesz. Oligarchs close to the prime minister have acquired every newspaper in the countryside. Every single newspaper in the countryside. People in the countryside are more likely to watch public media, which is no longer public media. It’s actually referred to as state media, which serves as a propaganda channel for the government. And aside from that you have public radio, which in effect is the exact same thing.
And so the government, one of the ways that it keeps these, these newspapers and these pro-government television channels, that aren’t state owned, but are owned by oligarchs, alive is they lavish them in copious amounts of state advertising money. And this money makes its way to these channels through these propaganda ad spots. And to give you an example here, and I’m going to kind of, I’m trying to, like, pack this in so that people can understand. The way this, the way this election was sold in Hungary by the ruling party was not an election against the opposition. The opposition, for all intents and purposes, is very weak, divided, and pretty much incapable of running a decent campaign as things stand at this moment. The campaign that the the ruling party was running was against George Soros.
So it built up this giant campaign against George Soros, saying that he was he was in cahoots with Brussels to import Muslim terrorists into Hungary, to rob Hungary of its Christian heritage and its status as a nation state. And they they took this, they took this propaganda message, and this is what they blanketed the country with. Not just in legacy media, that is, newspapers, radio, and television, but also on billboards and posters that you would see all around the cities and all around the villages.
So you have this message coming from the government for years. And then the ruling party’s main campaign objective here is to defeat the people or defeat the person that the government has been portraying as being the great enemy of the Hungarian nation for all these years now. So when when the election monitors are talking about this, the blurring of the lines between state and party resources, this is the kind of thing they’re referring to.
SHARMINI PERIES: So, Benjamin, let’s turn to the voters here. Fidesz still won, despite of all of this manipulation, still won more votes than any other party in Hungary. Why is Orban’s message being welcomed by so many Hungarians?
BENJAMIN NOVAK: Well, sure, he does have, he does have 49 percent of the vote. And, or his party has 49 percent of the vote. And there’s a lot of factors to consider here. This is a machine with a lot of moving parts. On one hand what we do see, and this is something that the election monitors also pointed out is that there is this, this public employment scheme, this, this, it’s essentially a program here that the government uses to cushion its unemployment figures. And so what they do is instead of giving people a welfare check. What they’ll do is they’ll give you a little bit more than a welfare check, but you have to work in this public employment scheme. And this is a job that is available to you, you know, if your mayor is able to lobby out that kind of money, which pretty much offers you about double of what your unemployment check would be, which is still far less than what minimum wage is in Hungary. And so you see that certain segments of society here, and I’m referring to the disenfranchised members of Hungarian society, those are the ones who take advantage of this program and who work in this public employment scheme program. And there have been recorded instances of this program or one’s participation in this program kind of being used to, in essence, buy votes.
We saw instances of this being reported in the last election. Transparency International and a few think tanks and an investigative journalism NGO actually did reporting on this, a very, very interesting analysis they did in the previous election. And as we heard in the, the election observer’s remarks today, this issue was again brought up. Clientelism is another big issue here. The state is an enormous employer and a lot of people are afraid of losing their jobs. And you know, you have to go out and support the party, I suppose, if you want to keep your job.
But I think the most important thing out of all of this is what I said and what I had said earlier regarding the use of mass media in Hungary. The shutting out of independent or opposition media, the closing of such outlets, the takeover of such outlets by oligarchs close to the prime minister. All of this has a snowball effect to where, if you’re walking around certain areas outside of the city, if you go out to rural Hungary and you speak to people, you realize that these are the messages they’ve been hearing. It’s almost as though, I’ve, and I’ve experienced this myself in many cases, where what people think is happening in the great world around them is fueled entirely by what they hear from these, these propaganda outlets. So it’s a very bizarre situation. There’s a lot of factors, a lot of cultural factors, a lot of historical factors. But as you know, it’s very difficult to sum up in a few minutes.
SHARMINI PERIES: Benjamin, the kind of job scheme you describe there, it’s something that many people in a lot of communities could hope for in terms of a guaranteed job, a guaranteed source of income, that’s more than social welfare. What’s wrong with that scheme? And if that’s what got him the votes, how can you blame the people?
BENJAMIN NOVAK: Well, I, you know, I wouldn’t want to mislead anybody here. I’m not saying that there’s anything right or wrong with the scheme. What I can say, though, and you know, this is the reality of the situation, is that the people that are employed through these programs, while yes, the amount of money they receive is certainly helping them keep food in the fridge, being able to feed their families, the income they earn off of this is far less than minimum wage. And what we know is that people employed through this scheme have actually been doing the jobs of people that ought to be hired at least at minimum wage. So you’re almost seeing a replacement of the labor here, which is a very interesting phenomenon.
The other thing is that it’s not a certain job. So this is cyclical, and it’s not like you don’t know for sure whether you’ll have this job in one year or not. And one of the other problems here that many sociologists and economists have also brought up with this program is that it’s not transitioning those who are taking part in the program onto the actual labour market.
And so the the kinds of jobs these people are doing depends on where they are in the country. I’ve seen people in the countryside who just go out and pick up trash. They ought to be doing this for eight hour, eight hours a day. But there is only so much trash you can pick up in a given street. So it’s kind of like you’re, in the cases that I’ve seen, you’re just kind of walking around doing something until until the mayor tells you to do something else.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Now, in terms of the mandate that’s been given, what are the next steps? What do you expect from Orban?
BENJAMIN NOVAK: So that, the next parliament is going to be formed at the end of this month. And I think we can expect the, the ruling party Fidesz to move forward with its Stop Soros bill, which is targeting NGOs, in particular human rights NGOs. And what this would do is they would impose some pretty heavy sanctions on NGOs, or demand more transparency from them despite the already very stringent transparency requirements imposed on NGOs, and essentially stigmatize them. And so this is, this is something that we would be, we would, we could definitely hope to see. And as I mentioned earlier, this war against George Soros that the prime minister is trying to have the society believe is actually happening, he needs to be able to show something for it.
So what I do think we’ll see is this this war against civil society, in particular organizations that have that through one way or another received money from George Soros’s Open Society Foundations. I think we can see, we can expect the prime minister to go after his critics, both in the opposition and in civil society, and also in media. This is something he alluded to last month on March 15 during the Hungarian national holiday. He said that he would exact, how was it, political, legal, and moral satisfaction from these enemies. And that’s pretty alarming. One of the things that we saw happen last year that he just wasn’t able to push through parliament was an attempt to kind of overhaul the judiciary. It’s a rather complex story. But now that they have the two thirds they will be able to do that if they so choose. And I have no reason to believe that that is no longer on the agenda. Many of the judges that I’ve spoken to have actually raised concerns to me about this, off the record, of course. Not stating their names. They are worried that the judiciary is going to experience some more overhauls if Fidesz gets two thirds, and they certainly did.
SHARMINI PERIES: What is this great animosity George Soros that has managed to become a campaign?
BENJAMIN NOVAK: There’s a lot of historical and cultural elements to this. It’s very important to remember here that Fidesz as a movement, in the last years of socialism in Hungary, was funded by George Soros. They received funding from George Soros. The prime minister received funding from George Soros. The prime minister received the scholarship to go study in the United Kingdom from George Soros. George Soros bought this movement operating under a dictatorship a copy machine. If you can imagine how how enormous of a thing that is back in those days, to have a copy machine. They certainly did enjoy the benefits of having a donor who felt like these civil causes were something that were worthwhile supporting it, especially in this region.
But what we do see, though, is that this propaganda looks an awful lot like the propaganda that existed in Hungary during the interwar period. These billboards I was talking about earlier, about George Soros, what they, what they were were black and white photos of an old Jew laughing plastered all across the country. Everywhere. And you know, this does have a very nasty feeling of anti-semitism to it.
And you have to keep in mind here that, as you mentioned in the beginning, Fidesz is, to all intents and purposes, a far right party. Hungary’s largest opposition party is a far right party. So when we, you know, when you talk about these kinds of posters out there, when you talk about these grand conspiracies of, of international financiers trying to take away a country’s status as a nation state and take away its Christian heritage, you know, a lot of people feel this is dogwhistle anti-semitism. And apparently it does seem to work. There are, as the election indicated here, there are people who buy into this.
SHARMINI PERIES: Benjamin, were there any similarities between, say, Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, the support he got from the far right in terms of the Steve Bannons and Breitbart News, and what happened in Hungary during this campaign?
BENJAMIN NOVAK: Definitely during this campaign. And I think that the American alt-right looks at Prime Minister Orbán as something of a hero. The alt-right in the United States looks a lot like the mainstream right in Hungary. You have a lot of this, you know, this ethnocentrism, I guess one would call it. Just last year the prime minister of Hungary at a conference of industrialists announced that Hungary, in order to be successful, must retain its ethnic homogeneity. This is the prime minister of an EU member state. This is the prime minister of a NATO ally saying to the leading businessmen in his country that in order for the country to be successful it must retain its ethnic homogeneity. So you can definitely see a link here between the prime minister’s words and what a lot of people in the American alt-right are saying.
SHARMINI PERIES: Benjamin, in 2015-2016 when we saw a flood of Syrian refugees coming across the Mediterranean trying to claim refugee status, or just moving through some countries to get to safe havens, Hungary, we saw on television, was one of the worst countries in terms of ensuring that the refugees were rejected. Was this a large part of Orban’s campaign, and the success of this campaign and winning this election?
BENJAMIN NOVAK: Well, there’s a very important distinction to make here, is that in Hungary the ruling party and the prime minister almost never makes, draw the distinction between refugees, migrants, asylum seekers. In your question you asked if, over the past few years of these of these people trying to come to Hungary. The reality is that when the refugee crisis really peaked in 2015, yes, Hungary was one of the spots that they came to. But they didn’t come to Hungary. They passed through Hungary. They went through Hungary to Western Europe and to northern Europe. Hungary did build this fence, and this fence is, this fence is the central theme of Viktor, was the central theme of Viktor Orbán’s campaign. This campaign was exclusively about immigration. It had absolutely nothing to do with anything else. It was about immigration. It was about George Soros wanting to implant these people into Hungary. So the this campaign was pretty much, this was the only issue.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Benjamin. I thank you so much for joining us today.
BENJAMIN NOVAK: Sure, thank you very much.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on the Real News Network.