Europe and the EU


European Parliamentary elections in Hungary

02 May 2019 - 11:42
Source: Sputnik
Predictable outcomes with serious consequences

The European parliamentary election campaign brings limited excitement and little novelty in Hungary as the governing Fidesz party is set to win the majority of the country’s European Parliament seats on an anti-migration and anti-Brussels ballot. This prospective outcome, however, is not congruous with anti-EU sentiments in the population but is rather the result of domestic political factors - which influence the European elections just as much as they did the national ones in 2018. With the results being foreseeable, the real questions will arise only in the election’s aftermath: Will the conflict between Fidesz and the European People’s Party lead to a divorce? Will Viktor Orbán join Matteo Salvini’s new initiative, the European Alliance of Peoples and Nations? The answers will have significant consequences, both on the national and the European level.

Opposition parties had already published their EP programs by the time the governing Fidesz – Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) coalition also shared its priorities for Europe at the beginning of April. Instead of covering various political and policy questions, however, the monothematic seven points that voters had to settle for focused solely on immigration. The governing parties’ subsequent campaign under the slogan “Let’s support Viktor Orbán’s program and stop immigration” builds on years of strongly Eurosceptic anti-immigration rhetoric, as the issue has developed into the central question for Fidesz both on the national and European level. In this light, the upcoming EU election is framed by the prime minister as a referendum on whether pro- or anti-immigration forces will lead the European Union in the future and is portrayed as an existential turning point for Europe.

''Undeniably, 55 % of Hungarians consider that immigration should be discussed as a matter of priority in the EP elections, and the majority thinks that immigration is the biggest issue facing the EU today.''

Undeniably, 55 % of Hungarians consider that immigration should be discussed as a matter of priority in the EP elections,[1] and the majority thinks that immigration is the biggest issue facing the EU today.[2] In light of the government’s years-long anti-immigration campaign run in a media environment that is overwhelmingly dominated by Fidesz, this comes as little surprise. However, it is worth noting that on the national level worries about migration (21 %) lag behind concerns about health care and social security (49 %) as well as inflation and living costs (29 %).[3]

While pointing to high levels of corruption in the ranks and circles of Fidesz, the fragmented left and liberal opposition also tries to address these very concerns, campaigning under pro-EU banners for a social Europe (Hungarian Socialist Party, Democratic Coalition) or for the concentrated use of EU funds in health care and education (Momentum). Even the previously anti-EU Jobbik calls for reforming the EU to overcome economic and social inequalities among member states. As opposed to Fidesz, the opposition parties worry more about emigration, which has indeed taken unprecedented heights. Although accurate numbers are hard to come by, a frequent estimate is that over half a million Hungarians have left to live and work elsewhere in the EU. Generally, when contrasting fears of immigration and emigration, more Hungarians appear to worry about their fellow citizens leaving the country than about foreigners coming in.[4]

''Despite the government’s persistent anti-Brussels campaigns going on for years, support for the EU in society is still relatively high.''

Nonetheless, freedom of movement is one of the values that Hungarians appreciate most about the EU along with the funds the country has received over time. These aspects might explain why - despite the government’s persistent anti-Brussels campaigns going on for years - support for the EU in society is still relatively high. It has reached 61 % in spring 2019, and 15 years into its membership, 78 % of Hungarians believe that the country benefitted from joining the EU.[5] A recent national poll puts pro-EU attitudes at 65 % among Hungarians, but already shows significant differences in the electorate: whereas between 74 to 92 % of the various opposition parties’ supporters regard the EU positively, only 52 % (but thus still the majority) of Fidesz-KDNP voters share this view.[6]

Despite high support for the EU, EP elections have so far drawn limited interest. In 2014, only about 29 % of the electorate participated. This time around turnouts could be higher, as 50 % consider it (very) likely that they will vote.[7] This potential increase is certainly - at least in part - due to the unprecedented thematization of the election by Fidesz and its ability to mobilize its voter base. The polarization of the political scene this time could also help anti-government turnout - as the anti-Brussels messages of the government could also give a push to the more pro-EU opposition base to show up. The governmental dominance on the public and private media landscape and advertising market, however, undoubtedly hampers the chances of opposition parties.

Under the current domestic circumstances, the election results will not hold major surprises. According to the mid-April estimates of the European Parliament,[8] the Fidesz-KDNP coalition will be able to increase the number of its seats from 12 to 13, while parties of the opposition will considerably lag behind with three seats for the Socialist-Dialogue coalition and Jobbik respectively, and one seat for the Democratic Coalition and Momentum respectively. The Green “Politics Can Be Different” party is likely going to lose its one current seat.

''It is also attractive to radical-right forces, led currently by Matteo Salvini, who show much ideological similarities with Viktor Orbán and would gladly welcome Fidesz among their ranks.''

The key question of these elections, however, is not the parties’ performance, but the future political affiliation of Fidesz in the EP. After having been suspended from the European People’s Party (EPP) in March over concerns about the rule of law and the state of democracy in Hungary, Fidesz has been increasingly hostile towards the EPP, alleging a leftward turn and pro-immigration attitudes in the political group. On the other hand, the EPP itself is divided on whether it wants Fidesz to be part of the family at this stage. Jointly, they decided to postpone the decision until after the elections. With 13 MEPs, the Fidesz-KDNP delegation is of a size to be considered a heavy loss in an EPP that is to face further losses in the elections. It is also attractive to radical-right forces, led currently by Matteo Salvini, who show much ideological similarities with Viktor Orbán and would gladly welcome Fidesz among their ranks.

The visits of Salvini on May 2nd and his ally, the Austrian junior governing coalition party FPÖ’s Heinz-Christian Strache, on May 6th to Budapest will provide ample opportunity to discuss potential cooperation between these forces and Fidesz. For now, prime minister Orbán still tries to keep his options open by arguing for cooperation among the EPP and Salvini. The fact that he is avoiding a clear break with the EPP shows that he is still interested in keeping his party in the ranks of the EP’s largest group, but these visits could further deepen the rift between Fidesz and the EPP. The party’s future affiliation will be decided in light of the overall election results, and while consequently external dynamics will have a major say in this, the final decision will have a fundamental impact on Hungary’s overall standing in the European Union.