The Hungarian Opposition Should Not Legitimize Orban's Rigged Victory
An opposition leader calls for a boycott of the government
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s party, Fidesz, won a landslide election two weeks ago, securing a fourth supermajority in the country’s unicameral parliament. Orban’s running ambition, in his own words, is to turn Hungary from a liberal to an “illiberal democracy.” Whatever he means by that, in practice it has translated into restrictions on immigration, truncation of minority rights, weakening of civil society, and, above all, changing of the electoral rules to build a huge incumbent advantage for his ruling party. Thanks to gerrymandering and other steps he took during his first three terms to accomplish the last item, his party was widely expected to win despite the fact that six of Hungary’s opposition parties, from the left and the right, joined forces as the United Opposition to consolidate their votes. Still, the scale of Fidesz’s victory — 54 percent of the popular vote — caught almost everyone by surprise.
Most opposition leaders now seem to agree that Orban cannot be voted out of office. According to a preliminary report issued by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Hungary’s election was “marred by the pervasive overlapping of government and ruling coalition’s messaging that blurred the line between state and party, as well as by media bias and opaque campaign funding.” Orban has entrenched himself in power by: changing the electoral system, manipulating the system of campaign financing to impoverish the opposition, and controlling the media environment to disseminate state propaganda.
In 2011, when Orban first thoroughly altered Hungary’s constitutional and legal framework, a few faint voices raised the possibility of boycotting Hungary’s election and looking for other means of “civil disobedience” and noncompliance with Orban’s rigged political system. Those voices have grown much louder today.
One prominent opposition figure calling for targeted boycotts and non-participation in Hungary’s political system is Akos Hadhazy. Hadhazy started his political career as a member of Fidesz and has made a name for himself as an anti-corruption crusader. He attracted national attention in 2013 by criticizing his own party for corruption. He left Fidesz and later joined an opposition party called Politics Can Be Different (LMP). After the 2018 election, Hadhazy criticized the LMP leadership for obstructing cooperation with other opposition parties. In the most recent election, Hadhazy won a parliamentary seat in the Zuglo electoral district of Budapest as a United Opposition candidate, winning over 50 percent of the vote.
The interview originally appeared in the independent online news site 24.hu on April 5, two days after Hungary’s election (we have translated it from Hungarian). Hadhazy shares his thinking about how the opposition should handle itself given the dilemma posed by the Orban regime: Should it go about business as usual when it comes to participating in the Parliament and risk legitimizing — and normalizing — a fundamentally rigged system or should it resist? He argues for the second strategy. He insists that the opposition should not accept the manipulated political rules established by Fidesz. He believes that it was a mistake for the opposition to pliantly participate in the elections on Orban’s terms. Instead, it should have reminded the voters at every turn that the playing field was grossly unfair. Now, he believes, the opposition should selectively boycott activities of Parliament while engaging in grassroots organizing throughout Hungary’s countryside. He argues that the opposition should radically change how it operates in that institution. Its members must fight for a different — fairer — set of rules and take on different roles, even if their livelihood takes a hit.
This is a dilemma that opposition parties in countries such as India, Brazil and elsewhere might also face. So it is worth watching how these parties conduct themselves in Hungary and with what success.
The unexpected supermajority win by Fidesz sent the opposition reeling and a few opposition party leaders immediately blamed their candidate for prime minister [Peter Marki-Zay]. You also analyzed the situation, but on your Facebook page, rather than blaming him, you offered a direction that opposition party politicians should follow after the defeat.
I was quick to offer my recommendation because a lot depends on whether the opposition parties understand that from now on they have to do something radically different than before.
On the Sunday night after the elections, Peter Marki-Zay said that he followed a well-planned electoral strategy but it didn’t work.
Yes, that’s right. And at the beginning of his speech he acknowledged that I was right: as long as Orban’s propaganda machine exists, the opposition cannot win. If you look at the interviews I have given in recent years, you’ll see what I have been saying all along — unfortunately to no avail — that if we don’t change the rules of the game, we may as well give up on running for election because it can only end in failure, as we saw this time.
How can the opposition be radically different? In your Facebook post you note three things: unity, resistance and renewal.
It would be self-deception, or simply a lie, to believe that the unity of the opposition alone is sufficient to defeat the system created by Fidesz. Renewal and resistance are also required, but they were missing.
Has your analysis been dismissed, or found too radical?
Perhaps it is my fault, because I was unable to convince the majority of the opposition earlier. And at the same time, I was also hoping that my analysis was incorrect, that I was wrong. But it doesn’t make me happy at all that our candidate for prime minister had to acknowledge that I was right. It is a fact that I have long believed that constantly calling the system a dictatorship is useless, because it is a mere definition. What we need to do is work actively to transform it. What we should have said is that the election was fraudulent. And saying it out loud is not enough. If we are merely sad that that’s the case, but continue to act as before, the next elections will certainly have the same result.
Do you expect a more radical approach from the opposition in the Parliament?
Absolutely. The first legitimate question is whether they can accept their mandates [and take their seats in the Parliament]. I would say yes, but only if they then use their position appropriately.
Accepting a mandate ensures that we have politicians who get a salary, whose expenses will be paid, can hire their own staff and will have opportunities, but it is only acceptable if we refuse to play the role that the Russian opposition plays in Putin’s parliament. [Editor’s note: In Russia, opposition members sit in the Duma but have no power or resources at their disposal to actually perform their function; Putin keeps them around just to give an air of legitimacy to his authoritarian regime.]
Concretely, what do you expect a member of the opposition to do against a parliamentary supermajority?
Symbols are very important in politics. So, in my opinion, our representatives should only participate at the opening ceremony if they get serious guarantees for the future. And we won’t go unless we get them. The opening ceremony is very important for Fidesz [because having the opposition show up will convey acceptance of him and his regime]. Unfortunately, in 2018 I was unable to convince my colleagues to stay away. My feeling was that Fidesz was behind this, it did not allow their absence. But right now we should know: it will be an important gesture if the opposition section of the Parliament is empty after these fraudulent elections. This would be an important message to send to our own voters and to the world.
What kinds of guarantees do you have in mind?
Free access to public institutions, freedom for the minority to initiate a parliamentary committee of inquiry [to investigate the ruling regime], and electing the director of the public media with consensus. If we don’t get these guarantees and we participate in the opening ceremony, we may get branded as collaborators.
I don’t even think that you believe that the government will agree to these demands after winning a supermajority for a fourth time.
Then we will not go to the opening ceremony of the Parliament.
If the opposition denies itself the remaining bit of access to the public it gains by participating in the work of the Parliament, isn’t that just another trap?
In fact, there is no such risk because we have been denied access to the public all along. In the past 12 years, I don’t think there was more than one motion by the opposition that the Parliament passed. And paid seats on committees serve no other purpose than the remuneration they provide. [Editor’s note: In Hungary, members of the Parliament get paid extra to serve on committees.] Representatives receive hundreds of thousands of forints if they serve as the chairman or vice-chairman of a committee, while they do no meaningful work, and they spend no more than thirty minutes on it once in a while. We will lose nothing if we stay away from the Parliament. One person should be designated to attend the sessions and express the opinion of the opposition. Those who are for remaining in the Parliament are motivated by their individual interests, either because they believe that they are good speakers and can get on the front page of, let’s say, 24.hu, with a soundbite every other week or so. This will not move our cause forward. Instead, it will only provide legitimacy for the system.
Can the members of the opposition be expected to make a financial sacrifice by resigning from those posts that they should be occupying in Parliament?
They must make this sacrifice, and they must declare it by showing that they refuse to play a part in this charade. I saw people in 2018 that declared resistance and then accepted a fake job in Parliament to earn an extra million forints per month. I refused to sit on any committee even though I would have received three hundred thousand forints a month at the end of the parliamentary cycle. But if being a representative means that experts write me a speech that I read in Parliament and then I hope to be invited on ATV that day to talk about it, the result will be the same as in this election.
Is it possible to keep this up for four years — that opposition members don’t show up in Parliament but organize instead?
This is what resistance is and this is what we must do. I have been saying for years that no one from the opposition should attend when the Parliament discusses Fidesz’ motions. Instead, we must visit villages in person and find a few people with whom one can maintain a connection and can count on later. This could be a counterweight to what happened this time, namely, that mayors in the villages pressured people to go and vote for Fidesz.
The result of the election demonstrates that the opposition has hardly any contact with voters in rural areas. Can the actions you suggest change the outcome?
What surely doesn’t work is visiting rural areas one month before the elections, taking a picture and posting it on Facebook. There has to be real connection. There is something we can learn from Viktor Orbán: In 2006 he sent off his parliamentary representatives to visit the countryside for three months and have the names and contact information of at least two people from each village they can call if [Gabor] Kubatov needs them. [Kubatov is a Fidesz representative who was entrusted with ensuring voter turnout for his party in rural areas.] Cooperating with the countryside is not about creating an online form where you can sign up to be an activist. You can’t have another job and be a politician at the same time, you can’t expect people to organize in their electoral district on their free time.
Do you think the partnership of the opposition will survive this loss?
The attacks against the former candidate for prime minister started as early as the night of the election. I was hoping they would not start that early, that the attacks would wait for at least a couple of days. This is a very bad road to go down on, in my opinion. The loss was a result of all the mistakes of the past four years. The candidate for prime minister also had his flaws, but the biggest mistake of all was not fighting for changing the rules of the game. What did we do during the years leading up to the election? For example, after 2019 I organized several anti-propaganda demonstrations, but the parties never showed up because they didn’t think this issue was important.
In summary: If the parties of the opposition who have made it into the Parliament conclude they have made no mistakes, it would be a dangerous mistake.
The unity of the opposition was also put to the test in your own electoral district, Zuglo. During the primaries, tensions ran very high there. Eventually Csaba Toth, the former representative of Parliament on behalf of the district, withdrew his candidacy due to his involvement in multiple scandals and is currently being investigated as a suspect for having accepted 280 million forints in bribes. Despite this occurrence, you won more than 50 percent of the votes there. What is it that worked in your district?
The victory in Zuglo carries an important message because it shows us what needs to be done. The voters in Zuglo sent a clear message of their wish for renewal and their refusal to accept corruption in any shape or form, even if it is done by the opposition. Zuglo was one of the few districts where the opposition was able to improve on its previous election results. But unfortunately, renewal nationwide [selecting candidates with clean credentials who voters could trust] was not complete. For example, the parties did not ask the voters for input when they put together the party lists, and the lists did not demonstrate that the desirable personal changes in the parties were accomplished.
There are several good old boys among those candidates of the opposition that won a mandate. They have completed several cycles as opposition in the Parliament. Do you think that they will accept your recommendation for the opposition to take a more radical stance?
The danger is there that those candidates who won a mandate from the party list will stay in their comfortable, well-paid positions, and therefore renewal may be a long shot. However, it is quite clear that the economic situation will be dire. It may give us a sense of relief that Fidesz will have to deal with the fallout. But to think that, as a result, the parliamentary seats of the opposition in the next cycle will be guaranteed is bad strategy. If that’s our plan, we will be wasting four years, just as we wasted the past four years. The previous cycle also saw crises: the government’s Covid strategy was disastrous, it stood by Russia with respect to the war with Ukraine, and inflation is taking off. The government would not have survived these if it had not altered the rules of the game. I do believe that the opposition may have won the elections on a level playing field. But now I ask the opposition to think over what they need to change.
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