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Whom Can Orbán Count On as He Screws Up Hungary?
His populist politics of fear is powerful for many Hungarians, but not unassailable
By Enikő Albert
In Hungary, standards of living are nose-diving, inflation is expected to touch 27% next month, energy prices are up by 40%, the future seems hopeless. Although the next national election is three years away, an increasing number of polls indicate that some Hungarians who voted for Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party last April have become disillusioned. But not everyone. Many Fidesz supporters whom I interviewed for this article said they will stand by Viktor Orbán come what may.
Why is this? “I’ll let you in on a secret,” a conservative supporter of the prime minister told me. “There are lots of us who will stand by our convictions despite nationwide economic hardships or personal financial problems. It’s because of our upbringing and background. As my grandmother used to say: ‘Son, never believe anything the communists tell you!’ I can accept that others think differently, but I will never compromise on my convictions. Never.” And as far as he’s concerned, Orbán and Fidesz’s opponents are communists.
I asked several political scientists and a sociologist to explain the political motivations behind Fidesz’s hardcore base. What explains a loyalty so unwavering that it ignores facts and the Orbán government’s poor performance?
According to Ádám Paár, who works for the Fairness Political Analysis Center (Méltányosság Politikaelemző Központ), the loyalty of Fidesz’s base can be compared to the commitment of soccer fans.
“Just as fans stay true to their team when it goes through a rough patch or starts losing games, so also core Fidesz voters stay true despite corruption scandals, economic hardships and deteriorating standards of living,” he says. “Just like in the stands, an esprit de corps develops among the group, where people believe they belong even if there are troubles.”
According to Dániel Mikecz, a political scientist at the Republikon Institute (Republikon Intézet), in addition to the strong emotional bond with the group, these people also need a strong leader—and Fidesz offers them both. “You can’t explain these voters in terms of specific economic and sociological characteristics, because they come from all walks of life,” notes Mikecz. “First and foremost, they’re shaped by a worldview, which means that their ideological commitment remains strong despite changes in the economic situation.” What are the pieces of this ideology? “It builds on a sense of victimhood, the idea of sovereignty, fears about the death of the nation, and the need to protect Christianity.”
A central motif, Mikecz maintains, is the fear that the West is in decline and that it has abandoned its values, traditions, Christian roots—and embraced crazy ideas like gender ideology instead. Criticism of the West is hardly new. The Slavophiles voiced it in 19th century Russia, after all. They spoke out against the influence of Western Europe, promoted Russian traditions and culture, and advocated for strengthening the role of the Orthodox Church instead of that of the state, Mikecz points out.
Sociologist Andrea Szabó, who has spent a lot of time studying the voting bases of Hungary’s large parties, classifies various Fidesz voters as follows: The most committed ones belong to the hardcore base. They voted for Fidesz in at least two elections and remain committed to the party. Moreover, the last election shows that their number is growing: In 2010, 1.1 million of Hungary’s population of roughly 10 million strong fell into this group. Today it stands at around 1.3 to 1.5 million. These voters are committed to the party, and even more so to Viktor Orbán, for reasons of identity. Their commitment is strong and unwavering, and it remains unaffected by economic changes or other difficulties.
“For these voters, Fidesz imparts identity and strength,” Szabó says. It makes them feel pride in who they are regardless of what their economic situation is. “The party constantly broadcasts messages of success, which always gives them something to be proud of.”
Surveys show that this group appreciates the freedom fighter and the charismatic national leader who is willing to stand up to the big guys—i.e., the West, the European Union and the U.S.—to defend Hungary’s interests.
In addition to this hardcore base, Fidesz also attracts sympathizers. Perhaps everyone has heard some version of the argument, “I know Fidesz isn’t perfect, but at least they’re protecting us from migrants.” The commitment of this group is weaker; one might say that their Fidesz identity is in the process of development. Depending on political circumstances, this group may constitute 800,000 to 900,000 Hungarians.
“For this group, the commitment to Fidesz is not automatic; they need some sort of reinforcement to vote for Fidesz,” says Szabó, the sociologist. “While communication strategies don’t have much importance with core voters, sympathizers need to have their commitment reinforced every now and again. The government has been able to do this successfully with its policy of reducing energy costs [which has now been suspended, allowing prices to rocket upward again], its protection against migrants, and its ‘expert’ handling of COVID.”
The final, third layer of Fidesz supporters is on the political periphery. According to Szabó, these voters aren’t interested in politics and don’t focus on public affairs. They only pay attention to politics when some important event directly impacts their lives. This could be something like the war, the COVID pandemic or the situation with migration. Szabo estimates that in the last election, approximately a half-million periphery voters were mobilized to the polls. Demographically, these voters tend to be less educated, live in small towns and villages, and be young and apolitical.
“Since political and social issues don’t interest them,” says Szabó, “they can only be reached with very strong, harsh messages [in contrast to ‘the sympathizers’]. Those are the only messages that break through the political noise. When Fidesz uses extreme communication tools, that is because it wants to go after these periphery voters. The messages in the last few weeks of the election campaign were aimed at them, especially the claim that if the opposition won, it would send men to join the war.”
Szabó points out that the opposition made a big mistake last April in thinking that Fidesz’s base has an upper limit. Her research shows that the governing party is capable of increasing its voter support significantly. How? “From time to time, Fidesz finds so-called national unity issues that it can portray as transcending party politics, and that reach people beyond its voting base.”
One such issue was the government’s 2016 migrant quota referendum, which allowed people to vote on whether the EU should be allowed to settle non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without the consent of the Hungarian Parliament. Around 98% of voters—or 3.3 million Hungarians—stood with Fidesz’s narrative and voted “no.”
In addition to claiming to be the exclusive representative of the nation, Fidesz also emphasizes Christian conservative values. Experts caution that this should not be confused with appealing to religious voters; that would garner fewer votes, as only 17% of the population attends church regularly. One theme that has enduring appeal for these voters is the suffering inflicted on Hungary’s families by communist policies like the nationalization of smallholdings and small businesses. Mikecz emphasizes that the family is a strong socializing force that determines social values. The insistence of conservative voters that, “I’ll never vote for communists,” has roots in a family’s history of suffering.
Besides historic family grievances, the other political attitudes that are passed on across generations are homophobia, xenophobia and racism. All of these still strongly exist in Hungary today. A Fidesz voter in his 40s, for example, proudly mentioned to me that his teenage son angrily tore down a rainbow flag at an event and threw it in the trash. “If his grandfather had seen it, he would have been proud,” this voter told us with satisfaction. Paár, the analyst from the Fairness Political Analysis Center, points out that such attitudes have diminished since the 1990s, but they can still be stirred up for propaganda purposes.
And once Fidesz’s propaganda team identifies a certain communication goal, it can reach the entire voting base. Witness the demonization of former Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány as a communist and a liar. But a much more startling and self-contradictory example is the way Fidesz-friendly media have recently remade the image of Russia by convincing middle-class conservative Christian voters that the United States is as much to blame as Vladimir Putin for the attack on Ukraine and the murder of innocent civilians.
This reshaping of public perceptions did not begin in February 2022 when the war broke out; rather, it has been developing gradually since 2010, experts say. Just as turning a large ship around in the water takes time, so the changing of public perceptions is a gradual process. One key talking point that Fidesz has used is the reduction of energy prices thanks to the cheap supply of gas from Russia until last year (when the policy was suspended).
But is it possible to convince core voters of any position, even one that contradicts views they’ve previously held? The rehabilitation of Russia suggests that this can’t be ruled out. The reason for this, experts say, is that for these Fidesz voters, political and community identity have completely merged. They don’t need to examine the content of Fidesz’s message. If the government or the prime minister says something, it must be true. Viktor Orbán himself guarantees truth of the messages, and, “There’s no reason to doubt it.”
Szabó adds that Orbán’s communications team is extremely professional and effective. Orbán’s image has been carefully constructed and is targeted to a society that values solidarity less and security more. “The prime minister is shown as having two sides. On the one hand, he is the most important representative of the political elite,” notes Szabó. “On the other hand, he’s portrayed as a freedom fighter from the streets. Orbán can play both roles naturally.”
And what do Fidesz voters think about the corruption in government? Experts agree that these voters view Orbán as a “good king” who would take steps to prevent corruption if it were occurring. In other words, they don’t believe that the stories about corruption under him are true. And what about popular fact-checker websites and studies? Core Fidesz voters couldn’t care less about that.
Could the growing economic problems and rising protests finally cause Fidesz voters to leave the camp? Core voters will stick with the party no matter what. But for sympathizers and periphery voters, this is a real possibility. They are not likely to make a 180-degree turn and join the ranks of the former Prime Minister Gyurcsány’s Democratic Coalition. They are more likely to become undecided in their voting preferences.
The massive ongoing teacher demonstrations demanding higher wages and education reforms constitute the greatest challenge yet for Fidesz’s propaganda machinery. Orbán has yet to find a strategy to effectively diffuse the situation. His government is quietly trying to stymie the demonstrations with law enforcement measures. But if that fails to contain the situation, it could be in trouble.
Enikő Albert, a Hungarian journalist, has been working at Magyar Hang (Hungarian Voice), an independent weekly, since its launch in 2018. She reports on Southeast Asia, Hungarian politics, issues related to education, social challenges facing society at large and especially those facing disadvantaged groups. She has a law degree and lives with her family near Budapest. The piece above was originally published by Magyar Hang and was translated into English for publication here.
Note to our readers: We have commented before on Viktor Orbán’s subversion of an independent press in Hungary. Please consider contributing to Magyar Hang (Hungarian Voice), one of Hungary’s independent magazines, at Help us survive | Magyar Hang. The Orbán government has placed the magazine under an unofficial boycott, banning it from official press conferences, forbidding Fidesz politicians to provide it interviews and comments, and threatening prospective advertisers with reprisals. Hungarian printers have even refused to enter into a contract with the magazine for fear of a government backlash; paper copies of Magyar Hang are printed in Slovakia. Magyar Hang is Hungary’s second-most popular weekly general-interest magazine; it is management-owned; and it is financed primarily by its sales revenues (around 11,000 copies sold per week). Contributions to the magazine can be made here.