Sun Apr 6th, 2014 at 03:06:52 PM EST
Today (on 6 April), Hungary is holding the first parliamentary elections since PM Viktor Orbán's right-populist Fidesz took over all levers of power, replaced the Constitution and re-wrote all key laws using its two-thirds parliamentary majority. The modified election system is still an uncompensated mixed unicameral system (with people voting for both single-member election districts and party lists), but the single-member part is now without a second round of run-off votes.
There is nothing positive to report. Fidesz is likely to sweep almost all single-member districts and get nearly half of the list votes, the only question is whether they again gain a two-thirds parliamentary majority (which would allow them to continue their rule without any real checks & balances and implement the part of their reactionary legislative agenda they couldn't in the past four years). An alliance of (mostly unattractive post-reformed-communist or neoliberal) democratic opposition parties is predicted to finish barely ahead of far-right Jobbik, which is to boost its vote above 20%.
Update [2014-4-7 4:1:47 by DoDo]: At 99% counted, turnout is an abysmal 61%, Fidesz barely defended its two-thirds parliamentary majority even though it dropped to 44.5%, the opposition alliance got 26%, the fascists 20.5%, and the LMP (greens) also made it at 5.2%.
Some words on how we got here.
Orbán's government was the only one of an EU member state openly defying the austerity dictate (in words at least). What's more, by drawing out and letting flounder negotiations with the IMF, they averted both a bailout and an all-out financial market attack, and the economy came out of recession last year. But, while the government portrayed itself as a freedom fighter against the IMF, they implemented a lot of IMF policies like cutting social benefits and demonising its recipients, punishing the unemployed, cutting back labour and union rights, taxing the poor more and the rich less with a flat tax, and automating austerity by including a balanced budget requirement in the new Constitution. However, before the elections, the government stopped adding new pain, throttled the austerity-in-all-but-name, and focused its efforts on forcing utilities to reduce retail energy prices (a highly demagogic move which was used in the campaign to woo poor people although it benefited large consumers more, and it replaced something sensible like a home insulation program and is bound to haunt us in the future due to reduced investment and post-election price increases).
Fidesz also made sure to rig the game in every possible way: changed election system, gerrymandered single-member election districts, compromising the earlier independence of the election committee and courts, get-out-the-vote methods, conquest of all public and most private media, campaign spending limitations which they themselves circumvented with the help of government and oligarch-sponsored campaigns, no campaign silence, and the addition of hundreds of thousands of likely Fidesz voters by giving citizenship to ethnic Hungarians in neighbouring countries.
Still, none of this would matter would the opposition not be in a desolate state. In the past four years, most democratic opposition against the Orbán government's autocratic power capture and anti-social policies was carried by civic movements, which tried to get the democratic opposition parties on the same table. However, the leaders of those parties spent the past year bickering about positions, and too many discredited people (above all former PM Ferenc Gyurcsány) couldn't get themselves to make way for newer faces. An oligarch-sponsored pro-Fidesz negative campaign had to do little more than line up four of the opposition leaders alongside a clown and write "They don't deserve another chance" below it. Worse, although some of the opposition parties (including the strongest, the Socialists) made a half-turn away from the neo-liberal reformism that sank the previous government, many in the coalition and much of the supportive media continue to be IMF and The Economist true-believers. Even worse, I think the bigger problem is the voters not the leaders: too many take a passive consumer approach to politics ("'the politicians' shall please present something I like"), there was little enthusiasm for grass-roots activism (even if it's just turning out for a rally) and little understanding of the principle of rainbow coalitions ("I'm not gonna stand alongside those people").
The only positive surprise of the 2010 elections was the entry into parliament of a green party, LMP, but they were too urban and intellectual to connect to the wider population, and the differences between their conservative and progressive wings were too great to survive the coalition-forming pressure: the progressives left and joined the democratic opposition coalition while the remaining LMP kept to the conservative wing's policy of total independence and look set to fail at the 5% list vote margin.
Thus, the voters most incensed by Fidesz's anti-social policies were drawn more to the far-right Jobbik than nominally or truly left-of-centre parties. Jobbik helped this with a thorough application of a wolf in sheep's clothing strategy: their MPs were quite active in parliament in attacking the government's misdeeds, racist rhetoric was suppressed to have more talk of economics (especially on election posters which were all positive-sounding and mostly omitted provocative far-right symbols), and a group more bent on street-fighting was forced to split off. Which doesn't mean that those that remained aren't a bunch of fascists with open disregard for civil rights and democracy whose best friends abroad remain Britain's BNP.
The election campaign also had the usual series of real, blown-out-of-proportion or entirely made-up scandals, but I refrain from discussing those.
All in all, what Hungary most resembles right now is Putin's "managed democracy" a few years ago, with the power grab, the entrenched government majority and discredited opposition, the nationalism, and the version 2 (loyal) oligarchs (but minus the oil). This brings me to my last theme: Orbán's turn to the east. A lot of that was about trying to get alternative financial sources: he went around shopping for credits and investment from the Gulf State dictatorships through China to the post-Soviet autocracies, albeit with rather limited success. However, there is more to it: some of his speeches indicate that he sees the crisis of Western democracy and views it as terminal, but thinks the way forward is something reactionary like Putinism.
The most significant result of the eastward turn was a recent agreement with Putin for the construction of two new nuclear reactors, financed with a €10 billion credit from the Russian government. This is sad in the light of Fidesz's earlier friendliness to renewables and ironic in the light of Fidesz's anti-Russian and energy-independence rhetoric six years ago when the previous government agreed on the South Stream pipeline. (Of course, the new nukes, if they will actually be built, will only ensure further dependence on gas imports for balance.) The eastward turn also resulted in support for the Russian line on Ukraine (helped by Ukrainian nationalist attacks on ethnic Hungarians in westernmost Ukraine).