Hungary Insight

Hungarians gear up for unpredictable general election

The final week of the campaign brought twists and turns, a Fidesz lead in the polls, and an emboldened Opposition.

Before the campaign for the 2022 Hungarian General Elections started both Fidesz and the United Opposition were prepared with their own narratives. Fidesz was planning to push an anti-LGBT agenda, while the opposition was planning to push anti-corruption messages. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changed everything.

Reshuffling the cards

The breakout of the war initially favoured Fidesz who were instantly able to create a narrative regarding peace and how Hungary had to stay out of the conflict. They started pushing an extensive and widespread but largely baseless communication campaign about how the opposition would drag Hungary into the war. At the same time, the opposition struggled to find coherent narratives about the conflict for a while and their chaotic messaging in the first few weeks of the war combined with Fidesz’s ability to control the dominant narrative in the country seemed to significantly bolster Viktor Orbán’s chances of reelection.

According to Anna Orosz, an Opposition candidate in Újbuda in Budapest, there were even some opposition sympathisers who repeated Fidesz’s narratives on the streets and forums. She however claimed that the opposition tends to be able to convince these voters that the narratives they hear in Fidesz-affiliated communication channels are not true.

According to most polls, the two blocs are head-to-head with Fidesz slightly being ahead of the opposition by 2-3%. Due to the nature of the constituencies in Hungary, based on current polls, Fidesz would win a majority on Sunday. Most experts also tend to predict Viktor Orbán’s fourth consecutive victory. However, most polls include a sizable chunk of undecided voters who will likely be the decisive force this Sunday. Additionally, historically Fidesz’s support tends to be somewhat overrepresented in polls compared to their eventual election results.

One thing’s for sure, while the Opposition’s communication was chaotic towards the beginning of the war which Fidesz benefitted from, the fortunes seem to be turning and Fidesz’s peace narrative, though remains strong, was overshadowed in the last week of the campaign by fierce criticism of Hungary’s V4 allies, Zelensky calling out Viktor Orbán at an EU council meeting, and revelations about Russian hackers’ infiltration of the Hungarian Foreign Ministry. Yet, the last week saw Vikor Orbán’s Fidesz going all-in on the war narrative and peace. Meanwhile, the opposition is focusing their efforts on talking about the economy and bread and butter related issues.

A foregone conclusion?

There are some other indications that the election result is not entirely a foregone conclusion as some polls would indicate. Early this week, a lot of noise was coming from Fidesz HQ through various information channels about an internal poll that predicted an unfavourable result for them. Viktor Orbán has also started touring around the country in battleground constituencies to hold speeches and forums, a format exclusively used by the opposition in this campaign beforehand.

Around the same time, opposition figures seemed to be starting to believe that they might have a shot at winning and they received generally positive campaign-related coverage for more than a week. They have been gaining momentum and their voters are becoming more enthusiastic.

A poll by prestigious Medián on Wednesday seemed to cool down some of their enthusiasm as it predicted a comfortable Fidesz majority. In itself, the poll is a massive outlier. However, Medián was the only pollster to predict Fidesz’s ⅔ majority in 2018, therefore its newest numbers could be demoralising for the opposition voters. Anna Orosz disagrees “The polls didn’t demoralise the electorate in 2019. Then no one predicted that Gergely Karácsony would be able to win the mayoralty in Budapest or that we would win in other major cities.” – she told Kafkadesk.

Given that the election will mostly be decided in individual constituencies, the usefulness of nationwide polling to predict the outcome is questionable. The opposition divided the constituencies into five categories; A (Opposition safe seats), B (likely Opposition victories), C (battleground constituencies), D (likely Fidesz victories), and E (Fidesz safe seats). Their job is difficult. Even losing one of the 40 constituencies in categories A and B could be fatal, while they absolutely have to win at least half of the 26 battleground seats.

Leaflets and street forums

Although it is also worth bearing in mind that, strictly speaking, if we add together the then separately running opposition parties’ 2018 results, they would have already won 52 out of the 106 constituencies. This means that maintaining their numbers in these areas from four years ago and turning around only two or three constituencies could be enough to gain a majority for Péter Márki-Zay’s alliance on Sunday.

A constituency the opposition designated as “class C” is Pest 6, composed of an area in Budapest’s commuter belt. The opposition’s candidate here is Krisztina Hohn, who, just like many candidates, faces a Fidesz dominated media field in the area. “The media landscape outside Budapest heavily favours Fidesz. OSCE observers spent some time with me and told me that the conditions are not equal.” -Hohn told Kafkadesk.

To counter such difficulties, Hohn and her team rely on other methods, such as printing leaflets and most importantly, the opposition’s main innovation during this campaign, the street forums. At these events, people can meet the local candidates who answer their questions and make a speech about the opposition’s plans should they be elected. In the past few weeks, the local candidates tended to be accompanied by nationally known politicians as well.

It shows how much of a battleground constituency Pest 6 is that in the past three weeks, DK-leader Klára Dobrev, Jobbik-leader Péter Jakab, former Momentum-leader András Fekete-Győr, as well as LMP’s Parliamentary-leader László Lóránt Keresztes all made appearances in the constituency. “We are a broad coalition. It was important for us to have prominents from all parties make appearances so that all voters know that they are backing me.” -said Hohn.

The pivotal role of voter mobilisation

Some analysts argue that at this stage of the campaign, the election will be decided by voter mobilisation. Fidesz has a famously extensive list of its core supporters which almost guarantees a successful mobilisation. The primaries and the combination of 6 parties’ databases mean that the Opposition is slowly catching up with the governing party.

What makes this a bit more complicated for the opposition is that their prime ministerial candidate, Péter Márki-Zay’s greatest strength is not mobilising the core vote but convincing undecided individuals. As a right-of-centre politician, a large section of the progressive opposition voters is not particularly enthusiastic about him. This does not mean that they wouldn’t vote for the opposition’ list and candidates, however, getting them out of their sofas might be slightly more difficult for Márki-Zay than for other candidates. Although it is also true, that the first realistic chance to oust Viktor Orbán should be enough for the core opposition vote to turn out.

Accusations of fraud

Recent revelations regarding the burning of pro-Opposition ballot papers in Transylvania might also make voters furious enough to turn up in high numbers. On Thursday morning, a Romanian newspaper revealed that burnt and partly-destroyed mail-in-ballots were found near a motorway in Transylvania. According to reports, the identifiable ballot papers were all filled in with a vote either for the United Opposition or far-right Mi Hazánk.

On the same day, texts were leaked to Translyvanian Hungarian-language media outlet Átlátszó Erdély in which the local Hungarian party, RMDSZ, which tends to be associated with Fidesz told its activists to bring the collected ballot papers to the party offices instead of the local embassy.

The Opposition repeatedly stated that the findings are evidence of electoral fraud, while Fidesz claimed that it was the opposition who burnt the ballot papers. These revelations might raise the question of how willing the Opposition and especially their voters will be to accept the result of Sunday’s election, if they lose. On the other side, Fidesz has also been building a narrative that foreign interference is possible on the side of the opposition. Therefore, whichever side loses, the concession speech of their leader will be crucial.

At his campaign finale on Friday in Székesfehérvár, Viktor Orbán claimed again that the opposition is cheating via its election database with which they call and text individuals, which is a repetition of unverified narratives from pro-government media outlets. The prime minister was much less confident in this speech than he was on 15 March, especially regarding the chances of the local candidate Tamás Vargha, who he said was facing a “difficult” job and repeatedly asked the Fidesz-voters in Székesfehérvár to help him.

After an intense and turbulent last week of the campaign, the election result is perhaps even more unpredictable than ever before.

By Ábel Bede

Ábel Bede was born in Budapest and has two degrees in History from Durham University. He specialised in Central Europan history and has been contributing to Kafkadesk since 2019. Feel free to check out more of his articles right here!