Although Hungary's next parliamentary election is more than a year off, you would be forgiven for thinking that election season was already well under way.
Already the ruling right-wing Fidesz party, led by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and the leading opposition party, the Hungarian Socialist Party, which was in power from 2002 to 2010, have begun to trade barbs in anticipation of next spring's elections.
Although in overwhelming control of Hungary, Fidesz is struggling to navigate the country through economic crisis. It also has regularly butted heads with Europe, most recently in Monday's vote in favor of a set of controversial constitutional amendments. But the political alternatives for Hungarians are limited – the leading opposition Socialists are still remembered for the corruption of their prior reign. As a result, the most popular political sentiment among Hungarians appears to be apathy.
According to a February poll by private media research think-tank Ipsos, more than half of Hungarian voters said they had no party affiliation or were not voting at all. Competing pollster Median found that 39 percent said they have no preference for any of the parties, up from 36 percent a month earlier.
"The politicians are arguing so much that I have lost interest in politics. I would not know who to vote for if there were elections today," says Balazs Kovacs, an editor from Budapest.
Better than the past?
Mr. Orbán's Fidesz came to power in 2010, securing an overwhelming two-thirds majority in parliament three years ago by capitalizing on the country's deep dissatisfaction with the Socialists. The Socialist Party lost 132 of their 190 parliamentary seats in the 2010 elections because voters appeared to be tired of the corruption scandals and the bad state of the Central European country's economy – including a $25.1 billion bailout by the IMF, World Bank, and the European Union in 2008.
Indeed, Orbán spent a good part of his State of the Nation address a few weeks ago attacking the previous ruling party.
The Socialist Party plans “to take Hungary back into the past, hoping that time has lessened the bleak memory of those years” of its reign, he warned. “We will not forget those eight years. We will not forget how they flooded our country, our towns, our villages, and our families with a tidal wave of debt,” he said.
But Orbán's criticisms of the Socialists come amid his government's own rough patch. The economy is shrinking and unemployment rate in Hungary has been hovering around 11 percent, which is also the average of the European Union.
Without the current government's efforts, matters would have been far worse, argues spokesman Ferenc Kumin. “The biggest achievement of this government is that we were able to stabilize the economy, which was in a very dangerous state when we took over power in 2010,” he says. “We were almost at the edge of bankruptcy. You cannot get rid of that heritage in two years, but we made real major steps.”
In his speech Orbán was equally hopefully. “It could well be that, in accordance with our plans, 2013 will indeed be the year of growth,” he said.
But the economy is not the only point of contention for Fidesz.
The rightward-listing party also ramrodded through parliament a series of controversial amendments to the constitution Monday, prompting street protests – including thousands in Budapest this past weekend – and criticism from the European Union. The Associated Press reports that the amendments include enabling local authorities to criminalize homelessness, a ban on political campaign ads on TV and radio, and a contract requiring students who accept state university scholarships to work in Hungary for years after graduation.
The amendments to the constitution “raise concerns with respect to the principle of the rule of law, EU law, and Council of Europe standards,” according to a statement by the president of the European Commission and the secretary general of the Council of Europe.
Nor are the amendments the first controversy Fidesz has ignited. In December, around 2,000 students protested against government plans to reform higher education. And Budapest has had rows with the European Union over its handling of press freedoms.
And Orbán's government is not known for reaching out much to other parties or civil society, because it has a two-thirds majority in the parliament. “They didn't really have to negotiate anything,” says Szabolcs Panyi, Hungarian editor of international blogging network Global Voices.
But despite the woes of Fidesz, the Socialists are even less popular.
According to the Ipsos poll, 18 percent of those polled said they would vote for Orbán's party; 13 percent chose the Socialist Party. The radical nationalist party Jobbik would gain 8 percent. Meanwhile, Median found 26 percent for Fidesz and 12 percent for the Hungarian Socialist Party.
Socialist leader Attila Mesterházy, who kicked off the Socialists' election campaign in a speech on Saturday in a sports arena in Budapest, acknowledged that he has to persuade Hungarian voters that his party has changed from its pre-2010 days.
“I want to show the people that the Socialist Party has learned its lesson,” says Mr. Mesterházy in his party's office in downtown Budapest.
He also downplays the Orbán government's claims of economic progress, saying that the living standard in Hungary is “worse than it was before.”
“Mr. Orbán said in an interview that he sees just successes in Hungary. That the first two years were perhaps a little bit more difficult, but the next two years we will see the harvest. No one else in Hungary sees that fantastic success.”
But he feels there's reason for hope. He points out that when the 39-year-old politician was elected leader of the Socialist Party, he was not envied. “All the analysts and journalists said: This is a dead party, you cannot reorganize it, forget it."
"Now, the same analysts say that without the Socialist Party, there is no change in government,” says Mesterházy.