Hungary's opposition faces hard road to oust Orbán

A coalition of parties is banding together to try and top Viktor Orbán's ruling Fidesz party in April's parliamentary elections. Campaign season starts today.

Bernadett Szabo/Reuters
Greenpeace activists protest last week at at Budapest's Statue of Liberty against a Russia-backed planned expansion of a nuclear power plant in Hungary. The expansion is one of several issues in the country's parliamentary election campaign, which starts Saturday.

As the campaign for the Hungarian election officially kicks off today, a coalition of leftist parties is vowing to oust conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in a race where the opposition says the return of fundamental human rights is at stake.

But despite growing criticism in Hungary of the ruling Fidesz party, which has clashed with the European Union over constitutional changes that it has rammed through parliament with its two-thirds majority, the coalition faces a difficult task. Between lagging poll numbers and questions over the unity of the parties, the alliance is trailing in early polls for the Apr. 6 election.

The latest Ipsos poll shows 33 percent of decided voters support the alliance – a partnership of five parties: the Socialists, Együtt-PM, the Democratic Coalition (DK), and the Liberal party – compared to 51 percent for Fidesz. The far-right Jobbik party has 13 percent.

The coalition, led by Socialist leader Attila Mesterházy, says its support is underrepresented because people are afraid to tell pollsters they oppose the ruling party, pointing to the large number of undecided voters as evidence. However, as the election nears, the number of undecided or uncommitted voters is dropping and the opposition’s support appears stagnant.

Despite a weak economy and allegations of Fidesz corruption over the past year, the alliance has been unable to attract voters from the ruling party.

The coalition has been criticized for not offering new leadership, as both Gordon Bajnai, the head of Együtt-PM, and Ferenc Gyurcsány, leader of DK, are former prime ministers. Mr. Orbán himself was prime minister between 1998 and 2002 before being re-elected in 2010.

Mr. Gyurcsány, who was embroiled in a political scandal in 2006 and resigned in 2009, remains a very divisive figure in Hungarian politics.

Socialist parliamentarian István Józsa says his party’s management is full of “young people and new faces” and the criticisms of Mr. Bajnai and Gyurcsány are part of “the negative campaign that was created and led by Fidesz.”

He says the parties are united by their goal to reinstate democracy and fundamental human rights in the country, which have been damaged by the current government.


The alliance will also face an uphill battle because of a new election law introduced by the government in 2011. Experts say it seriously disadvantages opposition parties by strategically redrawing electoral districts to benefit Fidesz, with right-leaning districts outnumbering left-leaning ones.

The government denies these claims, saying in an email the new districts are more equally divided than before and “no unusually shaped districts are to be found, raising no suspicion of gerrymandering.”

The law also eliminated the two-round voting system that required a party to win at least 50 percent of the votes in an individual constituency in order to win the seat. In the new single-round system, the party with the most votes wins the constituency.

This means small parties risk splitting the vote and handing the election to the largest party – in this case Fidesz – unless they unite with the opposition.

“That’s why you’ve seen the opposition trying frantically to form a coalition in which the democratic opposition only puts up one candidate in each district,” Kim Lane Scheppele, a Hungarian constitutional law expert and Princeton professor, told journalists in Budapest. “Because unless they do that, it’s almost inevitable that Fidesz wins.”

Ms. Scheppele said the new law was “designed for this election” and pointed out that under the old system, every incumbent government since the democratic transition was thrown out of office, except in 2006.

'Better than the best Orbán regime'

At a recent rally against a nuclear deal Orbán signed with Russian President Vladimir Putin in January, voter Dávid Fodor said he will vote for the coalition because he wants Orbán out of office. The deal, which provides Hungary with Russian financing worth 10 billion euros ($13.7 billion) for the upgrade of a nuclear power plant, has become a key campaign issue. Some see it as a sign of Hungary’s move towards the east and away from its Western allies.

“Four years ago, Hungary was a European democracy, now it’s not,” Mr. Fodor says.

However, Fodor, a supporter of Együtt-PM, is not enthusiastic about the Socialists and Mesterházy. “I could imagine a better coalition and a better government in the future, but now this is the [only] real alternative,” he says.

This divided loyalty could be a problem for a coalition that needs as much support as it can get. And whether the alliance can stay together if elected is a significant concern, especially as a large majority appears out of reach.

“If they have just a [small] advantage over Fidesz, I’m pretty sure they will start arguing and the conflicts become more harsh among these parties,” says Róbert László, election specialist for think-tank Political Capital. “It would be very, very challenging to govern the country for them.”

But coalition members know that a fractured leftist government could create an opportunity for Orbán to recapture power. Without cooperation, the parties will be unable to restore democracy and “get rid of Orbán,” says Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy, a member of the DK who is running for parliament in central Budapest.

“No matter how many debates, quarrels, and bad feelings we’ve had," he says, "we have to cooperate because we know the worst democratic alliance is much better than the best Orbán regime.”

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