Erekle Iantbelidze, Contributing Researcher, M.A. from the College of Europe
The spring of 2022 was politically very difficult not only for Eastern but also for Central Europe. Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine has undermined Europe’s continental security. In addition to the foreign policy crisis, the majority of European countries are also facing a moral dilemma, with the line having been drawn between strategic and value-based unity and socio-economic well-being. For example, Hungary and Poland, the main defenders of conservative interests within the EU, have taken opposing positions. In addition, Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orban has openly expressed dissatisfaction and criticized the imposition of sanctions on Russia, which somewhat put a hold on the EU’s effectiveness. All this once again exposed the fragility of international organizations and alliances, which, in Hungary’s case, was precipitated by its putting national interests first. Prior to the parliamentary elections, Victor Orban and the “Fidesz” Civic Alliance, willingly or unwittingly, were able to use the crisis in Europe effectively and win by a landslide.
The Hungarian National Assembly (legislative body) has 199 seats, two-thirds of which were occupied by Fidesz’s political elite. Victor Orban’s team managed to maintain a majority for a fourth consecutive time, and the support of Fidesz increased even more compared to the 2018 parliamentary elections (in 2018, the ruling party won 49.3% of the vote, while in 2022 – 54.1%). The dynamics of the change in public support are noticeable, with a sharp change from March 9 to April 3 (“The United Opposition” lost about 10% of the vote, while the Fidesz political team was able to increase its lead by 5%). The success of the political team labeled as national-conservative was conditioned by effective use of so-called “Gerrymandering”* and the media. However, the results were decisively influenced by the sharply polarized political environment in the country between the populations of urban and rural areas.
In Western democracies, a conflict of interest between residents of large cities and citizens living in rural areas is no longer news. What distinguishes the two central European states, Hungary and Poland, is the high percentage of voters living in rural areas. Statistically, 40% of the population lives in small towns and rural areas, which, in Hungary’s case, is tantamount to a potential three million voters. From election to election, the polarization of views has been growing, artificially nurtured by ruling and opposition leaders to earn political dividends. Victor Orban has built a reputation and image of a rural man since 1994, which proved to be one of the decisive factors in the success of his political team in the 2022 parliamentary elections. His active involvement in regional cultural festivals and programs has transformed public perception, as they see a political leader who is distinguished by pragmatism, constructiveness, and the desire to protect national interests. Consequently, the current political processes in Hungary can be called “rural Orbanism”, as even under the unified opposition, an alternative vision, one which would weaken the political polarization in society and replace Victor Orban’s populist visions with new, progressive ideas, could not be offered.
Despite the created image, populism and media propaganda, the Western world expected the weakening of Victor Orban’s position due to the conflict in Ukraine. His views were just as unacceptable to many Eurosceptics. In contrast, it is astonishing how the Fidesz political team has been able to polarize the Hungarian public even more effectively by appealing to specific issues and exposing the opposition to their inconsistent actions.
First of all, state media outlets have formulated Fidesz’s position in such a way as to lead to the stigmatization of the United Opposition. Residents in the peripheral regions of the country got the impression that opposition forces were openly trying to involve the state in the military conflict, while, in fact, opposition leader Peter Márki-Zay accused the ruling team of “isolating” Hungary, which was misaligned with Europe’s common political actions. It is therefore not surprising that the main slogan of the united opposition was akin to “Orban or Europe”. In addition, the ruling team increased the civil mobilization with false rhetoric, as if the issue of the existence of the country was at stake in this election, which was supposedly based on the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. The people had to make a choice on the one hand between peace and stability, and, on the other hand, between war and chaos. Victor Orban was able to interpret the foreign policy crisis not as a regional or global, but as an internal political problem. In the face of growing energy dependence on the Russian Federation, Orban convinced the majority of residents in the peripheral regions of the country that during this difficult period it was necessary to maintain stability, which could only be provided by Fidesz. As became apparent from the election results, even the harsh criticism of the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, was not able to shake Viktor Orban’s domestic political positions.
The EU’s position on Hungary’s ruling leader is clear. As early as May 2015, with some irony and humor, former European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called Orban a “dictator”, prompted by Fidesz’s decision to deliberate reinstatement of the death penalty. Negative attitudes towards the Hungarian political elite have since increased, although the results of the elections have been legitimately recognized in Europe according to democratic principles. The EU has expressed the view that Hungarian citizens should determine for themselves who they hand over power to, but they should also be aware of the circumstances that could reduce the financial resources allocated from the EU in case the European values (pluralism, tolerance, democracy) there are damaged. These financial resources are vital for Hungary. The main problem is that most of the small town and rural populations do not have access to alternative sources of information. Both digital and print media are dominated by Fidesz’s political narrative, which is economically and socially dependent on EU funding, while ideologically pursuing anti-European sentiments.
Given the results of the Hungarian parliamentary elections, clear elements have emerged in Europe that give rise to a new type of polarization in society. Western democracies are familiar with regional differentiation between the political interests, however, in times of political crisis, only then did Victor Orban’s team manage so effectively to gain the absolute support of the population living in the peripheral areas.
The precedent of a “Rural Orbanism” is likely to emerge in other European countries as well. In the case of Hungary itself, the fact is that over the next four years, the ruling team will try to further exacerbate polarization between the peripheral and central regions of the country in order to maintain the acquired legitimacy, The opposition forces should focus their attention on villages and regions which, even in the face of severe economic, social, and energy crises, may swiftly undermine the advantage gained in large and central cities of the country.