o te la fan?
By Lili Bayer and Ryan Heath, in partnership with HVG’s Márton Gergely and Mercédesz Gyükeri.
Welcome to POLITICO’s special edition European Elections Playbook series, zeroing in on 15 EU countries in the run up to the May 2019 poll. I’m Lili Bayer, co-writing today’s newsletter with Ryan Heath and our partners at Hungarian magazine HVG. Here is a snapshot of Hungarian politics, the issues at stake, and our predictions on how the political parties will fare at the ballot box.
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Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has long sought to leverage his domestic domination beyond Budapest. That includes within the European People’s Party, where he has acted as a counterweight to German Chancellor Angela Merkel; within the Visegrad Four, which has proved a thorn in the side of the European Commission; and now as part of a broader alliance of Eurocritical and Euroskeptic parties and governments in power in Italy, Poland and other countries, which could win 200 out of 705 seats in the 2019 European Parliament election.
Fidesz expects “a breakthrough for the more Euroskeptic wing in the European Parliament,” said one senior Fidesz official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He added that “Orbán wants to be the kingmaker in the EPP,” which is why he needs to do well in the election.
Reality check: While Fidesz governs with a supermajority in Hungary and is one of the largest parties in the EPP, it makes up just 2 percent of MEPs in Brussels.
WILL ORBÁN BE FORCED OUT OF THE EPP? No, to the frustration of a collection of small northern and centrist EPP member parties. Despite the European Parliament condemning the Fidesz government in September, with the support of many EPP members, the party’s congress passed in November without incident. There is no majority to push out either Fidesz or individual MEPs.
**A message from the European Gaming and Betting Association (EGBA): In Europe, different countries have different rules for regulating online gambling — but this puts players at risk by leaving them exposed to unequal and inadequate levels of consumer protection, according to a new study. While most Europeans gamble responsibly, approximately 1 percent display problem gambling behavior — and a common, high-level of consumer protection is needed to protect them all.**
For Europe, increased Fidesz influence within the European Parliament and Commission would present multiple challenges. Orbán is close to Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Euroskeptic, far-right groups, despite his EPP membership.
Under Orbán’s leadership, Hungary has blocked closer NATO cooperation with Ukraine; there are worries that Hungary’s civilian intelligence service is prevented from tackling Russian operations within Hungarian territory; and Orbán is a proponent of increased Chinese investment in the EU.
“Today, Brussels is pursuing economic policies which are unfavorable for the Hungarian national economy,” Orbán said in a radio interview over the Christmas holiday.
Around the same time, he mailed a letter to his supporters presenting the European election as a battle between countries with “mixed” populations and those that oppose immigration: “Brussels will not learn from terror attack after terror attack, and persists in its project to turn Europe into a migrants’ Continent, and tries to force this on member states. We, Hungarians, cannot accept this.”
Within Hungary, the prime minister’s economic model often sees the state apparatus picking winners and losers based on loyalty rather than competition. That pits Orbán against Brussels in a list of ways that overlaps with, but goes beyond, rule-of-law concerns.
WHOSE SIDE WILL ORBÁN BE ON IN 2019? Orbán has been, above all, pragmatic throughout his career, and is leaving all options open until after the European election. As long as he feels he has a significant influence on the EPP decision-making processes, and the EPP remains the dominant force in Brussels, Orbán will have little reason to change his established practice of flirting with the far right while remaining firmly inside the EPP tent. If Orbán concludes the EPP no longer protects him, or runs Brussels, he may join forces with Matteo Salvini — whom he has called his “hero.”
Hungarians will go to the polls twice in 2019: in May to vote for members of the European Parliament, and for the much-anticipated local elections, most likely in October.
Domestic demonstrations are on the rise: On Saturday, thousands protested in Budapest. Smaller protests have taken place even in towns where public expressions of dissent are highly unusual.
The demonstrators are angry about a new law, dubbed the “slave law,” designed to reduce labor shortages by allowing employers to ask their workers to put in up to 400 hours of overtime per year, minus a requirement for employers to pay them promptly. They are also concerned about yet another judicial reform they believe undermines checks and balances.
WHAT’S HUNGARIAN FOR ‘YELLOW JACKETS’? The risk to Fidesz, especially during the fall 2019 local elections, is that despite the near-total disorganization of opposition parties, individual Hungarians have repeatedly shown a willingness to hit the streets. Unlike with past successful protests against a Budapest Olympic bid and an internet tax, demonstrators are this time tentatively embracing opposition parties.
And while it may not disrupt the May 2019 election calculus, even a modest swing would be an embarrassment — given the stacked nature of the media debate in Hungary — and would disrupt the government’s finely balanced system of distributing seats and favors just ahead of local elections.
Migration and the economy will be top campaign issues: There are practically no new refugees in Hungary, but the government is using heavy advertising spending to make migration part of the public debate. According to pro-government newspaper Magyar Idők, we can also expect a rare positive campaign about the country’s economic achievements.
— Just 2.3 million voters, or 29 percent of those registered, bothered to vote in the 2014 European election. Hungary in many respects is therefore a “turnout election,” where the most motivated and organized voters hold sway.
— Hungary has a 5 percent electoral threshold. Parties getting less than 5 percent of the vote cannot win seats. So while Fidesz is polling very high, at 52 percent, it is on track to win 67 percent of the seats.
— There is a large contingent of Hungarian speakers living outside of Hungary, and the current government has made great efforts to fast-track their citizenship, even for those who have never lived in the country. Hungarians living nearby but outside the EU, in Ukraine and Serbia, are given special support to vote in the European election, in contrast to the approximately 95,000 Hungarians (about 4 percent of the turnout in 2014) working in the U.K. who will not receive easy voting access.
HUNGARY — WHERE FOREIGN MEPs ARE STARS: Most MEPs lack name recognition even in their own countries, but the Fidesz government has a habit of making them stars in Hungary. Judith Sargentini, Guy Verhofstadt, and former MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit have been set up as liberal bogeymen and women by Viktor Orbán and his team.
Sargentini and Verhofstadt have featured on billboards — much as George Soros did — in 2018, Sargentini for her report criticizing Hungary’s rule of law (or lack thereof) and Verhofstadt for his caustic commentary.
The Sargentini report is drawing attention to the European Parliament election in ways that may backfire on Orbán. A recent Eurobarometer survey found three-quarters of Hungarians know the date of the 2019 election — double the EU average, and nearly triple the number of Hungarians that voted in the previous election in 2014.
But Orbán’s stronger than ever: Although the Hungarian leader was rattled in September, when even EPP group leader and European Commission presidential candidate Manfred Weber abandoned him to rescue his own political ambitions, since then, he’s been on an upswing.
Reporters at HVG concluded: Weber went on to slowly kill Sargentini’s report in the name of the strength and the stability of the EPP, leading Orbán’s fans to perceive him as an invincible leader.
Further proof: In November, the Hungarian government helped convicted former Macedonian PM Nikola Gruevski seek refuge in the country. In December, Orbán pummelled Hungary and Brussels with a series of controversial signature policies — the definitive breakup with Central European University; the birth of the Central European Media and Press Foundation, a giant “non-profit media outlet” controlled by oligarchs close to the government; the “slave law”; and more judicial reforms to reduce transparency.
MEET LÁSZLÓ TRÓCSÁNYI, EUROPEAN COMMISSIONER-IN-WAITING: Balázs Hidvéghi, Fidesz’s communications director, said Justice Minister Trócsányi will be nominated for European commissioner. Trócsányi, 62, is a lawyer and professor at Szeged University. He has served as ambassador to Belgium, Luxembourg and France, and has been a member of the Constitutional Court. He is a loyal Fidesz man. But after current Commissioner Tibor Navracsics sought to shed his reputation as an Orbán hard-man once in Brussels, Hungarians won’t be surprised to see Trócsányi do the same.
Viktor Orbán’s dream is to become “one of the five best countries of the EU” by 2030. That would be quite an achievement for a country with 10 million people, that is the EU’s 14th most populous.
On the upside, Hungary’s GDP growth rate is among Europe’s highest, and unemployment is below 4 percent. Much like Slovakia, Hungary is also turning itself into a competitive car manufacturing hub.
Yet it is still decades from catching up with neighboring Austria. While life in Hungary is cheaper than Austria, Hungarians enjoy only two-thirds of the purchasing power of Austrians. Hungary’s low unemployment figures mask the 130,000 people working eight hours a day on public works, in exchange for a €170 monthly unemployment payment (the net minimum wage is €308 a month, and the average is around €700).
With at least 10 percent of votes set to be “wasted” on parties that fail to reach the electoral threshold, expect fewer opposition parties to win seats. While Fidesz is on track to finish first by around 880,000 votes, the margin of victory is much smaller than the 5.7 million Hungarians who sat out the last election. See POLITICO’s full projection; highlights below:
Fidesz: On track for 13 or 14 seats out of 21, though the party is unofficially aiming for 16.
Jobbik: Traditionally a far-right party, it has moved closer to the center and split as more radical far-right politicians have left. The party struggles to break beyond the 15 percent mark, and will win three seats. Watch out for Jobbik attempting to join the EPP and trying to demonstrate mainstream credibility.
Socialists: With 12 percent support, they could win three seats, but even a small drop in support will see them fall to two.
Democratic Coalition: One seat.
Essential voting rights information: Learn how to register to vote and other facts about Hungary’s voting process.
FIDESZ: The top spots (up to 15 are winnable) have gone to — László Trócsanyi, József Szájer, Lívia Járóka, Tamás Deutsch, András Gyürk, Kinga Gál, György Hölvényi, Enikő Győri, Ádám Kósa, Andrea Bocskor, Andor Deli, Balázs Hidvéghi, Edina Tóth, István Kovács and Norbert Erdős.
Many of the spots have gone to Fidesz’s existing MEPs. Newcomers include Trócsanyi (justice minister), Győri (ambassador to Spain), Tóth (an EPP adviser), and Kovács (employee of a Fidesz-aligned think tank).
Leaving Parliament are György Schöpflin, a moderate British-Hungarian professor who is retiring, and László Tőkés, a Hungarian nationalist from Romania.
“This year’s European Parliament elections will be crucial and historically significant in the sense that a truly all-European issue — migration — will be at its core,” Fidesz Communications Director Hidvéghi said. “The current, pro-migration Brussels majority should be replaced by political forces that are committed to a Europe of nations and the defense of Europeans.”
JOBBIK: The party’s goals are to “send a minimum of 4-5 MEPs to the European Parliament, join a political group, and do well in municipal elections,” Jobbik Vice President Márton Gyöngyösi said. Striking a notably pro-EU tone, Gyöngyösi added: “For Jobbik, the EU is the community within which our country’s and civilization’s interests can be best achieved.” He defined those interests as fighting “uncontrolled migration,” closing wage gaps with Western Europe, and defending the “collective rights of indigenous minorities.”
SOCIALISTS: “We, together with the party Párbeszéd [which supports the European Greens], already announced the ‘Pro-European Alliance,’ which is open for all parties, NGOs and other organizations or people who want to protect our European values,” Socialist Party head Bertalan Tóth said. He added: “We are convinced that a broad pro-European coalition could defeat Mr. Orbán.”
DEMOCRATIC COALITION: Known as DK, this splinter group of the main Socialist Party is on track to win one seat. A joint opposition list for the European election would only be possible “if everyone cooperates,” DK leader and former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány said, noting that it is an open question whether parties like Jobbik and Momentum would be willing to participate.
MOMENTUM: András Fekete-Győr, the party’s 29-year-old leader, said he believes Momentum — which has played a key role in mobilizing protesters over the past weeks — can win two or three seats in May. But this would require the party to triple its opinion poll rating from 4 to at least 12 percent. Momentum joined Guy Verhofstadt’s Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in November and opposes a common anti-Fidesz candidate list.
HUNGARY FOR ALL MOVEMENT: Conservative political newcomer Péter Márki-Zay turned heads in Hungary last year when he defeated a Fidesz candidate for the mayorship of Hódmezővásárhely. Now, he is part of a new movement that wants to emulate this success across the country. There is a need to “unite all opposition voters,” the 46-year-old said. “If the other 50-60 percent cannot cooperate and they are split … then Fidesz will always win.”
“Our movement’s first big step will be the municipal elections in the fall,” he said, noting that there’s little incentive for opposition parties to cooperate via a common list. His European election goal: “a high turnout, which normally favors the opposition.”
LMP (POLITICS CAN BE DIFFERENT): This Green-aligned party has lost both its leaders and a third of its national MPs since April.
Hungary even has its own joke party: The Two-Tailed Dog Party (MKKP). Don’t be surprised if they win the final seat.
On Monday, Socialist MEP István Ujhelyi announced that the Socialists, Jobbik, Momentum, LMP, and Párbeszéd have reached an agreement to work together on a voter turnout campaign.
**A message from the European Gaming and Betting Association (EGBA): Digitalization is rapidly changing how consumers buy and use products — and gambling is no different. With more gamblers playing online, gambling regulation needs to reflect the digital, internet world we live in. But in Hungary, current licensing rules for online gambling restrict international companies from entering the market, stifling competition and online consumer choice. This increases the risk of Hungarians playing on gambling websites not licensed in Hungary… after all, the next best offer is just a click away for a savvy online consumer. For Hungary’s gambling regulation to be a success, it must ensure Hungarians play with gambling websites licensed and regulated in Hungary. This can be achieved by the introduction of a non-discriminatory, multi-license regime for online gambling which removes barriers to competition and accommodates greater consumer choice. Such an improved regime will bring the activity of international websites under greater control of local gambling authorities, maximize state tax revenues from gambling and ensure more Hungarians play within a safe, regulated environment.**