Polling indicates that Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz is highly likely to win another election victory in the 2019 European Parliament elections. Endre Borbáth and Johannes Wachs write that the real question in the election is not so much whether Fidesz will win, but rather how the party’s relationship with the European People’s Party will develop following the vote.
Hungary’s relationship with the European Union primarily depends on the future relationship between Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz and its frustrated parent organisation, the European People’s Party (EPP). Having consolidated political power in Hungary after winning a third straight parliamentary election last year, Orbán is now a figurehead of the populist right in Europe. From within the EPP he challenges the party’s preference to govern the EU in cooperation with centre-left and liberal parties, preferring to find allies on the hardline anti-migration right. In a recent interview with Bernard-Henri Lévy, Orbán suggested Italy’s Matteo Salvini as a potential “champion” of the right wing in the EU.
The long-simmering conflict between Fidesz and the EPP culminated in the suspension of Fidesz’ membership in March, pending an investigation by a committee of appointed party elders. Since then, Orbán has indicated that he will not support Manfred Weber, the EPP’s candidate for the head of the European Commission, and he regularly meets and praises far-right leaders such as Salvini and Austria’s Heinz-Christian Strache. Given Fidesz’ strong polling lead, the real impact of the elections from a Hungarian perspective will be to bring Fidesz and the EPP to a decision point: to continue in conflict or to part ways. The outcomes of opposition parties are overshadowed by this conflict, though they do provide signals for the local elections to be held this autumn.
Hungary will send 21 MEPs to the next European Parliament. In 2014, Fidesz won 51.5% of the votes, with relatively low turnout (around 30%, compared to 70% in the 2018 parliamentary elections). The right-wing party Jobbik (NI) won 15%, while the traditional centre-left opposition MSZP (S&D) won 11%. DK (S&D), a break-off group from the MSZP won 10%, the PM (G-EFA) 7% and the LMP (G-EFA) 5%. The polls predict a similar outcome this year: Fidesz has a commanding lead, with Jobbik and the fragmented centre and left far behind. Politico projects that Fidesz will win 14 seats, nearly as many as Germany’s SPD (15).
Given that the EP elections are the only elections in Hungary organised according to the rules of a proportional electoral system at the national level, most parties decided to compete alone. On the left, only the MSZP and PM are continuing their political cooperation from the 2018 parliamentary elections and have put forward a joint list. On the right, Jobbik will face the opposition of a more radical group, Our Homeland Movement, which split after the turn of Jobbik towards the ideological centre. Newcomer Momentum (3% in the 2018 parliamentary elections) and LMP are both polling near the 5% threshold.
Viktor Orbán, Credit: kremlin.ru
From a programmatic perspective, Fidesz and its opposition define the stakes of the elections in sharply different terms. Continuing with its anti-immigration narrative, Fidesz leaders argue the elections will decide whether Europe is led by pro- or anti-immigration forces, putting the survival of Europe and its Christian heritage at stake. Left and centre parties remain silent on the issue, and campaign on a broad pro-European, anti-corruption agenda.
Similarly, Jobbik is avoiding its previously characteristic anti-immigrant rhetoric and is mostly campaigning on reducing wage inequalities between Western and Eastern Europe. All opposition parties emphasise the domestic relevance of the election, which they consider an opportunity to weaken the Orbán regime. However, they have struggled to gain media exposure given the dominance of pro-Fidesz outlets and their lack of distinguishing messages.
European relevance: Fidesz and the EPP
Triggered by the latest round of the Hungarian government’s anti-Brussels campaign – featuring Juncker and George Soros – the EPP moved to suspend Fidesz’ membership this March pending evaluation via a panel of senior party members. Since then the relationship has become more antagonistic, dominated by mutual accusations and obstruction in EU decision-making procedures by Fidesz, particularly in foreign policy. Although the outcome is unclear, Fidesz seems on track to change its party family for the second time in its history. Orbán led Fidesz out of the Liberal International and into the EPP in 2000.
During a joint press conference with FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Straché in early May, Orbán indicated that he would not support Weber as next head of the European Commission. In the same press conference, he outlined his preference for the EPP to assemble a coalition with political forces to its right “following the Austrian model”, in staunch opposition to previous EPP policy to search for coalition partners among left and centrist parties. His proposal was quickly rejected by most of the senior EPP parties, with CDU leader Kramp-Karrenbauer calling for Fidesz to leave the EPP.
In 2014 Orbán refused to support the then EPP candidate Jean-Claude Juncker, a position only backed by only one other prime minister in office, David Cameron. Back then, Orbán opposed the premise of the Spitzenkandidaten process arguing that the stronger role of the EP in determining this candidate represented a breach of member state sovereignty. Now, he opposes Weber because he declared that he does not want to become European Commission President if it is only possible with votes from Fidesz.
Due to the alliances the EPP needs to build to elect its candidate as the President of the Commission, it is unlikely that the success of Weber’s candidacy will come down to Fidesz. The President of the Commission needs to be elected in both the Council and in the European Parliament. In the Council 55% of the heads of states, representing 65% of Europeans, need to vote for the same candidate. Even including Orbán, the 9 EPP prime ministers in the Council only represent 27 percent of the population of the EU. Orbán’s vote alone, as one of 28 prime ministers in the Council and from a country counting for 1.9% of the population of the EU, is unlikely to make a difference.
According to the latest projections of the European Parliamentary seat distribution, the EPP would have a majority with the S&D and ALDE, but not together with the three party groups to its right. Nevertheless, if the S&D significantly outperforms expectations, Fidesz mandates may be important to settle who the “winner” of the election is.
Outside of the EPP, Fidesz would be exposed to increased scrutiny. It would no longer be shielded by the largest political grouping at the EU level from pressures to control corruption and respect principles of the rule-of-law. A permanent exclusion from the EPP might lead Fidesz to the fringes of European politics, excluding them from some of the most important informal consultation processes. Until recently, EPP leaders have used this possibility as an argument to keep Fidesz in the EPP, arguing that the party is better behaved as a member. This reasoning seems to have reached its limits.
Despite friendly overtures with Salvini, Strache, and Poland’s PiS, there is not yet an actual organisation that Fidesz could join with these parties. In the recent interview with Lévy, Orbán categorically refused to work with Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement national, suggesting that because the party had never been in government, it would not be a responsible partner. This objection suggests a dilemma: even if the right wing populist bloc coalesces, it is extremely unlikely that it would govern or obtain any important jobs at the European level.
If Fidesz joins such a grouping, its recent divorce from the EPP would make cooperation even more difficult. While the EPP would lose a significant number of seats if Fidesz left, Fidesz would lose its seat at the table of decision makers. Moreover, if Fidesz is no longer a member, the EPP might look for other potential member parties in Hungary. Last summer, Jobbik applied, and received a harsh rejection. It is possible that a new, more suitable political force could emerge from the volatile Hungarian opposition.
Local relevance: Alliances in disagreement
Domestically, the EP elections set the stage for municipal elections to be held in the autumn. In that setting, the opposition parties have significantly greater incentive to cooperate as mayors are directly elected. Considering that in last year’s parliamentary elections Fidesz won a plurality and not a majority of votes in many larger cities and districts of Budapest, the opposition’s chances in many races is contingent on selecting single candidates and presenting a unified front.
This has been a major question in Hungarian politics for the last ten years: can the opposition present a unified alternative to Fidesz? Despite efforts to organise a primary to select a joint candidate to challenge the Fidesz incumbent Lord Mayor of Budapest, there are a few hurdles. In a context where the left of centre parties are split with regards to the short and long-term consequences of cooperating with the right-wing Jobbik, they excluded the party from the negotiations to select candidates at the level of the districts. Jobbik and the LMP in turn have threatened to boycott the primary and field their own candidates. From this perspective, the EP election will provide general information about the relative strengths of opposition parties and local information about the extent to which cooperation will be necessary to defeat Fidesz in the different districts.
Election watchers should not wait with baited breath as to whether Fidesz will secure another electoral victory – it will likely win a significant majority of Hungarian seats. The party’s future relationship with the EPP, and likely by extension the EU institutions, is far more uncertain. But what is clear is that Orbán is eager to play a bigger role in the politics of the EU.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.
Endre Borbáth – Freie Universität Berlin / WZB Berlin Social Science Center
Endre Borbáth is a postdoctoral researcher at the chair for political sociology at the Freie Universität Berlin, and at the Center for Civil Society Research at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center. His research concerns party competition and protest politics in a comparative, European perspective. He tweets @eborbath
Johannes Wachs – RWTH Aachen
Johannes Wachs is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Chair for Computational Social Sciences and Humanities at RWTH Aachen and a Researcher at the Government Transparency Institute. He researches corruption and collusion in public contracting markets. He tweets @johannes_wachs