Hungary in the Hands of Fidesz

(Angus Reid):  This year’s election is likely to see the opposition take power in Hungary. It will have to live up to very high expectations.

Gabriela Perdomo – Soon after electing the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) into power in 2006, Hungarians heard how Socialist leader and prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsany had lied about the state of the national economy to secure his permanence in power. The revelations caused a popular upheaval that almost toppled the government, but not quite. Since then, Hungarians have been waiting for their chance to get even.

By and large, the Hungarian Citizens Party (Fidesz)—the main opposition group in the country—is the favourite to win a legislative ballot this April. The centre-right Fidesz is heading to the long-awaited election led by Viktor Orban, who served as prime minister from July 1998 to May 2002. Well aware of their dim chances to secure a majority of the seats in the National Assembly, the Socialists have chosen 35-year-old economist Attila Mesterhazy to lead the group into the next election (Gyurcsany stepped down in March 2008 after his economic leadership came under severe criticism).

There is little doubt Fidesz will secure a comfortable majority in the National Assembly, with the most recent survey predicting that about two thirds of the electorate are ready to vote for the main opposition party.

Orban and his team have said their primary focus once in power will be economic recovery. Hungary has suffered greatly since the 2007-2008 global financial meltdown, and the country was already struggling domestically as well—hence the Socialist government’s temptation to lie about the sorry state of the economy in 2006. But Hungarians might not see much of a change once Orban settles in as head of government for the second time.

Fidesz is not exactly free to do as it pleases on the economic file. Hungary is currently under close scrutiny by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the European Union (EU), the three institutions that lent the country more than $27 billion U.S. in 2008 to endure the financial crisis. The creditors have very specific targets and restrictions laid out for Hungary and the new government will have little choice but to accept them and carry their plans.

Orban’s administration will have to withstand the criticism that has affected the Socialists for the past four years. The current government has introduced unpopular massive cuts, including in state payroll and pensions, to deal with enormous debt. The next administration must commit to reduce the budget deficit by one more point to three per cent. Otherwise, it will not meet the EU standards to enter the euro-zone in 2014.

Other than the economy, Orban’s party will have to be ready to handle other uncomfortable realities. The political vacuum that the Socialists have created—their popularity is stalled at around 20 per cent—has given room to the rise of the Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik), an ultra-nationalist party that openly discusses “Gipsy crime.”

Jobbik won three of Hungary’s 22 seats in the European Parliament in last year’s election. Some voting intention surveys suggest that the party will get at least 10 per cent of the vote in April.

Orban will have to face a strong Jobbik in the legislature and know to manage its growing popular support. It will not be an easy balancing act. The party is led by Gabor Vona, a former leader of the Hungarian Guard, a group dismantled by the courts because of its alleged human rights violations against minorities. Across Europe, Jobbik is seen as an example of the increasingly popular fringe movements that combine a harsh stance on crime with anti-immigration sentiments, and criticism of the EU as an organization that suppresses national interests.

The economy and Jobbik will certainly be two of the most pressing headaches for prime-minister-to-be Orban. But perhaps the hardest thing to handle for the incoming administration will be the high expectations that precede it. In the past seven years, no single European country has headed to an election with an incumbent as weak as the Hungarian Socialists and an opposition party as strong as Fidesz. Orban and his team will have to manage a public yearning for better governance that is placing all its trust in the promise of change. Time will tell if Fidesz can deliver.