Viktor Orban is, to say the least, a divisive figure. To some, he is a defender of traditional Western values, offering a different path both from the chaotic, cosmopolitan “wokeness” of Western Europe and North America, and from the authoritarian, anti-Western model being pushed by China, Iran, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, among others. Few men are saints, and fewer still manage sainthood in the down and dirty field of politics. Orban is no exception. But while he is not a saint, he is no dictator, and more than that, the elections last weekend made clear he is the overwhelming choice of the Hungarian people. That is something self-proclaimed “defenders of democracy” will need to learn to live with.
Contrary to expectations that Orban’s Fidesz Party would lose seats or even power, Fidesz won a landslide victory on April 3rd, winning nearly 54% of the vote to 35% for the United Opposition alliance. This resulted in Fidesz securing 135 out of 199 seats, two more than the 133 the party had won in 2018. The anti-Orban voices in the international and domestic media who hyped up the chances for a victory for the opposition led by Péter Márki-Zay (who lost his own constituency by a margin of 50-39%) were quick to ascribe the result to gerrymandering, a hostile media environment, and vague suggestions of fraud. For them, it was proof positive not that Viktor Orban was the democratic choice of the Hungarian people, but rather that Hungary was no longer a democracy.
It is worth unpacking both claims, as they fail to survive even the most basic examination of the facts. Let’s first engage with the charge of “gerrymandering,” which alleges that Hungary’s electoral districts are drawn to make it difficult or impossible for the opposition to win. Yet while the New York Times quoted a Swedish nonprofit saying “when it comes to election fairness, Hungary now more closely resembles the Soviet era than the free elections that followed the fall of Communism,” they provide no evidence of gerrymandering other than to complain that only half of the seats are awarded proportionally, not all of them. No evidence for the gerrymandering claim is provided, and as can be clearly seen, there really wasn’t much on display in 2022.
Hungarians have two votes, one for a candidate in their local district, much like a U.S. House election, and the other for a national party. Fidesz won 47/93 of the national seats, but 88/106 of the single-member seats. At first, this might seem proof positive of gerrymandering, but it was actually the opposite. A gerrymander would be expected to pack supporters of the disfavored party into a small number of seats while allowing the government to win others narrowly. This did not occur anywhere in Hungary. Outside of Budapest, Fidesz won more or less every seat.
Take, for example, the region of Szabolcs-SzatmaR-Bereg Megyei, on the Ukraine border. It has six seats, which Fidesz won by margins of 4%, 28%, 41%, 41%, 42%, and 45%. If Hungary was gerrymandered, it would have been gerrymandered for the opposition to win the seat that they lost by 4%. The evidence points to overwhelming support for Fidesz.
If anything, the maps cost Fidesz seats in Budapest, where the opposition won the popular vote by only around 9% but won 16 of 18 seats, six of them by 4% or less. Had the California Redistricting Commission drawn Hungary’s seats, it is likely the opposition would have done worse than they actually did.
Quite simply, Viktor Orban won because he got more votes, and the problem the opposition had in terms of winning seats was that Orban won so many more votes than under almost any electoral system, a party which wins an election by a margin of 54%-35% is going to win a large majority. Yet even here, the result was a surprise, but far from a shock. Fidesz’s 53.7% was the highest percentage the party has ever won, but not out of line either with polling or with past results. In 2010, in elections presided over by the current opposition, Fidesz won 52.71%. The 2,706,292 votes Fidesz won that year compare closely with the 2,811,321 it won in 2022. With the exception of 2014, when Fidesz’s support fell to 44.11% and arguably Orban was “saved” by a divided opposition, Fidesz has either won a majority or a near majority of the vote. A United Opposition might have been a necessary condition for defeating Viktor Orban, but no one who paid the least bit of attention to Hungarian elections, polling, or politics could ever believe it would be a sufficient condition on its own. To win, they would have needed a message about how the opposition would do better, not just about Orban being bad, as a majority of Hungarians had voted for him in the past.
It was here when it came to a message, where the very breadth of the opposition alliance seems to have cost them far more than any gerrymandering. While polls generally showed support for Fidesz between 49% and 53%, with the results within, but on the higher end of that range, the place where the polls erred was in terms of support for the United Opposition. At the end of the day, the United Opposition did not prove so united. While the constituent parties had won 46% of the vote in 2018, they managed only 35% in 2022, with 11% voting for other parties.
This fragmentation, more than anything else, explains the lopsided result in terms of seats. At its core was the decision, justifiable perhaps, to form an alliance stretching from the Greens and Socialists on the left to the neo-Fascist Jobbik on the right, whose deputy leader made a Hitler salute on video and which a few years ago called for the registration of all Jews in Hungary. It was almost impossible for such a broad coalition to form a coherent positive message, so they did not try. Their sole message was that they were not Orban. Toward this end they picked a prickly, self-described Catholic conservative, Dr. Peter Marki-Zay to lead them.
The premise of this strategy, however, was that a majority of Hungarian voters wanted rid of Orban personally. If that was the case, then all it would take to defeat Orban would be to unite the opposition. It would not be necessary to advocate for an alternative or even tell voters why they should prefer the opposition over Orban. If voters wanted rid of Orban personally, all they needed was the option. The result was that as Marki-Zay actively tried to stress how much he agreed with Orban on most issues such as nationalism, religion, and social values, the election ended up focusing on the two places where they disagreed. The opposition said Orban was driving Hungary out of the EU, and in turn, embraced EU flags. This meant in effect that the opposition became perceived as the Pro-EU side in a dispute between Orban and the EU, and as they were running on little else, it looked like the opposition was primarily campaigning on replacing Orban, who might feud with Brussels a bit too much for some people’s liking, with a government which would do whatever Brussels wanted to avoid conflict.
The same dynamic occurred with Ukraine. One of the greatest criticisms leveled at Viktor Orban was that he was close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, as Russia supplies much of Hungary’s energy needs. While Orban has backed existing EU sanctions and allowed Ukrainian refugees to enter the country, he has refused to back a ban on Russian energy or to allow lethal aid to flow through Hungary. By attacking this position, the opposition-aligned itself with foreign leaders who seemed angry with Orban for putting Hungary’s interests above theirs. In the two weeks before the elections, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky engaged in a war of words with Orban to such a degree that during his victory speech, Orban cited Zelensky as one of his opponents. Yet by aligning themselves with Zelensky, the opposition seemed to be acting again as tools of foreign interests. This impression was reinforced when they held a joint rally in Budapest with Donald Tusk, the leader of Poland’s opposition (and former president of the European Council), and they cheered on the cancellation of a summit with Orban by the leaders of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. They seemed to be unaware of the danger of appearing to take advantage of an effort by neighboring countries to dictate to Hungarian voters what they should do.
Orban’s victory is a vindication of his tenure. He has delivered solid economic growth, and if he is prickly with Brussels and Washington, and occasionally chummier with Putin than some centrist voters might prefer, he clearly pursues Hungary’s interests aggressively. But it is also a signal that purely negative campaigns do not work.
Democrats in the U.S. should take note. Having abandoned trying to pass legislation, and unwilling even to acknowledge, much less defend woke policies, Democrats have fallen back almost entirely to warning about all the “bad things” Republicans might do. But without explaining why anyone should vote for them, they are repeating the same mistake of the Hungarian opposition: assuming that somewhere, there is a silent majority in their favor, and they just have to remind them that there is an election and who their opponent is in order to win. That will not be enough. And when Democrats lose in November they will blame gerrymandering, the media, and likely Putin. But they will have only themselves to blame.