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Will Hungary’s Elections Repeat Poland’s Liberal Sea Change?

Will Hungary’s Elections Repeat Poland’s Liberal Sea Change?

This month’s EU Parliament election results delivered record success to the continent’s right wing. But for Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the face of the European right and a vocal supporter of Donald Trump, they spelled trouble. With 14 years in power and four consecutive national election victories, Orban’s Fidesz party has shown uncommon durability for a conservative party in the West. If this last weekend’s results are any indication, the Orban challenger Peter Magyar and his new Respect and Freedom party (Tisza) are shaping up to be the most significant threat to his government yet. 

Conservatives in the United States and around the world will be watching Hungary intently. Many have come to see it as a model for the government’s ardent opposition to immigration and the LGBT movement and its ambitious attempts to boost Hungary’s birth rate.

Fidesz finished with roughly 45 percent of the vote at the EP elections: a commanding plurality, but down 7.5 percentage points and two seats from the last election in 2019. Tisza, which arrived onto the political scene a few months ago and put forward a list of candidates who were practically unknown to Hungarians, captured an impressive 30 percent of the vote and seven seats. Such a result would not be enough to sway a national parliamentary election, but the speed of its rise and its ability to consolidate a fractured opposition have turned heads.

There are echoes of another recent election in Central Europe in which an upstart centrist party led to the defeat of a conservative government. Poland, led by the Law and Justice party (PiS) since 2015, had been the other major right-wing force in the EU until its defeat last October. The opposition’s victory was thanks largely to the newly-formed centrist party Third Way. It pledged that it would enter a coalition with the opposition and it proved capable of drawing in enough otherwise unengaged voters to break PiS’s majority. The Hungarian opposition, regarded by many Hungarians as hopelessly ineffective, is hoping for a similar outcome with the help of its own new political movement at the next national election in 2026.

Magyar seemingly appeared out of nowhere. At the beginning of 2024, his name was unknown to Hungarians. He rose to prominence in February when he began speaking out against corruption in his party following a scandal that led to the resignations of the Hungarian President Katalin Novak and his ex-wife, Minister of Justice Judit Varga. Having spent time in the inner circles of the party, Magyar contends that he knows the party’s flaws and knows what it takes to defeat it.

While the results were less than ideal for Fidesz, they were crushing for Hungary’s established left-wing opposition parties. Of Hungary’s 21 seats in the EU Parliament, they will be sending only two, down from seven in the 2019 election. The only opposition party to gain a seat other than Tisza was the Our Homeland Movement, a party to the right of Fidesz. Magyar has positioned himself as a conservative alternative to Orban and Tisza joined the EU’s center-right European People’s Party.

It is not the first time Orban’s main challenger has come from the right. In the 2022 election, opposition parties formed a coalition under candidate Peter Marki-Zay, a small-town mayor who portrayed himself as a conservative Catholic family man. The alliance included socialists, greens, and a right-wing party that was dealing with recent accusations of anti-semitism. It was a hodge-podge that proved too disparate for the Hungarian electorate, which elected Fidesz with a greater margin than four years prior.

The opposition in its new configuration may well yield better results. An opposition party that runs independently of the left can more plausibly make the case that it is a centrist or center right alternative. Many voters have grown weary of Fidesz after such a long run in power, making conditions ideal for Tisza to win over Fidesz supporters. As in Poland, Magyar has pledged not to form a coalition with the incumbent. Unlike the Polish situation, however, Tisza has emerged as the dominant opposition force. The party’s role will likely not simply be to play spoiler in favor of the left, but rather will have the freedom to pursue its own vision for the country. 

What that vision will be depends entirely on Magyar, the man around whom the party has formed. Magyar’s rhetoric sounds very much like Orban’s. He speaks about Hungary in a grand, patriotic way and frequently references the country’s history and Christian faith. While perhaps surprising coming from an opposition candidate, it shows just how much Orban has shifted the entire political landscape in Hungary to the right. It may also be a genuine expression of the values of a man who only recently left Fidesz. He will need to convince at least some of the over 49 percent of Hungarians that voted for Fidesz in the 2022 election that such is the case. Attempting to convince his left-wing supporters and, eventually perhaps, coalition partners to sign on to his conservative program may prove even more difficult. Magyar has distanced himself from Ferenc Gyurcsany, the influential Orban rival who resigned as prime minister in a 2006 scandal that is still fresh in the minds of many Hungarians. It is hard to imagine, however, that—barring an outright majority for Tisza—he would decline partnership with the left given that he is defined by his opposition to Fidesz and has drawn much of his support from voters on the left.

Bringing out new voters will also be a key to Magyar’s political future. The fact that overall participation in the typically low-turnout EU parliamentary election rose by nearly 16% between 2019 and this year suggests he may be able to generate the interest to do so.

At this point, it is difficult to predict much. Magyar is brand new on the scene and has no track record to judge him by. It may in fact be his greatest asset, allowing him to be a blank slate for hopes of political change. The fact that Tisza now has representatives in EU and municipal governments will change this.

As surprising as Tisza’s rise was, Fidesz’s underperformance should not be overstated. Fidesz won the third-highest percentage of the voter share of any winning party in the EU parliamentary elections. In the local elections in left-leaning Budapest, which makes up approximately a third of Hungary’s population, an independent candidate backed by Fidesz at the last moment came within 0.1% of unseating the incumbent green mayor. Fidesz also managed to hold on to most of its regional municipal governments in Budapest and around the country. And while Fidesz’s support dropped proportionally, it succeeded in turning out its voters, increasing its total votes from 1.8 million in 2019 to 2.1 million. And Fidesz managed to accomplish all of this in a midterm election when voters are more likely to vent their frustrations with the status quo.

Hungary was a forerunner on the trend of “right-wing populism” that has—and apparently continues to—sweep the West. Fidesz’s 2010s rise preceded Brexit and Donald Trump. If its success signaled winds of change then, its signs of stumbling are worth paying attention to now. Whether Tisza will turn out to be a flash in the pan or the beginning of a seismic shift in Europe’s most right-leaning country likely depends most on Viktor Orban. His successful leadership that so many conservatives throughout the West have come to admire will be put to its biggest test.

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