Opinion polls indicate that fewer and fewer people are satisfied with the way things are going in the country and fewer and fewer people accept those persons exercising power. Nevertheless, the so-called democratic opposition has not yet determined to join forces formally, and, according to Medián’s research results, the introduction of voter pre-registration also increases Fidesz’s election chances.
However, there is a formidable weapon against Fidesz, which paradoxically the governing party itself has placed in the hands of its opponents: in the past two years a great deal of despair, frustration, fear and uncertainty has built up because of the activities of the government, which the opposition forces can turn to their benefit in the 2014 general election.
The components and possible consequences of what can be described as anti-Orbán sentiment or opposition to Fidesz are analysed below.
Fidesz leads on the surface
Pollsters agree that Fidesz is first on the popularity list, although the figures differ on the size of its lead. However, the drop in support is clear and significant. Fidesz’s lead is put into perspective by the fact that around half of voters do not wish to participate in the elections (and are even less keen to register in advance) and there are a lot of undecided voters.
Medián’s June research (HVG, 30 June), however, points to a deeper problem of legitimacy:
1. Eighty per cent of people believe things are going in a bad direction in Hungary.
2. Satisfaction with the government’s work is very low (28 per cent).
3. Rejection of Fidesz has more than doubled, from 21 per cent at the change of government to 51 per cent now.
These figures show that the majority of voters blame the government’s policies for the worsening of the situation. In other words the government has not managed to persuade voters on a wide scale that it is working well, but the external effects of the euro crisis are hindering Hungary in developing faster. Naturally, negative views of the government also carry over to Fidesz.
As indicated above, voter registration at present looks likely to benefit the Fidesz camp, but it is not certain this will remain the case a year later. The parties are making no secret of the fact that they are also planning campaigns to get potential voters to register, ahead of their official election campaigns.
Here the extent to which aversion to Fidesz is deep-rooted among voters is significant, because a skilful and credible campaign could build on such feelings to persuade many voters who feel that they are worse off under Fidesz to register. There are a great many such voters, as indicated by the figures above showing clearly the erosion of the government’s legitimacy. The further components of these are discussed below.
What adds to anti-Orbán sentiment
It would be a simplification to claim that Fidesz is synonymous with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Nevertheless the conclusion can be clearly drawn from the country’s constitutional law setup and certain matters (the initiative to bring schools under government management, the prime ministerial decision on the extradition of the “axe murderer”) that the person of the prime minister is very closely associated with Fidesz and the government.
This association is particularly strong in the mind of voters (and they are in the majority) who only follow political events to a moderate degree and therefore are less aware or unaware of forces other than Orbán in Fidesz’s politics. To them Orbán and Fidesz are essentially one and the same, and the popularity of him and the party tend to be in correlation with one another.
What factors are triggering aversion to Fidesz and Orbán? A given party necessarily provokes negative feelings and opposed views. The question is the degree of rejection and dissatisfaction with the work of the government. Both have risen considerably in the past two years.
The main reason for the weakening of the basis of Fidesz’s legitimacy lies in the fact that many people feel they have lost out or been tricked in the course of the public law and social and economic shake-up of the country, and have started to fear. Below is a non-exhaustive list of the reasons for these negative feelings (the individual points may be related to one another and cannot be strictly separated):
1. The impact of the flat tax system: average or below-average earners, especially those who could not or could only to a limited extent take advantage of the family tax allowance, experienced a decrease in their net income owing to the new taxation rules at the beginning of 2011. The wage top-up that companies were pressured to perform by the government only alleviated the situation to the extent that, if they were lucky, employees received compensation for the fall in their net earnings, but they did not necessarily receive a wage increase in real terms. It also emerged that the new system rewards those earning above average, which offended many people’s sense of social justice. It is worth noting that Fidesz’s striking fall in popularity began in the first few months of 2011.
2. The reorganisation of the pension system, including disability pensions and service pensions: although there was agreement with Fidesz’s notion that something needed to be done about the anomalies of the pension system, the style of the reform (service pensions were scrapped with retroactive effect, presenting many people with a fait accompli) antagonised many voters. It came as a surprise to many that, since their previous pensions were renamed, the travel discounts which they had received as pension recipients had also ceased.
3. Lack of improvement in the standard of living in the past two years. According to economist and sociologist Zsuzsa Ferge, there are now about four million people living in poverty or around the subsistence level. Real wages have decreased, the main reason being quickening inflation. Nor has improvement been seen in the employment rate of the private sector. The record-level 27 per cent VAT dealt a further blow to those living on lower incomes.
4. Slashing of social benefits: unemployment benefits have been cut drastically, with job-seeking support now only being granted for three months. The state has increasingly tied social benefits to conditions, such as the public works obligation, the remuneration for which is below even the minimum monthly wage of HUF 93,000 (EUR 325.79).
5. Simplified dismissal of civil servants: it is a clear indication of Fidesz’s dissatisfaction with the performance of the state apparatus that the government had barely formed when Parliament voted to be able to remove ministry civil servants from their jobs without needing to give a reason. Due to the intervention of the Constitutional Court the government has had to forego this but the essence of the regulations has not changed: civil servants can be dismissed much more easily than in the past, for example on the grounds of no confidence. Politicians have been placed at the head of the county government offices, with the jobs and livelihoods of their subordinates depending to a considerable extent on the goodwill of these politicians. The changes have hardly contributed to a positive mood in public administration, are likely to reduce performance and strengthen contra selection.
6. Uncertainty in public administration: among employees in this sector, positive estimation of the government has not been helped by the lack of a wage increase in the past two years, and there will be further restructuring because of the establishment of district offices. It is conceivable that there will be another workforce reduction of several thousand, increasing the feeling of uncertainty among staff.
7. Uncertainty in public education: teachers have not received a wage increase in the past two years either and the purchasing power of their income has further decreased. Schools will enter the management of the state from January 2013, which raises numerous questions, for example will the state replace the existing head teachers and who will it put in their places? While the new “career” model brings the prospect of higher salaries, because of the obligation to be at school all day it could entail the end of overtime, and dismissals.
8. The new Labour Code has tended to set those employed in the private sector against the government, because several of its rules, even if in a milder form than envisaged in the original plans, favour employers. From 1 July employers have had to spend less on shift bonuses, which naturally is bad news for the employees concerned. The damage liability rules for employees have been tightened, and probation periods can even be extended to six months, although this requires a collective agreement between the trade union and the employer.
9. The striking headway made by business groups with ties to Fidesz (such as the companies led by Nyerges and Simicska) in public procurements and state land lease tenders. Here the problem is not just that this process injures those who lose out in the tenders, but that the perception has developed of the Fidesz leadership that it uses state assistance to get favourable deals for those linked to it. Presenting Fidesz as corrupt is one approach that the opposition could take in the next election campaign.
10. Restructuring of the constitutional law system such that the Fidesz government barely meets any resistance within the state power. The almost coup-like curbing of the powers of the Constitutional Court in 2010 may not have prompted hundreds of thousands of people to take to the streets, but it did earn the displeasure of some right-wing intellectuals too.
11. Healthcare restructuring: the transfer of the management of hospitals to the state and the re-regulation of patient paths have caused great uncertainty. Although the government managed to raise wages somewhat, this does not extend to all healthcare workers and the flow of doctors moving abroad has not yet been stemmed.
12. The consequences of the successive foreign policy clashes can barely be perceived yet but they back up the views of those who believe that “Hungary has distanced itself from Europe”.
13. Fidesz’s style: the government is not sufficiently talented in explaining understandably, in detail and logically what it is doing and why. Orbán and his spokesman are fairly good at it but other important government members less so.
What will come of the opposition to Fidesz?
All the above gives many people the impression that Fidesz’s two-thirds majority has brought upheaval rather than calm. Among those opposed to Fidesz in particular, the strengthening desire can be observed for action to be taken against what they consider its aggressive style that rides roughshod over everybody else, and for the parties and other groups of the democratic opposition (MSZP, LMP, DK, Milla, 4K!, Szolidaritás, etc.) to join forces at all costs.
According to this narrative the government is unacceptable to the core and poses such a threat that the left-wing opposition parties should put aside all their differences in terms of personnel and programmes to remove it from power.
Whether such a Hungarian “Olive Tree” coalition, whose members would be united almost solely by their opposition to Orbán, would be able to govern successfully is highly doubtful, but in terms of this analysis what is significant is that the opposition is in itself a large power factor, but one still lacking the appropriate organisation framework, i.e. a party alliance that can adjust to registration and the challenges of a one-round election.
There is not at present any opposition party alone whose support is greater or even close to equalling that of Fidesz. However, if such a party or opposition alliance were to exist it would pose a serious threat to the survival of the government, because opposition to Fidesz has such deep roots and has grown to such large proportions that its opponents can build on it.
The paradox is that this massive discontent has come about because of the politics of the government, rather than the activities of the opposition parties primarily. In other words the key to winning power is still in Fidesz’s hands for now. Fidesz – owing to the media empire with which it has close ties and its extensive power structure – still has a chance of reducing antipathy and correcting its mistakes by 2014, for example apologising to the injured groups and placing greater importance on making living conditions more predictable. The later it does so, the more difficult it will be to reduce negative feelings and win re-election.
Fidesz’s competitive advantage is the dividedness of the opposition and the fact that it can shape the election rules of play to suit itself. However, the possibility cannot be ruled out that the opposition will no longer be divided by the end of the term. With a clear mood to oust the government, and assuming clean and democratic elections, the defeat of the governing party would be inevitable.