Sometimes, it’s like two different worlds.
Hungarian voters re-elected Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on April 6th, and over the last several days we’ve been treated to many vivid, post-game analyses.
You can read different insights from across the spectrum of the Hungarian press, and then there’s the version you get from the international media. The marked difference between the two can be illuminating.
The election result was consistent with what the opinion polls had been forecasting for quite some time: a strong majority for Fidesz-KDNP, a weak coalition on the left headed by the Socialists, trailing by approximately 20 points, a far-right party strengthened by its own rebranding and by picking up protest voters disappointed with the Unity coalition, and a leftish-green party, also benefiting from some protest vote, hovering at the five percent threshold.
That’s more or less what we got on Election Day. Fidesz-KDNP won with a 20 percent margin. It’s also fairly close to the outcome we got under the former electoral system in 2010 (except MSZP’s support did grow some in 2012). The polls, across the board, predicted the outcome fairly well.
Yet, the results stirred up quite a commotion in some corners of the international media. What on Earth happened that someone would ask “Is Hungary the only dictatorship in the EU”? Why were some claiming that PM Orbán, who was just elected for the third time in Hungary’s democratic history (he was first elected in 1998 then again in 2010), a veteran politician, had “lost faith in the value of Western-style democracy”?
The line popular among critics said that the election may have been free, but it wasn’t fair. A significant amount of the international coverage echoed that line, claiming that the only way to explain the result is that the new Hungarian election system benefited Fidesz . Some critics went to great lengths attempting to show how the system had been rigged but committed elementary school mistakes in their electoral math. (In fact, the system does benefit the winner –more so than some other electoral systems but less so than others. If the Socialist Party candidates had won many districts, it would have benefited the party.) Beyond that, some international critics blamed it on the unenlightened voters.
We found a few examples of more balanced analyses in English (examples here, here, here, or here), but these were the exception.
It’s especially interesting then to watch and read what’s being said in the Hungarian media – yes, international friends, there is a vibrant opposition-leaning, Hungarian media, despite what some reports would lead you to believe. There’s so much that’s completely missing from the international story.
Take, for instance, this perspective from Imre Szekeres, a former minister of defence and a vice president of the Socialist Party:
“It has become obvious that our 800 thousand missing votes could not be explained away by an unlevel playing field [that favored Fidesz], nor by [Fidesz] having every [media] tool in their hands except the Internet. MSZP is right where it was four years ago.”
Writing on his Facebook page, Dr. Szekeres explains that what was missing are “a functioning centralized campaign organization and talking heads with political weight.” What they did not have but needed, was “that people consider us worthy of governing. A political message, which is an answer to people’s everyday problems so they’d trust that if we’d govern, it would be better for them.” Summing up, Szekeres says that the election result
“depended mostly on us wasting these four years.”
That from a Socialist Party leader. Views like this are common among left-liberal and socialist circles, not just party officials but also sympathizers. Here’s another example.
In an opinion piece entitled, “3+1 Kerdés az Összefogás Apostolaihoz” (or, 3+1 questions to the apostles of the Unity coalition) that appeared in the popular, liberal news outlet HVG, Zoltán Ceglédi criticizes the opposition for doubting the opinion polls and, despite failing to offer real alternatives, continued to hope that their voters would turn out anyway. He underlines the fact that the five leading figures were all faces from former government between 2002 and 2010 and failed to attract undecided voters.
Then there is the issue of financial scandal, the so-called Simon Affair, which I wrote about earlier. The scandal involves large sums of money in foreign bank accounts and senior leaders from the Socialist Party. The story broke because of an investigation by Austrian anti-corruption authorities, not because of a Fidesz-friendly prosecutor. It had a major impact on the campaign and the Socialist Party’s results – and research showed that it bolstered Jobbik’s support — and yet the international media has ignored or brushed over it.
From the international coverage of Hungary’s election, we get almost none of this information. An election is a political story, but the foreign press has done very little to cover the political side of what happened April 6. Few if any are writing about the things that Hungary’s own opposition leaders and media are discussing, the problems and shortcomings of a fragmented opposition.
What we get instead are accusations against the electoral system (which is halfway between majoritarian and proportional systems and by no means undemocratic), charges of “unbalanced public television” (which ranks the lowest amongst nationwide channels, far behind the opposition-leaning RTL), criticisms of Hungary giving voting rights to citizens abroad (which is similar to what an overwhelming majority of EU countries do), and even denunciations of the small, green-leftish LMP for not joining the Socialist-led coalition.
It’s like two different worlds.