Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban may be about to reap the electoral benefit of four years of bending the political system to his will.
Orban’s lawmakers have redrawn electoral districts, curbed campaign advertising and made it easier for the largest party to win a parliamentary majority. The changes are part of a political overhaul that includes a new constitution -- passed over opposition protests -- and the ouster of the chief justice of the supreme court.
Polls from five firms indicate that parliamentary elections on April 6 will be a walkover for Orban, who may retain his two-thirds majority for a second term. A victory would return to office a leader who has amassed more power than any of his predecessors since the fall of the Iron Curtain and clashed with the European Union over the erosion of Hungary’s checks and balances during his term.
“It’s so lopsided,” said Maria Trautmann, a 66-year-old pensioner, as she walked her dog a block from the parliament building. She pointed to a forest of signature orange Fidesz posters along the street. “Look around, all you see is orange. And the opposition leaders are also unconvincing.”
That hue appears on television as well. While private television channels don’t show political-party ads because the networks are barred from accepting money for them, the rule doesn’t apply to commercials from the government. So the airwaves carry ads saying “Hungary is doing better” -- which is also Fidesz’s slogan.
Fidesz has 49 percent backing among decided voters, compared with 26 percent for the opposition alliance headed by Socialist Party President Attila Mesterhazy, according to the average of five polls in February and March. Fidesz led the opposition alliance 35 percent to 21 percent among all voters. The pollsters were Ipsos, Nezopont, Median, Szazadveg and Tarki.
“Fidesz getting about 10 percentage points more than its nearest rival would ensure it the two-thirds parliamentary majority,” Tibor Zavecz of Ipsos said by phone, citing the polling company’s estimate. “There would need to be a sea change” for the opposition alliance to win.
Orban in 2011 passed a law cutting legislative seats almost in half and replacing a two-round system with a single round, in which winners are compensated by extra votes. That makes it easier for the largest party to gain a legislative majority. Parliament also redrew electoral districts that year, in ways the opposition says help the ruling party.
Hungary’s election practices follow 16 of the 23 recommendations by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, government spokesman Ferenc Kumin said by e-mail. Election observers will see “a great expression of democracy” at the elections, he said.
Orban, 50, himself said in a speech yesterday that his party wants to “preserve the stability and agility” that the two-thirds majority provides. It allows the government to pass any law without opposition votes. The margin has been Hungary’s “greatest competitive edge” in the past four years, he said.
Opposition parties are so curbed that a presenter on ATV, which frequently books opposition politicians as guests, earlier this month asked former premier Gordon Bajnai if its leaders were campaigning at all. The time limit for campaign ads on public television is capped at 470 minutes and must be equally divided among the 18 political parties on the ballot, leaving 26 minutes for each party.
The supreme court this week ruled that government ads on a private network violated rules on political advertisements, citing the matching slogans. Justices said the spots effectively were political ads for Orban’s party.
“Our base-case scenario is now a supermajority Fidesz win,” Phoenix Kalen and Benoit Anne, London-based strategists at Societe Generale SA, said in a March 13 report following meetings in Budapest. The market response may be initially negative to such a result, they said, and may improve if the government’s policies become more conciliatory. The BUX Index is down 19.2 percent since Orban’s May 2010 inauguration, while the MSCI Emerging Markets Index is up 15.5 percent.
Orban’s platform says little about his second-term agenda except promising to spread government-mandated cuts in household energy prices to the industrial sector. Energy companies must indicate savings on bills -- in Fidesz’s orange color. Orban yesterday said his economic policy for the next four years can be summed up in one word: “continuation.”
“I voted for Fidesz in 2010 and I wasn’t disappointed,” Peter Enyedi, a 26-year-old who has a motorcycle repair shop, said as he listened to an Orban speech in Budapest on March 15. “I’m waiting for further utility-price cuts.”
Asked on state radio last week what Fidesz planned for the next four years, Mate Kocsis, a party spokesman, listed the continuation of energy price-cuts in first place. It’s been a “magic weapon” for Fidesz, while Orban’s consolidation of power has been more divisive, according to Peter Kreko, an analyst at Political Capital in Budapest.
“The entire election has a feel of inevitability, with many more expecting a Fidesz victory than an opposition win,” Kreko said by phone. “The left meanwhile is distracted by its internal problems.”
Gabor Simon, the deputy head of the Socialist Party, the biggest in the opposition alliance, resigned last month after failing to explain the origins of money in an Austrian account. He was arrested this month and denies the charges.
Orban’s party last weekend rejected calls by opposition parties to hold a customary election debate between the top two contenders to become prime minister, citing the absence of a “candidate on the left who would have the capacity to govern and offer a real alternative.”
On the March 15 national holiday, even Mother Nature seemed to take Orban’s side. Hours after Orban rallied supporters in sunny weather in front of the mighty columns of the classical-style National Museum in Budapest, blustery winds forced the opposition alliance to postpone its own event.