Losing to Viktor Orbán Has Taught Hungary’s Left a Tough Lesson

Last April, Hungary’s opposition alliance united socialists, liberals, and conservatives in a common front against Viktor Orbán. But it was crushed at the ballot box — showing that the Left needs to bring voters material gains, not just an anti-Orbán message.

Hungary's right-wing prime minister Viktor Orbán delivers his annual State of the Nation speech on February 18, 2023, after consolidating his majority in the April 2022 election. (Janos Kummer / Getty Images)

It’s been eighteen months since the Hungarian opposition was devastated at the ballot box.

In the April 2022 election, the Hungarian opposition — ranging from democratic socialist to conservative and even far-right forces — came together in a coalition called United for Hungary. They disagreed on many things but came together to end Viktor Orbán’s increasingly authoritarian tenure as prime minister.

Embarrassingly, however, their coalition failed to energize voters — and won eight fewer seats than its constituent parties had in the previous similar contest.

Ever since, the Left has been soul-searching about what went wrong. Now, a consensus has begun to emerge about why the opposition coalition failed, and what the Left needs to do to regain political relevance.

Where it Started

For many organizers and analysts, the Left’s implosion has its roots in the Hungarian Socialist Party government under Ferenc Gyurcsány, who led the country from 2004 until 2009. In particular, they point to an event known as the Őszöd speech.

“In 2006, after winning the election, Ferenc Gyurcsány — the prime minister — had this speech about how [his Socialist party] had lied to the voters [since taking office in 2002] and how they fucked up the economy,” Aram Shakkour, a member of the democratic socialist Spark (Szikra) movement says. “And [then] they pushed through a lot of austerity measures in 2006 and [again] in 2008, and 2009 too.”

When a recording of the confidential speech became public, the Socialist Party’s popularity plummeted, and tens of thousands took to the streets. The combination of the speech, the government’s response to protests, and the steep austerity policy it pursued in order to obtain a $25 billion International Monetary Fund loan led to the party’s electoral collapse in the 2010 national election. The Socialists went from 192 seats in 2006 to just 59. The unambiguous victor was Orbán’s Fidesz, which won a staggering 263 seats, with its promise to turn around Hungary’s flailing economy.

Since returning to the government in 2010 with a supermajority, Fidesz — with help from the minor Christian Democratic People’s Party — has continuously undermined the rule of law, press freedoms, democratic norms, and minority rights. It introduced a new constitution— the Fundamental Law of Hungary — and has subsequently amended it multiple times. While Orbán has claimed that changes were necessary to replace the supposedly communist aspects of the constitution drafted in 1989, the new document is deeply conservative and restrains the independence of the judiciary.

Orbán has also overseen electoral reforms that critics say have disproportionately helped large parties like Fidesz hold on to power. “They changed basically everything since they [became the government], and their two-thirds majority is also due to the fact that they reshaped the entire electoral system,” Márton Schlanger, a researcher with the Republikon Institute think tank, explains.

It reduced the number of election rounds from two to one and shrank the unicameral parliament from 386 to 199. In every national election since 2010, Fidesz has won a supermajority in Hungary’s legislature, thus allowing further constitutional changes.

The situation is so dire that in 2022, the European Parliament issued a statement and report saying Hungary could no longer be considered a full democracy and was now an “electoral autocracy.”

United We Fall

Against this backdrop, opposition parties began to organize a unified coalition to contest the 2022 national election.

“The electoral system constrained us like we had no chance whatsoever to win if we remained divided,” Gábor Erőss, a Budapest politician with the left-wing party Dialogue – The Greens, says. “And that was a very simple but important reason to make an alliance.”

The resulting coalition ran across the political spectrum and included progressives, liberals, centrists, and, most controversially, the right-wing Jobbik — which until recently was considered a far-right nationalist party.

The coalition organized a primary to choose a single candidate to lead the campaign and hoped to — if not outright beat Orbán — at least deny Fidesz a fourth consecutive supermajority.

“Most people didn’t think last year that Fidesz could be defeated,” Shakkour explains. “But they were hoping that [Orbán] wouldn’t have a two-thirds majority because that gives them a right to change the constitution anytime.”

The primary marked a high point for the opposition’s popularity. An unaffiliated candidate — Péter Márki-Zay — won the primary, and at the end of 2021, polls said that they were neck-and-neck with Fidesz.

“The primary election among [the opposition] was the highest point of the opposition coalition’s popularity; they were leading Fidesz by like six or seven percent,” Schlanger says. “But the candidate that was elected, even though the voters were mobilized, to a great extent, Péter Márki-Zay, was of mixed popularity.”

When the polls closed on election night in April 2022, the results were anything but close. Fidesz had gained two seats and increased its vote total by over 200,000. The opposition coalition lost eight seats and garnered only 34 percent of the vote.

“The 2022 general election was something which made it clear that the Orbán regime has become much more stable than it had been,” Dániel Mikecz, a political scientist also affiliated with the Republikon Institute, says. “They achieved really a groundbreaking victory.”

For Erőss, the election results confirmed — just like the European Parliament had said — that Hungary was no longer a full democracy. “I would call [Hungary] a postmodern dictatorship because it’s not a classical, totalitarian regime. It’s a dictatorship of the twenty-first century type,” Erőss explains. “They don’t just want to — or they don’t need to, or they cannot — control everything; they just control enough parts of society and the economy to be sure to win again and again and again.”

The failure of the unity coalition was devastating politically and emotionally. “[There] was despair for the opposition voters and politicians,” Schlanger says. “There was discoordination, there was some level of media silence. Parties tried to redefine themselves a little bit, finding their own voice [and] some parties really suffered from this loss like Jobbik, the right-wing party whose voters disintegrated into the new right-wing party [Our Homeland Movement] and Fidesz.”

What Went Wrong

Several of the coalition’s deficiencies became apparent in the aftermath of the election. For example, although the candidate, Márki-Zay, who won the primary, was popular among primary voters, he failed to energize left-wing voters or offer a genuine alternative to Fidesz’s national conservative agenda.

“[Márki-Zay] was also sort of a self-proclaimed conservative Christian person, which is not the main selling point for opposition voters,” Schlanger explains. “It was said that perhaps him being the candidate for prime minister could bring some votes over from Fidesz, the governing party, that were disillusioned with the party, but this didn’t happen.”

Erőss — the green-left politician affiliated with The Dialogue party — agrees that there was too much emphasis on policies that might appeal to Fidesz voters instead of creating a solid left-wing alternative vision.

“I believe, really strongly, in a left-wing program, and the basis of [any] alliance should be what we propose for the precariat, and I think that was missing,” he says.

However, the coalition’s failure cannot be entirely attributed to the quality of their candidate. Even absent the political division that helped Fidesz win individual seats with a simple plurality, the elections were still heavily tilted in Fidesz’s favor.

“They have all the money in the world, all the media in the world. So even when the opposition united . . . Fidesz had a lot more money and influence that the opposition generally wasn’t a big, big issue,” Shakkour says.

Some Hungarian politicians feel that the real issue of the coalition lies in what they describe as a lack of true cooperation.

“The cracks and contradictions between our parties [in] ideology, technicalities, and resources started to introduce coordination problems,” Imre Komjáthi — a Socialist Party member of the Hungarian Parliament — says over email. “That was our biggest mistake: we [had] built a technical coalition to run on the election, but it wasn’t genuine; there was no real mutual understanding behind it, except the primary. So to speak, our problem was not to join together, but to not get together deeply and honestly enough.”

Lessons Learned

Shakkour believes there are lessons to be learned from the opposition’s failure in 2022. In particular, he argues that some underlying assumptions about countering the government need to be reexamined.

“I think one of the biggest lessons from the last year is that economic instability doesn’t [necessarily] bring votes to the other side,” Shakkour says. “I think that the Left has to find its [way] back to the working class. They have to, again, have the politics the people have. It has to be class politics, basically, in my opinion. Because one of the main reasons that Fidesz was able to have such a big victory in 2010 was that the mainstream left was the one pushing austerity, not the right wing.”

This last point — that left-wing parties need to reclaim a proudly leftist political vision — is echoed by others across the Hungarian left. Despite its mythologization as a “pro-worker conservative” party, Fidesz is actually quite neoliberal on economic issues. It has eliminated progressive taxation in favor of a flat income tax rate and privatized many state assets. Inequality has increased in Hungary, as has inflation. For those looking to rebuild the Left, it is these areas that some believe offer the best opportunity to over voters.

“The main lesson for the Left is the importance of prioritizing the social rights of workers and employees, as well as the broadest possible unity against the system,” Attila Vajnai — chairperson of the Workers’ Party of Hungary 2006 — says over email. “Collaborating with neoliberal policies must be avoided, and an alternative must be provided against the profit-hungry and warmongering system, which exploits people and the natural environment.”

While the Hungarian left is actively rebuilding, they admit the current situation is dire and should be a cautionary tale for other left-wing movements worldwide.

“Don’t do like us,” Erőss says. “Don’t [make] our thousands of mistakes.”