Gergely Karácsony and Péter Márki-Zay during the opposition's referendum drive, Source: Gergely Karácsony on Facebook

Hungary’s high-stakes 2022 general election

Hungary’s high-stakes 2022 general election

The outcome will determine whether the country will take EU-centric course, upholding democracy and the rule of law

President János Áder has set 3 April as the date of Hungary’s general election that is due to occur in 2022. This announcement which, in a different context, could be easily dismissed as a routine motion is rife with far-reaching repercussions that transcend the national borders.

At the heart of such a fateful forecast lie the controversial policies implemented by Victor Orbán’s nationalist governments since 2010 which have led to rifts both inside Hungarian society and with EU institutions.

EU’s unruly child

On the home front, Budapest Mayor Gergely Karácsony, perhaps Orbán’s most vocal critic, sums up the opposition sentiments, describing the Fidesz government as undemocratic, self-serving and disrespecting European values, not least by promoting the interests of China and Russia.

Opposition candidates seizing control of major Hungarian cities (except Debrecen) in the 2019 local elections are a direct consequence and popular indictment of Orbán’s domestic policy focussed on making his inner circle richer at the expense of society and limiting the powers of local governments, claims Karácsony.

The European institutions, on their part, will keep a watchful eye on the 2022 elections, hoping that a more cooperative partner will replace the current naughty boy.   

Relations between the European Union and Hungary have soured over the last 11 years during Orbán’s rule. Apples of discord came in cartloads, including the new 2011 constitution, controversial central bank, immigration and LGBTQ laws, failure to fulfill legal obligations with respect to the relocation of refugees, breach of judicial independence, excessive concentration of media ownership, and expanding the decisions requiring a two-thirds majority (which Fidesz now enjoys, but which will have to be bargained over in a divided parliament).

The frictions peaked last year with Hungary threatening (alongside Poland) to veto the EU budget and the European Reconstruction Fund, and Fidesz leaving the European People’s Party to avoid imminent expulsion from the EP’s biggest group.

United opposition’s challenge

What makes Hungary’s 2022 single-round election truly unique is that Orbán’s rule will be challenged for the first time by a coalition of six opposition parties with joint candidates elected in unprecedented primary. With this strategy, the once fragmented opposition expects to emulate its 2019 local election success, countering the government’s financial resources and propaganda machine.

The united opposition’s choice for Prime Minister is the independent, conservative mayor of Hódmezővásárhely Péter Márki-Zay whose spotless credentials as businessman, local politician and pious family man can serve as a perfect alternative for those Hungarians who traditionally vote for the values exemplified by Fidesz.

January 2022 polls give Fidesz a 4 percentage point lead over the “United for Hungary” opposition alliance. These surveys, however, should be taken with a pinch of salt, given that the pre-election struggle has yet to heat up and that the pollsters’ tools are not sensitive to last-minute changes in voters’ sentiments.

Take no prisoners

The election campaign will officially kick off on 12 February (50 days before the date of the ballot according to the Hungarian Constitution) but the players leave us with the impression that it has already started. Calls for donations have been launched on both sides and the PM announced that as of 1 February, the government will freeze the prices of six basic foodstuffs at their 15 October 2021 levels.

The opposition alliance called the populist move a “cowardly” admission of the tragic state of the Hungarian economy, suggesting a 5 percent VAT on basic food products to be introduced instead. The government has already put caps on the prices of 95 octane petrol and diesel and on mortgage interest rates.

Referendum duel

While voting for 199 seats in the unicameral National Assembly, Hungarians will be simultaneously called to answer 4 questions in a referendum which, according to Justice Minister Judit Varga, aims to “protect the rights of Hungarian children and parents, and stop the LGBTQ lobby at the school fence.”

Meanwhile, the opposition continues to collect the needed 200 000 signatures for its own referendum drive on the planned Budapest campus of China’s Fudan University and extension of the jobseekers' allowance to nine months.

Clearly, the election face-off is underway. But while the adversaries exchange the first salvos, decisive factors like the health and energy crises, inflationary pressures, the situation on the labour market and, last but not least, smear campaigns may swing the vote – either way.



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