BUDAPEST/PHILADELPHIA – Hungary’s autocratic prime minister, Viktor Orbán, was expected to win re-election to a fourth consecutive four-year term this weekend, owing to a rigged electoral system and a largely state-controlled media that made it impossible for the united opposition to reach many voters. But the scale of Orbán’s victory shocked most observers. United for Hungary candidate PéterMárki-Zay lost the popular vote by 53% to 35%, giving Orbán’sFidesz Party yet another constitutional supermajority in parliament. It was a crushing defeat for the European Union as well.
Perhaps the outcome will force Hungary’s opposition to consider the largely economic reasons why so many Hungarians vote for Orbán. Following Fidesz’s sweeping victory in the 2010 election and years of economic hardship, most Hungarians experienced an increase in living standards. While an economic recovery after 2014 that created thousands of new jobs helped Orbán, his policies played a huge role, creating a cross-class coalition for Fidesz.
Hungary’s liberal opposition has largely scoffed at these policies and failed to offer a strong alternative. But beneficiaries feared losing out if Orbán were voted out of power.
Some press reports have focused on Orbán’s freeze on gas prices and other large handouts before the election. Responding to galloping inflation at the end of 2021, Orbán capped the prices of basic goods like flour, sugar, oil, and chicken. These measures, highly reminiscent of the communist era, proved popular. The government also required gas stations to sell their fuel at below-market prices. After the Ukraine war erupted, the government forced retailers to eat the costs as prices rose, or else forfeit their businesses. Hungary became the only European country where fuel prices did not surge, reinforcing Orbán’s image as a strong leader and champion of ordinary people.
But Orbán’s longer-term policies to enhance voters’ well-being have seemingly escaped most analysts’ attention, despite their fundamental role in establishing and sustaining his loyal base. These policies focused on increasing employment and take-home pay, channeling generous social benefits to working families with children rather than the non-working poor, and were couched in a discourse of national renewal.
After 1989, neoliberal transition policies cost Hungary, a country of ten million people, a million jobs, a devastating decline. Orbán’s government sought to correct this by building a “work-based society” using various instruments to boost employment, including tax incentives for large employers and a popular public-works program for poor people in rural areas that created 200,000 sub-minimum-wage jobs. By all reports, the jobs program won the loyalty of many who felt left behind by the economic transition.
Just as importantly, Orbán’s government used tax and other policies to boost purchasing power, so that most Hungarians, including low-income earners, could rightly feel that they were doing better since the mid-2010s. Orbán steadily increased the statutory minimum wage each year until it surpassed the minimum subsistence level in 2018, the first time since 1989. In preparation for the recent election, Orbán’s government boosted the minimum wage yet again, by 20%, benefiting one million employees (a third of private-sector employees) directly while also generating pressure to increase wages for more qualified workers.
In addition to this emphasis on jobs and wages, Orbán built his popularity on family policies that, while far from being just, provided unprecedented levels of public resources to families with children. By excluding unemployed parents, public-sector workers, and those active in the shadow economy, Orbán could concentrate his government’s resources on serving working families in the formal private sector.
For example, families with three or more children have been practically exempt from personal income tax (PIT) since 2012; since 2019, families have received large grants and loans to buy cars and build or purchase houses, and a complete refund of PIT in early 2022. As employment increased after 2014, more families began to benefit. Reflecting the importance of these pro-family policies, in March, during the height of the election campaign, the Fidesz-controlled parliament chose the minister in charge of implementing them, KatalinNovák, to be Hungary’s first female president.
Orbán has framed his government’s economic policies as part of a struggle against various enemies, including Muslim immigrants and, since 2020, “LGBTQ+ propaganda.” He is a master at terrifying the population and casting himself as Hungary’s savior, vanquishing imagined foes, strengthening the traditional family, and increasing the birth rate. Using an image of a Russian mother and daughter on billboards all over the country, Fidesz ran a campaign to protect “Hungarian children,” imploring voters to reject “homosexual propaganda” in a referendum held simultaneously with the election.
Make no mistake: Orbán’s economic policies play as important a role in his political success as the widely documented distortions of Hungary’s electoral system. Yet the opposition has been unable to respond effectively. Many voters identified Márki-Zay and the parties behind him with the neoliberal economic policies that cost Hungary and other post-communist countries so dearly in the 1990s, and Fidesz exploited their suspicion.
Hungarians are willing to vote for a strong leader who violates European norms if it serves their economic interests. The challenge for Hungary’s opposition is to devise a combination of economic and social policies that attracts a strong majority of the voting public, including the growing middle class and those left behind by economic transition and Orbán’s policies alike.
DorottyaSzikra, Senior Researcher at the Center for Social Sciences in Budapest, is a visiting professor at Central European University in Vienna. Mitchell A. Orenstein is Professor of Russian and East European Studies at University of Pennsylvania.