Hungary: Kremlin propaganda tried and succeeded

Director of Operations of Civitas Intézet shares his thoughts on the Hungarian election, ruling party Fidesz applying Russian propaganda in the election campaign, Péter Márki-Zay not intending to replace the present opposition parties, and why the real change has to come from a grassroots movement.

Op-ed

The expectations regarding the Hungarian elections were high worldwide. Whether the majority of Hungarians would opt for the democratic path of western democracies or stick with an autocratic leader who has been ruling the country for 12 years was the question. For the first time in Hungarian history, the opposition finally realized that the election system crafted by the ruling party leaves them no option but to co-operate. How it was achieved was then put to a test.

The so-called democratic opposition held primaries last year for prime ministerial candidate and individual candidates in order to run against the candidates of Fidesz. Many believed that it would be the recipe for success, however, the election proved to be a historical success for Viktor Orbán and his party. What went wrong?

First of all, many analysts claim government propaganda for the failure of the opposition. Partly, it is true. But putting the blame on something that had been obvious is merely just finding excuses. It has to be emphasized that there was no direct election fraud on election day, however, the playing field leading up to the elections was not even. The slogans of the government and the ruling party were totally supporting each other, thus the ruling party managed to spend 10-15 times the opposition did (actually, over the legally allowed sum).

Photo credit: Facebook

Not only could they test their online resources, but the made a good use of the print media they now own close to a hundred per cent. As for the messages, their “media” was continuously echoing Russian misinformation and Kremlin style propaganda everywhere. I do believe that the Hungarian election in this respect was the trial ground for more important elections to come as far as Putin’s trolls are concerned. In the past years, two parallel bubbles have been created and the government realized that feeding their bubble is more than enough for winning the elections.

On the other hand, solely blaming propaganda can be misleading and the utter denial of the truth. The truth which also has a darker side, as far as the opposition is concerned. The mayor of a medium-sized city, Péter Márki-Zay (PMZ), delivered a surprise victory at the opposition primaries in October, which forced the six opposition parties to co-operate on a level that had been unprecedented before.

Unfortunately for the opposition, PMZ did not take the momentum that had presented itself in October. Moreover, he failed to realize that the secret of his success laid in the votes of people who thought that he was an anti-establishment figure. However, the extra votes he had gathered evaporated one day after the primaries ended when it became clear that he did not intend to replace the opposition parties but wanted a seat at the table.

He started demanding an extra faction for his non-existing party which he also started talking about. That was the first nail in the coffin of the opposition. Then for 3 months there was virtually no campaign and when it finally started, it could never gather speed to catch up with the messages of the ruling party.

Talking about messages, the opposition failed to come up with a simple message, was constantly reacting to the accusations of the governing party, and they made a grave mistake in identifying their voters. PMZ claimed to have come up with a master plan to target dissatisfied Fidesz voters, a group that seems to be non-existent as it has been proven by polls conducted by Civitas Institute itself too. Instead of going for the undecided group, a total blunder of actions followed, which resulted in not being able to focus, find the right channels and messages.

Photo credit: 24.hu

The final nail in the coffin was Putin’s war in Ukraine. Many of the experts believed that a political opportunity finally presented itself and the opposition would get back on the track using the well-known fact that Orbán has been the Trojan Horse of Putin in the EU and NATO for a decade now. Had there been a real election expert with the staff, the messages of painting Orbán as the number one supporter of the war could have been drafted within hours. PMZ could have presented himself as the champion of peace, claiming to bring security to the country, but lacking a professional staff resulted in missing the bull’s eye, and the just the opposite happened.

Orbán did not take long to realize what people need. His propaganda machinery took a U-turn within a day and at the end of the day, he acted as the person bringing peace, plus he successfully managed to make the electorate believe that PMZ would take Hungary to war. As a results, Orbán delivered his fourth consecutive two-thirds majority.

What will happen now is too early to forecast. A lot will depend on the outcome of Putin’s invasion, even more on Brussel’s willingness to wire the funds to Hungary, which Orbán is waiting for with open arms. Whether Orbán can continue his artificial price controls under the given economic circumstances is also a valid question.

“More and more people are demanding a total replacement of the present opposition parties.”

All in all, unless the opposition realizes that the electorate sees no option in them against Orbán, there is no chance to succeed under the given circumstances. More and more people are demanding a total replacement of the present opposition parties, and this change needs to come from the grassroots. Just as it had been demanded by the extra 200,000 voters who brought the success for PMZ at the primaries in October, but vanished when their candidate did not deliver.

Cover photo credit: Balázs Szecsődi, Hungarian Prime Minister’s Press Office

Zoltán Kész is one of the founders of the Free Market Foundation in Hungary.

Zoltán Kész is a former teacher, sports commentator and the honorary president of the Free Market Foundation. As a Fulbright scholar, he taught American History in California. He entered politics as independent in 2015 when he defeated the Fidesz candidate at a by-election, ending the two-thirds majority of the ruling party. He currently serves as director of operations of the Budapest-based Civitas Institute. He is actively working now to help independent media outlets in Hungary and laying the groundwork for a fair and free election in the country. His motto is: “The opposite of populism is taking responsibility”. Twitter: @KeszZoltan
Photo credit: Zoltán Kész

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