Viktor Orbán’s Real Threat Comes From Small-Town Hungary

Demonstrators protesting recent legislative measures introduced by the government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on Dec. 14, 2018, in Budapest.

Source Laszlo Balogh/Getty

Why you should care

The Hungarian countryside, heartland for the prime minister’s base of support, is showing signs of revolt.

The freezing cold and falling snow didn’t stop nearly 1,000 demonstrators from hitting the streets last Friday to protest Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s autocratic government. They chanted slogans — “Orbán begone” and “Filthy Fidesz” (a reference to Orbán’s party) among them. They threw eggs at the entrance of a newspaper viewed as the mouthpiece of state-controlled propaganda. But the scenes weren’t from Budapest, where massive protests against Orbán have grabbed the world’s attention. These protesters were in Pécs, a southwestern university town that was once a Fidesz stronghold.

For years, Orbán and his party have used populist chants, anti-immigrant measures and increasingly open Islamophobia and anti-Semitic rhetoric — George Soros is a frequent punching bag — to rally rural and small-town voters even as capital Budapest turned against them. But a controversial recently passed law — dubbed a “slave law” by critics, as it allows employers to demand 400 hours of annual overtime from workers — is threatening to tilt the scales against Orbán, eight months after he swept back to power for the third time.

Away from the international spotlight on Budapest, where riot police last week used tear gas against thousands of protesters who tried to storm Parliament, scenes like the one in Pécs are taking place across smaller Hungarian cities and towns. The past week has seen at least 12 protests outside Budapest. On Tuesday, several hundred demonstrators walked through the downtown of Kaposvár, one of Fidesz’s pocket boroughs, while more than 1,500 protesters filled the main square of Szombathely, another Fidesz-ruled city, near the Austrian border. On Wednesday evening, more than 1,000 people demonstrated in front of the local Fidesz office in the northeastern town of Eger, and approximately 500 protesters braved the biting cold to chant slogans against the party on the streets of Nyíregyháza, a city close to the Ukrainian border.

The people suddenly have realized that it’s not embarrassing to visibly support the opposition.

Áron Varga, political analyst, Heinrich Böll Foundation

It’s this churn in small-town and countryside Hungary that will challenge Orbán much more than the protests in Budapest, experts say. In the April elections, where Fidesz won more than 47 percent of the votes countrywide, the party’s share in Budapest was only 38 percent and the opposition took most of the capital’s parliamentary seats — Fidesz rode to power by winning the vast majority of seats outside Budapest. What’s helping channel the anger against Orbán now is rare unity among a traditionally fractured opposition.

“The people suddenly have realized that it’s not embarrassing to visibly support the opposition,” says Áron Varga, a political analyst and CEO of Visegrad Consulting, a Budapest-based consultancy firm. 

On its part, the opposition is recognizing that once the global media attention on the Budapest protests ends, a serious challenge to Orbán will require that they successfully crack his support base in small-town Hungary. After the holidays, opposition parties are planning protests in about 70 cities and towns around the country in coordination with labor unions. They’re also planning to protest regional and local newspapers and TV stations that Orbán has filled with loyalists to ensure that no voice other than his party’s is heard.

 

Despite the visible and growing anger against Orbán, dethroning him won’t be easy in small-town Hungary. Apart from Fidesz’s control of local and regional news media, it also controls a vast number of jobs in the Hungarian countryside. These jobs are either tied to Fidesz-controlled municipalities or Fidesz-friendly businessmen and landowners — a takeover administered systematically by Orbán’s party over the past eight years in power. That not only makes it hard for ordinary Hungarians to publicly oppose the ruling party but also masks the true extent of disenchantment in a manner not dissimilar to Eastern European socialist regimes.

It also makes the small-town protests that much more significant. “The Fidesz went so far that people go out to protest despite their fear,” says Kristóf Zvekán, one of the protesters in Kaposvár and the father of two young children. Many protesters say that the slave law leaves workers no other option but to hit the streets.

For the moment, the opposition’s unity and its actions appear to have galvanized public sentiment — Varga mentions the way in which opposition members of Parliament tried to grab the presidential pulpit in Parliament to stop the passage of the slave law on Dec. 12. And the controversial law, suggests Varga, has strengthened the opposition’s assertions that Orbán is beholden to factory owner cronies and Western multinationals. But even if the brewing resistance in Hungary’s countryside helps the opposition win some cities in municipal elections scheduled for next fall, it will need more than that to remove the prime minister from power. “A few major victories would not solve the inherent weaknesses of the Hungarian opposition: the lack of resources and the fragmented party structure,” Varga says. “It would take a landslide to really shake the Fidesz’s hold around the country and right now it does not seem likely.”

But Pécs is showing that change is possible. The town was the seat of Fidesz’s first major victory when it won the mayor’s post in 2009, a year before its national victory. In April, though, the party narrowly lost a seat in Parliament to an independent lawmaker. The protests against the slave law have planted the seeds for Orbán’s opponents to try to replicate that success in other countryside towns. That, more than what happens in Budapest, will mean a headache for the autocratic leader.

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