The opposition parties are already campaigning massively in the countryside before the legislative elections of 2022. But can they rebuild their position at the heart of Fidesz, bridge the growing gap between the cities and the countryside and finally reunite the country?
By Edit Inotai
Budapest Mayor Gergely Karacsony has announced his candidacy for prime minister to challenge Viktor Orban in the 2022 general election in a remote village called Nyirtass, some 270 kilometers east of Budapest. Most Hungarians were puzzled, as they had never heard of this place with only 2,000 inhabitants.
But it is no coincidence that the liberal-leftist Karacsony chose this small village to make his long-awaited announcement: he wanted to send a clear message that, despite his cosmopolitan and intellectual image, his roots are firmly anchored in this part. from the country. .“I was a boy from the village, coming from the heart of the country, where people worked and struggled to survive. Like my parents. And it is here that I learned to love and appreciate this land, ”he said. I declareda somewhat amateur Facebook video.
Karacsony grew up in Nyirtass, where his parents worked on the local state farm as horticultural engineers. He was barely six years old when he lost his father in a car accident, leaving his mother to raise her four children on her own. He only moved to Budapest at the age of 20 to continue his university studies.
It is, in fact, a surprisingly similar trajectory to that of the country’s prime minister, who also grew up in a small village and came to Budapest as a university student. But unlike Karacsony, whose humble roots were largely unknown to the general public, Orban has skillfully cultivated an image of a “country man” since 1994: his way of speaking, of acting, of drinking palinka (a strong Hungarian fruit liquor) with the locals, and participates in traditional food festivals in the province of Hungary, all shine on the idea of a person the villagers consider a soul mate. But behind this down-to-earth story and this common man personality hides a network meticulously constructed over the past two decades that has made Fidesz the only party in town in many areas.
The opposition must now face the consequences of the many years it has politically neglected these rural areas, which has put them in an almost hopeless situation in some places.
3 million villagers cannot be ignored
However, some analysts remain optimistic. “If there has ever been a chance for a change of government, it is now,” political scientist Zoltan Lakner told BIRN.
To emerge victorious from the 2022 parliamentary elections, Lakner explains that the united opposition must win back at least some constituencies in the countryside – a difficult demand, but not impossible. “In 2018, Fidesz won 50% of the constituencies with an absolute majority. This means that in the other half, the opposition has a good chance if it presents a single candidate, ”underlines Lakner.
Current polls show that in Budapest, the united opposition leads with a healthy 52-30 percent margin against the ruling party and holds a slight lead in many other major cities, while in rural areas the dominance of the Fidesz remains unassailable at 46 to 31 percent.
“A change of government will not be possible without some campaign support,” Imre Kovach, a leading sociologist and rural development expert in Hungary, told BIRN.
It’s a simple math question, he explains. “Central Europe has followed a different development path from that of most Western countries. As a result, the proportion of people living in smaller agglomerations or in rural areas is considerably higher than in Western Europe. In Poland and Hungary, this ratio is almost 40 percent – of the 10 million Hungarians, around 3 million live in villages, ”Kovach points out.
No politician or political party that wants to gain power can ignore this part of the electorate. In the 2018 parliamentary elections, Fidesz won 58% of the vote in rural areas, but only 38% in Budapest. Even in the 2019 municipal elections when – to their surprise – the opposition defeated Fidesz in the capital and 10 other large towns, Orban’s party maintained control over most of the small towns and villages.
One could argue that the ruling nationalist-populist party in Hungary is part of the global trend. As seen in the last US presidential election, Donald Trump has performed well in campaigns where Republican voters dominate, while Joe Biden and the Democrats have emerged as the clear winners in urban areas. The Brexit voting pattern also reflected a growing gap between rural and urban populations. And last year Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, who was elected by a landslide in the Polish capital, was beaten in a close race in the 2020 presidential election, largely thanks to conservative voters. rural areas, which preferred the outgoing president, supported by law and justice, Andrzej Douda.
“I wouldn’t overestimate this gap between urban and rural populations – certainly, there has always been a difference. But what is new is that politicians are deliberately feeding these differences, leading to this growing polarization. I find that irresponsible, ”says Kovach, warning that it is often the media that propagates the clichés and stereotypes that portray small town dwellers as uninformed losers who willingly surrender to a feudal system.
But things are never that simple. Hungary’s economy grew steadily under a decade of Fidesz rule until 2019, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country, with some rural areas particularly benefiting. Kovach says most voters in the countryside are now living better than a decade ago – in some areas incomes have increased by 30% – even though the government has cut social transfers and introduced community work for the unemployed , which was widely accepted. Orban’s “work-fare” model of society – which he likes to contrast with the decadent “welfare society” of the West – corresponds to the traditional attitudes of villages and small towns, where work is essential. considered an essential part of life and where only those who are active are seen as useful members of the local community. “Looking down on these people is the biggest mistake you can make,” says Kovach.
Traditionally, these voters might be more conservative than urban youth and seemingly less willing to take risks, but the opposition has done little over the past decade to offer them a viable alternative. In many places, Fidesz has become synonymous with the state, which provides funds, EU grants, investment and community work. For many, a change of government would undermine the stability of a system they benefit from.
Yet 2022 could be a turning point. While it is true that there has been a constant – although very uneven – increase in the standard of living until 2019, the pandemic has brought it to an abrupt halt and will have lasting and far-reaching consequences.
With 30,000 dead and many small businesses closed or on the verge of bankruptcy, people are beginning to question the government’s handling of the unprecedented health and economic crisis: did it just use the legislation emergency he introduced to funnel taxpayer money to his cronies while failing to provide direct cash payments to the most needy in society?
“The main subject of the opposition will be the social crisis, which has hit both urban and rural areas,” Lakner said. “And the opposition should also draw attention to the obvious fact that despite slow but steady progress until 2019, Hungary is now behind all of its Visegrad allies in terms of salaries and there is absolutely no no sign of it catching up with Western Europe. ”
Opposition parties are now rolling out across the countryside in an attempt to make up for lost time. Jobbik, the former far-right nationalist, is trying to convince that he is on the way to becoming a center-right “popular party”.
Jobbik had the largest network in the countryside after Fidesz, although statistics show it is losing ground. Jobbik vice-president Gyorgy Laszlo Lukacs disagrees: “In recent months tens of thousands of Hungarians have joined us, all of whom are unhappy with the government and want change.
Jobbik believes that rural people have been the biggest losers of the decade in power for Fidesz. “Those looking for a job have had to move to the capital or travel even further to other EU countries because rural wages are so low. Young people are fleeing the villages because they have absolutely no future there. We would like to make sure that everyone can fight for a better life in their homeland, ”Lukacs wrote to BIRN in an email, while accusing the government of forcing rural people to work as“ serfs ”on the huge estates. government owned. allied owners.
Agnes Kunhalmi, co-chair of the Hungarian Socialist Party, who tells BIRN that she has spent the last few days campaigning in Bacs County, admits that the smaller the village, the harder it is to reach people. “There is a strong hierarchy in the villages, an obvious dependence resulting from politics. People are just afraid to come out and talk to us, ”Kunhalmi told BIRN in a telephone interview.
She explains that the socialists are trying to formulate policies for the poor, with a tax-free minimum wage or an increase in the minimum pension, which is currently less than 100 euros per month. But without any independent media in the countryside, their message does not seem to reach the most needy who would be most sensitive to such an offer.
The situation is more promising in medium to large cities. Klara Dobrev, MEP and Democratic Coalition prime minister candidate, is campaigning in eastern Hungary and tells BIRN she sees a lack of social justice, the arrogance of the ruling elite and the looting of taxpayer dollars and state property are the most critical issues for voters there. “There is a very dynamic political life in the towns I visit, with several hundred people attending our meetings,” says Dobrev.
But the opposition campaign cannot focus entirely on rural areas. Most opposition parties and analysts agree that the main message should be the reunification of the country after years of deliberately stoked political divisions. In addition to the historical urban-rural divide, long present in Hungarian cultural and political life, the divisions worsened between religious and non-religious, liberals and conservatives (being the only true patriots), the left and the right. , young and old.
“Orban can only be defeated with the combined strength of rural and urban voters, elders and youth of the opposition,” said Lukacs, vice-president of Jobbik.
Political scientist Lakner goes even further, asserting that “Hungary’s future will depend on being able to stop this political polarization”.
“But, unfortunately, that certainly won’t happen during this campaign,” he sighs.