Unpacking Hungary’s double election year

By Samu MARCZ – Account Director | Hungary

Double trouble for the opposition?

The government will want to avoid a repeat of opposition coordination that brought success in 2019 when candidates ran jointly in major cities, challenging the over 10 years of governing party dominance and notably recapturing Budapest.

Failing to capitalise on government unpopularity

As far as the municipal elections go, opposition parties are running out of time to conduct primary elections and are generally much less coordinated than in 2019. Despite a decline in support for the government amidst economic downturn, the fragmentation of the opposition spells little in the way of change. Governing parties are likely to reclaim several municipalities, with the notable exception of Budapest, which is expected to remain an opposition stronghold.

Government party to dominate European seats

For the European Parliament elections, governing parties are expected to secure half of the 21 available seats, as they have done consistently since 2004. The unofficial choice for leader of the Fidesz-KDNP party list is former Minister of Justice Judit Varga, who recently stepped down from her position to focus on European politics.

Varga, in contrast to EU Minister Tibor Navracsics, has played the role of the bad cop in negotiations with the EU regarding issues of corruption and the rule of law in Hungary.

Opposition candidates include The Democratic Coalition, led by former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, and the liberal Momentum party, who are expected to win most of the 8–10 opposition seats. One or two other opposition parties also likely to secure seats, including the far-right party Our Homeland Movement and the satirical Two-Tailed Dog Party.

Resurgence of the populist right?

Despite Prime Minister Orbán’s vision of a right-wing populist breakthrough in European elections, such a scenario does not look set to materialise. Given that the governing parties’ MEPs resigned as members of the European People’s Party in 2021, they are expected to either continue as independents or join a less influential political group within the European Parliament.

The Parliament is viewed as the most critical EU institution of the Hungarian government, in contrast to the Council, where Viktor Orbán has successfully negotiated political agreements in recent years. Such manoeuvrability is set to be tested by the Law and Justice (PiS) party’s loss in Poland’s national election. PiS proved a key ally in Council. However, Orbán can expect support from Robert Fico, who has recently returned to power in Slovakia.

Economic woes could worsen EU relationship

The Hungarian government finds itself in a challenging position on the European front. Record-high inflation and economic difficulties are further exacerbated by the withholding of EU funds. Ongoing tensions between the Orbán government and the EU revolve around rule-of-law and corruption concerns.

The government introduced four justice reforms in the spring, but the European Commission has raised questions on judicial independence.

Rumours suggest any agreement reached would involve Hungary not vetoing planned EU financial support for Ukraine. In exchange, Hungary could gain access to roughly half of the EU’s allocated funds (22 billion euros) and loans (3.9 billion euros), totalling around 13 billion euros.

Presiding over change

Adding to the complexity, Hungary will hold the Presidency of the Council of the EU in the second half of 2024. A number of MEPs have attempted to throttle Hungary’s power in the role and even questioned whether it should be allowed to hold it.

However, the European Council, comprising the leaders of EU member states, is ultimately responsible for the decision and is reluctant to change the schedule. Hungary’s Presidency will coincide with key events: the formation of the new European Parliament and European Commission, and the adoption of the annual EU budget.

Beyond establishing a Ministry of EU Affairs in 2023, Hungary has laid out priorities that include the likes of competitiveness, artificial intelligence, promoting EU values, EU enlargement into the Western Balkans and combatting illegal migration.

The 2024 European and municipal elections in Hungary promise to be a very interesting period. Grayling is here to assist our clients in navigating this complex landscape.