Opposition parties are already campaigning heavily in the countryside ahead of the 2022 parliamentary election. But can they rebuild their standing in the Fidesz heartlands, bridge the growing urban-rural divide and ultimately reunite the country?
By Edit Inotai
Budapest Mayor Gergely Karacsony announced his candidacy for prime minister to challenge Viktor Orban in the 2022 general election in a remote village called Nyirtass, some 270 kilometres east of Budapest. Most Hungarians were puzzled, as they had never heard of this place with just 2,000 inhabitants.
But it was no accident that the liberal-leftist Karacsony chose this tiny village to make his long-awaited announcement: he wanted to send out a clear message that, despite his cosmopolitan-intellectual image, his roots are firmly in this part of the country.
“I was a village boy, coming from the heartland, where people worked and struggled to survive. Like my parents. And it is here where I learnt to love and appreciate this land,” he declared in a somewhat amateurish Facebook video.
Karacsony was raised 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 bring up four children alone. He moved to Budapest only at the age of 20 to continue his university studies.
This is actually a strikingly similar trajectory to the country’s prime minister, who was also raised in a small village and came to Budapest as a university student. But in contrast to Karacsony, whose modest roots were largely unknown to the public, Orban has skilfully cultivated an image as a “man from the countryside” since 1994: the way he talks, acts, drinks palinka (a strong Hungarian fruit spirit) with the locals, and takes part in traditional food festivals in provincial Hungary all burnish the idea of a person whom villagers feel is a kindred spirit. But behind this down-to-earth narrative and man-of-the-people personality lies a network meticulously constructed over the last two decades that has left Fidesz as the only party in town in many areas.
The opposition must now face the consequences of the many years it politically neglected such rural areas, which has put them in an almost hopeless situation in some places.
3 million villagers can’t be ignored
Some analysts remain optimistic, though. “If there has ever been a chance for a change in government, it is now,” political scientist Zoltan Lakner tells BIRN.
To emerge victorious in the 2022 parliamentary election, Lakner explains that the united opposition needs to win back at least some constituencies in the countryside – a tough ask, but not impossible. “In 2018, Fidesz won 50 per cent of the constituencies with an absolute majority. This means that in the other half, the opposition has a pretty good chance if it fields a single candidate,” Lakner points out.
Current polls show that in Budapest the united opposition is leading by a healthy margin of 52 to 30 per cent against the governing party and holds a slight lead in many other large cities, whereas in rural areas Fidesz’s dominance remains unassailable at 46 per cent to 31 per cent.
“A change of government won’t be possible without some support from the countryside,” Imre Kovach, a prominent sociologist and expert on rural development in Hungary, tells BIRN.
It is a simple question of mathematics, he explains. “Central Europe followed a different development path than most countries in the West. As a consequence, the proportion of people living in smaller settlements or in rural areas is considerably higher than in Western Europe. In Poland and in Hungary this ratio is almost 40 per cent – out of the 10 million Hungarians, around 3 million live in villages,” Kovach underlines.
No politician or political party that wants to win power can ignore this part of the electorate. In the 2018 parliamentary election, Fidesz won 58 per cent of the vote in rural areas, but only 38 per cent in Budapest. Even in the 2019 municipal elections when – much to its own surprise – the opposition defeated Fidesz in the capital and in 10 other big cities, Orban’s party maintained its control over most of the smaller towns and villages.
One could argue that Hungary’s nationalist-populist governing party fits into the global trend. As seen in the latest US presidential election, Donald Trump scored high in the countryside where Republican voters dominate, whereas Joe Biden and the Democrats came out as undisputed winners in urban areas. The voting pattern of Brexit also reflected a growing gap between the rural and urban populations. And last year Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, who was elected by a landslide in the Polish capital, was defeated in a close race in the 2020 presidential election largely due to conservative voters in rural areas, who preferred the Law and Justice-backed incumbent, Andrzej Duda.
“I would not overestimate this gap between the urban and rural populations – certainly, there has always been a difference. But what’s new is that politicians are deliberately feeding those differences, which is leading to this deepening polarisation. I find that irresponsible,” Kovach says, warning it is often the media which propagates the cliches and stereotypes that portray people living in smaller towns as uninformed losers who happily surrender to a feudal system.
But things are never quite so 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 benefitting. Kovach says most voters in the countryside now live better than ten years ago – in some areas, incomes grew by 30 per cent – even though the government cut back on social transfers and introduced community work for the unemployed, which was widely accepted. Orban’s “work-fare” society model – which he likes to contrast with the decadent Western “welfare society” – fits with traditional attitudes in villages and small towns, where work is cherished as an essential part of life and where only those who are active are regarded as useful members of the local community. “Looking down on those people is the biggest mistake anyone can make,” Kovach says.
Traditionally, these voters might be more conservative than the urban youth, and seemingly less willing to take risks, but the opposition has done little in the last decade to offer them any 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 shake the stability of a system from which they benefit.
Still, 2022 could be a watershed moment. While it is true there was a constant – though very unequal – rise in living standards until 2019, the pandemic brought that to an abrupt halt and will have long-lasting, deep consequences.
With 30,000 dead and many small businesses either closed or on the brink of bankruptcy, people are starting to question the government’s management of the unprecedented health and economic crisis: did it merely use the emergency legislation it introduced to channel taxpayer money to its cronies while failing to provide any direct cash payments to the neediest in society?
“The main topic of the opposition will be the social crisis, which hit both urban and rural areas,” Lakner says. “And the opposition should also draw attention to the obvious fact that despite the slow but constant progress until 2019, Hungary is now falling behind all its Visegrad allies in terms of wages and there is absolutely no sign of it catching up with Western Europe.”
Opposition parties are now fanning out across the countryside in an attempt to make up for lost time. Jobbik, the former far-right nationalists, is trying to convince people that it is on the way to becoming a centre-right “people’s party”.
Jobbik used to have the biggest network in the countryside after Fidesz, although statistics show they are losing ground. Jobbik vice-president Gyorgy Laszlo Lukacs disagrees: “In recent months, tens of thousands of Hungarians have joined us, who are all dissatisfied with the government and want a change.”
Jobbik believes that rural people have been the biggest losers during Fidesz’s decade in power. “People looking for work have had to move to the capital or go 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 ensure that everybody can strive for a better life in his or her homeland,” Lukacs wrote to BIRN in an email, while accusing the government of forcing rural people to work like “serfs” on the giant estates owned by government-allied landlords.
Agnes Kunhalmi, co-chair of the Hungarian Socialist Party, who tells BIRN she has spent the last few days campaigning in Bacs county, admits that the smaller the village, the more difficult it is to get access to people. “There is a strong hierarchy in the villages, a clear dependency stemming from politics. People are simply afraid to come out and talk to us,” Kunhalmi tells BIRN in a phone interview.
She explains the Socialists are trying to formulate policies for the poor, with a tax-free minimum wage or a raise in the minimum pension, which is currently less than 100 euros a month. But without any independent media in the countryside, their message does not seem to be reaching the neediest who would be the most susceptible to such an offering.
The situation is more promising in midsized or larger towns. Klara Dobrev, an MEP and the prime ministerial candidate for the Democratic Coalition, is on the campaign trail in eastern Hungary and tells BIRN she is finding that a lack of social justice, the arrogance of the ruling elite, and the plundering of taxpayer money and state assets are the most critical issues for voters there. “There is a very vibrant political life in the towns I visit, with several hundred people attending our meetings,” Dobrev says.
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. Beside the historical urban-rural divide, long present in Hungarian cultural and political life, splits have deepened between the religious and non-religious, liberals and conservatives (being the only true patriots), left and right, young and old.
“Orban can only be defeated though the combined strength of rural and urban, old and young opposition voters,” Jobbik vice-president Lukacs believes.
The political scientist Lakner takes that one step further, claiming that, “Hungary’s future will depend on whether this political polarisation can be stopped.”
“But, sadly, that will surely not happen during this campaign,” he sighs.