The forint sinks to 400 per euro and motorists panic-buy fuel: last week was a campaign manager's nightmare – in five points

March 14. 2022. – 07:35 AM


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Politicians had to respond to several unexpected turns of events this past week even if they hadn't accounted for them while planning their campaigns. In addition to developments in the Russian-Ukrainian war, a few economic events have disrupted the campaigns that had been laid out by parties: the forint to euro exchange rate plummeted to a historic low, and in multiple places, motorists rushed to gas stations in fear of fuel shortages. In this week's campaign update we will also take a look at the election of Katalin Novák as Hungary's head of state and a poll on Péter Márki-Zay's popularity. All this – in five points. Translation by Dominic Spadacene

1. Panic buying of gasoline ensued after the forint sunk to 400 per euro

During preliminary campaign planning, politicians and their parties painstakingly map out day by day and week by week what they wish to address and what they'd rather not. They conceive of ways to retain their voter base, persuade those who are undecided, and, of course, unsettle their opponents' supporters. However, something always seems to come up during the campaign period that creates confusion and renders voter reactions unpredictable.

In last week's campaign update, we discussed how the war between Russia and Ukraine had brought about a radically new context, thereby forcing all parties to rethink their campaigns. Over the past few days, this situation has been exacerbated by a number of economic factors: the forint's exchange rate spiraled out of control on Monday, and by that morning, Hungary's currency had reached a historic low. It has managed to recover somewhat, but a 400-forint euro bears symbolic power in the campaign. The opposition pounced on the issue, blaming the weak forint on Viktor Orbán and György Matolcsy (President of the Hungarian National Bank). Fidesz did the same with the political left – no surprise there. But beyond putting out a statement, the opposition didn't mount a campaign in response to the 400-forint euro, despite having the opportunity to do so from a visual and political communications point of view.

But there wasn't much time for one anyway because, by Wednesday, the focus was no longer on the weak forint, but on gasoline. Generally speaking, the fixed price of 480 forints for gasoline and diesel is a strong point for Fidesz, but this will only last as long as the fuels are available. And this is exactly what was at risk for several gas stations. Further, logistical problems have also spurred drivers in many places to rush out and fill up their tanks. Before the opposition could jump on the matter, the government acted quickly and called together a special government briefing with the CEO(!) of Mol late Thursday evening (at 9:30 pm!). During the meeting, new measures were announced that are expected to mitigate the panic buying.

These sorts of events constitute a campaign manager's nightmare as it is difficult to predict how they will influence undecided voters. For example, it is hard to determine whether a voter will blame Fidesz for the unpredictable gasoline situation or be grateful to Fidesz for the continued low gasoline prices.

2. The war remains an inescapable topic

The constant news stream of skirmishes between Russia and Ukraine, the thousands of refugees arriving in Hungary, and the series of economic sanctions against Russia all combine to ensure that the war remains an unavoidable issue during Hungary's campaign period. Among the ongoing series of public forums, I would like to call attention to Tibor Benkő's speech in Kiskunhalas. At a public forum organized by Fidesz candidate Gábor Bányai, the Minister of Defense gave a presentation on the war situation and mentioned a few things of national importance: for example, without NATO, Hungary is unable to defend itself. We can appreciate the breadth of this statement's significance if we recall that in previous campaigns, Fidesz's public forums were filled with Brussels-bashing and lambasting the West. By now, a distinct change of tone can be felt here as well.

In response to the war, the opposition came up with the idea of calling an extraordinary session of parliament. Their aim was to get a resolution adopted that, in addition to condemning Russia's military aggression, it would also call for the suspension of Hungary's Paks II nuclear power plant and the expulsion of the Russian International Investment Bank. Fidesz-KDNP neutralized the initiative by not attending the session. Prior to this, parliament had adopted a different resolution condemning Russian military aggression, but bringing Paks II or the Russian bank into the matter was out of the question.

3. The election of Fidesz-KDNP's female presidential candidate went off without a hitch

One thing that can't be left out of this week's campaign update is the fact that Fidesz-KDNP's parliamentary majority managed to elect Katalin Novák, former Minister of Family Affairs and former Fidesz Vice President, as head of state in the first round of voting. After much deliberation, the opposition had ultimately nominated Péter Róna for the post. From a campaigning point of view, Fidesz should be thankful that not only did it easily get its way (meaning that for the next five years, Hungary will have a right-wing president who is undeniably loyal to Orbán) but also that the presidential election itself did not become a campaign issue.

The opposition had indicated towards the end of last year that it supported holding direct elections for the head of state. As such, it was anticipated that they were going to try to obtain enough public support for their own candidate in order to overtake Katalin Novák's approval rating. However, in the end, no such thing happened. In fact, the opposition wasn't even able to ensure that the next parliament would be the one to elect the successor to current president János Áder (who will step down in May). Rather, they let the entire presidential election go by without making it a campaign issue. It is in this respect that Fidesz's success was a resounding one.

4. Fidesz has been ceaselessly whittling away at Péter Márki-Zay – and it's paying off, according to one poll

The opposition took quite some time to prepare its platform: it proved to be a difficult collaboration between the six parties and went through several rounds of negotiations. But finally, this past Wednesday, the tsunami of promises became public as Péter Márki-Zay announced his joint program. The timing could have been better from a campaigning perspective as promising big handouts during a week full of negative news about the economy and financial markets doesn't sound particularly prudent.

Over the next several days, we will find out just what parts of their platform the opposition will choose to emphasize and whether Péter Márki-Zay will be able to use this to boost his popularity. The ruling party is doing everything it can to undermine the prime ministerial candidate, and the pro-government media is also playing its part. According to the polls, the result is that Péter Márki-Zay's popularity is somewhat tenuous: Viktor Orbán is considerably more popular than him both among the general population as well as non-party voters. In fact, Márki-Zay is not even ahead of Orbán in the nation's capital.

Before the outbreak of the war, Závecz Research Institute carried out a political opinion poll (which Telex presented this past week). When asked about it, Márki-Zay made reference to a kind of scheme within the opposition, indicating that he didn't believe the figures. He also announced unexpectedly that he would form a new party – something especially unusual to do in the final sprint of the campaign.

5. Meanwhile, there is an ongoing corruption investigation involving several politicians

If it weren't for the war, the weakening forint, and the gasoline panic, voters would probably be more attentive to the ongoing investigation that is attempting to uncover the deep political ties of a fraudulent invoicing operation. Along with the news site 444, we wrote an article this past week about the fact that this investigation not only involves politicians from the Hungarian Socialist Party but also appears to implicate companies in the pro-government media holding group NER (System of National Cooperation). It remains to be seen just how many more developments there will be over the coming days that are capable of sparking a reaction among voters.

In any case, among the events witnessed this past week was the suspension of Socialist MP Csaba Tóth's parliamentary immunity for the alleged acceptance of bribes totaling a quarter of a billion forints (roughly 650,000 euros). At the same time, the newspaper Magyar Nemzet launched an all-out smear campaign against such Socialist politicians as Zsolt Molnár and the seasoned Ferenc Baja. The coming weeks will determine whether this investigation has the potential to become a major campaign issue similar to those of Gábor Simon or Miklós Hagyó once upon a time.