The campaign where war drowned out scandal – analysis in five points

April 02. 2022. – 08:28 PM


The 2022 parliamentary election campaign is over, and on Sunday we will elect the next parliament. Hungarians are voting for individual constituency candidates and party lists, and – almost forgotten – they are also voting in the government-initiated referendum on „child protection”. The 2022 campaign was no ordinary one, with plans largely overturned by the Russian-Ukrainian war and a new campaign essentially starting at the end of February. But what was the main theme? What happened to the scandals? And what will the Hungarian voters be deciding about? Who do the polls show as the winner? As the campaign comes to a close, let us take a look at what campaign ’22 has brought.

1. What was the main theme of the campaign?

For every campaign, there is a key theme that determines voter choice – especially the choice of party by the undecideds. In 2010, it was the "last eight years", in 2014 it was the "fight" for the reduction of overhead costs, and in 2018 migration was the most dominant theme of the campaign. This year's campaign started with no such overwhelming theme: for a long time, the LGBTQ and gender issue seemed to be the central theme, with the government launching a referendum on gender equality, but by the autumn it was already looking less dominant. Thus, the opposition's narrative (the main question: Orbán or not Orbán) battled with the narrative constructed by Fidesz (Orbán or Gyurcsány, "Hungary is going forward, not backwards").

It was into this battle of narratives that the war barged in on at the end of February, when Russia attacked Ukraine. From here on, it was all about the war – not just in the public arena, but at the political level as well. In our earlier five-point analysis, we explained why such a situation is a campaigners' nightmare: virtually all the campaign plans they had built up had to go down the drain, and unpredictable twists and turns had to be calculated.

The two big blocs tried to frame the events in two different narratives: Fidesz and Viktor Orbán presented themselves as representatives of peace and security, while branding the opposition as pro-war; while the opposition and Péter Márki-Zay pushed the issue of the election being about a choice between East and West with varying degrees of vigour, and tried to portray Orbán as Putin's "henchman".

For Fidesz, the polls show that the issue is uncomfortable for the campaign, because its own voters are divided on the extent to which they see the Russians as the aggressor, while a large part of the opposition is siding with the Ukrainians. The question is to what extent this will affect the party choice of undecided voters.

If we look back on the 2022 campaign in the future, we will for sure clearly remember the unpredictability and how the war overwrote all plans and put a lot of events that would have been the leading theme in other campaigns on the back burner: economic events such as the 400 forint euro, the petrol panic, the rising prices due to inflation, but also political scandals, which we will deal with in the next section.

2. What happened to the scandals?

Campaigns not only have their main theme, but also their scandals – think of the BKV corruption scandal before the 2010 elections, Gábor Simon's secret bank account (2014), or even Zsolt Borkai's sex tape (2019). In 2018, opposition circles were expecting a "nuclear bomb" from Lajos Simicska – suggesting that following his break with Viktor Orbán, the former Fidesz economic backer might have something really unpleasant for the Prime Minister to say in public. In the end, there was no such bomb dropped, and Lajos Simicska withdrew from economic and political life after Fidesz won by a two-thirds majority again.

There were similar rumours in this campaign suggesting that we should expect scandalous videos: a Facebook page called The Devil's Advocate promised a video of Minister Judit Varga's private life (nothing came of it), then there were press reports that investigators had found some kind of sex tape of a public figure during the investigation of the Schadl case.

And Péter Márki-Zay even said that a blog would publish details of the gay relationships of three Fidesz ministers. None of this came to anything. We will probably never know whether they exist or they were just well-constructed illusions.

But it is worth mentioning the scandals that have broken out but have received less attention due to the war or some other reasons. For example, the giant “receipt factory” case, which led to searches being conducted at both state and NER-owned companies, but also implicated well-known MSZP politicians. MSZP politicians’ properties have also been searched and accusations were brought against them. In the end, neither side made a big scandal out of this case.

The audio recordings of the pro-government Anonymous, were also one-day news – in this case,

the scandal was most hampered by the fact that the recordings were presented as some kind of evidence, but they that did not actually prove anything.

In a campaign of a different nature, the discovery of ballot papers discarded and burnt outside Tirgu Mures a few days before the elections would presumably have had a greater impact. It is not yet known who placed them there and why, but it is certainly an event that threatens the purity of the election.

So there have been scandalous events, but on the whole, none of them have been so big as to influence the party preferences of the masses.

3. What does the research say?

A favourite sport in every campaign is to analyse, mention or ignore, or even disprove, various opinion polls. However, it is still worth summarising what the latest data tell us about party preferences.

  • Medián: Fidesz-opposition 50-40 (those who can vote)
  • Závecz Research: 50-46 (definitely participating)
  • Századvég: 49-44 (among those who say they are sure or likely to vote)
  • Nézőpont: 49-41 (active voters)
  • IDEA: 50-45 (likely voters)
  • Republikon: 35-33 (all respondents)
  • Publicus: 33-31 (all respondents)

The differences between surveys, as discussed in a previous analysis, can be due to many factors: for example, it is possible that different institutes do not report data on the same part of the population, and the survey methodology may also cause differences. What is common, however, is that all the research institutes show a Fidesz-KDNP advantage.

This suggests that Fidesz is the favourite and that an opposition victory would be a surprise.

What is not a foregone conclusion is that we cannot predict the real turnout, the extent of mobilisation of each party, or how the vote will be distributed in each constituency.

The final number of seats however, depends on this, and all of it is influenced by the nationality list vote (here one German minority MEP is expected, Imre Ritter, who always votes with Fidesz), and the mail-in votes from beyond the border (here a Fidesz vote majority is expected based on the previous elections). The electoral system – as we have written about it several times – is so favourable to Fidesz that even a one or two-point opposition list victory could still result in a Fidesz majority.

4. Was there an Orbán-Marki-Zay battle?

It was to be expected that the campaign would not be about different programmes, approaches and policy positions, but essentially about the prime minister and the opposition prime ministerial candidate. It is no coincidence then, that the opposition primaries themselves were focused on electing a common prime ministerial candidate.

Accordingly, throughout the last weeks, the campaign was no longer about the parties, but about the prime ministerial candidates. For Fidesz, this was not surprising, as the governing party regularly deploys its main name, Viktor Orbán – who has practically become his own brand – in the last days. Although in this campaign it was somewhat surprising that the two-thirds "street fighter" prime minister, who has been campaigning heavily, was constantly hidden from the press.

On the opposition side, the bigger change has been that the parties and their leaders have retreated into the background towards the end, primarily participating in local campaigns. Dominating in national politics was left to Péter Márki-Zay. As a result, Fidesz was able to pick out poorly worded phrases from his many speeches, which later forced the candidate to explain himself. In any case, Márki-Zay has visited many constituencies in the country – not just the wobbling ones – and even Transylvania, sometimes with dozens of interviews, statements and Facebook posts a day, so he chose the tactic of speaking as often as possible in as many places as possible – rather than to speak rarely but then always say something new.

One of Márki-Zay's main objectives was to force Viktor Orbán into a debate and to fight him face to face. We can now say that he failed to do so – the question is whether the undecided voters will perceive this as a shortcoming.

In any case, the campaign of Viktor Orbán and Péter Márki-Zay dominated the political and media agenda to such an extent that there was hardly any space left for smaller parties.

Mi Hazánk built its campaign on speaking out against the so-called Covid dictatorship – which the government practically emptied out in one stroke by lifting almost all restrictions. And the Two-Tailed Dog Party was unable to come up with messages that would have been listened to by the electorate. Polls suggest there is little chance of them crossing the 5% threshold and entering parliament – especially if turnout is high.

György Gődény and György Gattyán's party will also have a national list, but it would be a surprise if they get anywhere near 1%. Public opinion and politics – as has been the case with the fake parties in the past – quickly moved beyond the question of whether they had managed to collect the necessary signatures, and even in that, there was more than one highly suspicious case.

The smaller parties' candidacies could influence the election in constituencies where the outcome depends on a few hundred votes. The polls suggest that it may not be one of these wobbling constituencies.

5. What will voters decide on Sunday?

In the previous sections, we have outlined the campaign we are leaving behind. We will only be able to answer the big question of what the final result will be on Sunday evening, and it is not for us to predict. But it's worth summarising what will most influence voters in Sunday's election.

It is commonplace that voters do not make up their minds on the basis of programmes, and in fact a good proportion of voters in the two big blocs are adamant in their choice. Campaigning is all about persuading and mobilising your own voters, discouraging those of your opponent, and swaying the undecided towards your own camp. Everyone should think about which side has been more effective in this.

The choice is influenced by the level of resources: Fidesz had a huge advantage in this, because it could use government resources endlessly.

In the first place, the sex-change referendum was called at the government's suggestion, so the campaign was run with public money. But many of Fidesz's campaign elements (13th month pension, family allowances, youth tax exemption) were also financed with public money. And the public media have consistently presented pro-FIDESZ positions: the day Péter Márki-Zay was allowed five minutes on public television, Viktor Orbán's speech given on 15 March was broadcast both before and after him.

Elections are also influenced by local candidates and campaigns – and we have little insight into the 106 different campaigns. On average, a candidate's performance can differ by 3-4 percentage points from that of his or her party – upwards for a good candidate, and vice versa for a poorly selected candidate. And if the national result is a close one between Fidesz and the opposition, then the identity of the candidates becomes a matter of particular importance.

It will therefore be worth looking at the election results with an eye on how much each candidate has contributed to the performance of their respective side. This will determine who will have a majority in government.

On Telex, we will of course also look at the data this way. On Sunday, we will be broadcasting the election events minute by minute throughout the day, and we will be posting all breaking news on the Telex English Twitter account as well.

Naturally, there will be a five-point analysis of the election results as well, so stay tuned!

So make sure to choose Telex on Sunday too, and don't forget to sign up for the Telex English newsletter if you haven't yet!