Hungarian National Elections 2014

On April 6, one month before the awaited European Parliamentary elections, Hungary also holds its national elections. We cannot emphasize enough how much the outcomes of this poll are important; not only for the country but also for the continent. The results of the national election will influence both the upcoming pan-European elections and Hungary's future within the EU. Therefore, it is wise for us all to get informed about what we can expect. To give an overview of the parties, the programs, and, most importantly, the prognosis, this article will examine the political campaign, more specifically, the campaign billboards. In Hungary, approximately half of the population fails to show up on elections, out of lack of preference or perceived influence. Thus, the campaign has a significant role in winning the doubtful millions. 

Before going into the analysis of the images, we need to return a bit to history. In 2010, in the middle of the global economic crisis and after 8 years of leftist rule, Hungary elected a rightist government with an extraordinary majority, unprecedented in modern Hungarian political history. Fidesz-KDNP, the ruling party, was to make up 68% of the Parliament, while the Socialist Party (MSZP), which used to be 'the other of the two powers' in Hungary's politics, was left with 15% only. This landslide defeat intensified the crisis within MSZP, resulting in a split and its break-up into several smaller parties. For the young, radical right-wing Jobbik, however, the election only brought success and consolidation: Jobbik (whose name translates into For a Better/Right Hungary) came out as the third most powerful party, with 12% of the seats, despite (or due to) its nationalistic 'anti-' propaganda. The fourth party in current Hungarian Parliament is newcomer LMP (Politics Can Be Different), whose tell-tale name indicates that the party wishes to position itself as an alternative, which is green, liberal, conservative, center-left, and radical democratic, attempting to be 'coherent' at the same time. In the last years, though, LMP, just like liberal MSZP, underwent some fractioning, which left Hungary with a very fragmented left-wing opposition. The political landscape of the upcoming elections, consequently, is significantly different from what people knew four, let alone, eight or more years ago. This is not only because of the above described changes within the parties, but also because of recent legislations.

With such an extraordinary composition of the Parliament, the last four years witnessed a great deal of changes in Hungarian legislation. Without a detailed assessment of the activities of the Orbán administration, some of their measures will be briefly mentioned because they have a direct impact on the upcoming elections. Due to the extraordinary majority, the government changed Hungary's constitution or fundamental law, which, next to defining Hungary as a country founded as a Christian state and marriage as a bond between a man and a woman, also changed the election system. Like before the regime change of 1989, the election is now changed from a two-round poll to one-round. Moreover, the number of the parliamentary seats is reduced, so smaller parties have less chance to get in. This puts the fragmented left-wing into a very hard position, forcing the parties to run in cooperation. As a result, MSZP launched a joint campaign with DK (Democratic Coalition), Együtt 2014 (Together 2014), PM (Dialogue for Hungary), and Magyar Liberális Párt (Hungarian Liberal Party), under the name of Unity 2014, first, but a couple of weeks ago the name appearing on campaign billboards changed to The Government Changing Force. 

Keeping in mind that only bigger parties or coalitions stand a chance in the upcoming elections, we can say that the competitors in Hungary's national poll of 2014 are, thus, the conservative Fidesz-KDNP governing coalition, for one; the liberal unity of 5 parties, The Government Changing Force, for two; the radical rightist Jobbik, for three; and the green LMP, for four. In order to understand the specific party politics, or at least, how the parties are campaigning for the people's vote, we will scrutinize their campaign billboards

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Let us begin with the analysis of the governing party's campaign. The core of Fidesz-KDNP's billboard campaign is a four-piece series, in which the party demonstrates its main (or rather, most popular) achievements in the recent term: family benefits, new jobs, lower house costs, and higher pensions. The design of the billboards is simple, easy to understand, and positive. It contains a number of obvious symbols that help sending the message: a pleasant emotional-rational impression of the party.  One persuasive device is the orange colour, which is not only a warm, positive shade, but it is also a well-known signifier of the party. Secondly, the arrow heading from down-left to up-right signals the country's progress under the government, on the one hand, and connects the left(ist rule) with negative-down and the right(ist government) with positive-up. The motto Hungary performs better serves as a verbal reinforcement of the previous visual message. Finally, the happy faces of different people placed inside the arrow of progress create an impression of general satisfaction among the Hungarian people. Next to their symbolism, another strong point of the images is that they lack any kind of explicit persuasion or call for a vote; they simply – almost incidentally – indicate the date of the national election. The power of the message, thus, lies in the implied self-evidence and the underlying confidence: Fidesz-KDNP is so obviously good for Hungary that there is no need to declare what to do on April 6. 

There is another billboard in Fidesz-KDNP's campaign that follows the same kind of reasoning. The structure of the image is even simpler. On the right you can see PM Viktor Orbán, with national flags at his back, and the caption Prime Minister of Hungary on the left. No explication, persuasion, or call whatsoever. This is the message: Orbán’s leadership is a fact, not a matter of debate (or vote). 

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Contrary to the powerful and confident rhetoric of the governing party, the oppositional left appears rather weak and indecisive. This comes mostly from the fragmented state of the current left-wing. Instead of the previous practice of having one (or two) strong, unitary leftist party(ies), Hungary now offers a wide selection of liberal parties, with different foci and different leaders. Just to name a few, Együtt 2014 is headed by Gordon Bajnai, former-PM of MSZP; DK is led by Ferenc Gyurcsány, ex-president of MSZP; Magyar Liberális Párt is presided by Gábor Fodor, ex-president of SZDSZ (Alliance of Free Deomcrats), and so on. Launching a joint campaign that is acceptable for all these leaders and their parties feels authentic and persuasive for the liberal crowd, but it also proved to be a great challenge. The first problem was the joint name: initially, the campaign billboards were all signed as Összefogás 2014 (Unity 2014), but when it turned out there is a party with such a name (which has no connection with the unity), they needed to replace it. Sadly, all this happened just a couple of weeks before the election, leaving voters confused. Thanks to this fiasco, the billboards of the now-so-called The Government Changing Force communicate mainly a lack of coordination and reliability, especially put into contrast with a well-organized and well-timed Fidesz-KDNP. (It is not a coincidence that the government released some scandalous information about an ex-minister from MSZP just before the election and that they timed the grandiose opening of a long awaited new metro line of Budapest to March 28, just one week before the poll). 

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However, it is not only the awkwardness around the name that made the billboard campaign of the left alliance weak, but also the rhetoric the parties applied. The billboards of the liberal unity are used to be the canvas for re-acting, to other parties or billboards, rather than being the space for acting, as self-introduction. The billboards fail to inform us about what the liberal unity stands for or proposes, in short, why they could be an alternative. The opposing parties communicate who not to vote for, instead of convincing us who to vote for. To translate it to billboards, what we can find on the side of The Government Changing Force is the copy-replies to Fidesz-KDNP’s images. As a reaction to the above analyzed ’Progress’ series, the alliance produced a series of grey, depressing billboards, with groups of people posing in front of run-down walls as demonstrators, questioning the issues of employment, taxation, investment, and government priorities. While these matters are not one-to-one replies to the specific issues Fidesz used in its billboards, the liberal unity did employ the same demographic diversity seen in the previous images (men & women, singles & families, young & old). Nevertheless, the efficiency to reach as many people with these bland, static, and negative messages as Fidesz-KDNP with its colourful, dynamic, and positive billboards is highly questionable.  

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The other two alternatives Hungary can choose from are ’radical right’ Jobbik and ’radical democratic’ LMP. Neither of them held power before, which obviously implies they can only allude to the future as reference, not to the past. In accordance with this, both parties target younger generations. In one of Jobbik’s billboards, President Gábor Vona poses with young adults and directs voters’ attention to the (supposedly) unrivalled popularity of the radical right-wing party among the youth. The caption, painted in Hungarian tricolor and placed in front of Hungarian folkloristic patterns, draws a prophetic conclusion for Hungary: The future cannot be stopped. The visual-verbal juxtaposition of the future and the youth, thus, their association with Jobbik translates the party’s seemingly innocent billboard into strong propaganda: Jobbik cannot be stopped.  

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LMP, the democratic green party, uses a somewhat softer language just to arrive to a rather similar message. In line with the party’s self-definition, the main colours of the billboard are green and white, evoking sustainability and purity. The motto of the party is (Everybody knows) The future is green, in which ’green’ clearly signifies not just sustainability but the party itself. Thus, LMP’s billboard arrives to a conclusion comparable to that of Jobbik: it is inevitable and obvious that the party’s time is coming. It must be mentioned that LMP is the only one of the bigger parties that has a female leader, Bernadett Szél, which can function as evidence of the party’s progressiveness. However, the image of a woman offering an apple might not be the most unproblematic picture in a predominantly Christian environment. 

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According to opinion polls, the popularity of Orbán's party is still above 50%, followed by the liberal unity's 27%, Jobbik's 17%, and LMP's only 5%, at least among 'active' voters. The question that remains open is how the 'other half' of Hungary will decide. It is largely up to the effectiveness of the campaign, a crucial part of which are billboards. We have seen that Hungary does not really have reliable, EU-friendly alternatives at the moment. The left-wing, which used to be the counter-force, is now fragmented and lacks a voice. LMP is still a young party, with little support. Jobbik, on the contrary, is all but EU-friendly. The progressive turn, bringing about a plurality of powers, ethnicities, religions, and genders, is still to wait in Hungary. 

Edited by Laura Davidel
Photo credits: Anna Szlávi