07 April 2022

The Blame for Defeat and the Morality of Politics

Two of my old friends, Andrew Arato and Zoltán Fleck, argue on these columns about the reasons the united opposition lost and Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party won the 3 April Hungarian parliamentary election. Arato claims that the 18% popular vote difference between Fidesz and the six opposition parties makes it impossible to blame the rigged electoral rules for the outcome. It is true that the tilted electoral playing field due to a disproportionate electoral system with a single round, the gerrymandering, the discriminatory treatment of citizens living outside the country (with the new citizens in the neighbouring countries, who have never lived in the borders of the contemporary Hungary, who were allowed to vote by mail, while the more liberal expat community had to go to an embassy or consulate or, as the author of this post did, fly to Budapest), winner compensation, ‘voter tourism’, all introduced by Fidesz after 2010 wasn’t the only reason for the opposition’s defeat. But similar to OSCE/ODIHR elections observers’ 2014 and 2018 reports as well as their preliminary report for 2022, the head of the mission after this year’s election came to the same conclusion: “shortcomings were already clear in the period before the vote, from the biased media through to the all-pervasive linkage of state and party”. Using the words of a recent Eurozine editorial, „you can’t loose democratic elections if they don’t exist”.

So, instead of blaming the rigged election rules and the lack of free media Arato sees two other reasons that decided the election. The first being the opposition’s „combination of the promise of the restoration of the rule of law at the price of illegality”. In an earlier Verfassungblog post authored together with Arato I also criticized some of these ideas, for instance the immediate change of Fidesz’s Fundamental Law, or even the quick enactment of a new constitution with a single majority in case of an opposition victory. But now Arato also criticizes the advertisement of the constitutional change carried out illegally if necessary as ’rendszerváltás’ (regime change) „rather than replacement of a not very popular government”, which allowed Orbán to claim that a coup was being planned. Although in the next paragraph Arato himself admits that this entire first stake could have caused only a few to shift their possible votes to Fidesz, the argument raises the question of the morality of politics. Can democratic parties mislead the voters for tactical reasons about their real assessment of the system and true intension to change it? As everyone knows by now, the Orbán government is not just an unpopular one to be replaced. (BTW, as the election result has just demonstrated again, it’s rather popular.) It’s a regime the Varieties of Democracy Project has rated as an ‘electoral autocracy’, and also Freedom House has labelled as a ‘hybrid regime.’ Why should the opposition hide its goal to change this regime back to a liberal democracy?

I have the same moral concern with Arato’s second main stake that in his view decided the election in Fidesz’s favour: taking an undifferentiated pro-Ukrainian and anti-Russian stance, demonizing Russia, instead of coming up with an alternative. This also should have served a tactical purpose, because I assume we all agree that Russia is an aggressor committing war crimes and crimes against humanity (maybe even genocide), and Ukraine is the victim of those crimes. Is there any alternative to the moral obligation of any democratic political actor to condemn the aggressor and protect the victim? Did the voters’ support legitimize Orbán’s complicite refusal to some of the joint EU sanctions against Russia, lately his willingness to pay for Russian gas in rubles?

The increased support of Fidesz by the majority of voters, who casted votes on 3 April despite Orbán’s immoral stance towards Putin’s war, and also these voters’ “little appreciation of freedom and almost none for limiting power”, mentioned by Zoltán Fleck, raises the question whether, besides the autocrat, the opposition, and the elite, we cannot blame also the ‘people’ for the opposition’s defeat and Fidesz’s victory. Is it politics that has failed ‘the people’, who were only choosing an option that they were offered, and not the other way around, as Kim Scheppele argued earlier? Or rather Joseph Weiler was right to blame the Hungarian people to support Orbán? I tend to agree with Samuel Moyn, who regarding the American people’s responsibility for Trump’s rise argued that blaming exclusively the people cannot help to understand the crisis of democracy. On the other hand, the supporters of Fidesz cannot be released from responsibility either. We should not go as far as Daniel Goldhagen in his book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, on the responsibility of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust, or Sándor Márai, who in 1945, before emigrating from Horthy’s Hungary wrote in his diary that the ‘Nazi-Friendly’ Hungarian Christian middle class will never change, to observe that many voters of Fidesz are aware of their party’s exclusionary, nationalistic, homophobic, autocratic ideas and aims, and they still support them. It cannot be just the consequence of hunger and anger and the lack of democratic education and involvement, rightly mentioned by Zoltán Fleck, that Fidesz gained 135 seats, and since the openly neo-Nazi party, ’A Mi Hazánk’ (’Our Homeland’) has also entered the Parliament with 7 seats, and the formerly neo-Nazi Jobbik Party (whose voters were the most likely to be missing from the opposition coalition’s camp), now part of the joint opposition list, also received 9 seats, plus the only representative of the German ethnic minority also supporting Fidesz, 152 MPs out of the 199 are nationalist, partly irredentist, expecting territorial gains as a possible consequence of the eventual Russian occupation of Ukraine, racist (Anti-Semitic and anti-Roma), homophobic and anti-EU. This is unprecedented even in the speedy democratic backsliding in Hungary since 2010, let alone in the history of an EU member state.

SUGGESTED CITATION  Halmai, Gábor: The Blame for Defeat and the Morality of Politics, VerfBlog, 2022/4/07, https://verfassungsblog.de/the-blame-for-defeat-and-the-morality-of-politics/, DOI: 10.17176/20220408-011230-0.


  1. SDaniel Do 7 Apr 2022 at 19:23 - Reply

    Andrew Arato is so short-sighted, it’s astonishing. Hungary is an autocracy. Period. It is an electoral autocracy but almost all autocracies hold elections these day (North Korea, Mianmar etc. a few other don’t), and an autocracy nonetheless. It doesn’t matter what the difference between the incumbent autocrat and the opposition is. One can check the latest election results in Russia, Venezuela, Turkey, Tunesia, Algeria, Zimbabwe, Gabon, Cameroon and so on. The point is we simply cannot draw any inference from the results as to what the real results would be in a democracy. It would be a whole different ballgame. If my grandma had a wheel, she would be a bike. The point is: there isn’t a stupid autocrat who cannot manufacture his/her popularity. That is just the nature of an autocracy. Autocrats will always arrange the system so that the opposition will look weak, incompetent divided, corrupt, coopted etc. to start with, and then the negative campaign prosecuted by the autocrat will also damage the opposition further. (I suggest reading „How to rig an election“). So Orban is „popular“ but his „popularity“ is manufactured in a way that is impossible to manufacture in a democracy. Of course if the opposition wants to keep trying and play under these rules it will have to face this reality that Orban is „popular“, and many people want to be part of this „Orbanist project“ etc. etc. But this is not real popularity and likewise the opposition would be much more popular in a democracy because it could reach rural areas, it would not have to rely on the derided Gyurcsany, new, more attractive politicians would emerge etc. etc. – all elements of the system (and we talk about dozens of insurmountable hurdles) conspire to hinder the opposition at every step of the way. So Orban is only „popular“ to the extent we accept the present system; in a real democracy (with normal prosecution etc.) he and his family would long be in jail (but most of the top politicians of Fidesz would be there too).

  2. P. Iustus Do 7 Apr 2022 at 20:05 - Reply

    Having read through this rather sparse opinion piece, particularly in response to the last paragraph I want to introduce just one quote: „No one in history has ever been insulted into agreement.“

  3. M. Parisi Fr 8 Apr 2022 at 15:17 - Reply

    P. Iustus mentioned the quote “No one in history has eve been insulted into agreement.“ The quote is a truism that is mostly correct.

    Let me add another quote to this though: “No agreement with an autocrat and his stirrup-holders has ever increased law and justice for anyone.“

    Telling things like they are, as Gábor Halmai does, is – keeping in the spirit of Otto Wels – necessary and sanitary. I completely agree that neither a sole fixation on the mythologically overfraught “will of the people“ [TM] nor a completely conspiratorial “evil forces hinder us from doing right in the world“ is a sufficient explanation.

    The people of Hungary elect their autocrat (more or less) democratically, and that’s their fault. And their autocrat facilitates the process.

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