Hungarian Vote Surge Threatens Rule of Europe's Populist Icon

(Bloomberg) -- Hungarians voted in record numbers to decide whether to give Prime Minister Viktor Orban another four-year term, boosting the chances of a divided opposition that’s counting on high turnout to unseat the poster child of Europe’s populist movement.

More than 63 percent of eligible voters had cast ballots two hours before polling stations closed in Sunday’s parliamentary elections, on track for a record. Unofficial results are expected later in the evening. Voters are weighing Orban’s popular anti-immigration stance and an economic upswing against an authoritarian tilt that’s made him the black sheep of the European Union and a role model for anti-establishment parties from Italy to Poland.

Hungarian Vote Surge Threatens Rule of Europe's Populist Icon

Orban had been favored to win a third consecutive mandate, with polls showing support for his Fidesz party roughly equal to the combined opposition. But he’s unlikely to repeat the landslide wins of the past two elections as his opponents seek to capitalize on widespread complaints of cronyism and intimidation. Rivals said a record turnout would leave open the possibility of an upset, especially after a campaign that urged voters to put their party preferences aside and cast ballots for candidates deemed most likely to beat Fidesz.

“Orban’s prospect of remaining in power is entering the danger zone with such a high turnout,” said Attila Juhasz, an analyst at Political Capital in Budapest. “It looks like the opposition was able to mobilize its supporters, but it’s impossible to forecast the outcome.”

Supermajority in Balance

Winning another two-thirds majority would give Orban a chance to boost a new class of politically connected oligarchs, tighten his grip on institutions such as the courts, and strengthen resistance against countries like France and Germany that are seeking to deepen EU integration. A defeat could open the way for disparate opposition parties to roll back some of a raft of self-styled "illiberal" partially modeled on Russia’s.

Hungarian Vote Surge Threatens Rule of Europe's Populist Icon

Securing only a simple parliamentary majority -- the most likely outcome, according to pollsters -- may signal that Orban’s political star has crested, according to William Galston, senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

Fidesz’s support has dropped gradually since 2010. The party won a second but smaller supermajority in 2014 and then later lost it in by-elections. Despite being tipped to take two-thirds of the 199 parliamentary seats for a third time only months ago, ruling-party officials have said that now appears out of reach.

“If Orban’s support falls significantly below 50 percent, then people will take it that what he and his party represents aren’t irresistible,” Galston said.

Resurgent Opposition

Since 2010, Orban has used his supermajorities to chip away at liberal democracy, angering the country’s EU allies. Steps included passing a new constitution over opposition protests, a crackdown on civil society groups, stacking state institutions with party loyalists and using the government’s power to dominate media.

That has triggered a shift in mood among some voters. In Hodmezovasarhely, a Fidesz stronghold in southeastern Hungary, voters complaining of graft, cronyism, and intimidation elected an independent in a February mayoral election for the first time in two decades.

The strategy that worked -- opposition parties joining forces -- failed to materialize before the national vote. While some parties agreed to withdraw candidates to avoid knocking each other out in key, winner-take-all battleground districts, the array of Fidesz opponents, which include a former far-right outfit, socialists and greens, are mostly fighting their own corners.

A total of 106 parliament seats will be decided in voting districts, while 93 will be distributed based on party lists.

Heartened by a recent poll showing more Hungarians would rather have Orban leave than stay, the opposition has shifted its focus from coordination to get-out-the-vote campaigns. Some party leaders have said near-record turnout of around 70 percent would probably strip Orban of his parliamentary majority.

That has happened only once in Hungary’s almost 30 years of post-communist democracy -- in 2002, when voters dealt Orban a shock defeat after his first stint in power.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.