This is not your typical campaign before a typical election. On Sunday, Hungarians will vote in the European Parliamentary elections for the third time. But for a number of reasons, the campaign has been unusually low-key.
Why has this campaign been so low-key? Part of the reason, of course, is that it follows just weeks after the national parliamentary elections, which is far more important to Hungarians. We cannot say, though, that the campaign before the national elections was particularly heated. Many months before the election in April, everything pointed to another big victory for Fidesz. The united left was not able to come close. Today, the left-liberal opposition parties are in a battle for second place with the radical, right-wing Jobbik. In fact, the left's support base seems to have receded even further, into a tight corner comprising voters in the bigger cities and communist-era housing projects, while Jobbik is gaining in the vast - and poorer - regions of eastern and southern Hungary.
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After the national elections in April, a calmness overcame the country's politics, strange because the European elections were coming only six weeks later. A fast-paced, boisterous campaign should have been inevitable. Ideally, the topics might have been about European political questions, but - as usual - the issues are rather more domestic, Hungarian issues, questions that have some chance of motivating Hungarian voters.
On the one hand, the calmness is not surprising. The Orbán Government has remained in power. There is no need for coalition talks, and after all, the proportion in the Hungarian parliament of the governing center-right, the radical right and the left after the April elections remains almost the same as it was during the last four years.
On the other hand, however, there is one big question important to this post-campaign campaign: the state of the political left. More precisely: the competition among the left-liberal parties, who are not running in coalition this time. For Hungary's parties on the left, the European Parliamentary elections are treated as a proving ground. Who will gain in popularity and who will decline, following the humiliating defeat in April? The contenders are many, including: the Socialists, the grand old party on the left; the Együtt-PM (Together-Dialogue for Hungary) party of the former, technocratic Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai; the small but loud and radical leftist party DK (Democratic Coalition) of the ex-leftist leader and former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány; and then the outsider, the green-left-liberal LMP (Politics Can Be Different), which refused to join the unity coalition of the leftist opposition for the national parliamentary elections.
The European election serves as a serious referendum on the real strengths and weaknesses of these various opposition parties. It is perceived as a test of who has the most voter support and who can become the new leading force on the left. Strangely, though, considering that it could determine who will have the most influence over the near future of Hungary's political opposition (that is, the opposition that is not the far-right), we don't see that there is much ado about this strategic question.
Indeed, these parties should be worried. If the parties on the left don't form a coalition, the Socialists - once the most powerful, influential and deeply rooted, post-communist party of Hungary - might go down to a clear third place behind the governing Fidesz-KDNP and the far-right Jobbik. The smaller parties, running alone, must now be seriously concerned about the five percent threshold at the European election. If these smaller groupings fail to get into the European Parliament, the damaged Socialists, who will get into the EP for sure, might conclude that they can simply continue with what they have done until now. However, if the smaller parties achieve some kind of showing in the results, an inner conflict for the renewal of the left will start again.
Opinion polls show different possible outcomes. According to Nézőpont Intézet's polls, 46 percent of the voters would choose Fidesz, Jobbik and the Socialists would each win 15, and Együtt-PM and LMP would each take 10 percent. DK would not get into the European Parliament. Another poll by Medián shows 56 percent for Fidesz, 17 for Jobbik, 14 for the Socialists, but LMP, Együtt-PM and DK all fail to reach the five percent threshold. A third poll by Ipsos is similar, showing 56 percent for Fidesz, 17 for Jobbik, 16 for the Socialists, and the three other left-liberal parties fall short of the threshold.
The race for the renewal of Hungary's left has just begun, but it seems that the contestants themselves don't take the challenge seriously. Further delaying the competition in this domestic political game will not help them - and will be detrimental to the health of Hungarian democracy. It simply postpones the inevitable, the political purging that must take place on the left. Without it, Hungary's left will be unable to rise to the task of challenging the governing Fidesz-KDNP. They will remain a bunch of scrappy parties, struggling for second place with the Hungarian radical right.