Accession to the European Union
In the 1990s, Hungary was among those Central and Eastern European countries whose main aim after the disintegration of the Soviet Union was to ‘find their way back to Europe’. The country’s cooperation with the European Communities started in 1989 with the creation of the Phare Programme which was a European pre-accession instrument aiming at assisting the economic recovery of first Hungary and Poland, and later on other Central and Eastern European countries, in order to facilitate their accession to the European Union. After the changing of the political system in Hungary and during the democratic elections of 1990 there was a political consensus about the future of the country: all political parties of the Hungarian Parliament agreed that the main foreign policy goal of the country should be to join the EU as soon as possible. In 1993, the Copenhagen criteria were created as pre-requisites of accession to the Union. Hungary started out as an elite candidate country, successfully meeting the Copenhagen criteria and quickly completing the accession process. This progress was largely facilitated not only by the internal political consensus in the country about EU membership but also by the EU’s system of pre-accession conditionality. In April 2003, a referendum was held in the country, where 83,76% of the participants voted in favor of joining the Union. Hungary joined the EU a year later, in May 2004, when nine other countries also became members. After its accession, Hungary has had a mixed experience as a policy actor and a subject of EU obligations both on the EU and the national level. After starting its membership relatively well, in recent years it began to adopt a markedly more self-centered and autonomous behavior which is more conscious about Member State opportunities and not afraid to take up legal and political conflicts with the EU. This new strategy must, however, be assessed with reference to the overall respectable compliance record of Hungary and its willingness to resolve even the most controversial conflicts with the EU.
The Hungarian political landscape in the early 2000s, despite being a multi-party system, was dominated by two parties only: MSZP (the Hungarian Socialist Party) and Fidesz (Alliance of Young Democrats), a centre-right party. MSZP was governing the country between 2002 and 2010, but due to several political scandals and the economic decline of the country, they lost trust of the Hungarian voters, which resulted in the landslide victory of Fidesz in the 2010 national parliamentary elections. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s party obtained two-thirds of the parliamentary seats, which enabled his government to facilitate comprehensive constitutional and legal reforms. Such acts often received harsh criticism from Brussels in the past four years. Since 2010, Hungary was subject to several infringement proceedings and European Parliament resolutions condemning the recent political developments of the country, which were seen to threaten democratic principles and the rule of law in the country.
Hungary currently has 22 MEPs in the European Parliament. In the 2009 EP elections Fidesz received 14 and MSZP 4 seats. 3 seats went to the eurosceptic Jobbik (Movement for a Better Hungary), while MDF (Hungarian Democratic Forum), which ceased to exist since then, got 1 seat. The representatives of Fidesz are all sitting in the European People’s Party group of the European Parliament; MSZP politicians are members of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, while Jobbik’s MEPs are independent members. The only former MDF, now MMM (Movement for a Modern Hungary) politician, Lajos Bokros, is a member of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group. As the results of the 2010 national parliamentary elections proportionately reflected the results of the preceding EP elections, we can expect that this year’s Hungarian parliamentary elections held in April will predict the outcome of the EP elections held in May.
Rising Euroscepticism in Hungary
A recent phenomenon in the Hungarian political scene is rising euroscepticism. Jobbik, which perceives itself as a conservative, radical, national-Christian party, became well-known for its Nazi ideology and anti-EU sentiments in the past few years (you can read more about Jobbik’s extremism in a previous PDU article). Moreover, the ruling Fidesz party and Orbán’s government also adopted nationalist views and openly started to criticize the EU. In his controversial speech in 2012 on the Hungarian national holiday of March 15, Prime Minister Orbán emphasized that Hungary insists on national sovereignty and does not need the ‘unsolicited assistance of foreigners.’ Comparing the EU to the former Soviet dominance of Hungary, he stated that for his country ‘freedom means that we decide about the laws governing our own lives, we decide what is important and what is not.’ Although seemingly a large part of the Hungarian society disapproves of Orbán’s nationalist views and governmental program, people did not have a wide variety of options when it came to find new parties to support. The mainly leftist opposition parties, Attila Mesterházy’s MSZP, which is still the second most popular Hungarian party after Fidesz, Gordon Bajnai’s Együtt 2014 (Together for 2014) and Ferenc Gyurcsány’s DK (Democratic Coalition) have been fighting for power among one another, and have not come up with a coherent political program until now. Their popularity in the Hungarian society is not high either. Gyurcsány was Prime Minister between 2004 and 2009 and was followed by Bajnai after his resignation. As a result, both of them are blamed for the mistakes of the past 10 years in the country, along with the whole MSZP party. Even though they finally announced their cooperation for the election period under the slogan ‘Cooperation’ and they will draw a common list for their representatives for the voting, the victory for Fidesz is very likely. Not only because of the weakness of the opposition, but also because despite its sometimes controversial legal acts, the ruling party has been successful in securing a solid following by acts directly affecting the population such as raising the salaries of teachers and providing tax allowances for families. Another opposition party worth mentioning is the young, green LMP (Politics Can Be Different), but they are constantly struggling with inner crises, therefore they are not determining participants of the Hungarian political palette.
Expectations for the 2014 Election
In 2009, only 36,28% of the eligible Hungarian citizens voted in the European Parliamentary elections, a percentage which was below the average participation rate in the EU, 43,24%. As I already mentioned before, the results of the vote this year will probably be similar to the results of the national elections: Fidesz has the biggest chance to gain most of the seats, and they will probably be followed by MSZP and then Jobbik. The difference between the popularity of MSZP and Jobbik is in slight according to the latest polls, but due to the recently announced ‘Cooperation’, the votes cast to the leftist opposition are likely to exceed those of Jobbik. Even though the representatives of the ‘Cooperation’ come from different parties, they will be likely to sit in the same fraction of the European Parliament. A low turnout rate is unfortunately expected this year as well, which is not a surprise based on the fact that the EP elections are not receiving enough publicity from the media and there is not a real European campaign going on. During the campaign period, the parties will most probably deal with domestic issues and try to secure more votes by talking about national matters, so Hungarian people will not be motivated to vote twice during this spring. As in many other EU Member States, the Hungarian government usually refers to the EP elections as a national project instead of explaining to the people what it really is about and it fails in motivating them to participate.
Image: “Hungary Grunge Flag” courtesy of Nicolas Raymond. Published via Flickr under Creative Commons license.