A Month After the Fidesz-EPP Split, What Comes Next?: The Domestic Perspective

, by Nicholas Kulawiak

A Month After the Fidesz-EPP Split, What Comes Next?: The Domestic Perspective
Source: VanOss totShiraz / Flikr

Last month, Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party left the European People’s Party (EPP) delegation in the European Parliament.

While Fidesz’s departure was years in the making, the immediate trigger was an EPP vote to change internal rules, allowing for parties to be expelled. The international consequences (both for Fidesz and the EPP) are significant. However, this piece will focus specifically on the domestic context and implications of the final split between Fidesz and the EPP.

The Fidesz-EPP breakup came at a precarious time for Orbán. Just as the departure took place, Hungary entered its worst period of the pandemic, despite EU-leading vaccination rates (a result of a willingness to use Chinese and Russian vaccines). Cases continued to rise in the following weeks, and as things stand now, Hungary has the world’s second highest death rate, behind only Czechia.

The public health crisis, not to mention pandemic-related economic difficulties, come at a tricky time for Orbán - Hungary will hold parliamentary elections next Spring, and current polling shows that Fidesz and the United Opposition, a combination of four opposition parties, are in a tight race. COVID-19 presents both an opportunity and potential pitfall for Orbán; a competent handling of the crisis will allow him to consolidate support and demonstrate his governing capacity in a way that only an incumbent can, but on the flip side, failure to properly hamper the pandemic may be his downfall.

The question now centers on how the EPP departure will intersect with this broader domestic context, if at all. This largely depends on whether the United Opposition will be able to portray it for what it is: another milestone in Hungary’s continued isolation within the EU, and a further sign of how battling the EU for political sport does not serve Hungary’s interests.

For Orbán and his supporters, this move allows for yet another round of EU-bashing and drawing further distinctions between Hungary and the European institutions to which it belongs. It also fits with Orbán’s past discussions about forming a new grouping of right-wing European parties meant for “our type of people.”

These “type of people” likely include Poland’s ruling right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS) and Italy’s League party, which pursue anti-migrant policies and seek “protection” of “traditional” families. And indeed, in his statement on Fidesz’s departure, Orbán announced his plans to “build a European democratic right that offers a home to European citizens who do not want migrants, who do not want multiculturalism, who have not descended into LGBTQ lunacy...” and other calling cards of Europe’s nationalist right-wing parties.

But an alliance with such parties is a meaningful step down from the EPP. Fidesz’s absence from the EPP, the largest group in the European Parliament, harms all Hungarians, diminishing its influence over EU laws that need not have unanimous support to pass. As Patrik Szicherle of Heinrich Böll Stiftung has argued, even if a new Fidesz-PiS-League bloc was formed, Fidesz would still find itself in a smaller and more marginal group in the European Parliament.

The United Opposition, therefore, has an opportunity to use Fidesz’s departure from the EPP for domestic political gain, so long as it can convincingly demonstrate that Fidesz is hurting Hungary by leading it down a path of increasing international isolation. Having the country’s ruling party quit the European Parliament’s largest group in order to save itself the embarrassment of getting expelled may serve the narrow political interests of select politicians who require the foil of the EU in order to maintain a grasp on power, but it does not serve the interests of Hungarians writ large.

This may be a harder argument to make in practice than it is on paper. The United Opposition — announced in December 2020 as a union of six opposition parties ranging from far-right Jobbik to the left-wing Democratic Coalition and Green LMP — has only existed for four short months. Though this “rainbow coalition” has demonstrated considerable unity thus far, the sheer breadth of viewpoints it includes may make coherent messaging (beyond Orbán should be out and cost of living should be lower) a tall task.

Moreover, even if the United Opposition does take parliamentary control next year, its internal diversity along with the legacies of Fidesz-era constitutional changes and the persistent presence of Fidesz political appointees will make consistent advocacy for Hungarian interests at the EU level difficult.

Ultimately, Orbán’s success or failure in managing the COVID-19 crisis and its accompanying economic fallout, are likely to play the largest role in determining the outcome of the 2022 parliamentary election. What remains to be seen, though, is whether the United Opposition can make Fidesz’s falling out with the EPP a salient political issue by highlighting the ways Fidesz’s departure from the EPP harms Hungarian interests at the European level.

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