A fascinating study was released today, “Dissatisfied voters in Hungary,” the joint work of Policy Solutions and Závecz Research with the assistance of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Budapest. It is a 35-page report jam-packed with information and data to which I can’t possibly give justice here. Those who know Hungarian can read a summary of it in an HVG article with the catchy title “At last we know who the dissatisfied Fidesz voters are.”
We can learn a lot about the present mood of the country from this poll, conducted during the months of October and November and based on personal interviews with 2,000 respondents. Perhaps the most important conclusion is that although the monthly polls on the relative strength of the parties still show Fidesz way ahead, the Orbán government cannot rest on its laurels. I’m sure that Századvég and Nézőpont Intézet, the two polling companies that provide the government with vital data on the mood of the country, have already presented Fidesz with most of the information we can glean from the study under review.
The message is that 61% of the electorate are unhappy with the performance of the government. This level of dissatisfaction may be behind the sudden decision of the Orbán government to raise the minimum wage. In addition, after some hesitation the government announced that as of January 1, 2017 it will raise old-age pensions by 1.6% as opposed to the planned 0.9%. Moreover, as a “Christmas gift” each pensioner will receive a 10,000 Ft “Erzsébet card,” which is a kind of government gift card.
The public response to these measures was that the sudden “generosity” of the government has something to do with the coming election. I’m not convinced. The announcement is far too early. The 2018 election, if the government follows past practice, is more than a year and four months away. People’s memories are very short, so one would have to question the wisdom of making this kind of an announcement so early in the game. It is enough to recall what happened in 2002 when Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy’s government raised all teachers’ and doctors’ salaries by 50%. They were not grateful for long.
The gloomy picture that emerges from the pages of the Political Solution-Závecz report leads me to believe that Fidesz’s primary consideration in raising the lowest wages and pensions was not so much preparation for the next election as a recognition that dissatisfaction is growing now. This dissatisfaction poses a threat to Fidesz, especially if the opposition manages to show some strength in the coming months.
In the past, polls consistently showed that villages and very small towns were Fidesz strongholds. We were also told that Fidesz voters, by and large, come from the less educated strata of society. Yet this poll shows that people who live in small villages are the most dissatisfied with their lot. A great deal more so than people in Budapest. In the capital only 55% of the inhabitants think that “Hungary is heading in the wrong direction” while in the villages this figure is 63%. This is even truer of pensioners, 68% of whom are pessimistic about the future and only 25% of whom are happy with the present government.
Commentators complain, rightly so, about the hasty manner in which the Orbán government makes decisions, but I’m certain that panic set in when the Fidesz high command realized how widespread the dissatisfaction is, especially in the countryside. It was bad enough that in the past they had to worry about Budapest and the large cities, now they seem to be losing the village folks. In fact, dissatisfaction in Budapest is lower than the national average of 61%.
Another significant piece of information from the study is that the least-educated people are the most dissatisfied and that university graduates are the least dissatisfied: 83% versus 50%. Clearly, the growing impoverishment and the ever larger gap between rich and poor is taking a political toll. The Orbán government’s conscious decision to enrich the better-off strata of society while exacting a 16% flat tax from even those on minimum wage created a serious social problem, with the number of people living under the poverty line continuing to grow. Whether the latest measures will remedy the situation we of course don’t know, but I personally doubt that the large number of pensioners will be appeased by a 1.6% raise and a 10,000 Ft. gift card.
In addition, the poll produced a political profile of the electorate which I hope the opposition parties will study and try to learn from. Many politicians and commentators are convinced that the opposition can get new voters “only from the center.” Some, like Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy, formerly of MDF and DK, are trying to find this center among disenchanted Fidesz voters. Others, however, point out that inveterate Fidesz voters are unlikely to vote for the liberal parties. They may remain at home as they did at the by-elections, which deprived Fidesz of its two-thirds majority almost two years ago. In any case, the number of disappointed Fidesz supporters is relatively small, at 5%.
The answer can be found elsewhere. The data show that the largest group among the disenchanted are the undecided voters (22%). The opposition should target this group instead of trying to court the nonexistent “middle.” I may add that the socialist-liberal camp makes up 17% and Jobbik voters 12% of this large group of people.
Finally, given the dissatisfaction in the countryside and in the agricultural sector in general, the opposition parties should ramp up their efforts in small towns and villages. These people are hard to reach by the media or the internet. It is not enough to give innumerable interviews on ATV. The largest party on the left, MSZP, has completely neglected the countryside. They no longer have activists there, without whom there is no way to establish contact with the most disappointed, poorest strata of society.
Thus, in my opinion, the strategy should be two-pronged. On the one hand, the opposition should try to awaken the apathetic undecided voters and, on the other, they should build a network of activists with whose help they could build support on the local level. Without such hard work they will never be successful.