Hungary is approaching the end of the 2022 general election campaign. Though the campaign was officially launched on 12 February, in practice, Hungary has been in a state of constant campaigning for significantly longer. The ongoing campaign was turned upside down by Russia’s war on Ukraine. A campaign period that was set to be dominated by economic issues was wholly consumed by the war.
After Russia’s attack on Ukraine the government’s initial communication became chaotic, as officials, pro-government experts and influencers had been regularly repeating that Moscow would never undertake such aggressions. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán himself deemed his 1 February visit to the Russian capital as a “peace mission”, and Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó later termed it an “ice-breaker”, which was followed by regular visits by western leaders to Russia.
On the international scene, the Hungarian ruling party reacted to the war in line with other European Union- and NATO member states. It agreed to the EU’s sanctions on Russia, even if – at time – somewhat reluctantly. Both PM Orbán and FM Szijjártó condemned Russia for attacking Ukraine, which was extraordinary in the sense that before the war they had avoided referring to Russia as an aggressor. Nevertheless, days later, the same government officials who approved the sanctions condemned them domestically. The ruling party also found its main narrative: Hungary wants peace – a unifying message for the Fidesz electorate, a large part of which still views Russia favorably. On 15 March 2022, the Hungarian prime minister held a speech for his supporters at Kossuth square that sounded as if Hungary was a completely neutral member state that simply wants to avoid confrontation with anyone.
The government-controlled public broadcaster and Hungarian-language pro-government media have been reporting on Russia’s war in Ukraine from two, vastly different angles. They do publish factual reports on the war that depict Russia as an aggressor and describe the war crimes committed by the Russian army. However, they also give opportunities to pro-government influencers, experts and lower-ranking Fidesz politicians to disseminate pro-Kremlin narratives and whitewash Russia’s responsibility for the war. Importantly, the government does not disclose certain actions to the public – for instance the approval of a Council conclusion calling for prosecuting Russian war crimes. Not reporting on such things helps the ruling party keep this news out of the information bubble it has built for a significant layer of Hungarian society through the direct or indirect control of over 500 media outlets. Thus, information on the cabinet’s actions hostile to Russia does not reach many Fidesz voters.
Political Capital wanted to gauge how exactly the war impacted the campaign. Using SentiOne media monitoring software, we decided to monitor election narratives in final campaign period: between 21 - 29 March, using keywords focusing on the opposition and Péter Márki-Zay, the US and EU, and the Hungarian diaspora. We monitored narratives in a balanced selection of Hungarian pro-government, pro-opposition, independent media, as well as alternative media sources. The sample also included Hungarian-language sites, FB pages from Hungary’s neighboring countries. We tagged all relevant articles in the sample based on the sentiment they depict regarding the opposition, the EU, NATO, Russia, China or Ukraine, whether they support, oppose or are neutral about the referendum or the mobilization of the Hungarian diaspora for the election, and based on the topics they deal with.
Warmongers vs peace-lovers
News that does reach large swaths of Hungarian voters are any statement by the opposition that would offer more help to Ukraine than Fidesz would. Opposition PM candidate Péter Márki-Zay told Partizán and ATV in late February that if NATO decided to help Ukraine with soldiers or weapons, he would comply with the NATO decision. The ruling party and its media twisted this statement to claim that the opposition wants to drag Hungary into the war.
As the chart above indicates, there were at least nine articles about the allegedly “warmonger” opposition across our three queries throughout the research period. The number of such articles increased to between 20 and 40 between 25 and 27 March, and then skyrocket to over 50 on the 29th. The total number of articles on the topic in our sample was 218, which made it one of the most popular issues in the days leading up to the election. It was far more popular than the issue of the economy, climate and healthcare taken together, which showed up in 141 articles – and, we must add, these are much broader, all-encompassing issues.
The increased volume between 25 and 27 March was a consequence of the NATO and EU summits held in Brussels around that time. At the summits, according to pro-government media, PM Viktor Orbán protected Hungarian interests: NATO lined up behind the Hungarian viewpoint that the alliance cannot be dragged into the war, while the EU did not sanction Russian energy imports, which are needed to keep the Hungarian economy going. In contrast, these sites claim that the Hungarian opposition would join the war and ruin Hungary’s economy by sanctioning Russian gas.
The very high peak on the 29th was driven mainly by Péter Szijjártó’s Facebook announcement claiming that the Hungarian left and Ukraine had reached an agreement that if the left governed Hungary, they would bring the country into the war and ruin Hungary’s economy by sanctioning Russian gas.
The vast majority of the articles regarding the opposition’s stance on the war talk about the Hungarian opposition negatively. Some of the articles do question the narrative propagated by pro-government media, but the number of such texts is relatively low. We could tag seven articles that specifically highlighted that the opposition would not send Hungarian soldiers into Ukraine. Besides the substantial advantage of Fidesz on the media market, which has been noted by the OSCE’s election monitoring mission, the reason for this dominance of anti-opposition articles is the different approaches to reporting by pro-government and independent outlets: the former are driven by campaign considerations, they can repeat the same claim over and over again, especially since their income is not defined by the size of their audience or their engagement rate, while independent media needs to provide coverage that ensures audience retention and a high engagement rate, since they depend on it for their funding. It must be noted that pro-government circles responded to the preliminary OSCE report by claiming it was based on leftist disinformation and it interfered with the Hungarian general election.
So, regarding the war, the picture relayed to voters is rather easy: there is the peace-loving government and ruling party that want to protect Hungarians and the country’s interests, standing against the warmongering opposition that wants to once more sell Hungary out to foreign interests.
Who’s corrupt now?
The only issue that turned out to be more popular than articles claiming that the opposition wants war is the broad topic of corruption – this was tagged 221 times. Since Hungary is currently ranked 73rd on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, marking a consistent fall over the past 12 years, it might be a topic that the current opposition can dominate. However, based on our sample, this is not the case.
As the chart above shows, across our three queries, the number of results we tagged with the “corruption” tag was between 20-30 throughout the research period, with a significant peak coming on the 29th, once again, after two smaller ones on the 23rd and 26th of March.
All three peaks were driven largely by two issues. The first is the so-called “DatAdat” scandal pushed by pro-government media. They allege that the primaries were won for Péter Márki-Zay by a social media analytics firm with ties to former Hungarian PM Gordon Bajnai and that the opposition is still using this firm, which they would employ to “influence the elections” in the days leading up to 3 April. They also claim that this firm is being aided actively and is connected to the American left-wing (the Democrats), which, in this sense, is accused of interfering with Hungarian elections.
The second issue is the allegation that opposition candidate and Párbeszéd co-chair Tímea Szabó is financing her campaign from drug trade because according to a tape recording published by an unknown individual claiming to be a member of Anonymous, people “working on her campaign” are discussing how to secure funds for the candidate, and one of the opportunities is the drug trade. The same “Anonymous member” has come up with multiple allegations of corruption against members of the opposition, such as Budapest XVIII. district Mayor Sándor Szaniszló. His claims remain unproven.
While the two topics mentioned above dominated the corruption agenda in the research period, the overall picture was still more balanced than in the case of the war, as a larger number of articles can be found on the opposition’s anti-corruption plans, mainly the creation of an anti-corruption agency.
It’s the economy, stupid
The well-known fallacy regarding the importance of the economy in election campaigns seems to have been overshadowed by the war in Hungary’s neighborhood. The topic that dominated the early weeks of the campaign now has a secondary (or tertiary) role, although, as mentioned above, there were still 141 economy, healthcare, or climate tags.
As the chart above shows, on most days, there were 10-15 articles concerning the economy, with two peaks coming on 25 and 28 March. The first peak concerned the EU summit, where PM Orbán, as pro-government media and the cabinet itself claim, ensured that there are no EU sanctions on Russian gas, which would ruin the Hungarian economy. The second peak was driven largely by pro-government media’s claims that opposition MP candidate Lajos Rig said private healthcare is “not a bad concept” and quotes from former Hungarian Minister of Finance Lajos Bokros saying that the left-wing would terminate utility cost cuts if they got in power. First, Lajos Rig never said what these articles suggest, namely that private healthcare is better than state-owned. Second, Lajos Bokros plays no official role in the opposition, so has no influence over opposition policies.
Regardless, coverage of economic ideas is more balanced. The situation is rather clear-cut: the ruling party claims it has the key to solving the economic problems Hungary is facing, while the opposition says the same about itself. According to Fidesz, the left, should they accede to power, would take away the 13th month pension, privatize healthcare and terminate utility cost cuts. The opposition, in contrast, says the economic crisis was generated by the ruling party itself, so they cannot fix it. There is very little talk of concrete economic policies, and there are few mentions about austerity measures that will have to come after the election due to the country’s tough budgetary situation.
Hungarians living in countries neighboring Hungary are a crucial part of the electorate, as they might be able to influence the outcome of 1-2 mandates in the next National Assembly. As such, the expectation was that Fidesz, which is by far the most popular party among these Hungarian citizens, will do everything to mobilize them. In our sample, there were 45 articles that aimed specifically at getting the Hungarian diaspora to vote.
As the chart above shows, the number of articles concerning the diaspora was never higher than 9 on a single day across our three queries, but almost every single one of them spoke negatively about the opposition. In contrast, there were only 22 articles tagged as neutral concerning the opposition’s approach to the diaspora, most of these just quoted Péter Márki-Zay saying that they would look out for out-of-country Hungarian citizens even if they do not vote for them or reported on his visit to Transylvania.
One of the main articles that were being spread was about the “unprecedented” work that the current Hungarian cabinet accomplished in the Carpathian basin. The other fairly popular narrative was a quote from the Erdélyi Magyar Néppárt (EMNP), an ethnic Hungarian party in Transylvania, which stated that Péter Márki-Zay is an unwelcome guest in Transylvania.
Who gets the better coverage, after all?
Overall, there are 383 articles writing about the opposition in a neutral tone, 363 speak supportively of it, while 841 depict it in a negative light. This shows what multiple analysis have attested to: there is independent media in Hungary, but its voice is not as strong as the centrally controlled or government-influenced media that are essentially working as campaign organs, not as media outlets. This phenomenon was explained in the ‘Warmongers vs peace-lovers’ chapter. It must be noted that there are also websites, Facebook pages that support the opposition in a biased manner, but their funding and outreach are incomparable to pro-government outlets.
Therefore, our short analysis, too, can confirm that Hungarian elections cannot be called fair due to the media environment favoring the ruling party. Additionally, our analysis of online media does not cover the fact that in certain media segments, such as national radios, local dailies or national dailies, the ruling party’s media empire has achieved almost total market domination. Consequently, a considerable layer of the Hungarian electorate does not have access to any other viewpoints besides that of Fidesz and they only get information filtered by the ruling party.
Therefore, numerous Hungarian voters see the ruling party’s description of the situation: one can either vote for chaos with the opposition or the peace and prosperity provided by the ruling party. Naturally, it is not uncommon that political parties put the choice to voters this way, what is uncommon in democracies is that the narratives of one party dominate those of all others.
"Election Monitoring in Hungary and its Diaspora" research is conducted with the support of the International Republican Institute's Beacon Project. It is conducted in Hungary and select countries with a significant Hungarian diaspora: Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Ukraine. The opinions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not reflect those of IRI.
The link to the original publication can be found: here.