Will wooing the Hungarian diaspora tip the election in Orban's favour?

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By David Hutt
Ethnic Hungarian girl Jacinta Kosza shows Easter eggs after they were painted with boiled onion-skin in her home in Ineu, Transylvania, Romania, Saturday, April 19, 2019.
Ethnic Hungarian girl Jacinta Kosza shows Easter eggs after they were painted with boiled onion-skin in her home in Ineu, Transylvania, Romania, Saturday, April 19, 2019.   -   Copyright  Credit: AP

Near the parliament in central Budapest lies the Monument of National Solidarity in Budapest. Opened in August 2020, it is both piteous and pugnacious, a testament to the contradictions of Hungary’s national and political obsession.

The names of the 12,485 cities and villages of the historical Kingdom of Hungary are engraved on its granite walls, a reminder of the vast territory stripped away from it in 1920.

For many in the West, the most important post-First World War treaty was the one named after the Versailles Palace. For Hungarians, the most infamous was named after another French chateau, Trianon.

The war spelt the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire, which had ruled vast swathes of central Europe for centuries.

On June 4, 1920, the victorious Allies stripped Hungary of around two-thirds of its territory and two-fifths of its population. Millions of ethnic Hungarians found themselves living in newly independent, neighbouring countries.

Today, some 1.2 million ethnic Hungarians (or Magyars) live in Romania; 420,000 in Slovakia; and smaller clusters elsewhere.

Greater Hungary

Hungary’s autocratic prime minister, Viktor Orban, has pushed to mitigate the impact of the Trianon treaty.

When he was re-elected in 2010, one of his first policies was to declare June 4 a “Day of National Unity.”

As with the construction of the Monument of National Solidarity, Orban’s irredentism is largely symbolic; no one seriously believes Hungary today wants to take back control of its lost territory by force.

When Hungary took on the presidency over the EU in 2011, Orban’s government installed a large carpet in the building of the European Council, replete with a map of Hungary in 1848, when it controlled much of central Europe.

In 2020, before local students took their exams, he posted a historical map of pre-1920 “Greater Hungary” on his Facebook page, a way of apparently wishing them luck.

More controversially, his government rushed through a new law that made accessing dual citizenship easier for ethnic Hungarians living in surrounding countries.

Since Orban’s law change in 2011, more than 1.1 million ethnic Hungarians, the majority living in countries that gained territory because of the Trianon treaty, have now taken up dual citizenship, according to a government statement from last December. Slovakia quickly altered its law in 2012 to prevent its population from holding dual citizenship.

The same year, Orban’s government then introduced reform to allow those dual citizens abroad to vote in Hungary's elections.

It paid off politically for his ruling Fidesz party. At the 2018 general election, Fidesz picked up 47.3% of the popular vote within Hungary but 96.2% among the Hungarian diaspora. At the 2014 general election, 95.4% of votes cast by the diaspora went to Fidesz.

How will the Hungarian diaspora affect Sunday's election?

Ahead of the upcoming general election on 3 April, Fidesz has been busier than ever rallying support among the diaspora that have Hungarian nationality and live in neighbouring countries. The United for Hungary alliance, a pact between seven of the largest opposition parties, is also trying to court Hungarians abroad, focusing on those who have left to find work in western Europe.

A poll of thousands of Hungarians migrants in western Europe found that only 11% would vote for Fidesz, according to the 21 Research Centre, a Budapest-based think tank.

As well as allowing Hungarians abroad to vote, Orban’s government has invested heavily in those communities. The Bethlen Gábor Fund (GBF), a state-run entity, was established by the government in 2011 with the aim of supporting and funding the cultural and economic activities of Hungarian diaspora communities.

Jutarnji List, a Croatian newspaper, reported last year that the GBF has received nearly €670 million from the Hungarian state since 2011. Heti Világgazdaság, a prominent Hungarian business weekly, estimates that GBF spent around €351 million in 2020 alone.

The Investigative Centre of Ján Kuciak (ICKJ), a Slovakian civic association named after a journalist who was murdered in 2018, estimated in a study last year that GBF has invested €140 million in entities in Slovakia since 2011. Around €4.3 million went on just repairing churches in southern Slovakia, where the majority of the ethnic Hungarians live.

Hungarian state money has also gone towards FC DAC 1904 Dunajská Streda, a Slovakian football team supported by the Hungarian minority, as well as to ethnic Hungarian media and political parties in the country.

Some have questioned the political importance of wooing the Hungarian diaspora, as well as the cost incurred by the Hungarian state.

Despite the investment in Slovakia, most ethnic Hungarians there cannot vote in Hungarian elections since Bratislava did away with dual citizenship in 2012, noted Andras Bozoki, professor of political science at the Central European University in Vienna.

Yet these diasporic votes have certainly contributed to Fidesz winning its two-thirds majority in parliament at the 2014 and 2018 general elections, said Gabor Halmai, professor and chair of Comparative Constitutional Law at the European University Institute.

At both general elections, Fidesz and its satellite partner, the Christian Democratic People's Party (KDNP), failed to win more than half of the popular vote (45% and 49%, respectively) but Hungarian electoral rules meant they won a supermajority of seats in parliament.

It was this sizable majority in parliament that meant Orban could change the constitution and electoral systems to benefit his party. With scant opposition in the chamber, his government went on to use its power to gain what critics call autocratic dominance across Hungarian society.

However, the diasporic vote isn’t considerable.

At the 2018 general election, Fidesz picked up 96.2% among Hungarian diaspora voters yet they accounted for only around 225,000 ballots or 4% of overall votes.

Even the political opposition has been keen to play down their importance. “There has been a lot of scaremongering about the votes of Hungarians living beyond the border,” Péter Márki-Zay, the United for Hungary’s joint candidate, commented a few months ago.

“But in fact, this has not been the deciding factor so far,” he went on. “Fidesz has not won with the votes of Hungarians living abroad, despite the fact that it has propagated this and considered it a political product.”

While the 4-5% of votes from the diaspora cannot be overlooked, analysts reckon that Orban’s support for ethnic Hungarians abroad is far more important in attracting the support of Hungarians within the country.

“His policy has been important for many Hungarian voters…mainly because of the nostalgia for Greater Hungary also ignited by Fidesz,” said Halmai, referring to the informal name of the pre-1920 Kingdom of Hungary.

Treaty of Trianon

Railing against the Treaty of Trianon has been a part of Hungarian politics ever since it was signed in 1920. Hungary’s post-First World War governments bemoaned it. 

With the support of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, in 1938 Hungary won back some territory from Czechoslovakia and Ukraine as part of the so-called First Vienna Award. At the Second Vienna Award, in 1940, Hungary took back control of large swathes of Transylvania it had previously lost to Romania.

After the war, in 1947, Hungary again lost this territory, and again with a treaty signed in Paris. After the fall of communism in 1989, there were more complaints about lost territory. Yet there it isn’t clear how deeply most ordinary Hungarians feel about the issue before Orban’s government began stirring up nationalism in the early 2010s.

In December 2004, when Fidesz was in opposition, the Hungarian people were asked in a referendum whether ethnic Hungarians with non-Hungarian citizenship and residence should be granted Hungarian citizenship?

Only 51.6% agreed, and the referendum was nulled because only 37% of the electorate bothered to turn out to vote.

All that has changed since Orban’s re-election in 2010. In a 2020 survey by the Pew Research Center, 67% of Hungarians said they thought neighbouring countries really belong to them, the highest share of any of the 19 European states surveyed.