How Viktor Orbán Wins

Issue Date July 2022
Volume 33
Issue 3
Page Numbers 45–61
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On 3 April 2022, Viktor Orbán won his fourth straight election with his fourth straight supermajority in parliament that allows him to amend the constitution at will. This essay traces how he managed to do that. Orbán’s skillful use of the war in Ukraine and his major expansion of social benefits right before the election were important in that victory. But even more crucial were the rules of the game that Orbán established after his election victory in 2010, rules that have been constantly modified as the opposition has tried to work around the barriers that those rules erected.  Hungary has already been demoted from democracy to autocracy by all democracy raters. This essay shows precisely why those rankings are right. As long as Orbán retains complete control over the rules that govern elections, he can remain in power indefinitely.

In the run-up to Hungary’s 3 April 2022 parliamentary election, the race looked too close to call. But insiders knew that the structural bias in the electoral system meant that the six-party opposition coalition, United for Hungary, was fighting an uphill battle. The opposition had done everything it could to unpick the lock on power that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of the Fidesz party had installed with his revision of Hungary’s electoral system ten years earlier. By giving up their individual party ambitions to run a single coalition candidate against Fidesz’s candidate in each district, the opposition maximized its chances of winning.

Days before the election, even the most Fidesz-favorable poll predicted that Orbán would lose his two-thirds grip on the 199-member unicameral parliament even if he managed to scrape out a majority.1 It takes just a single two-thirds vote of parliament to amend Hungary’s constitution. Thus having a supermajority, as Orbán’s Fidesz has had for all but a short time since coming to power in 2010, means that a party can put itself above the law by changing the constitution at will. So even if the opposition failed to win, taking away Orbán’s two-thirds majority would have been a victory.

In 2022, victory seemed not only possible but probable. In the 2014 and 2018 elections, Fidesz had won parliamentary supermajorities with less than half the vote. Orbán’s victories could be chalked up partly to social-benefits giveaways before each election and partly to campaigns of fear against migrants and cosmopolitans. But much of Orbán’s electoral success results from an election system crafted to ensure that any division in the opposition automatically generates supermajorities for the ruling party. In 2022, with the opposition united across the political spectrum and running neck and neck with Fidesz in the polls for more than a year, it finally seemed that Orbán could actually lose.

About the Author

Kim Lane Scheppele is the Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Sociology and International Affairs at Princeton University. She has worked on Hungarian constitutional law since the 1990s and is coauthor (with Miklós Bánkuti and Gábor Halmai) of the 2012 Journal of Democracy essay “Hungary’s Illiberal Turn: Disabling the Constitution.”

View all work by Kim Lane Scheppele

Against all predictions, however, Orbán had his biggest election triumph yet. On the eve of the election, polls had put Fidesz at about 5 percentage points ahead of the opposition, within the margin of error. Yet Orbán came out 20 points ahead on election day, winning 83 percent of the single-member districts and 54 percent of the party-list vote. Orbán did not just retain his two-thirds majority in parliament—he now has a comfortable cushion with 68 percent of the seats. With the worst opposition showing since the fall of the Berlin Wall, United for Hungary members are trying to figure out what path might lie ahead given that four more years of autocracy are in store.

How did the contest go from being too close to call to a blowout? Elections can be organized to turn a plurality party into a supermajority winner. While the Hungarian case has distinctive features, it demonstrates more generally how autocrats can rig elections legally, using their parliamentary majorities to change the law to neutralize whatever strategy the opposition adopts. Understanding how Orbán won his latest supermajority shows defenders of democracy what they are up against when autocrats lock in their power by law.

The 2022 Campaign

In free and fair elections, commentators focus on the candidates, the campaigns, and the issues. In structurally rigged elections whose outcomes are foreordained, these things matter far less. Still, even autocrats cannot win elections without votes. To understand the outcome of Hungary’s 2022 election we must understand why Hungarian voters voted as they did.

For most of his twelve-year rule, Orbán’s base of support has hovered around a third of the electorate. Orbán has not had majority support at any point in his tenure if one includes survey respondents who answer “don’t know,” a group that sometimes comprises the majority of those polled. At election time, Orbán’s government typically rolls out massive benefits to potential supporters, and 2022 was no exception. This year, he paid a “thirteenth-month” pension to seniors, exempted people under 25 years of age from income tax, and buffered Hungarians from inflation by freezing fuel and food prices. In prior election years, such handouts have won many people over.

Orbán has also used make-work public-sector jobs to leverage support from those who cannot afford to lose their benefits. The National Public Employment Program that Orbán introduced in 2011 replaced social-welfare and unemployment benefits with public-sector employment. By 2016, this public-employment scheme employed 5 percent of the entire labor force, with about 223,000 people dependent on local (Fidesz) mayors for discretionarily awarded jobs. In the 2014 election, Isabel Mares and Lauren Young found that these precarious workers were threatened with termination if they did not vote for Fidesz.2 “Chain voting” ensures that people vote the right way. Voter 1 goes into the polling station, appears to vote by depositing an empty envelope into the ballot box, but comes out with a blank ballot. Voter 2 is then sent in with that ballot—now marked by a Fidesz operative—and told to put it in the ballot box and exit with another blank ballot in hand. Carried on down the line, the Fidesz party boss in the town can ensure that all have voted the proper way while the election workers find that they are short only one unaccounted-for vote, which would hardly raise eyebrows. In 2022, the investigative news site Átlátszó captured the scheme on video.3

Voters who were not susceptible to such overt threats were nonetheless swimming in a media environment in which the government’s message was the only one they heard. As Orbán has consolidated his grip on Hungary, his control of the media is now nearly absolute. In 2010, he cut all state advertising funds to critical news outlets and threatened to sever contracts with private advertisers that continued to support targeted media. The following year, he established a Fidesz-controlled media council with the power to levy bankrupting fines against news outlets that did not favor the Fidesz worldview. Hit on all sides by financial attacks, independent and opposition media began to fail just as news media across the globe were struggling financially to adapt to the online world. It was therefore not obvious outside Hungary that the country’s media companies were failing for different reasons. Once they were sufficiently weakened, however, these starved outlets could be bought for cheap. Orbán’s close friends snapped up many of them at the Fidesz fire sale—at which point state advertising resumed to sustain them. Rather than jailing journalists, engaging in blatant censorship, or simply shuttering hostile media, Orbán let economic pressure do the work.

A crack in the system emerged after the 2014 election, however, when one of Orbán’s most loyal oligarchs, Lajos Simicska, defected and briefly led his media outlets in an anti-Orbán campaign ahead of the 2018 election. Threatened with assassination, Simicska turned over his companies to Orbán loyalists and fled the country. After the 2018 election, Orbán established the Central European Press and Media Foundation, a foundation to which loyal oligarchs “donated” more than five-hundred media outlets to form a right-wing news conglomerate reliably loyal to Orbán.4

Having a pluralistic media landscape matters immensely to democratic health, especially at election time. In 2022, every broadcasting outlet and almost all print media regularly repeated government campaign slogans. The opposition, by contrast, had a hard time getting its message out through the few online news sites, handful of limited-circulation print media, one streaming radio station, and part of a Budapest-only cable-television outlet that covered its campaign. The opposition’s leader, Péter Márki-Zay, got all of five minutes on public television to present his program—on a Wednesday morning. If Hungarian voters wanted to understand what the opposition coalition stood for, they had to hunt to find out. It did not help that the opposition struggled to present a united front. Fidesz also spent ten times more on political ads than did the combined opposition. The ruling party broadcast a loud and clear message that drowned out the opposition’s fuzzy and muted one. And yet, during most of the campaign the united opposition matched Fidesz’s popularity, albeit with polls registering a large “undecided” vote.

Just over a month before the election, Russia attacked Ukraine, and the war became the top issue of the campaign. Orbán is a close ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin and had visited Moscow just two weeks before the war. This might well have backfired on the prime minister as the campaign heated up, but he cleverly pivoted to capitalize on his ties to Russia. Portraying himself as the candidate of “peace and security,” Orbán promised to keep Hungary neutral and out of NATO’s war effort, refusing to allow weapons to transit Hungary on the way to Ukraine and vowing to put Hungary first in his foreign policy. He argued that Hungary should keep an open line to Moscow so that he could broker peace and ensure an endless supply of cheap energy for Hungarians at the same time. Orbán baselessly accused the opposition of wanting to take the country to war and making (unspecified but suspicious) secret deals with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky.5 Orbán’s lock on the media prevented the opposition from effectively refuting his lies.

Orbán’s media dominance also ensured that his “peace and security” message was everywhere. It was immensely popular. Most analysts believe that Orbán’s response to the war boosted Fidesz’s lead dramatically. His skillful reaction to a crisis that could have sunk him revealed a master politician who understands Hungarian voters. Even autocrats can have genuine political talent, and Orbán’s ability to reframe a liability as a strength would have made him hard to beat even in a free and fair election.

But in the end, there was another reason why Orbán’s party list won 54 percent of the vote while the opposition list won just 34 percent. The opposition coalition linked five center-to-left parties with a formerly far-right party, Jobbik. Over the years, Orbán had stolen most of Jobbik’s issues and the party had lost its way, splitting after the 2018 election. Jobbik’s small extremist faction formed the new, even-farther-right party Mi Hazánk, while its centrists kept the Jobbik name and joined the other opposition parties, believing that ousting Orbán was more important than staying true to far-right principles.

On election day, however, Jobbik supporters did not follow their leaders. The united coalition fell a million votes shy of its members’ combined 2018 result because most former Jobbik voters switched to Fidesz—which, after all, had campaigned against immigration, gay rights, and “liberal” values while defending ethnic nationalism with antisemitic dog whistles, just as Jobbik once had. Jobbik’s more extremist fringe voted for Mi Hazánk, which received 6 percent of the vote on election day and got six seats in parliament.6

Jobbik voters might also have been lured away from United for Hungary by Orbán’s skillful deployment of a wedge issue before the war came to dominate the campaign. In 2021, parliament passed a law that “protected” children from exposure to any LGBTIQ messages, equating gender flexibility with pornography. The law broadly banned such materials in schools, on television, in bookstores, and elsewhere. The EU reacted strongly and swiftly, with the European Commission filing an infringement action against Hungary for violating EU law. Orbán then doubled down, calling for a referendum to be held concurrently with the 2022 parliamentary election, at which time the Hungarian people could tell the EU what they thought about its meddling.

Since the law had already been enacted, the referendum would do nothing other than stoke public outrage. But another law stood in the way: The law on referendums banned holding them with general elections. So Orbán changed it. Jobbik voted with Fidesz to amend the law, while all other parties in the opposition coalition either voted against the change or boycotted the vote. Attacking gay rights may have been Orbán’s strategy to separate Jobbik voters from the united opposition. The referendum campaign ensured that this issue was prominent even if the war overshadowed it in the end.

The center-left parties urged voters to spoil their ballots to defeat the referendum. Their efforts worked; the referendum did not pass because there were not enough valid votes. But Jobbik voters did vote en masse for Fidesz. So far, no postelection analysis has measured the effect of the referendum campaign on Jobbik voters, but Orbán’s political sixth sense of how to split the coalition may have done the trick.

Before Jobbik voters deserted the united opposition on election day, however, the party’s leaders had secured many places on the joint party list. Coming into the coalition with what looked like the largest single bloc of voters, Jobbik was able to gain a disproportionate share of spots on the party list. When the election dust settled, Jobbik held 10 of the opposition’s 57 seats despite its voters having deserted the coalition. With Fidesz’s 135 seats, plus Jobbik’s 10, Mi Hazánk’s 6, and one from a German ethnic list, Orbán can now potentially count on three-quarters of the parliament for his culture-war campaigns.

At the request of Hungarian NGOs and others who were expecting dirty tricks, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) sent a full mission of hundreds of observers to Hungary. Limited observation missions had monitored the previous two Hungarian elections and deemed them free but not fair. The 2022 mission reported even more persistent violations of OSCE standards and found that Hungary had not run a fair election—because the government’s message was the only one that voters could hear and because vast government resources had benefited the Fidesz campaign.7

How did Hungary go from being a regional democratic leader in the 1990s to running an election in which all the main opposition parties united against an autocrat and still could not win? In Hungary, elections hinge less on party platforms, campaigns, and attractive candidates than on election laws—laws that Orbán intentionally shapes to disadvantage the opposition. To see how this happened, we must go back to 1989, when the seeds of the present illiberal electoral system were sown.

The Genesis of an Illiberal Electoral System

In 1989, even before the Berlin Wall fell, the Hungarian Roundtable gave birth to a new constitution and new election law.8 Yet, because multiparty elections had not been held in nearly fifty years, none of the political leaders drafting the election law knew precisely how their parties would fare at the ballot box. Some insisted on party lists to compensate for their parties’ lack of candidates with national name recognition. Others wanted local constituencies, believing their individual candidates to be viewed more favorably than their parties. All agreed that tiny parties should be kept out of parliament for the sake of orderly governance.9

The end result was an election law that lacked any mechanism to ensure that parliamentary-seat distribution would match the distribution of party votes. Hungarians would cast two votes—one for a constituency representative and the other for a party list. Parties had to reach a 4 percent threshold to enter parliament. The law was immensely complicated, producing a system that “average voters would not be able to comprehend.”10

The system’s extreme disproportionality became clear in 1990 with Hungary’s first election under this new law. Although 28 parties ran, only six cleared the threshold to enter parliament. The largest vote-getter, the center-right Hungarian Democratic Forum, won 25 percent of the vote but received 43 percent of the seats. The second-highest vote getter, the center-left Free Democrats, won 21 percent of the vote but only 24 percent of the seats. The system worked to favor the plurality party because of the dominance of first-past-the-post seats, which were not balanced with adjustments on the party-list side of the ledger, where dominant parties’ leads were extended by the complicated way in which the shares of party-list seats were calculated.

Having achieved a broad and stable six-party representation in parliament, the threshold to enter was raised to 5 percent after 1994. The disproportionality of the voting system became even more evident that year, when the largest vote-getter, the Socialist Party, won 33 percent of the vote and 54 percent of the seats in parliament. Although they did not need a partner to stand up a majority government, the Socialists went into coalition with the Alliance of Free Democrats (hereafter, the “Liberals”), a move that generated relief among those who were worried that the ex-communists could not be trusted to run a government only five years after the “system change.” But the coalition generated a different concern: The two parties together had 72 percent of the seats, enough to change the constitution.

To allay fears that the 1989 changes would be undone by this constitutional supermajority, the Socialist-Liberal government amended the constitution to include a new clause that limited its supermajority power: The constitution could not be entirely redrafted unless four-fifths of parliament approved.

Even with the disproportionality of the election system, power switched hands at each election. Voters consistently rejected incumbent parties: The victorious 1990 center-right coalition headed by the Democratic Forum lost in 1994 to the Socialist-Liberal coalition, which in turn lost in 1998 to a new center-right coalition headed by Fidesz, which lost in 2002 to the Socialist-Liberal coalition. Only in 2006 was an incumbent reelected, when the Socialist-Liberal partnership won with 50 percent of the vote over Fidesz’s 46 percent.

After financial mismanagement compounded by the global financial crisis bankrupted Hungary in 2008, the government was forced to step aside in favor of a caretaker government under a harsh IMF austerity program. Demoralized and unpopular going into the 2010 election, the Liberals failed to run a party list at all, and the Socialists prepared for defeat. The Socialists had not only bankrupted the country but were beset by scandal when a media leak revealed that the party’s leader had lied to voters about the country’s finances during the 2006 campaign. The global financial collapse energized the newly formed neo-Nazi Jobbik party, which was eager to blame Jewish bankers and “cosmopolitan” elites in the governing coalition. A small, youthful, and vague new liberal party, Politics Can Be Different (LMP), contested the election, but few knew what it stood for. In 2010, then, with the Socialists discredited, liberals represented by an untested new party, and a far-right alternative on the ballot, a reasonable observer might have been relieved when Fidesz won. At the time, a victory for the center-right did not seem particularly dangerous. Fidesz had, after all, led a coalition government only a few years before.

Orbán won the 2010 election—Hungary’s last free and fair balloting—with 53 percent of the vote. But under Hungary’s disproportionate election law, that translated into 68 percent of the seats. For the first time, the easy constitutional-amendment rule and the disproportionate election law had teamed up to hand unconstrained power to one party. Fidesz, which had no internal mechanisms to rotate leadership, had by that time become simply a platform for Orbán—the party’s only leader in more than twenty years. Since 2010, Orbán has personally approved every single MP allowed to run under the Fidesz banner, and he reportedly keeps a signed resignation letter from each minister at the ready in case any misbehaves. Although Fidesz technically governs in coalition with the Christian Democratic Party, the Christian Democrats have no independent base of support. They are just the Christian face of Fidesz to create the appearance of power sharing.


The 2010 election effectively put Orbán above the law: He could amend the constitution at will, which he did twelve times during his first year in office—including removing, early on, the four-fifths hurdle for rewriting the constitution. Less than a year into his first term, Orbán unveiled a new constitution drafted behind closed doors, debated before parliament for only nine days, and passed on a party-line vote.11 The new constitution was accompanied by hundreds of new laws, many affecting elections.

The 2011 Constitution cut the size of parliament in half, something broadly welcomed, as the old 394-member parliament was widely considered unwieldy and expensive. But the change required redistricting the whole country, and the constitution said nothing about how to do it.

Rather than draw the map in a transparent process, the government drew the new constituencies behind closed doors. The resulting Law CCIII/2011 contained the literal boundaries of each district and was passed in a flash as a “cardinal law” that could only be amended by a subsequent two-thirds vote of parliament. Law CCIII/2011 created districts that varied immensely in size, with the smallest containing sixty-thousand voters and the largest, around ninety thousand. Not surprisingly, the large districts were in the left-opposition strongholds, while the smaller districts were in Fidesz country. Disparities in district sizes grew over time to exceed even Hungary’s fairly relaxed standard, but the 2018 redistricting required under Hungarian law to correct these deviations never occurred. By the 2022 election, 25 of the 106 districts exceeded the ODIHR standard that election districts vary in size by no more than 10 percent.

A study of the initial districts showed that if Fidesz and the left-opposition won equal numbers of votes under this new map, Fidesz would come out ten seats ahead. The study also showed that, had the 2006 election been run with those districts, Fidesz would have won the election that it had lost under the old rules.12 All could see that Fidesz had gerrymandered the entire country in its own favor. The bias has persisted through 2022, when election monitors noted that “there is a significantly unequal distribution of registered voters amongst the constituencies, with up to 33 per cent deviation, at odds with the principle of equal suffrage.”13

Dividing to Conquer

Orbán’s new election framework also changed how individual constituency elections are run. Under the old system, individual constituencies were decided in two rounds. If no candidate won more than 50 percent in the first round, the top two vote-getters would vie for the seat in a second round, a system that benefits broad coalitions over single parties.

Orbán eliminated the runoff so that a candidate winning far fewer than half the votes can now prevail. This became even easier to accomplish when the law loosened the rules for creating new parties. Financial incentives for creating “fake parties” ensured that voters would always be confronted with a myriad of choices at election time, further splintering the vote. In 2014, a hundred new parties sprang to life, and in 2018, at least 250 did. Such parties had no real program behind them but often had names surprisingly similar to those of real opposition parties.14 In 2022, for example, a Fidesz-friendly oligarch’s new party was called MEMO (short for Megoldás Mozgalom), which could have been confused with the MOMENTUM party (Momentum Mozgalom) that was part of the united opposition and therefore did not appear separately on the ballot.

The elimination of the second-round runoff meant that the real opposition parties had little chance of winning unless they joined together before the election to put up one candidate against Fidesz. But other features of Orbán’s new election system made it hard for opposition parties to unite. Under a 2013 election law, all parties offering a national party list were required to run candidates in at least 27 individual constituencies in at least nine of the nineteen counties and in Budapest. With 106 of the new seats in parliament decided through individual constituencies and 93 decided through party lists, the smaller parties of the center and left had to compete with one another in the individual constituencies if they wanted to maintain separate party lists. Orbán’s plurality candidates were assured of winning in such a system.

The only way that the opposition could beat the system was to join forces. But doing so meant taking another risk. Under the new law, combined parties faced higher hurdles to enter parliament. A single party running alone needed 5 percent of the national vote to win party-list seats. Two parties needed 10 percent under the new law, and three or more parties had to meet a 15 percent threshold.

Nonetheless, in 2014, five center-left parties formed the Unity Alliance. One center-left party (LMP) refused to join, splitting the center-left opposition vote. This cut in half the number of constituencies that the opposition would have won that year, allowing Fidesz to capture 91 percent of the constituencies with just 45 percent of the vote. Still plagued by infighting, the opposition remained fragmented in 2018, even as it gained strength in Budapest. With 49 percent of the vote in 2018, Orbán won 86 percent of the constituencies, losing in Budapest but winning almost everywhere else. The 2014 and 2018 results showed that only a unified opposition that spanned the political spectrum could defeat Orbán’s system.

Anticipating the danger, Orbán changed the rules again to guarantee that the 2022 vote would split even if the opposition united. In 2020, he modified the election law to require that all parties running a party list also run candidates in at least 71 of the 106 constituencies, up from the previous threshold of 27 constituencies. Even if fewer parties ran against him, there would still be plenty of candidates to divide the vote and hand Fidesz candidates a victory.

Again the opposition faced a tough choice. If left and right fielded separate party lists, competition in the constituencies would mean that they would all lose. But if they ran joint candidates across the districts to maximize their chances of winning, they would have to merge onto one party list despite substantively agreeing on very little. Deeming continued autocracy to be a bigger danger than the loss of party identity, six parties—five from the center-left plus Jobbik—agreed to a common list under the name United for Hungary. Their individual party names thus disappeared from the party-list ballot. Given how the system was designed, only such an alliance of strange bedfellows could have any hope of ousting Orbán.

The coalition ran primaries across the country in late 2021 to determine which candidate from among the parties had the best chance against Fidesz in each constituency. A national primary to pick the candidate who would stand against Orbán at the head of the joint party list resulted in the surprising selection of Péter Márki-Zay, a conservative small-town mayor. Having road-tested its candidates, United for Hungary looked ready to topple Orbán. But on 3 April 2022, Fidesz still won 83 percent of the constituencies. The opposition’s plan had loosened Orbán’s grip on his gerrymandered districts only slightly. Why did the opposition lose badly?

Choosing the Voters

As the 2022 election neared and the unity of the opposition coalition became clear, Orbán adapted again: He changed the voters without changing the districts. He did this by means of a November 2021 law that legalized “voter tourism.” Suddenly, voters could register to vote anywhere in the country even if they did not live in their new district.15 The Hungarian Helsinki Committee cautioned that the voter-tourism law “created the risk that multiple voters will re-register in single constituencies where a very close race is expected, with the intention to tilt the election outcome.”16

With this new law, Orbán could move his voters from safe Fidesz seats or seats that the opposition was clearly going to win to districts where these voters could ensure Fidesz victories in close contests. According to the election office, some 157,551 voters registered in 2022 to vote in places other than their legal residences. When the votes were tallied, however, the ballots of Fidesz-supporting voter tourists were counted together with the absentee ballots of opposition-supporting expatriates, so it is impossible to accurately assess what difference voter tourism made. At a minimum, the fact that Péter Márki-Zay lost his own constituency in a surprise upset suggests that voter tourism may have targeted specific opposition candidates.

Fidesz has detailed knowledge of its supporters through a voter database that it has been compiling while in power.17 The opposition does not have access to this data, making it impossible to leverage the voter-tourism law in the way that the ruling party can. With more than 150,000 votes available to be inserted into districts that were too close to call, this one legal change alone may have been responsible for keeping many districts in Fidesz hands in 2022.

This was not the first time that Orbán had gained additional seats by manipulating who could vote—and where. A set of laws put in place before the 2014 election offered citizenship and the right to vote in domestic elections to Hungarians who had never lived within the current borders of Hungary. Many Hungarians in neighboring states took advantage of this option. When these “near-abroad” Hungarians vote from outside the country, they are allowed to vote only for the party lists. But in an electorate where about eight-million people are eligible to vote and between five and five and a half million actually do, a group of more than 450,000 registered near-abroad voters can make a significant difference.

Near-abroad voters voting from outside the country are allowed to vote by unsecured mail ballots that are often returned by party bundlers and other partisan intermediaries. These ballots are completely unmonitored by election officials and observers.18 In addition, because some neighboring states bar dual citizenship, the Hungarian government keeps these voter lists secret so as not to expose illegal second passports. As a result, the opposition does not even know who these voters are and therefore has no opportunity to try to coax them away from Fidesz.

The near-abroad voters have voted overwhelmingly for Orbán. In 2014, Fidesz won 95 percent of this group, giving the party 1.4 more party-list seats than it would have otherwise received. In 2018, Fidesz won 96 percent of the near-abroad vote, for one extra seat. In 2022, Fidesz received 94 percent of a much larger pool, enough for 2.5 party-list seats. Taken alone, in both 2014 and 2018, the near-abroad vote secured Orbán the last mandate that he needed for a two-thirds majority. In 2022, it accounted for nearly his entire three-seat buffer.

With the new voter-tourism rules, the opposition suspected that Orbán would move some of his near-abroad voters into Hungary, where they could vote not only for the party lists but also in the constituencies, particularly where the elections were close. Fidesz had been documented doing this already in 2018, before Orbán’s changes to the election rules made the practice legal.19 On election day in 2022, investigative journalists recorded minibuses full of voters pulling up to polling places, sending the passengers to vote in predictable ways, and attacking journalists who were recording what was happening.20

Since Orbán came to power in 2010, educated Hungarians who oppose him have left the country in droves. While the Hungarian government does not disclose emigration figures, upwards of five-hundred thousand of Hungary’s ten-million citizens have left since 2010. With home addresses back in Hungary, these expatriates can vote for both party lists and individual constituencies. But the Hungarian government requires them to travel to embassies and consulates to vote in person. Unlike the near-abroad voters who can vote by mail without certification, expat voters must run a gauntlet of checks.21 The expat vote flipped no seats in 2014 or 2018. It is unclear whether it made a difference in 2022, as the election office lumped the expat votes together with those of the voter tourists. But the expat vote did apparently switch one district in Budapest from Fidesz to the united opposition in 2022. Had it been as easy for expat voters to vote as it was for near-abroad voters, perhaps more seats would have flipped.

Winning the Party-List Vote

When Orbán changed the electoral system ahead of the 2014 election, he also changed how party-list votes were calculated. Since then, the opposition has had no way to counter Fidesz’s built-in advantages. Under the pre-Orbán system, the votes that went to losing candidates in the constituencies were added to the party-list votes in a (flawed) attempt to balance the number of votes for particular parties with their share of parliamentary seats. For example, if the candidate for Party X won 400 votes in a particular district and the candidate for Party Y won 200 votes, the votes that were “lost”—that is, the 200 votes cast for the Party Y candidate—would be added to Party Y’s party-list votes to compensate the loser. “Loser compensation” is a common feature of mixed-system elections in which voters cast separate votes for candidates and for parties.

Orbán’s new election system added “winner compensation.” Now, any vote not strictly needed to elect a candidate in a constituency is deemed “lost” even if that vote were cast for the winning candidate. So in that same election between the X and Y candidates with the 400-to-200 vote result, 200 votes would be transferred to the Y party list, as before, but now 199 votes would also be transferred to X party list, because the candidate for Party X only needed 201 votes to win but got 199 surplus votes. Winner compensation allows parties that win big to win even bigger, making the system even more disproportionate.

Winner compensation has handed Orbán his two-thirds supermajority in three elections. It brought him six additional parliamentary seats in 2014, five in 2018, and six again in 2022. Given that Fidesz received precisely enough seats for a two-thirds majority in 2014 and 2018, but in 2022 won a three-seat buffer beyond that, the winner-compensation seats alone catapulted Fidesz from a simple majority to a constitutional majority in each election.

Orbán’s 2014 reset of the election framework made another trick on the party-list side available for his use. Hungary’s 1989 election law guaranteed minority ethnic representation in parliament with reserved seats. Orbán’s new election framework changed how minorities are represented. Any one of twelve listed minority ethnic groups can opt to offer a “minority list.” Voters who intend to vote “minority” must register as such before the election and also give up their party-list vote in exchange for the minority-representative vote. Minority voters get a bonus, however. Their designated representative can be elected to parliament with a mere twenty-thousand votes while party-list seats typically require around sixty-thousand votes. In 2014, the Roma list won one seat in parliament, and in 2018 and 2022, the German list cleared the hurdle. In fact, all three of those representatives were Fidesz MPs running under a minority banner and taking advantage of the vote discount to gain a seat on the cheap. The Hungarian government has received praise from election monitors for building minority representation into the election rules, but Fidesz has in fact used minority rights to install its own MPs in parliament with fewer votes than they would have otherwise needed to win.

The Future of the Opposition in Hungary

After the 2022 election, the Hungarian opposition is battered. It had taken the one narrow path through Orbán’s thicket of election barriers that might have led to victory—banding together ahead of the 2022 contest, holding primaries to divvy up districts, and mounting a fairly united campaign under adverse conditions. Because the opposition figured out the only strategy that could have defeated Orbán, he adjusted his system yet again in response by moving new voters into the close districts and deploying his old tricks in an even more concerted way. Orbán’s massive victory, which has put center-left opposition parties in their worst position yet, shows that he knows precisely how to tweak laws and retool his political message to fend off challenges. With his comfortable two-thirds majority, no legal change is beyond Orbán’s reach. Thus he can keep modifying the electoral playing field to wrong-foot the opposition regardless of the strategy it adopts.

The united opposition must now wrestle with the mass defection of Jobbik voters to Fidesz. Clearly Jobbik’s move to the center was a losing strategy for the party. Rather than following their leaders, Jobbik voters have shown that they will vote for a right-leaning party—even an autocratic one—over any coalition that includes the left. This lesson will not be lost on the Jobbik MPs who now sit in a parliament where the united opposition has no common whip. Jobbik MPs will have to turn right to recover their voters if the party wants to remain viable in 2026.

The left-leaning parties may also have lost some voters who found it hard to support a coalition that included Jobbik. While the statistics do not show a mass defection, some on the left apparently voted for the Two-Tailed Dog Party, a party that mocks politics. Two-Tailed Dog won nearly 3.5 percent of the domestic vote—not enough to change the overall result, but enough to sound a warning bell about future collaborations between left and right.

The united opposition parties shared a commitment to dislodge Orbán and restore Hungary to a constitutional-democratic state. But Hungary is a conservative-majority country without real competition in the center-right part of the political spectrum. The 2022 election showed that conservatives will vote for parties of the right instead of voting for democratic renewal if this renewal might mean a return of the left. While most educated urban voters were so eager to get rid of Orbán that they were willing to vote for a coalition that included a party that they despise, the less-educated, poorer voters in the countryside were not—perhaps because they believed the narratives that the government-friendly media spun, perhaps because they saw no acceptable alternative to Orbán, or perhaps because they were pressured to vote for Fidesz on pain of losing their public-works jobs. The reasons may have been multiple, but presented with a united opposition that could have ousted an autocrat, most conservative voters took a pass.

Since the election, the opposition has not collapsed. Péter Márki-Zay gave up his seat in parliament to continue as mayor of his hometown, but remains visible in the limited-reach opposition media. Several other well-known opposition figures also decided not to enter a parliament in which they will have no say, given that the rules are rigged against them there as well: Opposition MPs are allowed little time to speak, cannot introduce bills or amendments, and have no realistic possibility of even slowing things down. In 2016, the European Court of Human Rights judged Hungary’s practice of fining the opposition for attempting to speak in parliament to be a violation of freedom of expression under the European Convention on Human Rights.22 Years later, nothing has changed; there is no sign that opposition MPs will be permitted more opportunities to speak in the new parliament.

So far, opposition figures continue to generate ideas, including one for an alternative parliament in which opposition politicians can model what parliamentary debate should look like. Others have proposed boycotting parliament altogether. Several established party leaders are stepping down from their frontline positions, pushing the next generation into the leadership for 2026, but it is too soon to tell if the new crop will have transformative ideas. The center and left parties will probably regroup and try again in four years, but there is no sign that Orbán will let them anywhere near the halls of power or that conservative voters will ever vote for a coalition that includes parties on the left.

If Hungarians cannot change their government through elections because Hungary is no longer a democracy, then other ends to Orbán’s rule become more likely. Orbán’s 2022 election giveaways were so expensive that they put the state budget deeply in the red. He has already spent much of the money that the EU had allocated to Hungary in the current budget cycle, but the European Commission notified Hungary the day after the election that it would start the procedure to cut Hungary’s EU funds. While Russia has come to Hungary’s aid in the past, sanctions for the Ukraine war will limit Russia’s largesse. China has also been a big funder of Hungarian projects, but a coming global slowdown may limit China’s willingness to foot Orbán’s bills.

With funds dwindling, Orbán’s system of supporting the oligarchs so that they in turn support him may crack. If that were to happen, Hungary might spin into the sort of democratic death spiral that we have seen in Russia, Turkey, and Venezuela, where slipping political support has led to increasing political repression, which in turn has pushed investors to flee and bring down the economy. Being in the EU might moderate the effects of economic implosion in Hungary—though at a tremendous cost to the EU—but even a less dramatic crash would be a painful ending. It may be the only one, however, that Orbán cannot prevent.


1. Gábor Tenszer, “A Medián 128–71 arányban biztosnak látja a Fidesz gyõzelmét” [Pollster Médian confidently sees a 128–71 victory for Fidesz], Telex, 30 March 2022,

2. Isabel Mares and Lauren Young, “Varieties of Clientelism in Hungarian Elections,” Comparative Politics 51 (April 2019): 449–71.

3. “This Is How Chain Voting Looks Like: Voters Cast Their Ballots Through the Window of a Car Parked Near Voting Station in Putnok,” Átlátszó, 5 April 2022,

4. Quentin Ariès, “Europe’s Failure to Protect Liberty in Hungary,” Atlantic, 29 December 2019,

5. Kim Lane Scheppele, “How Hungary’s Orbán Turned the Ukraine War to His Own Advantage and Set an Example for Other Right-Wing Leaders,” American Prospect, 30 March 2022,

6. Political Capital Policy Research and Consulting Institute, “Jobbik’s Voters Were the Most Likely to be Missing from the Opposition Coalition’s Camp,” 4 April 2022,

7. ODIHR International Election Observer Mission (IEOM), “Hungary, Parliamentary Elections and Referendum, 3 April 2022: Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions,” 4 April 2022, 1,

8. Kim Lane Scheppele, “Unconstitutional Constituent Power,” in Rogers M. Smith and Richard R. Beeman, eds., Modern Constitutions (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020).

9. See Barnabas Racz, “Political Pluralisation in Hungary: The 1990 Election,” Soviet Studies 43, no. 1 (1991): 107–36.

10. Racz, “Political Pluralisation in Hungary,” 108.

11. Miklós Bánkuti, Gábor Halmai, and Kim Lane Scheppele, “Hungary’s Illiberal Turn: Disabling the Constitution.” Journal of Democracy 23 (July 2012): 138–46.

12. Political Capital Policy Research and Consulting Institute, “Halfway Into the Hungarian Electoral Reform,” 19 April 2012,

13. ODIHR IEOM, “Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions,” 6.

14. Alex Cooper, “Fake Parties, Real Money: Hungary’s Bogus Party Problem,” Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, 10 December 2018,

15. Government of Hungary, Act CXIX of 2021, Sections 4 and 17.

16. Hungarian Helsinki Committee, “A Threat Assessment of the 2022 Hungarian Parliamentary Elections,” Policy Brief, 9 February 2022, 6,

17. András Szabó, “Inside Orbán’s Fidesz Party Preparing for Hungary’s Parliamentary Election.” Direkt36, 11 March 2022,; Balázs Pivarnyik, “Fidesz Compiled a List of Potential Supporters Based on Their Personal Interests in the 2014 Campaign,” Budapest Beacon, 5 April 2018,; For a detailed account of what the lists contain, see ÉvaBalogh, “Fidesz in Action: Lists, Recruiters, and Making the New VásárhelyMayor’s Life Miserable,” Hungarian Spectrum blog, 4 April 2018,

18. Hungarian Helsinki Committee, “Threat Assessment,” 5.

19. Attila Bátorfy and András Becker, “Phantom Residents Are Voting and Collecting Pensions Near the Border with Ukraine,” Átlátszó, 25 May 2018,

20. Zalán Zubor, “Votes for Money or Food, Chain Voting—Election Fraud Recorded Across the Country,” Átlátszó, 6 April 2022, also and

21. Lili Rutai, “A Tale of Two Diasporas: The Battle for Hungarian Voters Abroad,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 21 February 2022,

22. European Court of Human Rights, “Case of Karácsony and Others vs. Hungary, Application Nos. 42491/13 and 44357/13, Grand Chamber,” Final Judgment, Strasbourg, 17 May 2016,{%22itemid%22:[%22001-162831%22]}.


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