Hungarian Political Parties and the 2004 European Parliamentary Elections

Article excerpt

Hungary's long journey towards the European Union reached its final destination with the approval of the accession on the referendum in April 2003. Studies show that the pre-election campaign preferred the affirmative outcome but also highlighted significant differences between the main political forces. The left-of-center parties and voters were somewhat more in favor of EU entry and conversely the right-of-center was more skeptical but stopped short of outright opposition. (1)

Similar to the later European parliamentary elections in 2004 but in a more subdued way, the issue of the EU entry was largely colored by domestic political considerations. The Fidesz (2) on the right aimed at weakening the socialist-liberal coalition position while the latter defended the status quo. (3) The picture seems to be even more blurred because to some extent the conflicting views cut across party lines and yet none of the main actors openly opposed the accession.

In comparison to the other nine new member states, the Hungarian voter participation was low (45.62%) but within this category, the approval rate was at least average (83.76%) and the phenomenon of domestic political focus versus European perspectives was evenly typical on referenda across the board in all newly joining states.

The official date of entry of the ten new members was the formal celebrations of May 1, 2004 which opened the door to the next substantive step: the election of the EP parliamentary delegates. The research in this study intends to look beyond the procedural and structural surface of the EU parliamentary elections and its numerical results; we will search for the underlying social-political determinants of the campaign rhetoric and the political outcome from broader European perspectives.

The Campaign

While the campaign in Hungary was officially opened only on May 10, the major parties started their media drive immediately, and it soon became clear that the elections turned into domestic political battlegrounds with little, if any, focus on EU perspectives. The accession referendum in 2003 decided the substantive question on which all parties agreed to various degrees but the field now opened for partisan opportunist advantage seeking.

The main opposition party Fidesz was defeated twice in 2002, both on the national and local elections and was unwilling to accept the defeat in a democratic manner focusing on the desire to bring down the socialist-liberal coalition by any means possible. Since the right-conservative political forces (4) under the Fidesz mantra did not openly challenge the accession question in 2003, the European parliamentary elections were the first opportunity for them to prove that public opinion changed decidedly in their favor since 2002 and if the coalition party lists suffer a serious defeat there would be grounds to press the government to resign and hold early elections. The entire EU campaign by the Fidesz shows that this strategy defined their tactical moves.

Even prior to the formal opening of the campaign, the Fidesz faction created a stir in Parliament about the use of Olympian symbols for EP campaign purposes and Laszlo Kover, the Chair of Fidesz National Committee, put the question in focus that "significant opposition advantage ought to force the HSP to recognize that a resignation was in order" and that under such conditions the coalition playing field would become too limited to function effectively. (5)

In the light of the aforementioned, the official campaign opening did not present surprises. The preparation for the EP elections was characterized by the indifference by new members to even touch upon the larger questions of the European organization, its problems and prospects. Viktor Orban, Fidesz leader, and Pal Schmitt, the list leader, called for "mobilization" in a crisis atmosphere and alluded to the possibility of forcing the government out and/or raising the question of confidence in Parliament. …