Opinion

First Things First: Vote the Authoritarians Out

Opposition parties in Hungary and Israel can learn from Democrats in the United States.

Viktor Orbán Benjamin Netanyahu
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán speaks with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, in Brasília, Brazil, January 2, 2019 (Facebook/Viktor Orbán)

Left-wing Americans weren’t happy when the Democratic Party nominated the center-left Joe Biden for the presidency, but, unlike in 2016, few sat out the election.

Nor there were major spoiler candidates on the right. Voting for Hillary Clinton was apparently too much to ask of five million Donald Trump skeptics in 2016, who voted for libertarian Gary Johnson or conservative Evan McMullin. They could have tipped the election in Clinton’s favor.

In 2020, Democrats wisely nominated the least divisive old white guy they could find and anti-Trumpers voted like the republic depended on it. Biden won fifteen million more votes than Clinton and flipped five states, handing him a comfortable Electoral College victory.

Hungarians and Israelis hoping to get rid of their “Trumps” must take note.

Hungary

Viktor Orbán has been in power for a decade in Hungary. In that time, the country has become the poster child of democratic backsliding. Hungary’s decline has been the most precipitous ever tracked by Freedom House, which keeps a watch on civil liberties and political freedoms around the world.

Orbán has politicized the central bank and judiciary, installed cronies in formerly apolitical institutions, harassed and bought out much of the free press, given public contracts to his allies and family members and all but closed Hungary’s borders to asylum seekers. He has ignored recommendations and warnings from the EU and made it harder for the opposition to win by gerrymandering parliamentary districts and cutting subsidies for political parties in half.

So long as the opposition to Orbán, which spans the spectrum from former communists to former fascists, remains divided, he can rule unchallenged with the support of half the country.

That may be about to change. Dalibor Roháč, a Slovakian-born scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, writes for The Bulwark that Hungary’s six largest opposition parties are planning to run a single candidate against Orbán in 2022 on a common manifesto.

What pushed them over the edge was a reform rushed through parliament in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic that raised the number of districts in which parties must compete in order to qualify.

Like all autocrats, Orbán overreached. The new rules make it even more difficult for small and regional parties to win seats — but there was hardly a need for them. Orbán would almost certainly have won the next election under the old system. In trying to consolidate (even more) power, he may have sowed the seeds of his own demise.

Israel

Benjamin Netanyahu arguably made the same mistake last year, when he called an early election in a bid to dissuade prosecutors from pressing corruption charges and ended up galvanizing his opponents. The Israeli prime minister, also in power for a decade, was indicted anyway. Parties of the left and center united behind the former army chief, Benny Gantz.

Gantz won not one but two elections in 2019 and had a real shot at unseating Netanyahu. But he failed to persuade the Orthodox right to support him and balked at doing a deal with Arab parties.

To break the gridlock, Gantz agreed to form a grand coalition with Netanyahu’s Likud in the understanding that he would take over as prime minister after a year and a half; a promise Israel expert Michael Koplow writes “was obviously empty to everyone paying attention save Gantz.”

The government collapsed on Wednesday. Elections are due in March.

Time to do a deal

Unlike Orbán, Netanyahu does not have anywhere near 50 percent support. He won 29 percent in the last election and that was a record for him.

But unlike in Hungary, opposition parties in Israel still prioritize their own differences over ousting a prime minister who has disparaged the free press and peaceful protests, vilified judges, politicized Israel’s vital relationship with the United States, neglected relations with Europe, risked war with Iran, and who is standing trial for accepting bribes and offering to damage a newspaper’s competitor in exchange for favorable coverage.

Most other right-wing parties still prefer to govern with Netanyahu, because they share his security and pro-settlement policies.

Orthodox parties support him so long as he protects their privileges, including exemption from military service and subsidies for their schools. Because Orthodox Jews have bigger families and are less likely to work, they also receive higher family and unemployment benefits.

It’s a sore point on the secular left. Many middle-income Israelis in Tel Aviv and other cities struggle to make ends meet, and Netanyahu has done little to alleviate the country’s long-running cost-of-living crisis.

All Jewish parties have traditionally ruled out pacts with parties representing Israel’s Arab minority.

That needs to change. If Greens and liberals in Hungary can ally with the nativist Jobbik, left-wing and centrist Israelis can do a deal with Arabs and Orthodox Jews to get Netanyahu out.

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