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The Strange Defeat of Viktor Orbán

The Strange Defeat of Viktor Orbán
 Stefano Bottoni
Visiting Fellow - Europe

According to pro-government Hungarian media, "Fidesz remains the first party in the country" after the municipal elections of October 13. The statement is statistically correct but grossly underplays the political shock suffered by ruling party Fidesz of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. After nine years of dominance and a dozen consecutive successful elections since 2006, the “central political battlefield” experienced its first serious popular setback. What happened and which might be the long-term consequences of these elections?

The key to the unexpected performance of the Hungarian opposition was unity. The opposition parties did not significantly increase their share of votes, but unlike before, a multifaceted and conflictual opposition managed to set aside any ideological differences and present a single opposition candidate in most of the Hungarian cities. The results in the capital Budapest are particularly telling. Already, at the general elections of April 2018, Fidesz won only 38% of ballots, while the center-left opposition parties were supported by more than half of the electorate. At the local elections of October 13, long-serving Fidesz general mayor István Tarlós lost 51 to 44% to the young and dynamic candidate of the center-left parties Gergely Karácsony, a sociologist with limited administrative experience. 44% of genuine support for a right-wing candidate in the capital city would be recorded as a remarkable result in every European country. Moreover, Tarlós’s score in 2019 was higher than that obtained by Fidesz in Budapest last year, and only 5% less than in the previous local elections of 2014. This time, however, the opposition managed to defeat an incumbent mayor who enjoyed substantial material resources and the unconditional support of most media outlets. The "largest minority" in the country, that of Fidesz-supporters, has been defeated by the largest possible coalition ever fabricated by the Hungarian opposition not only in Budapest by also in key centers like Pécs, Miskolc, Eger, Tatabánya, Szombathely, and Hódmezővásárhely. Outside of Budapest, the unified opposition including center-left parties and the national-radicals of Jobbik managed to win in 10 out of the 23 provincial capitals (with a net gain of 7 mayors), and several dozens of urban centers throughout the country. In sociological terms, the already existing territorial gap between large or middle-size cities and the rural Hungary has further widened. Fidesz consolidated its dominant rule among the 2,5 to 3 millions of Hungarians who live and vote in the countryside, but lost track over a similar number of citizens mostly living in urban and suburban areas.

Orbán’s party consolidated its absolute majority in all of them, and Fidesz managed to increase its popular support among the poorest village communities and in many small cities. 

The country seems divided into two non communicating fractions. While Budapest and most major cities will be governed in the next 5 years by local administrations linked to the opposition, Fidesz has been informally building a one-party system in the countryside. At the 2014 municipal elections, single candidates for mayor office occurred in less than 400 out of the 3100 Hungarian municipalities. This time, their number has risen to an unprecedented almost 1000, which means that 30 years after the 1989 democratic transition, the notion of multiparty system and pluralism in rural Hungary has lost much of its original content, as only “officially approved” local candidates are encouraged to run for office.

The growing dominance of Fidesz in the countryside can be also spotted by analyzing the composition of the 19 provincial councils outside Budapest. Orbán’s party consolidated its absolute majority in all of them, and Fidesz managed to increase its popular support among the poorest village communities and in many small cities. 

Albeit celebrating the partial defeat of the ruling party, political scientists call for caution and stress the difference between political and municipal elections. Voters who boosted the turnout to the nearly record of almost 50% decided to punish the local power system and the arrogance of several corrupt Fidesz candidates nationwide, but did not express a clear opinion over Viktor Orbán’s rule. Paradoxically, the political importance of these local elections had been first stressed by Orbán’s party and the government supported media, which carried out a rabid campaign of intimidation of opposition candidates, and started unveiling alleged financial and sexual scandals. However, the publication of the sex tapes of the long-serving Fidesz mayor of Győr, from late September changed the general mood just before the vote. The tapes not only revealed the private vices of a proudly Christian local boss, but exposed the more general corruption network that pervades the patronage system built by Orbán’s party. To make things more complicated, the Borkai scandal significantly affected Fidesz’ positions in Budapest and elsewhere, but did not prevent its responsible and original target from winning another term in a wealthy, sophisticated and strategic city, mainly thanks to the huge Audi plant and the automotive sector.

In a regional perspective, it is misleading to compare the unexpected half-victory of the Hungarian opposition with the excellent result of the opposition parties in Erdoğan’s Turkey. And it might be early to speculate on the decline of Viktor Orbán’s leadership, as the different electoral systems makes difficult to project the results of October 13 on the political map of 2022. These local elections represented the last test before the next general elections, and the Prime Minister has two years in power to prepare for the next competition.

And it might be early to speculate on the decline of Viktor Orbán’s leadership, as the different electoral systems makes difficult to project the results of October 13 on the political map of 2022.

However, the message sent by the Hungarian constituency was much louder than expected. Without the identity-supplier offered by the anti-immigrant campaigns, the real internal contradictions of a government that ignores the notion of compromise seem to emerge. Neoliberal, business-minded economic policy – behind the appearance of sovereignism – is fueled by systemic corruption and strongly supported through the European Union’s cohesion and development funds. If Orbán wants to secure a comfortable victory in the general elections of April 2022, he shall take back control over those interest groups and local oligarchies inside its own party that have made the Fidesz brand so unpalatable among the Hungarian urban and educated middle-class. 

After a decade of defeats and marginalization, the political opposition to the "system of national cooperation" has discovered to represent at least half of the Hungarian voters. For Europe, the time may have come to increase pressure on Orbán to prevent further radicalization and help opposition forces consolidate their presence, not only in downtown Budapest, but also in the countryside.

Copyright : Markku Ulander / Lehtikuva / AFP

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