Far-right Jobbik set to win key Hungarian by-election

Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party put aside its usual antisemitic and anti-Roma rhetoric, campaigning instead on an anti-corruption platform. This strategy paid off, with the party’s candidate appearing to win in a critical by-election held in western Hungary’s Tapolca riding, long dominated by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party. With 98% of the votes counted (approximately 500 votes cast at embassies and consulates abroad will only be tabulated early this coming week), Jobbik appears to have won the riding in what proved to be a very close race between the visibly exhausted right-wing governing party and the burgeoning far-right:

Jobbik (Lajos Rig):             35%
Fidesz (Zoltán Fenyvesi): 34%
MSZP (Ferenc Pad):            27%
LMP (Barbara Sallee):          2%

Lajos Rig right) and Jobbik party leader Gábor Vona (left). Photo: Lajos Rig's Facebook page.

Lajos Rig (right) and Jobbik party leader Gábor Vona (left). Photo: Lajos Rig’s Facebook page.

Twenty-two candidates contested the Tapolca by-election, but only three of them had a realistic chance of winning the riding: namely Fidesz’s Zoltán Fenyvesi, Jobbik’s Lajos Rig and the Hungarian Socialist Party’s (MSZP) candidate Ferenc Pad, who also enjoyed the formal support of the centrist Democratic Coalition (DK). Barbara Sallee of the Politics Can Be Different (LMP) green party had no chance of scooping up the riding, but had to prove that the party could at least garner over 5% support, in order to keep LMP competitive and attractive to some “alternative” left-centre voters nationally. Ms. Sallee failed to even come close to this critical threshold, which will call into question LMP’s status as a relatively popular protest party among Hungarian youth.

Each party had a great deal to prove. Jobbik badly needed to win its first single-member constituency to evolve from a medium-size protest party destined for eternal opposition status, into a potential governing force that could really rival Fidesz on the right. In Hungary’s hybrid electoral system, Jobbik has done well in terms of scoring in the 20% range on national party lists, but up until now has failed to win a single riding. To change this, Jobbik leader Gábor Vona has incrementally moved the party’s national communications strategy away from the extreme right, thus softening its image and focusing on issues of Fidesz corruption, whilst allowing for the survival of fascist tendencies, activities and statements below the surface, at the local level. Since the 2010 election, when Jobbik entered the Hungarian parliament for the first time, Mr. Vona has proven to be quite a savvy politician and strategist; much like a younger Mr. Orbán was several years ago, Mr. Vona is visibly in the political game for the long-haul and tends to build incrementally, as well as to think several steps ahead. This is what the left-centre opposition has so miserably failed to do.

The 40 year old Mr. Rig–who has served as Tapolca’s deputy mayor–followed a seemingly moderate, mainstream anti-corruption strategy in Sunday’s by-election as well. Mind you, Jobbik’s true colours did come out, when Mr. Rig shared a virulently racist article on Facebook during the campaign. The ominous article claimed that Jews were using the Roma population as a “biological weapon” against Hungarians. Mr. Vona likely had a little chat with Mr. Rig, and the rest of his campaign managed to stay on-key.

A few hours before polls closed, Mr. Rig sent a message to his supporters on Facebook. He noted that if Jobbik eventually formed government, it would impose double penalties on politicians convicted on corruption charges, as well as eliminate parliamentary amnesty for active members of parliament. Additionally, the party would declassify files that provide evidence on rampant corruption during the Fidesz era. Ironically, Mr. Rig predicted on voting day, that the candidate who has the most votes by the time 25% of ballots are counted will likely win the riding. Mr Rig, in fact, only began to pull away from his main Fidesz rival once more than 50% of the voters were counted, as the first numbers coming in were from pro-Fidesz Sümeg and surrounding villages. Tapolca polling stations were among the last to report. Even then, the difference between Jobbik and Fidesz is just 300 votes, before votes cast outside of Hungary are taken into account in the next day or two.

Lajos Rig scoops up critical Tapolca riding for the far-right Jobbik party. Photo: Lajos Rig's Facebook page.

Lajos Rig scoops up critical Tapolca riding for the far-right Jobbik party. Photo: Lajos Rig’s Facebook page.

Turn-out in the riding reached 42%, which is reasonably high for a by-election. Although considering that this one was a truly hotly-contested three-way race between Fidesz, Jobbik and MSZP, and that each party took out its biggest guns on voting day, one might have expected turn-out to be closer to the 45% mark. Jobbik clearly managed to mobilize its voters and Fidesz’s éminence grise, Gábor Kubatov, reportedly roamed the riding all polling day, with a list of local residents and presumed party preferences in his hands, trying to ensure that every potential supporter was hauled out to the polling station. MSZP, however, was less successful in motivating the growing number of voters who are displeased with the Orbán government.

It’s worth noting that the Tapolca riding (formally known as Veszprém County Riding 3) incorporates three medium-sized towns: the Socialist-led Ajka, Jobbik-leaning Tapolca and the pro-Fidesz Sümeg. Home to 84,000 residents and 70,500 voters, at the national level this region has been a Fidesz stronghold since 1998, even though its largest town, Ajka, is led by popular MSZP mayor Béla Schwartz. This is hardly considered to be a Jobbik heartland, yet the far-right pulled off an important win.

The left-centre opposition now has some more soul-searching to do, if it is to be seen as a competitive and realistic alternative to Fidesz in 2018. DK leader and former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány suggested earlier this year, due to the growing corruption scandals around Fidesz, in-fighting on the right and falling polling number, that an early election may have to be called in 2016. I highly doubt that this will be the case. But if, somehow, the Orbán regime does implode before 2018, then it will be no thanks to Mr. Gyurcsány, nor to MSZP. And it’s not likely that they will be the ones to rise to power in Budapest.


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