Hungary’s Socialists get major boost in Salgótarján mayoral election

The Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) badly needed a victory. The party has been in a cycle of stagnation and slow decline for over six years. It was bleeding some support to former Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Democratic Coalition (DK), which has managed to hold its own in terms of its modest support, and with Socialist headquarters, offices and other real estate slipping away, and local MSZP chapters folding or being inactive, one had to wonder whether we were witnessing the party’s death knell. Could it ever run in another election, in its current form, or was it destined to be wiped out, like most of the 1989 parties? (I’m thinking here of the Hungarian Democratic Forum, the Alliance of Free Democrats and the Smallholders’ Party.)

A major, much larger than expected win in Salgótarján’s mayoral election on Sunday may help to change the narrative for the Socialists. In 2014, MSZP mayoral candidate Ottó Dóra managed, with difficulty, to beat Fidesz by a mere 50 votes. The result could hardly have been closer. After a serious illness, Mr. Dóra died while in office and the Socialists, with the support of DK, ran Zsolt Fekete as the left’s candidate for mayor. Polling had predicted another cliffhanger contest in Salgótarján, a town of 36,000 residents, situated in northern Hungary, located directly along the border with Slovakia. Fidesz’s candidate, Zsolt Simon and MSZP’s Mr. Fekete were running neck-and-neck and victory depended on who had better mobilization.



Salgótarján would traditionally be a town where the left should do well. Under the Kádár regime, Salgótarján was billed as a “model socialist city,” with new highrises, a major hotel, a state-owned restaurant that could seat 200 guests and a modern cultural centre all erected during the sixties and seventies.  In the twentieth century, the city’s economy was based on coal mining and manufacturing. Most factories have closed, and mining already came to an end before the 1989 change in regime. Youth have left in droves and unemployment runs high.

Since 1990, the left won four out of six mayoral elections in Salgótarján and Fidesz scooped up the rest. This time, both analysts and the two parties anticipated another cliffhanger.

But the results on Sunday were very different. The MSZP candidate garnered 52%, with Fidesz falling back to just 40%. That resounding, 12% Socialist victory undoubtedly sent shock waves through government circles. As well, turn-out in the election stood at over 45%, which is much higher than what one would expect in a small-town mayoral race. But this race was not just about Salgótarján. It is clear that voters used the local election as an opportunity to send Budapest a message about issues of national significance.

Zsolt Fekete (left) with József Tóbiás (right).

Zsolt Fekete (left) with József Tóbiás (right).

Also important to note is what happened to Jobbik. The far-right party’s voter base collapsed, with Jobbik sympathizers voting strategically for the Socialist candidate. In 2014,  Jobbik garnered over 12% of the vote in Salgótarján. This past Sunday, this proportion fell to 6%. Most Jobbik supporters decided to side with the candidate who had the best chance to beat Fidesz.

József Tóbiás, MSZP’s national leader, visited Salgótarján on election night and remarked that the result gives hope to all those who intend to boot Mr. Orbán from office. Indeed, since 2014, Fidesz has lost every major by-election, primarily to left-centre candidates, and on one occasion to Jobbik.

Albert Gazda, a publicist with the Magyar Nemzet daily, suggested on Monday that with its tired, aggressive antics, Mr. Orbán’s ruling party was bleeding away support to a still fractured opposition and inadvertently mobilizing the anti-Fidesz forces.

“In Hungary, parties do not win, but rather lose elections. Let’s just think of 1994 or 2010–the two landslide elections. The voters did not all of a sudden become Gyula Horn fans at the tail-end of the old MDF term. Similarly, voters did not simply become Orbanites in such large proportions when the Gyurcsány-era was so resoundingly rejected. Voters simply got bored of the dull, unpleasant and aggressive faces. There’s no organized opposition in Hungary? If Fidesz continues to take such monumental measures to construct one, then one will appear!” wrote Mr. Gazda.

The protests around the government’s education policies–the fact that they run so deeply, from elementary school students to parents, grandparents and teachers and have nationally-recognized symbols (such as the plaid shirts)–are not fizzling, and may be turning into a hardened dissatisfaction with the regime, which can be translated into votes during by-elections. Additionally, I am convinced that most Hungarians were horrified by the blatant, physical thuggery that Fidesz used to stop MSZP from submitting its proposed referendum question (on the highly unpopular forced Sunday store closures), especially when this touches one of the “bread and butter” issues to which any Hungarian can relate.

Both of these recent developments undoubtedly played a role in the much larger than expected Socialist win in Salgótarján. MSZP might just be on a “winning streak.” Some news reports, notably in Index and Magyar Nemzet, suggest that the National Election Committee may still decide to approve MSZP’s referendum question on store closures, due to a small, technical error on the part of Mrs. László Erdősi, the elderly woman who was able to submit her questions 4 seconds before MSZP did, thanks to the Fidesz skinheads who helped her into the building and blocked the entrance for all others.  If MSZP’s referendum question does go ahead and Hungarians get to vote on whether to overturn Mr. Orbán’s mandatory Sunday store closures, Hungarians will almost certainly vote by a wide margin to reverse the unpopular decision. Considering that many voices within Fidesz were unhappy with a policy that was widely seen as pandering to Fidesz’s tiny, highly clerical and politically insignificant partner, the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP), and to pro-government business interests (notably the CBA grocery chain), an embarrassing result for Fidesz in such a referendum could open the door to dissent and in-fighting in government ranks.

The second half of Fidesz’s second consecutive term in office may prove to be a tougher match for Mr. Orbán than at any time since 2010.



  1. Even if the MSZP cannot win, to see a real and capable opposition would be nice. I am not a MSZP fan and I don’t know what they would do if once they could get the power back but I don’t think Hungary can take a step ahead without leftist and socialist values.

  2. The winner was not the Candidate of MSZP, but of MSZP, DK (Democratic Coalition) the party of former prime minister and former MSZP Chairman Ferenc Gyurcsany, and of a grassroot organisation of the local residents. In the actual Hungarian situation this is a very important distinction, because MSZP is may be still the biggest party on the opposition side, but it is constantly shrinking, while DK is slowly growing. So most probably non of the two won this election: it was their cooperation that convinced the voters, who were demanding this for a long time, not only in this city, but all over Hungary.

  3. Avatar Charlie London says:

    Interesting analysis, Chris.

    But just a non-representative by-election, sadly.

    (Interesting spelling of the horse-racing metaphor! – “….were running kneck-and-kneck and victory ………”.
    As in Orban is a pain in the kneck!)

    • Avatar Christopher Adam says:

      Thanks for pointing out kneck, Charlie. 🙂

      Sweet Jesus. I’ve had a high fever and a nasty flu for a couple of days now, and was just arising from a semi-haze when I wrote this article.

      • Avatar Charlie London says:

        Yes ….. It happens to us all and then we hit the send button!

        It’s particularly complicated further with predictive words on an Android tablet – some of its invented words are quite ingenious! And it insists on exchanging words as if it has a mind of its own…. Only to be discovered after you have hit ‘post’!

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