Two important by-elections in Budapest: Will the protests dent Fidesz support?

Two municipal by-elections are scheduled for Sunday in Budapest and both could serve as an indication of what impact half a dozen mass protests (each drawing tens of thousands) and the scandal surrounding Central European University have had on voting intentions, less than a year before national elections. Both by-elections are in areas that, in any other country, would likely favour a left-leaning candidate. Yet the by-election held in the Fidesz-controlled 8th District, and specifically in the most disadvantaged part of that district–is to replace a Fidesz councillor. The second by-election is held in Zugló, a district of Budapest that has been a political battleground between Fidesz and the fractured left-centre opposition. The district mayor is affiliated with the opposition and the seat that must now be filled on council was previously held by a Socialist, who won it in 2014 by a razor thin margin of seven votes. I regret to report that after seven years of being in opposition wilderness, the left-centre parties are going into both by-elections as divided and as disorganised as ever.

The Reverend of Magdolna negyed

Magdolna negyed (Magdolna Quarter in English) is a truly troubled part of Budapest–it forms the heart of an 8th District that has gone through some gentrification in recent years, but this neighbourhood lags far behind. The area has often been dubbed “Chicago” and “Bronx” due to high levels of crime and poverty. According to an excellent study by Zsolt Baranyai, merely 16% percent of locals between the ages of 15 and 64 have at least completed Grade 8. The Roma community forms 22% of the neighbourhood’s population and is especially hard hit by what Mr. Baranyai calls “financial and cultural deficits, at both the personal and family level.” More than 53% of apartments in this area are 1-bedroom flats and 15% of all apartments do not have en-suite bathrooms. It is characteristic of this neighbourhood that many apartment buildings are in a state of very visible ill repair.

The left-centre opposition was unable to agree on a single candidate for the Magdolna negyed by-election, so there are two prominent people from the left-liberal side looking to unseat the Fidesz candidate. The most fascinating of these is Reverend Márta Bolba Román, a Lutheran minister with a strong commitment to serving the poor and marginalised. She spearheaded a Lutheran community group to help those in the district who face eviction from their homes. Mrs. Román and her activists write letters and petition the municipal government. The group refers to itself as a “bulldozer,” when it comes to their advocacy work.

Márta Bolba Román

Márta Bolba Román became a Lutheran minister in the area in 2014. In her first sermon, she emphasized that “power, love and sober thought must triumph over fear.” Her worldview is in stark contrast to that of 8th District Fidesz Mayor Máté Kocsis, who spearheaded initiatives to forcibly remove the homeless and the poor from public view and who became infamous for trying to prove his own heterosexuality through repeated homophobic tirades.

Mrs. Román is running as an independent, with the support of the liberal Együtt party. But she does not have the support of the largest opposition party–the Socialists–who are instead standing behind a rapper called Dopeman. (His real name is László Pityinger.) Dopeman is most known for his very public and entertaining anti-Orbán protests, including kicking and toppling a fake statue of Viktor Orbán in 2013. Compared to Mrs. Román, Dopeman’s program lacks all substance. Helping to divide the left-wing opposition vote in this by-election is Munkáspárt (Workers’ Party) candidate László Konczos. The communist Munkáspárt somehow manages to field candidates in almost every by-election, but far fewer people actually cast ballots for these candidates on election day than those who sign their nomination papers.

Fidesz is playing it safe in Magdolna negyed and is fielding Deputy Mayor Mrs. Péter Sántha, while Jobbik is fielding Péter Huszár, who has dubbed himself “the candidate of public security.” Mr. Huszár wants to cut funding to charities and civic groups that help the homeless, unless they manage to prove that they are decreasing the number of homeless on the streets of the district.

Battleground Zugló

Zugló’s left-centre mayor, the amicable Gergely Karácsony of the tiny Párbeszéd (Dialogue) party, does not have an easy time leading his district. Council is evenly divided between 9 government councillors and 9 from opposition parties. One of the opposition councillors, the Socialist Attila Sápi, was of no help to the left-wing cause when he literally disappeared in 2016, after amassing a large tax debt. He was last seen drinking in a local bar, and nobody knows what happened to him since. The police are still investigating his disappearance.

It is his seat that must be filled. There are six left-wing candidates running against the Fidesz candidate. And since Jobbik has written off the by-election and is not fielding anyone, the right-wing vote is completely united, in contrast to a terribly fractured left. The left won the seat in 2014 by a margin of seven votes and this time the only factor working in their favour is the displeasure, now palpable on the streets of Budapest, with Fidesz.

The Hungarian Socialist Party, the Democratic Coalition and Párbeszéd are fielding a joint candidate, along with a local civic group. Bence Bitskey is the son of a prominent actor, Tibor Bitskey.

Bence Bitskey’s election poster.

The liberal Együtt party is supporting a local pharmacist called Monika Drevenka, who also enjoys the support of a community organization.

The Politics Can Be Different green party (LMP – Lehet Más a Politika) is running a 22 year old undergraduate student called Balázs Gyula Csordás. Mr. Csordás offers nothing specific in terms of a program, but speaks in vague strokes about being “the voice of the people” in the district.

The satirical Hungarian Two Tailed Dog Party is also fielding a candidate. Imre Tóth lives 231 km away, in the town of Debrecen, and when asked about not being a local, he created a video of himself trying to see Zugló using binoculars.

The communist Munkáspárt has its own candidate as well, the 22 year old Kolos Szentpáli. Mr. Szentpáli does have a fairly specific program: he wants the district to launch an infrastructure project rehabilitating abandoned factories and industrial buildings, as well as create new subsidised apartments. Mr. Szentpáli also feels that Zugló does not have an adequate number of butcher shops and vegetable stores. Presumably, he believes that the local government should play a role in opening more of these.

Fidesz candidate Zoltán Somodi, a young paediatrician, is the only right-wing candidate running in the by-election, which is undoubtedly a boost for him. But will it be enough to paper over the palpable anger at the regime in Budapest these days?

HFP will report on both by-election results Sunday evening.

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