A small Hungarian town exposed the fallacy of the Orbán regime

János Lázár, the Minister of the Prime Minister’s Office, tried to find a silver lining in the 16-point landslide defeat that the ruling Fidesz party suffered on home turf–in the solidly conservative town of Hódmezővásárhely. Before congratulating the united opposition’s candidate, Péter Máki-Zay, Mr. Lázár kept repeating that Fidesz had not lost any votes in this elections. With 9,468 votes for Fidesz candidate Zoltán Hegedűs, the ruling party’s base was as solidly united as ever. And Mr. Lázár is absolutely correct. In the 2014 mayoral election in Hódmezővásárhely, 8,160 people voted for the Fidesz candidate, the late István Almási. The critical difference is that while in 2014, three opposition candidates garnered a combined 5,210 votes, in 2018 the united opposition’s candidate won 13,076.

The growth of the opposition is staggering. The takeaway from Hódmezővásárhely is this: Fidesz is adept at mobilizing its existing and fiercely loyal voters. But Fidesz is supported only by a minority of Hungarians and the party does not seem to have reserves of voters that it could tap into. In contrast, the opposition has the potential to draw in much of the quiet majority of Hungarians, but only if they field locally credible candidates in the country’s 106 electoral districts. Péter Máki-Zay, the chair of parish council at a local Catholic church, already had a community of Hózmezővásárhely residents who knew he was actively involved in local life. With his church background, his large family of seven children, his promise to expose local corruption, regular reminders of his middle-class (“polgári”) conservative credentials and his decision to return to Hungary after five years living in Canada and the U.S.,  to ensure that his children grow up as Hungarians, made him an appealing candidate in this conservative area.

Péter Márki-Zay on election night in Hódmezővásárhely.

The System of National Cooperation, built on the myth that it enjoys the support of the Hungarian nation and that only a minority of “Soros-lackeys,” anti-Hungarian traitors and communists oppose the Orbán regime, stands exposed for the fallacy that it always has been. We saw in both the 2002 and the 2006 national elections that when Hungarian voters are motivated and mobilized to vote, they simply do not buy into Viktor Orbán’s brand of nationalist war rhetoric. In fact, 2002 in particular showed that most Hungarians are positively turned off by overheated nationalistic and clerical campaigns. But if the silent and politically moderate majority stays home, Fidesz–the most powerful mobilizing machine in the country–will marshal its two million voters and will win elections. This is especially true after the ruling party, using its two-thirds majority, re-wrote the country’s election laws and redrew the boundaries of electoral districts to work in its favour.

So where is the Hungarian opposition the morning after a landslide victory–one which no national public poll suggested was even remotely possible? On Monday morning, Ákos Hadházy of the Politics Can Be Different party confirmed that his party would launch negotiations with the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) to coordinate and field a single candidate at the riding level ahead of 8 April. In reality, this means that LMP is willing to withdraw many of its candidates in favour of MSZP, although LMP confirmed again that it will not negotiate directly with the Democratic Coalition.  The opposition may now have a better chance of flipping electoral districts in Budapest where Fidesz won by a thin margin. Apparently, LMP had decided on this form of cooperation with MSZP before the Sunday landslide, but clearly felt pressured to make a public statement at a time when opposition voters are emboldened and will demand cooperation among democratic parties.

Index reported that late Sunday night, the telephone lines were burning between all opposition parties, as leaders discussed how to re-think their strategy and coordinate candidates six weeks ahead of the 8 April vote. There is no chance of fielding a joint party list at this late stage, but there is still time to coordinate candidates in the 106 electoral districts. And this is where elections in Hungary are won or lost.

LMP also announced on Monday that it wanted to launch formal negotiations with Jobbik and the once far-right, currently more moderate right-wing party seems open to this as well. This is the case even though on Monday one of its leading politicians, Dóra Dúró, seemed to pour cold water on the idea, whilst also speaking about the importance of having voters cast ballots locally for the opposition candidate most likely to win.

The parliamentary opposition (MSZP, LMP and Jobbik) also announced this morning that they have formed a joint shadow committee to investigate and make public findings surrounding the unprecedented Elios corruption scandal, in which both János Lázár and Mr. Orbán’s son-in-law are implicated. On Tuesday, the committee’s members will travel to the town of Kecskemét, one of the communities involved in the scandal. The goal is to keep news that is deeply damaging to Mr. Orbán personally, and to his party, in the headlines.

Meanwhile, where is Fidesz? On Monday, Prime Minister Orbán emphasized that local voters in Hódmezővásárhely wanted new leadership at the helm of their city–in other words, the vote was about a local, not national desire for change. Mr. Orbán congratulated Mr. Márki-Zay and confirmed that Hódmezővásárhely’s continued development and future was dear to his heart.

When journalists asked Mr. Orbán if Sunday’s results meant that Fidesz should engage in some self-reflection, the prime minister suggested that the only thing the ruling party and its supporters must reflect on is the danger that the opposition will turn Hungary into a country of immigrants.

It’s clear from Mr. Orbán’s words on Monday, that the party has not yet decided how to handle this surprise defeat, nor its national implications.

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