“Fidesz’s electoral victory was predictable”

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Hungarians went to the polls for the third time this year.

Political scientist Bulcsú Hunyadi works in Budapest for Political Capital, a think tank. Eva van de Rakt, Office Director at the Heinrich Boell Foundation in Prague, spoke with him about the outcome of the municipal elections in Hungary and the problems faced by the democratic opposition.

Mr Hunyadi, after the parliamentary elections in April and the EP elections in May, on 12 October Hungary’s voters were called upon to cast their votes for the third time this year. How do you interpret the voter turnout?

The three elections that have taken place in Hungary this year have exhausted the electorate, of course, but this alone cannot explain the low voter turnout figure of 44%. Voter participation has been declining in municipal elections since 2006, and in parliamentary elections since 2002. Society is extremely dissatisfied with the parties and with how politics is practised. Moreover, the municipal elections were of little significance to many due to the current power structure. Many voters are disillusioned and assume their votes can’t change anything.

How did the individual parties fare?
The results confirmed our expectations. The governing Fidesz party scored a sweeping victory, and for the most part was able to defend the seats that it had won in the municipal elections four years ago. Fidesz holds mayoralties in 17 of Budapest’s 23 districts and in 20 of Hungary’s 23 large cities – 37 mayors in total, two of whom are women. Moreover, Fidesz holds majorities in all of Hungary’s regional assemblies (Hungary has 19 regional administrative districts or counties – megye – excluding the capital, Budapest. Editor’s note).

So Fidesz is the winner?
While Fidesz was able to defend its seats, overall support for the party has declined. Fidesz candidates received substantially fewer votes than in 2010. Budapest Mayor István Tarlós, for example, won re-election with four percentage points fewer than in 2010, having lost nearly one-tenth of his voters. Fidesz’s victory thus cannot be attributed to broad support among voters; rather, it has more to do with the democratic opposition parties’ markedly poor performance and the electorate’s broad disenchantment with politics.

How did the democratic opposition fare?
The left-wing opposition parties managed to improve their positions marginally. Instead of the three Budapest district mayoralties they held hitherto, they now hold five; instead of one mayoralty in the large cities, they now hold two (Szeged and Salgótarján).
The green LMP fared worse in Budapest this year than in 2010; in other parts of the country, the party’s results were around the five-per-cent threshold. A positive for LMP is that the party managed to keep itself above water. The party didn’t significantly improve its representation across the country, however. Instead of 4 counties in 2010, this time LMP was able to field a party list in 5 of the 19 counties. The best showing by an LMP mayoral candidate was 40% in the southern Hungarian town of Szekszárd, although here no other democratic opposition candidate contested the race.

How do you assess the results of the far-right party, Jobbik?
Of the opposition parties, only the far-right Jobbik was able to make significant gains, now holding 14 mayoralties including medium-sized cities. And independent candidates won in 10 other municipalities with Jobbik’s support. In 18 counties, Jobbik became the second-strongest party. Jobbik was able to improve its results in the major cities as well – with one exception: Budapest. On the evening of the election, party chief Gábor Vona predicted that Jobbik would be Fidesz’s main challenger in 2018.

The joint Budapest mayoral candidate of the Socialists, Together-PM and the Democratic Coalition (DK), Ferenc Falus, withdrew his candidacy at the last minute. To what extent did this harm the parties?
The circumstances under which Ferenc Falus stepped down reflect the crisis and discord of the left-wing opposition parties. After protracted wrangling, the Socialists, Together-PM and DK agreed on Ferenc Falus’s joint candidacy at the beginning of August. Although it soon became clear that he wasn’t a compelling candidate, the parties continued to support him. Then at the end of September – two weeks before the vote – they suddenly had him withdraw his candidacy and partially threw their support behind Lajos Bokros, the candidate of a practically non-existent conservative-liberal mini-party. But the switch to Bokros led to differences and tensions both within and among the parties. By supporting Bokros’s candidacy, the parties manoeuvred themselves into a difficult situation. They introduced an old-new, hitherto marginal actor into their already-complicated rivalries, and in so doing placed him on an equal footing. The left-wing opposition parties are not able to learn from their worst mistakes. Even on the evening of the election, they had nothing more important to do than to make mutual recriminations about who was to blame for their poor showing.

In July, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán announced in a speech in Romania that he would build an illiberal state. How was this speech received in Hungary?
The democratic opposition parties – with the exception of LMP – sharply criticised the speech, as did the independent and anti-government media, although the speech itself contained nothing new; Orbán has been making public statements about what was in store for Hungary since 2010.

Did the contents of Orbán’s speech play a role in these elections?
The speech offered the democratic opposition parties an opening for attack which they tried to make use of. In their campaigns, these parties concentrated on defending democracy and on settling accounts with the Orbán system. The results, however, demonstrate that these messages and strategies failed to mobilise the electorate. Obviously, the “outdated” figures of the democratic opposition, anti-Orbán speeches, and rhetoric focused on saving democracy did not appeal to voters – not even in Budapest. It will require new and credible actors, as well as political and serious substantive work on the part of the opposition, in order to be able to win votes again.

What distinguished this municipal election campaign from others?
A distinctive feature of these elections was that almost everywhere not much was at stake. Fidesz’s electoral victory was predictable. Another special feature of these elections was the state of the left-wing opposition parties. For them, the elections were actually preparation for the next and more acute phase of the contest between them. Against this background, the three opposition parties’ support for the candidate of a practically non-existent mini-party in the race for the Budapest mayoralty was difficult to comprehend, and also problematic. This manoeuvre on the one hand inserted another actor into the already-splintered democratic opposition landscape, and on the other hand exacerbated the lines of contention within and among the parties – mainly between DK and the Socialists, but also between Together and PM within the Together-PM party alliance.

In the opinion polls ahead of the elections, the three candidates in Miskolc for Fidesz, Jobbik and the Socialists were neck and neck. How did the election turn out here, and how would you assess this result?
The electoral campaign in Miskolc was followed with great interest. It is worrisome that both the Fidesz candidate as well as the Socialist candidate adopted the law-and-order rhetoric and anti-Roma messages of the far-right Jobbik party. Contrary to the pre-election opinion polls, the Fidesz candidate won the contest by an astounding margin with almost 43%, while the Socialist candidate received only around 38%. The Jobbik candidate finished third with 17%. The fact that the voters once again elected the Fidesz candidate is probably related to the fact that the Fidesz-led city council in Miskolc implemented measures ahead of the elections to stoke anti-Roma sentiment: The clearing of a blighted area and forced evictions in other parts of the city where mainly Roma live began in August. Unfortunately, these measures are well received by the majority of the electorate.

Mr Hunyadi, thank you for the interview.


Translation: Evan Mellander