Transforming the opposition in Hungary after the EP elections


The European Parliamentary elections have stirred up Hungarian politics. Even though the support for the governing party Fidesz seems to be unwavering, changing power relations among the opposition parties may actually accelerate the collapse of the so-called “central political force field” created by Fidesz to secure its position in power. The upcoming municipal elections this autumn might also bring success, after 10 years, for the democratic opposition.

Protesters are waving an EU and a Hungarian flag

Fidesz won the recent EP elections in Hungary. The governing party improved its results percentagewise since the last EP elections in 2014 and the parliamentary elections in 2018. In 2014, Fidesz got 51.48% of all votes; in 2018, 49.27%; and in 2019 the result was 52.56%.

However, this time their victory cannot taste as sweet as they might have liked. At the start of the campaign, Viktor Orbán announced the aim of eliminating the opposition completely: he aimed to receive 60% of the votes and to secure at least 15 seats in the EP, which would be two-thirds of all Hungarian EP mandates, but the actual results are very far from this. Furthermore, if we consider the extent to which Fidesz has secured its power in the media, in the state institutions, and in smaller localities country-wide, then we can say it is a big achievement for the opposition to have survived the election at all. The outcome is even more surprising when we look at the size of each party’s budget for the campaign, where the message of the governing party was constantly broadcasted by state media in every channels and programs and by public advertisements worth a billion HUF (3.1 million Euros) whereas opposition parties had to manage their campaigns with just 4-5 hundred million HUF all together (around 1 million Euros) .

In smaller localities, where the advantage of the governing party is more pronounced at the level of governance and also with respect to how many media outlets will give them a voice, the turnout in the recent elections (those of 2018 and 2019) was much higher than before. Fidesz received more than half the vote in 90% of all localities and more than 60% in approximately 60% of all localities, scoring 70% (or more) in more than half. 

In the capital city, county seats, and bigger cities that have proven to be bastions of the political left, as in the previous parliamentary elections, the opposition parties received the majority of the votes this time as well. Both for the EP election and the national parliamentary one, more people voted for leftist-liberal parties in such places than they did for Fidesz, and in Szeged, Pécs, Miskolc and Dunaújváros, the results produced opposition majorities (in the latter together with the far-right Jobbik party).

These transitions within the opposition political scene may pose some difficulties for Orbán. From among the five most prominent opposition parties, three failed spectacularly during the EP elections: the far-right (but becoming more and more centrist) Jobbik achieved their worst result so far with 6.34% of the vote, while MSZP-Párbeszéd (the Hungarian Socialist Party that ran this time together with Dialogue, a centrist, green, small party) achieved only 6.61%, and the green party LMP (Politics Can Be Different) experienced total collapse, scoring a mere 2.86%. However, a relatively new player, the liberal technocratic Momentum party, achieved a huge victory with almost 10% of the vote, and the absolute winner on the opposition scene was definitely DK (Democratic Coalition), the party led by former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, with 16.05%.

It is a question whether these results will persist in the long run or whether it was only for the EP elections that voters reallocated their support for opposition parties to this extent. Nevertheless, at the moment the numbers may indicate that a simplified opposition scene of this kind might cause more trouble for Orbán. In the Hungarian voting system, there is a predominance of single-member districts, and their weight is barely compensated for by the party-list seats. If members of a hypothetical MSZP-Momentum-DK common list ran in the 2022 parliamentary election, then based on the recent EP election results they could have a chance to win not only in Budapest, but also in many prominent localities in the countryside. Fidesz would not get more than 110-120 seats in the National Assembly and thus would lose its two-thirds majority.  

If a few opposition parties were to win more votes, that would end the “central political force field” of Fidesz - the concept that no political bloc can be created that is strong enough to attract all of the opposition voters. Previously, Fidesz did everything it could in order to secure this by preventing right-wing blocs (involving Jobbik) from joining forces with left-wing ones (i.e., all the other opposition parties). After the last year, however, it seems voters themselves have broken away from this scheme. Most of the analyses after the most recent parliamentary elections reported that voters cast ballots in their hundreds of thousands for the strongest candidate in single-member districts regardless of their actual party preferences. In the recent EP elections, the consensus of political analysts is that voters have left their party preferences behind and chosen candidates and parties based on whether they were supporting Orbán or not.

Of course, the next elections in 2022 are still far away and many things can happen between now and then. However, this autumn will see the next municipal elections in Hungary, where most of the seats in big cities will be decided by a single-round vote in single-member voting districts. In many localities it was announced even before the EP elections that all opposition parties would coordinate with each other, which may result in their taking municipal seats and even mayoral positions away from Fidesz in many cities and Budapest districts. 

This is important not just because of the numerous reports about malfeasance from Fidesz-governed municipalities (e.g., it is a regular occurrence that public workers are instructed to remove the legally posted campaign advertisements of opposition parties and candidates), or reports of vote-buying, but also because, due to the single-member district scheme, the amount of opposition support may increase dramatically, unlike in the 2014 municipal elections, when they gained just one or two municipal representatives from the party lists in localities where different opposition parties were running against each other because they did not manage to win any single-member districts.

This might change in 2019, resulting in a three-fold or four-fold increase in the number of opposition municipal representatives compared to the outcome of the last election five years ago. This would mean that, especially in the countryside, these parties could gain valuable new support in localities where previously they did not have enough capacity for doing effective politics. A good example for this is Pécs, led by a socialist mayor until 2009. Here in 2014 all 19 single-member districts were gained by Fidesz plus two of the 8 seats drawn from party lists, so eventually they had a 21-6 majority in the local assembly even though only 39% of all voters were supporting them. This ratio could be inverted in the future by successful collaboration among the opposition parties, so in theory it is possible that there will be 20 opposition representatives instead of six in the municipal body of Pécs, perhaps even including the mayor.

In recent months, opposition parties have already reached some agreements regarding various such concepts in cities with county rights such as Szombathely, Dunaújváros, Szolnok, Pécs or Nyíregyháza, and also in smaller localities such as Esztergom or Komló. In most of the Budapest districts they already have agreed on one mayoral candidate and in many places also on local candidates. However, one big question mark remains still: who the opposition candidate for Budapest mayor will be.

There was an attempt to decide this rivalry by holding a round of pre-election votes -- an innovation in Hungarian politics. It was already clear before the EP elections that the Socialist Party along with the green party Dialogue (MSZP-Párbeszéd) would run their candidate, ex-Prime Minister Gergely Karácsony, who is currently the mayor of Zugló, Budapest’s 14th district. However, after the EP elections, DK and Momentum each came forward with their own candidates. DK was running Olga Kálmán, who is considered the most influential TV anchorwoman of the past 10 years by the opposition, while Momentum presented a relatively unknown politician, Gábor Kerpel-Fornius. Another candidate - who decided not to participate in the pre-election voting - was Róbert Puzsér, a well-known critic previously backed by both Jobbik and LMP (the two parties revoked their support for Puzsér after he announced he would not participate). All of the parties behind the three candidates, including LMP, have agreed to support the winner of the pre-election votes against the current Budapest mayor, István Tarlós, who has been in that position and supported by Fidesz since 2010. The pre-election was won by Gergely Karácsony (from the green party, Dialogue) on 26 June, so he will be the candidate of all the opposition parties and run against Tarlós. 

The opposition has a chance at winning this time - and also at getting into a majority position in the General Assembly of Budapest (comprising the 23 district mayors and the Mayor of the City of Budapest along with nine members who access their seats through the party lists). It is fairly likely the opposition will be able to increase the number of its municipal representatives and mayors nationwide, although in order to get there they still need to conduct a successful campaign and achieve a high turnout this autumn. Nevertheless, they do have a chance, after nine years, to finally defeat Fidesz again in an election that will be held nationwide.

Translated by Zsófia Deák.
Proofreading by Gwendolyn Albert.