The Stakes of the Local Government Elections in Hungary


On October 13, local government elections will be held in Hungary. How high the stakes of these elections are is well illustrated by the fact that no election campaign has ever been as rude as it is at this time, and not just in the capital Budapest, but also in the countryside. The question is, who will benefit from this phenomenon?


Gergely Karácsony, the Budapest mayoral candidate representing the opposition parties

Let’s take a deeper look at this from a broader perspective. The results of last April’s parliamentary elections shocked the opposition. The Fidesz-KDNP’s government newly regained two-thirds majority might have surprised many because the array of opposition forces that had gathered together the entire anti-Government camp after two cycles of Fidesz rule seemed to have found a recipe for change of Government:  cooperation, with a prime ministerial candidate nominated by consensus.

It was not the first time that the opposition had used this tactic. In 2014 they were trying to do the same. Back then the democratic, left-liberal parties were trying to steer their voters in one and the same direction - unsuccessfully. The 2018 general elections were just as unsuccessful for the opposition, mainly because after much zigzagging, the opposition failed to nominate a single prime ministerial candidate - even though a large majority of voters, in the hope of Government change, were demanding one.

The failure of the parilamentary election, of course, goes far beyond that. The Fidesz-KDNP Governments had fundamentally rewritten the electoral law in their favour and, in order to increase division among the opposition, flooded the arena with fake parties and fake candidates (established by themselves to confuse the people therefore divide the votes for the opposition), not to speak of occupying the public broadcast media while using unlimited amounts of public money for their own campaign. Moreover, unlike the opposition, they had a stable base of voters whom they could mobilize whenever need be.

Thus, all the circumstances pointed in the same direction: Fidesz can only be mathematically defeated if all the other parties in play unite and form a sort of counter-force.

After the parliamentary elections, the Hungarian domestic political landscape was significantly re-organized. Several parties (the formerly far-right but slowly moving to the center Jobbik and the only explicitly green party, LMP) lost their leaders and most of their base; the formerly powerful Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) shrank; one party simply ceased to exist (Együtt). The Momentum party, who was focusing on youth, could not achieve a measurable result, so it was obvious that in the near future a battle for position would start among the opposition.

And so it happened. In May this year the parties each deployed their own tactics for the EP elections, without any cooperation. In the end, Fidesz gained one more seat than it had before and power relations radically changed among the opposition. Momentum made the biggest step forward, gaining two seats in their first EP election. The Democratic Coalition (DK) led by former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány managed to increase the number of their representatives from two to four. The alliance of the Hungarian Socialist Party and Dialogue Alliance (MSZP-Párbeszéd) failed for a second time, as they could send only one representative to the EP, just like Jobbik. The biggest loss was suffered by Politics Can Be Different (LMP), as they proved unable to send any representatives to Brussels.

This is how Hungary  is approaching the municipal elections this fall.

With both electoral demand and mathematics pointing in the same direction, it has already been floating in the air that the stakes of this election are about whether the opposition is really capable of cooperation in order to weaken Fidesz’s power. The EP election, however, mixed up this formula quite a bit: the formerly strong but now weakened Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) was not really willing to let go of their role as leader of the negoitations, while the Democratic Coalition (DK) and Momentum were legitimately hoping that they could cut themselves a bigger slice from the cake when the parties were distributing the nominations. The question of Jobbik was also problematic: before it would have been unimaginable for the left-wing liberal parties to enter into an alliance with a far-right party. This question has still not been resolved, and at the same time the weak EP election results and scarce financial resources of Jobbik have restrained them from pushing themselves forward.

The dirtiest election campaign Hungary has ever known

However, in the past few months, successive opposition cooperation agreements have been announced in various towns and big cities across the country, which has resulted in nominating a single oppositional candidate against the candidate of the ruling party. These compromises have their price: there is a city (Ózd) where the opposition nominated a candidate whose far-right past and other suspicious deals made the left-liberal parties back out, for example, but rhetorically the opposition’s primary (and in many places, its only) message is that they have managed to set up a coalition against Fidesz.

Since this has been the opposition’s first success story in a long time, and one that is welcomed by the voters as well, it can be felt that the governing parties are unable to assess what might happen. That is why they are trying to stymie such cooperation by all possible means. It is no accident that the recent period is also being called the dirtiest election campaign Hungary has ever known.

Just a few examples: in Budapest, a falsified audio recording was leaked to the Government’s media in which opposition mayoral candidate Gergely Karácsony is allegedly making a scandal about some details of the opposition cooperation. In Budaörs, a video was made public about the reigning mayor, Tamás Wittinghoff, who has been heading the city since the change of regime, where he is having sex with a masseuse (he confirmed the veracity of the video). In Kispest, a representative of MSZP is talking about corruption while taking drugs and, of course, a video recording of his actions ended up on Government-controlled TV, however the local MSZP claims the footage is fake. In a Budapest district the police reached out to an opposition candidate two days after a photo from a closed Facebook group was disclosed (there are activists in it and the press accused them of building an illegal database because there are laptops and papers in the picture), based on which the Electoral Committee accused him of electoral fraud; police eventually closed their investigation because they could not find evidence of a crime. In Keszthely, an opposition candidate has received death threats from an unknown local person. In Dunaújváros, in the newspaper issued by the local goverment, voters have been threatened that if they cast their ballots for the opposition, migrants will be settled in their community and, following the migrants’ alleged cultural habits, locals might be allegedly forced to eat dog and cat meat. There are many more examples of such smear tactics.

Materials discrediting the opposition are being posted online by Government media literally every minute of the day (including concrete lies), while only one blog has begun leaking different discrediting materials about a ruling party politician, the current mayor of Győr, Zsolt Borkai, a former Olympian (including photos and a video where he is having sex with a prostitute on a luxury yacht in the company of other people). Borkai acknowledged the veracity of these materials and said he regretted what he had done.

New propaganda tools in the hands of the government

Another interesting feature of this campaign is that while the Government used to mobilize its voters primarily to protect the country from migrants and George Soros, those topics have now been pushed aside, and instead the leading new motif of the Government’s current campaign is the incapacity of the opposition to lead local governments.

It is also worth noting that in several places there are indeed problems with the candidates of the opposition: in Budapest there is a district where the opposition candidate for local district mayor has absolutely no relation to that district, while elsewhere the opposition candidate’s relation to the district is so tight that the candidate’s former partner once had business relations with the ruling parties there. In other places you can find many alleged cases of corruption which involve not just Fidesz, but opposition representatives to a great extent. Of course, the late emergence of the opposition cooperation can be one reason why it has not been possible to identify a really suitable opposition candidate everywhere, but another reason is obviously the fact that strong political party interests and alliances have also played a crucial role in the process – which, of course, is a real loss for the voters.

Although much of the attention is focused on the capital, we cannot hide the fact that out of 3 200  municipalities, a mayoral candidate is running unopposed in more than 900 of them.

Aside from the cumbersome, protracted negotiations, it is worth noting that most of the opposition parties have no network or resources outside of Budapest (earlier Jobbik was the strongest in this respect, but by now they have lost much of their power). 

At the same time, Fidesz has developed dependency relationships, mainly in the countryside (thanks to its community work program, for example) over the past nine years which enable it to mobilize intimidated, vulnerable groups in society. Another important element of the blackmail potential of the Government is that it is emphasizing both locally and nationwide that if the opposition wins, cities may lose financial support from the Government. This was announced very clearly by Gergely Gulyás, who runs the Office of the Prime Minister and said that if the opposition (Gergely Karácsony) wins in Budapest, the Government will terminate an important agreement with the municipality (worth more than EUR 3 million to the capital). 

This is a whole new level of displaying power. Meanwhile, as money is no problem for the Fidesz-led local governments, campaign tools such as various kinds of one-off support (for example, allowances for the elderly, distributing different goods (for instance potato) to the people, ) are on the rise, tools the opposition lacks for obvious reasons.

Independent and civil opposition candidates 

It is a new phenomenon that candidates (though we cannot say the exact number) are running not under the auspices of a party, but with the support of an NGO or as independents. One reason for this presumably is that more and more people have become disillusioned with or are suspicious of party politics. Another reason is that some candidates are taking advantage of the fact that unaffiliated candidates have a kind of “innocent” image - they get rid of their parties, or campaign as unaffiliated, but behind the scenes they receive support from parties during their campaigns. We know of an ex-Socialist mayoral candidate in the capital who is running in one district with support from an NGO in another district.

Independent candidate Róbert Puzsér is surfing such a wave in the capital. Puzsér has no chance of becoming the Mayor of Budapest, but he claims he will replace not just the Government’s candidate but the opposition candidate as well, because he believes it is actually in the current opposition’s interest to keep Fidesz-KDNP in power. Though his popularity is not even close to the other two candidates (Tarlós, who has been the Mayor of Budapest since 2010, and Karácsony, formerly supported by Hungarian Socialist Party-Dialogue, currently the candidate of the whole opposition)  Puzsér’s  approximately 80 000 supporters show us that dissatisfaction with opposition parties is also growing.

The outcome of the opposition cooperation – in those places it has managed to be achieved – is difficult to guess, especially given the intensity of the smear campaigns run by the Government. Many are basically suspicious of sudden, apparently tense forms of cooperation. It is no coincidence that opposition politics is now mostly about one thing: the will to replace the current Government. However, we do not know what comes next, how long these cooperations will last, what kind of politics will take place between parties that are ideologically distant from each other. We do not know because the parties themselves are not discussing this.

The question has not been addressed by the current campaign. However, the stakes are high: the next vote will not be until 2022. If the opposition is able to gain ground in local governments, then it will have the chance to build up its voter base and support (by regaining publicity from local media), which will give them a higher chance in the next election. If not, Fidesz-KDNP will once again have an opportunity to further strengthen and support its own power (including further diminishing the authority of local governments). Another defeat for the opposition would mean its total annihilation.                                                                                                                                                               

Nóra Diószegi-Horváth is an activist and a journalist who writes mostly on education, health and social issues. She is the deputy editor-in-chief of the Budapest-based independent news portal Mérce and received her MA in Russian Language and Literature and in Aesthetics from the Faculty of Humanities, Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE), in 2009.

Proofreading by Gwendolyn Albert.