Opposition breakthrough in the municipal election: there is politics beyond Orbán and Fidesz
The Hungarian municipal election has clearly brought a breakthrough for the opposition, as the performance of the joint opposition candidates exceeded all expectations. Opposition candidates took over the lord mayorship of Budapest, took control of the Budapest local assembly, and won 10 out of 23 cities with county rights (CCR). Generally, the opposition performed better in large cities than five years ago, and Fidesz lost important, symbolic localities, including several districts of the capital’s Buda side (1st, 2nd district) or other, large cities like Miskolc, Szombathely or Pécs, which are also important losses for the ruling party. However, Fidesz has managed to strengthen its positions in smaller settlements, so the urban-rural divide has become sharper. It was proven that, similarly to Turkey and Russia, the ruling party can be beaten even in the hybrid framework of the current political system. The myth of Fidesz’s perfection is over, which will lead to domestic and international consequences as well. The results are a blow for Viktor Orbán personally as well.
Five take-aways from the election results:
- Opposition cooperation worked. This election was a test for the opposition, which managed to cooperate in a significant part of the country, standing behind joint candidates against Fidesz’s nominees. The opposition votes were much less fragmented than before, which was a huge asset in the single-round election system and became an important reason for the success.
- Fidesz’s teflon era is over. In the previous campaigns, scandals had only minor or no effect on the popularity of Fidesz and its politicians. But now, the “sex and drugs and corruption” scandal of the Fidesz-affiliated mayor of Győr, Zsolt Borkai, which exploded a week before the election, had a nation-wide effect. It completely destroyed the government’s narrative built on Christianity and traditional family values. The corruption aspect of the case reached generally apolitical people as well because of the considerable public interest generated by the sex tape. Although Borkai secured a close victory in Győr, the losses in votes he and other Fidesz-affiliated candidates suffered indicate that even the ruling party’s electorate was affected by the scandal. Voters punished Fidesz seriously despite the fact that the party had performed pretty well in the polls before the election.
- Smear campaigns and fake news did not work. The government’s communication based on stoking fears with Brussels, George Soros and migrants, and its disinformation campaign that proved to be successful last April in the general election and this May in the EP vote failed spectacularly this time. A large gap formed between the public interest and the agenda of government-controlled media that did not report on the above-mentioned Borkai scandal, and voters turned to alternative information sources. The government threatened voters with fake news about an alleged deal between opposition mayors and Frans Timmermans on settling migrants in cities, which would be a precondition for receiving EU funds, but it did not seem to work. The larger a settlement is, the less effect did the government’s disinformation campaign had, and vice versa.
- The results are a personal blow for PM Viktor Orbán as well. According to our information, it was Viktor Orbán personally who ordered that Zsolt Borkai does not resign after the sex scandal, and this decision had a huge negative effect on the popularity of Fidesz’s candidates. Furthermore, Viktor Orbán said at a party meeting shortly before the explosive material was leaked that loyalty and supporting each other despite mistakes is the “eleventh commandment” of Fidesz. The prime minister’s statements about favouring settlements where the ruling party is in power could have had a negative effect as well. Moreover, the personal charm of the PM did not translate into political success this time: the cities that he personally visited during the campaign were mostly taken over by the opposition.
- Urban-rural divide became even sharper. The urban-rural divide is more spectacular after this year’s municipal elections than ever before. In large cities and the capital, the opposition could break through, but the results of the county party lists (where 5 million voters living in smaller settlements and towns cast their vote) indicate a further shift towards Fidesz. Hungary became more divided in terms of values and access to information alike.
- No change of course is expected. Viktor Orbán emphasized on election night that Fidesz remained the strongest party and it will keep behaving so. The blame rhetoric has already begun: Fidesz statements the day after the elections blamed foreigners living in Budapest for the loss. In the next 2.5 years without an election, it is more likely that the government will implement even tougher measures, and try to strengthen its grip on the media and institutions to prevent further gains by the opposition.
- Conflicts will intensify between the municipalities and the government. A conflictual relationship might develop between the Orbán government and its parliamentary supermajority, and opposition-led cities despite the fact that this can be counter-productive. These conflicts – since the opposition mayors have the backing of the assemblies and a clear mandate – could actually advance the opposition’s efforts to build on its results. Still, further restrictions on the rights of municipalities and the withdrawal of some funds from them by the government are likely possibilities.
- Opportunities for and risks to the opposition. The opposition received a chance to develop, but it is uncertain if they can live with it. The capital and the 10 CCRs constitute a solid foundation for doing so, but it will take a lot of work for the opposition to succeed. The main risk is that the conflicts opposition parties managed to set aside temporarily might surface once again.
- World beyond Fidesz is visible. The election results sent a clear signal to the West – including Western governments and multinational companies – that there is politics beyond Orbán and Fidesz, and that this regime’s rule will not last forever.
- Internal conflicts within the government’s side can intensify. Personnel changes in the government and among consultants are expected, and people who lost their positions can intensify the fight for the remaining ones. Conflicts on the government’s side will intensify, and further corruption cases of the defeated Fidesz mayors can emerge. Orbán’s power will remain unchallenged though until 2022, and Fidesz will most likely keep its two-thirds majority, so the government remains stable.