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Can Hungary's opposition defeat Orban?

Keno Verseck
February 27, 2018

An opposition-backed mayoral candidate has won a surprise victory in a city known as a stronghold for Hungary's ruling right-wing party. The election could be a bellwether for the country's upcoming parliamentary vote.

Viktor Orbán
Image: imago/Xinhua/S. Voros

Hungarian media critical of the country's current right-wing Fidesz government has had reason to celebrate of late, publishing headlines like "Fidesz suffers historic defeat", "Orban can be beaten" and "Nothing is set in stone".

An opposition-backed candidate scored a big victory against a Fidesz politician over the weekend in an election for mayor of Hodmezovasarhely, a city in south of the country. Independent Peter Marki-Zay, a 45-year-old electrical engineer and economist with support from a broad range of politicial parties, managed to garner 58 percent of the vote. After Sunday's victory, Marki-Zay called his win "a vote against intimidation, against arbitrary conduct and corruption."

Setback for Fidesz

The result is one of the most spectacular outcomes in recent Hungarian politics. Hodmezovasarhely, which has a population of 44,000, has been a Fidesz stronghold for two decades. It is the birthplace Janos Lazar, who heads the office of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, making him Hungary's second most-powerful political figure. Lazar began his career in politics in Hodmezovasarhely, where he served as mayor.

Read more: Satire one of few remaining bastions in Orban's Hungary

The Hodmezovasarhely vote serves as a kind of bellwether ahead of Hungary's parliamentary elections on April 8. Marki-Zay's victory was backed by a broad alliance of opposition parties — the left-wing socialists, the green-liberals and even the far-right party Jobbik. Such unusual friendships have proven the only feasible way of beating Fidesz, and it's a strategy that could now give the opposition a realistic chance of defeating Orban at the polls in six weeks.

Attila Tibor Nagy, a political scientist from Budapest's Centre for Fair Political Analysis, called the vote in Hodmezovasarhely "an embarrassment and painful defeat for Fidesz."

"The opposition now faces an unexpected opportunity to change the political status-quo," he said. "If it acts cleverly enough it might even have the chance to win the majority."

Jobbic demonstration in Budapest
The Jobbik party is trying to distance itself from its far-right imageImage: Reuters/Laszlo Balogh

Yearning for change

Key Orban ally Lazar drew backlash during the campaign for making arrogant and racist remarks about the poor and the country's Roma population. Hodmezovasarhely is also in the midst of a corruption scandal involving Orban's son-in-law Istvan Tiborcz, who is suspected of having siphoned off EU development funds. The EU's anti-fraud office recently published a report on its investigation into the matter.

Read more: Is Europe doing enough to protect human rights?

But the Hodmezovasarhely vote also seems to signal a broader political shift, as recent polls show. A majority of Hungarians have said they favor a new government, along with more transparency and less corruption. The electoral result nevertheless indicates that Fidesz still has a solid support base, according Attila Tibor Nagy. He believes that Hungary's opposition can only be successful if it works together.   

Strange bedfellows

Influential Hungarian intellectuals, including philosopher and Holocaust survivor Agnes Heller, have been urging the country's opposition parties to come together and agree on candidates for each and every electoral district as part of an effort to beat Fidesz. That would include working together with Jobbik, which since 2014 has adopted a more moderate national conservative stance.

Agnes Heller
Philosopher and Holocaust survivor Agnes Heller has urged Hungary's opposition voices to unite and defeat FideszImage: picture alliance / dpa

The suggestion by Heller and others to team up with Jobbik has sparked controversy not least because the party once called for a list of Jewish citizens and policy-makers to be drawn up, claiming they posed a "national security risk." The party was also infamous for its anti-Roma marches and anti-Roma rhetoric. Jobbik's leadership has now distanced itself from those stances, and instead advocates for the rule of law and democratization. The party's rank-and-file, however, are disappointed with its new direction and close ties to the country's far-right scene remain.

Read more: Rising nationalism and the EU's split with the East

Hope for the opposition?

Such wide differences among Hungary's opposition parties could make it difficult for them to agree on candidates for all electoral districts. And if some opposition politicians opt not to run in a district in order to support a common candidate, they won't receive any financial campaign support from the state and might even have to give up their jobs as lawmakers. Whether everyone will be willing to take this step remains questionable. Newly-elected Hodmezovasarhely Mayor Marki-Zay, meanwhile, has urged his compatriots to regard his victory as a sign for possible change. "We have shown that Fidesz can be beaten," he said. "And on April 8, Hungary can do the same."