Hungarians go to the ballot box on Sunday, April 8, coincidentally the eighth general election since the end of communism in 1990. With government officials embroiled in a spate of alleged corruption scandals, and a municipal election upset, the outcome is harder to call than many had expected.
“It’s exciting!” says Róbert László, “In January, I was thinking the election would be a boring affair, a foregone conclusion, with Fidesz as the sure winners. Now, nothing’s certain.”
László, a political scientist and election expert with Political Capital, a Budapest think tank, is not alone: despite opinion polls indicating the governing Fidesz-Christian Democrat (KDNP) alliance has some 50% of decided voters, politicians of all hues have redoubled their efforts to make meaningful gains on April 8.
The catalyst for this surge of enthusiasm was the shock result of the mayoral by-election in Hódmezővásárhely, the hometown of Minister of the Prime Minister’s Office János Lázár, arguably second only to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in the hierarchy of the governing Fidesz party.
On February 25, the electorate in this southeastern city, previously a Fidesz and Christian Democrat stronghold, gave independent candidate Péter Márki-Zay 57.5% of the vote, trouncing his Fidesz rival, on 41.6%.
The key to this remarkable upset? The normally disparate, bickering opposition, from the Socialists (MSZP) on the left to Jobbik on the right, had united in support of Márki-Zay, a deeply Catholic local, who attracted almost three times the combined vote of the opposition candidates in the previous mayoral contest.
The knock-on effect was equally sudden: overnight, political leaders, most notably Bernadett Szél, of the green LMP, who had previously shunned cooperation with “tainted” opposition parties, now favor cooperation in a bid to defeat Fidesz at the polls.
To the uninitiated in Hungarian politics – especially those from the English-speaking world used to simpler “first-past-the-post” election systems – such political manoeuvers may seem baffling.
But the Hungarian election system both magnifies the voting result of the largest party while leaving the fragmented opposition parties – as in today’s Hungary – scrambling for the crumbs in terms of parliamentary seats, if not for their very survival (see explainer article opposite).
The Hódmezővásárhely result also shocked Fidesz: Prime Minister Orbán has apparently ordered all hands to the pumps, and unashamedly used the commemoration of the 1848 Hungarian Revolution against Habsburg rule on March 15 to deliver a speech threatening opponents and rallying support for government policy.
But does Orbán really have to fear defeat? The latest opinion polls, taken in early March, all indicate Fidesz has the support of 50% or more of decided voters, leaving its nearest rivals – Jobbik, on the right, and the Socialist Party on the left – battling between themselves with between 10-19% of committed voters, depending on the pollster.
(As is normal, Hungarians have a high propensity to avoid commitment: “don’t knows” measure between 30-40% of the electorate.)
For comparison, in 2014, when Fidesz garnered 44.9% of the vote, it won 67% of parliamentary seats – a two-thirds “super majority”.
Moreover, the Hódmezővásárhely result was specific for that city. It coincided with a financial scandal involving the high-profile Lázár, and Márki-Zay is a well-known conservative (and former Fidesz member). Had the challenger been from the left, the outcome would likely have been far closer, if not the reverse.
“What happened in Hódmezővásárhely could be a kind model, but there is no Péter Márki-Zay in every constituency,” László told the Budapest Business Journal.
Nonetheless, if opposition parties can reach more agreements on single constituency challengers, or if voters themselves swallow personal dislike and support a rival party’s candidate of their own volition, Fidesz could have a fight on its hands.
This would be especially true in the case of a high turnout – 65% or more will favor the opposition.
Less than three weeks before the election, the MSZP-Dialogue alliance is firm and has agreed with the Democratic Coalition (DK) on candidates for individual constituencies (MSZP-Dialogue are standing in 59, DK in 45, with both backing independents in two), but the two camps have no agreement on a joint party list.
As this paper went to press, talks between LMP leader Bernadett Szél and the left-liberal alliance appeared stalled.
Szél’s willingness to reach a compromise – and get her party’s backing for that – could be crucial to the final result, as LMP has candidates in all 106 constituencies, but is polling only 5-8% of support from decided voters.
Jobbik – now presenting itself as a moderate national party – is also competing for all 106 individual seats. It has refused cross-party cooperation prior to the elections – though analysts note that its supporters have proved adept at tactical voting in the past to oust an incumbent.
Együtt (Together) – a liberal party polling a mere 1% support - has unilaterally pulled out of most single constituencies, but insists on fighting a handful of key seats, such as Csepel, where it has strong challengers. It, too, could have an impact on the final result out of all proportion to its vote.
With potential cooperation deals still in the air, the many uncertainties of the complex election system along with a series of alleged financial scandals being published in opposition media, have led analysts to agree that, despite the massive Fidesz lead in the polls, the result on April 8 probably remains too close to call.
Ferenc Gyurcsány, the former Socialist prime minister (2004-2009), leads the Democratic Coalition, a social democratic party that has a small, but dedicated following. However, he is anathema to many Hungarians on the right. His party commands 9% support of decided voters, according to the latest Median opinion poll.
Viktor Orbán, Hungarian PM 1998-2002 and 2010-2018, is seeking a record third consecutive term. Orbán inspires tremendous loyalty from his national-conservative voter base, but opponents are sharply critical, denouncing him for what they see as autocratic policies, alleged cronyism and friendship towards states such as Russia and China.
Gábor Vona, the leader of Jobbik. Once shunned by all democratic parties for its far-right, anti-Semitic and anti-Roma statements, Vona has sought to make Jobbik more mainstream in the past two years. However, the jury is out on how much his membership has followed. Jobbik has 16% support of committed voters according to the latest Median poll.
Bernadett Szél is co-president of the Politics Can Be Different (Lehet Más a Politika; LMP) party, and has been an MP since 2012, having joined the party in 2010. In September 2017 she was nominated as the LMPʼs candidate to the position of prime minister for the upcoming parliamentary election.
Gergely Karácsony is the leader of Dialogue for Hungary (Párbeszéd Magyarországért) and the joint PM candidate of the Socialists and Párbeszéd. He won the mayoral election in Zugló in 2014 as a joint candidate of opposition leftist-liberal parties. He was previously an MP for LMP from 2010-14, but left when it refused to cooperate with other parties.