The upcoming local elections in Hungary

Budapest town hall
Teaser Image Caption
The town hall of Budapest

Local municipal elections will be held in Hungary on 12 October 2014. The most important question is, how spectacular the gains of the far-right party Jobbik will be.

On October 12th 2014 citizens will elect local deputies and mayors, as well as the general assembly in the capital and in the counties for a period of five years, according to the new legislation. These will be the third and last elections in Hungary this year. As in the parliamentary and European Parliamentary elections, the currently governing Fidesz-KDNP again has the best prospects of winning. This can be stated even in view of the fact that local elections take place on several levels, and results can be interpreted in different ways.

Opposition parties may be consoled by the fact that most probably their results will be better than those in 2010. Left-wing parties have the best chances for improving on their results in Budapest and in larger cities, while Jobbik has better chances in the country and smaller towns, in addition to their prospects in the general assemblies in the counties.

In the wider political scene, the stakes in these local elections are relatively small. The government is expecting a significant victory over the opposition for the third time. Only the extent of their victory is in question, so it is highly probable that under no circumstances will the Fidesz-KDNP achieve results that would place them in a politically disadvantageous position.

The political stakes of local elections

However, the stakes are much higher for the parties in opposition. The partially cooperating Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), Together-PM and Democratic Coalition (DK) are all fighting to stay above water. Gaining seats in smaller and larger cities and in the districts of the capital city would mean survival for them. These seats could serve as a basis for political and organisational progress in the coming years for the newly formed Together-PM and DK, and the once prosperous MSZP is in the same situation, as the socialists can only improve on their failure in the previous municipal elections in 2010.

These parties will most likely continue competing for the leading role on the left even after the elections, so their respective results will have important consequences in this regard. The green LMP party, which successfully re-entered the national and European parliaments this spring (with a score just above the 5 percent threshold), will be looking to consolidate its positions in this third electoral contest.
The far-right party (Jobbik) is in a much more advantageous position, since it has a very good chance of gaining seats as compared to 2010. The question is how spectacular their gains will be, since the basis of their ambition to present themselves as the second strongest political force and the main challenger to the governing party will largely depend on these results.

In addition to party politics, the formation of local political relations is just as important. This aspect is non-negligible despite the fact that due to the centralising policies of the Orbán government the scope of autonomy enjoyed by municipalities has significantly narrowed in the past few years. For instance, in the areas of education and health care, local politics will play a smaller role than before. However, changes in public law have given more power to mayors within municipalities, who will have more authority to make decisions in the board of deputies.

Moreover, on certain local issues mayors will have rather expansive authority, especially regarding social policy, as they have the right to decide who gets to participate in the public work program (which is a condition for receiving social benefits for the unemployed). This can make the poorest citizens highly vulnerable and dependent on the person of the mayor. Nevertheless, it is in most cases the poorest that are the most depoliticised; very few of them vote, and hence the effect of mobilizing them is very weak.

Characteristics of the election system

It can be helpful in understanding the prospective chances and actual results if we know the most important characteristics of the complicated election system. The municipal elections have several levels, in which citizens vote very differently. A general characteristic of the system on all levels is that all cities elect their board of deputies and their mayor. In towns with county rights, i.e. in the country’s 23 largest cities, voters will receive only two ballots: one for candidates running for mayor and one for candidates running for deputy positions.

Citizens of other localities will receive these two ballots as well, and in addition a third one for the county lists of the parties. Deputies from the 23 towns with county rights will not be included in the general assembly of the counties because this role is fulfilled by the municipality of the given town or city. The situation in the capital city is similar to that of these bigger towns in that voters can choose from among parties’ district mayoral candidates and district deputy candidates. The novelty here is that starting this year voters cannot directly vote for party lists, as the Budapest general assembly will be constituted based on the votes cast for district mayors. On the third ballot, voters can choose from among the candidates running for Budapest mayor. This means that the 3 million inhabitants who live in larger towns and Budapest do not have the possibility to explicitly support a given party (because they do not vote on county lists), while citizens of smaller localities (app. 5 million people) do.

In smaller localities, party connections are not as important as personal ones; candidates are mostly independent or affiliated with local organisations. As a general rule, the larger the town the larger role party preference is likely to play in voters’ choices.
Budapest gets the most of attention, where the leftist opposition is in a very disadvantageous position – partially because of last-minute changes in the election system, but mostly due to their own disastrous campaign.

The leftist opposition can only hope for a moderate improvement

The otherwise largely symbolic role of the Budapest mayor will, according to recent polls, most likely be easily held by the incumbent, István Tarlós, supported by Fidesz-KDNP. Opposing him are the candidates of two tiny liberal parties: Zoltán Bodnár (Hungarian Liberal Party) and Lajos Bokros (Modern Hungary Movement). The latter is supported by Together-PM and DK (which withdrew their own candidate, Ferenc Falus). In addition, Jobbik (which is weak in the capital) also fielded a candidate in the capital. So did LMP, but neither of them have any chance of winning the race.

The chances for opposition parties are a bit better in Budapest’s individual districts. Since 2010, Fidesz has controlled 19 out of the 23 districts; MSZP controlled 3, while one district was run by an independent mayor. From the point of view of the opposition, the balance of forces can only improve after the current elections. Based on the results of the parliamentary elections this spring, MSZP, Together-PM and DK (who mutually support each others’ candidates in the most promising districts) stand a chance of winning in 7 to 11 districts. However, even if they manage to live up to these expectations, it will still not be enough to take over the leadership of the city: to gain a majority in the Budapest assembly, the opposition would need to win 13 districts, as well as the office of the Budapest mayor.

In the larger cities the leftist opposition can similarly only hope for a moderate improvement of its position. In 2010, 22 out of the 23 towns with county rights fell under Fidesz control, Szeged’s socialist bastion being the only exception. The relations of force may become more balanced now, but there is no prospect of a radical change. The most exciting competition is expected in Miskolc, where candidates of Fidesz, Jobbik, and two left-wing parties (MSZP, DK) currently enjoy close to equal support.

Jobbik could rob the ruling party of a majority in certain counties

Concerning county assemblies it is firstly important to note that these bodies are politically largely irrelevant because of a lack of competences and visibility. Second, the fact that 1.6 million inhabitants of towns with county rights cannot vote on county-level party lists will distort results. Since left-wing parties are stronger in these towns and right-wing parties in smaller towns and villages, the latter will be overrepresented on the county level. Fidesz will certainly obtain a majority in most county assemblies, but a strong Jobbik performance (coupled with a decent left-wing performance) could rob the ruling party of a majority in certain counties.

The real weight of the far-right party will, however, be measured through the votes they win in larger cities rather than through their results at the county level. In 2010 Jobbik managed to win the mayor’s seat in two small and one medium-sized localities, later expanding the number of localities under its control to 12 (in part due to independent winners joining the ranks of party, and in part due to victories at by-elections). The party’s chances appear more favourable this time around. Four years ago, Jobbik only had 212 candidates running for mayor across the country. The number is now 267. More importantly, the party appears to have closed the gap on its rivals in a number of localities.

Although we can only draw tentative conclusions from Jobbik’s performance at the parliamentary elections of April 2014, these show that the party could obtain the mayor’s seat in 20-30 smaller towns. Although its leaders would regard such a result as a huge step forward, such a small number of victories would make it difficult for them to present themselves as a real challenge and threat to Fidesz. However, a victory in Miskolc would be a big achievement for Jobbik. If the far-right were to win over the country’s fourth largest city, it would pose a much greater challenge than ever for its political rivals.