Despite the poignant victory of Fidesz: The elections showed losses for all parties. Juhász Attila, analyst at Political Capital Policy Research and Consulting Institute, explains why.
Similarly to the national parliamentary and European Parliament elections this spring, the municipal elections were again swept by Fidesz-KDNP—this despite the fact that their voter numbers are gradually decreasing. The democratic opposition seems to be unable to leverage this trend to its benefit. With respect to the democratic opposition’s own performance, the parties cannot even argue that the otherwise truly unequal context created by the new election system (rearranged to benefit the interests of Fidesz), the lack of campaign funds and the unbalanced media coverage were solely responsible for their devastating results. In any case, Viktor Orbán’s concept of a “central political field of force” is functioning pretty well. The Fidesz system is not based on constantly changing public law, but rather on this “field of force” of party politics, and as long as all opposition actors take up the role that has been cast for them, those currently in power have nothing to fear.
As stated in my previous writing, relatively little was at stake politically in these local elections for the Orbán system. The government had been preparing for a major victory over the opposition for the third time in a row. The only question was about the extent of this victory.
For parties in the democratic opposition, the stakes were much higher. They were fighting to keep their heads above water and struggled for a redistribution of political power within the left-wing opposition. It was clear from the pre-election negotiations among the democratic opposition parties that they regarded prospective mandates in the council as a certain existential and organisational base. This was especially true for the internal rivalry within the left wing and for the freshly formed Together-PM and Democratic Coalition (DK). But even the position of the once prosperous Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) was at risk, when the results of the European Parliament elections in May demonstrated that its role as the leading leftist party could easily get lost. The problem is that this internal competition did not interest most of the voters – not even those who otherwise opposed the government: For them, the fact that potential cooperation was again at the top of the democratic opposition parties’ agenda carried no message whatsoever.
The other side of the opposition, Jobbik, had been expecting a better showing prior to the elections. It was clear that the party would gain ground locally over its 2010 results. The question was whether these gains would be spectacular, whether they would be made in politically more relevant localities, as Jobbik could then be regarded as the second-largest political force in the country and Fidesz’s main challenger.
One of the most important conclusions to be drawn from all the results of this year’s elections is that political inactivity of Hungarian voting citizens constitutes the greatest support for the Orbán government. Low turnouts secure Fidesz’s position – despite the declining number of people willing to cast their votes for it. Participation rates in municipal elections have been gradually falling since 2006. The same tendency appeared in European Parliament elections since 2004 and in parliamentary elections since 2002. This time’s turnout was 44 percent, the lowest since 1990. This trend is a very clear indicator that citizens are increasingly turning away from the course of politics.
Regarding the results, most of the attention was concentrated on Budapest. The democratic opposition parties got themselves into a rather disadvantageous position in the capital — in part due to last-minute changes in the electoral system, but mostly due to their own disastrous campaigns. Although the Fidesz-KDNP candidate, István Tarlós, retained his seat as Mayor of Budapest, an office of mostly symbolic significance, this cannot be considered a big success: He only received 13 percent more than the democratic opposition’s almost unanimously supported candidate, Lajos Bokros, which cannot be considered a strong showing for Tarlós. Fidesz’s district mayor candidates achieved much more robust victories, although we must note the decrease in support for Fidesz candidates in 21 out of 23 districts, including areas where the right wing has traditionally been stronger. Eventually, 16 of Budapest’s districts will have a Fidesz mayor in the next term.
The opposition parties’ results in the districts of the capital did not turn out much better than four years ago, although their margin of victory increased in the three districts where democratic parties won both in 2010 and 2014. Apart from these three districts, however, they only managed to win two more this time around. Taking control of the city council is still a long way off, as for this they would have needed to win 13 districts as well as the Budapest mayoralty. The failure to achieve these results can hardly be blamed solely on the new electoral system in the capital.
As for the country’s largest cities, Fidesz has lost two cities: Békéscsaba and Salgótarján, as compared to its results in 2010. Although in 20 towns with county rights Fidesz candidates retained their mayoral seats, in most of these localities they received by far fewer votes than four years ago. The democratic opposition could only minimally improve on their results here as well. They failed in most of the towns with county rights, including those that had seemed feasible prior to the vote.
The results in the county councils - on which voters from the biggest cities had no influence whatsoever - reflect the lack of an alternative to Fidesz. The governing party managed to keep its absolute majority in all of these, despite the fact that its support has fallen everywhere (except in one county) by 2 to 10 percent It is also due to the peculiar election system that Jobbik has emerged as the second-strongest party in the county councils.
Jobbik loses in Budapest
An even more important consequence of the elections is that the extreme right party improved its showing in most of the country’s big cities. While in 2010 Jobbik only managed to win the mayoralty in two small localities and one medium-sized one, this time it won in 14 localities outright and supports nine more independent mayors country-wide. In several cities with county rights, Jobbik’s mayoral candidates came in second: Debrecen, Hódmezővásárhely, Eger, Nagykanizsa and Zalaegerszeg. Out of the 23 cities with county rights, Jobbik gained ground in 20 localities, either by virtue of not having fielded a candidate previously or by improving its results since 2010. The number of Jobbik deputies in the county councils increased from 34 to 40.
However, one of their main targets, winning the mayoralty in Miskolc, was not achieved. Here, the Jobbik candidate, Péter Jakab, was outperformed by both the Fidesz candidate and the leftists’ candidate. Despite its efforts in the capital and an intensive campaign, Budapest remains Jobbik’s weakest point. The party’s poor showing here is reflected by the overall number of votes cast for Jobbik candidates in the city. Even though they fielded candidates in all 23 districts, they only received 40.590 votes in total. This falls far short of the number of votes their party list received in the parliamentary elections this spring (111.129), and even lags behind their EP results, where 51.995 Budapest citizens voted for their list. This time, Jobbik candidates in the capital garnered mostly between 4 and 10 percent and between 10 and 12 percent only in a handful of districts, winning them a single seat on the Budapest city council. Their mayoral candidate, Gábor Staudt, received 42.093 votes (about 1.700 fewer than four years ago), or 7.1 percent, which meant finishing a distant third. Jobbik’s only positive achievement in Budapest may be that they managed to overtake the green LMP, whose position has weakened considerably since 2010 almost everywhere.
LMP, which finished just above the 5 percent threshold in both the parliamentary and European Parliament elections this year, had a devastating showing in the municipal elections. It was not only in Budapest where LMP’s mayoral candidate fell far short of the party’s 2010 results dropping from 9.9 percent to 5.7 percent this year. LMP’s mayoral candidates lost ground in all but one district. As for LMP’s very weak performance on the county level, it is rather characteristic that the party only managed to set up its list in five counties this year – compared to four in 2010 – despite the fact that the number of required signatures had been halved since the last municipal elections.
Overall, judging from current statistics, the entire opposition—including the most dynamically improving Jobbik—is very far from becoming a real challenge for the government in 2018.
Considering the results of the recent municipal elections and the other two elections preceding them, we can draw three important conclusions:
1. Despite their poignant victory, Viktor Orbán and Fidesz most definitely understand that support for Fidesz-KDNP has declined in the parliamentary and municipal elections. Support for the government is more fragile than it may seem at first glance. In consequence, building the “illiberal state” becomes ever so tempting – with special emphasis on taking a harder line against civil society, which the government regards as a major potential source of a functional political opposition. Furthermore, Fidesz could enforce its interests, ideology and personal positions of the government in higher education, after public education has already been centralised. Examples of illiberal states like Turkey or Russia show that these systems can only be sustained over decades, if society’s collective thinking is successfully influenced and deformed by governmental and social institutions. This will probably come into focus in the next few years. If foreseeable hardships and restrictions erode the government’s popularity, we can expect even faster and bolder political and legislative acts, aiming at preventing the emergence of political alternatives and means of social resistance.
2. Viktor Orbán regards his election results of the past three years as full authorisation to embark on a complete pay-back against all of his real and imaginary, internal and external enemies. His anti-Western, anti-liberal and anti-EU rhetoric will presumably strengthen, while the mystification surrounding his political and (eastern-) economic successes will only grow.
3. A sense of omnipotence will overwhelm the government: Fidesz has retained its two-thirds majority in the parliament as well as its EP seats despite decreasing support across society, and its losses in the municipal elections were minimal. While the previous Orbán government, despite its revolutionary rhetoric, was reluctant in the face of serious threats (either economic or from the side of the EU), this cautionary approach seems to be vanishing. If they are overcome by such “wishful thinking” in economic and international policy, the government may even become a hazard to themselves.