Hungary Opinion

Insight: The battle for local councils in Hungary

Hungarians will go to the polls this Sunday to elect their local mayors and councillors. After their devastating defeat on last year’s general elections and acceptable performance on this year’s European elections, Fidesz’s opposition turned to unprecedented tactics. In a move many feel like the last desperate attempt in the fight to end an almost decade-long Fidesz-rule, in most seats there will only be one opposition candidate who faces that of Fidesz. A marathon of negotiations saw a wide range of opposition parties from the Socialist Party to right-wing Jobbik come to an agreement which might give Viktor Orbán’s party (in charge of most councils throughout the country) at least some headaches come Sunday night.

Yet, even this unity might not be enough for the opposition to gain control of the country’s councils and mayoral offices as in some cases their candidate is not good enough to integrate the wide-range of opposition voters. In some other instances, the coordination failed altogether.

Mayor of Budapest: A missed opportunity?

István Tarlós, a more integrative figure within Fidesz?

Both cases are present at the same time in the seemingly easiest target of the opposition: the mayoral office of Budapest. Here, the odds favour the incumbent mayor, István Tarlós. Tarlós is considered to be one of the more integrative figures within Fidesz. Because he is technically independent, he is sometimes able to express subtle criticism of the ruling party and is not directly affiliated with the government’s nation-wide policies.

So far he has managed to avoid allegations of corruption as well. Therefore, many moderate right-wing voters who would otherwise not vote for the ruling party support him. His voters usually list his practical achievements from his two stints as mayor such as the modernisation of Budapest’s tramlines, the renovation of metro lines and other improvements in public transport.

His critics, however, say that even though Tarlós manages the city and its occurring problems rather well, he does not have any vision with which he could improve the capital. His style, most notably his raw arrogance, can also alienate some voters. Especially if the opposition can force him into conflicts just like they did this September, when Tarlós was filmed with a megaphone in his hands, angrily yelling at Párbeszéd MP Bence Tordai after he confronted him during his press conference. The incident did not help his popularity as it ruined the image of the supposedly calm, considerate mayor. According to some polls, his popularity decreased to 49%, with Gergely Karácsony following him closely on 47%.

István Tarlós and Bence Tordai
István Tarlós and Bence Tordai MP. Credit: Facebook

Gergely Karácsony and the Socialist Party

Gergely Karácsony, former prime ministerial candidate of the Socialist Party and mayor of Zugló (the largest district in Budapest) is the candidate of the ‘United Opposition.’ He has serious claims for legitimacy among opposition voters as he won the primary elections in June where the mayoral candidates of three opposition parties participated to decide who should be Tarlós’s opponent this October.

Winning 48% of the votes in the primary and the opposition parties behind him, Karácsony is mostly campaigning on a very heavily anti-Fidesz platform as well as his results as a mayor of Zugló (his so-called “Zugló social model” gained praise from even some of his critics, so much so that Róbert Puzsér, the third, independent candidate directly includes it as a reference in his manifesto for further social reforms.)

Despite his clear win in the primary, Gergely Karácsony is far from an ideal and integrative opposition candidate. Early this year, he found himself in the middle of a corruption scandal. There is video evidence of him abstaining from a crucial vote as mayor of Zugló where he could have stopped the operations of the so-called “Parking Mafia” in his district (in short, a company in the district was granted rights to operate parking in Zugló in exchange for allowing local Fidesz and Socialist councillors to benefit financially from the parking fees).

Gergely Karácsony at a campaign event
Gergely Karácsony at a campaign event. Credit: Facebook

More recently, audio recordings emerged in which Karácsony directly criticizes the opposition’s mayoral candidates in other districts. He is also heard stating that his successor in Zugló has to be socialist Csaba Horváth because at least “he knows what people can go to prison for. Under someone else, local Socialist councillors would steal everything in their enthusiasm.”

These two scandals confirmed the rumours of how intertwined the Socialist Party (which Karácsony is officially a candidate of) and Fidesz are on a local level. It also raised questions of how could Karácsony possibly fight corruption in Budapest, if he was unable to do so in his own district. Additionally, his sharp anti-Fidesz rhetoric might pay off in the heavily anti-Fidesz capital (60% of the population are not Fidesz voters and a significant portion of those who are moderate supporters), however it also has the danger of alienating voters who are generally not interested in high-politics, only local issues which Karácsony rarely focuses on in his messaging.

Róbert Puzsér, the wild card of the mayoral race

The revelations regarding Karácsony might benefit the third candidate who is the wild card of the mayoral race. Well-known radical centrist-green columnist Róbert Puzsér announced his bid last summer. Puzsér has the most detailed manifesto out of the three, with one central promise: making central Budapest car-free and radically redesign it as a walking area for pedestrians with more green spaces.

Róbert Puzsér at a campaign event near Keleti Station
Róbert Puzsér at a campaign event near Keleti Station. Credit: Sétáló Budapest 2019

Puzsér runs an anti-establishment campaign, arguing that most opposition parties (most notably former PM Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Democratic Coalition and Karácsony’s nominating party, MSzP) have vested interest in the rule of Fidesz and their corruption as that allows them to gain a significant amount of money from stolen funds. His role as an underdog might also benefit him. He receives no funding from any political party and is the first truly independent candidate in the mayoral elections since the fall of the communist regime.

However, despite his relative popularity amongst young, educated, middle-class voters, Puzsér struggles to draw support from anyone else (he is currently polling between 4 and 6% with the entire Budapest electorate). Given that he has been present on Hungarian TV screens for years now, Puzsér already has an established image. But unfortunately for him, he is a Marmite figure; people either love him or hate him. His vehement, loud and radical criticism of both feminism and nationalism alienates more people than it attracts.

Also, despite his criticism of Karácsony, that he is focusing on attacking Fidesz instead of regular issues that fall into the competence of a mayor, in recent weeks he fell to a similar trap; the main message of his campaign shifted from the offer of a green, pedestrian-based Budapest to the message of “changing the opposition.”

It is difficult to say how many points are between Tarlós and Karácsony at the moment. Some polls indicate 18, others say 1. However, a trend was present in all of them: Tarlós has been steadily losing from his advantage for a month now. It is unlikely that Karácsony could overtake him in the coming days but it is not impossible. Especially with the help of Puzsér who, even though seems to dislike Karácsony more than Tarlós, might just draw enough moderate right-wing voters that allows enough space for Karácsony to win. Nevertheless, this race is the incumbent mayor’s to lose.

The districts of Budapest
The districts of Budapest. Credit: Wikipedia

The Castle, The Centre, and The Outskirts

The opposition’s chances seem a bit better in individual districts. Despite their considerable advantage in most Budapest neighbourhoods, they failed to capitalize on the city’s anti-Fidesz sentiment so far as their voters were fragmented. Now, with one opposition mayoral candidate in each district, Fidesz can expect at least some losses in their previously held seats.

Márta V. Naszályi and District One

The most notable of these is District One (home of the Castle of Buda and Gellért-hill) which has been under right-wing control ever since 1989. A left-wing mayor in this predominantly middle-class district would have been unimaginable even three years ago but during last year’s general elections, after his opponents withdrew in the last week of the campaign, green LMP’s Antal Csárdi managed to win here. Running for mayor in the colours of the opposition is also a green candidate, Márta V. Naszályi who has a serious chance of dethroning Gábor Tamás Nagy who has been in his mayoral seat since the late 90s.

V. Naszályi steadily campaigned on local issues such as the overwhelming number of tourist buses, corruption relating to council housing, and the government’s controversial decision to move their offices to the district. Her opponent however, started campaigning relatively late and seems to take his triumph for granted. The latest poll by Závecz research shows only a 2 point advantage in favour of the incumbent mayor, with a significant portion of the district currently undecided. Závecz research is notoriously associated with left-wing political parties, therefore these findings shall be taken with a pinch of salt. However, these numbers, even if exaggerated, show that something is seriously going wrong with Nagy’s campaign.

Is the sun about to set for Fidesz in District I
Is the sun about to set for Fidesz in District I? Credit: Alexisz Gaál, Wikipedia

“We do have a chance”-says a member of V. Naszályi’s campaign team-” but a lot will depend on the undecided voters and the cleanness of the elections. Local elections rely heavily on connections and how directly you can communicate with your voters. The problem is that it is very difficult for the opposition to reach older voters [who are a large demographic group in the district] as Fidesz is dominating the traditional media. So we have to rely on classic door-knocking instead.”

If the opposition is able to mobilise its voters as well as those currently undecided, there is a serious chance that Fidesz will lose this seat. This would be a huge scalp for the opposition and another sign of the governing party’s increasing unpopularity with educated, middle-class voters, a group that won them their first ⅔ majority back in 2010. District Eleven, which has similar demographics might also be a realistic target for the opposition as they have chosen a credible candidate in Imre László.

Districts Eight, Nine, Six and South Pest

The opposition also has a serious chance in taking over some districts in the city centre such as District Nine (home of Europa League participant Ferencváros FC) where, at the local primaries, independent Krisztina Baranyi pulled off a resounding win over Momentum candidate Andrea Jancsó. Baranyi is a well known and a really popular public figure who is famous for her ruthless fight against corruption. Throughout her campaign Baranyi was supported by the Hungarian Two-Tailed Dog Party and the Kulcs association, a group composed of local patriots, therefore she and her message are able to draw in voters from any side of the political spectrum.

The streets of District 9 with a poster of Baranyi.png
The streets of District 9 with a poster of Baranyi. Credit: Facebook

Similarly, in the neighbouring District Eight, there is also an independent candidate, nominated by Momentum, András Pikó who also seems like an integrative figure. However popular Pikó and strong his manifesto is, there are fears expressed amongst the opposition parties that former Fidesz mayor of the district, Máté Kocsis has such a grip on the poverty-stricken area that some locals will be coerced into voting for current mayor Botond Sára just to be able to get by.

District Six, where former Momentum deputy-leader Tamás Soproni is going up against an incumbent Fidesz-candidate, could also change hands. This year’s European elections saw Fidesz gain only 39% of votes in the neighbourhood of the famous Andrássy Boulevard, therefore an integrative opposition candidate (which Soproni is) could easily win here.

Another area that Fidesz needs to pay attention to is South Pest, where a source, who is a candidate in one of the districts in the area told me that if everything goes well districts 18-21 could all be controlled by the opposition from Sunday on. They were confident that if the turnout is over 50%, District 18 will surely be taken. This would see control fall into the hands of the opposition in the outskirts of the capital where half of the districts were previously held by Fidesz.

Liszt Ferenc Airport in District 18.png
Liszt Ferenc Airport in District 18. Credit: Victor Belusov, Wikipedia

District Seven and other districts

The reason why the opposition does not have so favourable chances in other districts in the capital is that in some areas where there would be an appetite for change or an opposition hold, parties decided to run candidates of rather questionable quality. In the heart of Budapest, Kata Tüttő is the United Opposition’s mayoral candidate. She is the ex-wife of Tamás Leisztinger, a businessman who is notorious for being involved with many dodgy deals with Fidesz.

In neighbouring District Seven due to his wide unpopularity, Péter Nidermüller would stand little chance against most candidates, however, Fidesz’s Zsolt Vattamány’s approval ratings are rather low even amongst his peers. Luckily for him, because of the general consensus regarding Nidermüller’s unsuitability for the position, two independent candidates, ex-socialist György Hunvald and ex-LMP figure László Moldován will also be on the ballot paper. Losing this race would be particularly painful for the opposition, as with a better candidate, this would be one of their easiest districts to take. Finally, in Gergely Karácsony’s former district the socialists decided to run Zsolt Molnár, a politician reeking of corruption scandals which the aforementioned leaked audio recording does not help.

Opposition-controlled cities in the South

There are important seats beyond the borders of the capital as well. And contrary to the trend in recent years, in many cities throughout the country, the opposition stands a better chance than in Budapest.

Szeged and Hódmezővásárhely

Right now there are only two incumbent opposition mayors in major countryside cities in the south, but both of them face a tough competition. Socialist mayor László Botka, who has been in charge of Szeged since 2002, has the backing of all opposition parties, but this year he faces his biggest challenge yet. In Hungary’s only openly socialist town, Botka faces a number of independent candidates. One of them is a local entrepreneur, Pál Nemesi with the backing of Fidesz. Another is Botka’s former right-hand who lost his position as a result of falling victim to the mayor’s deal with other opposition parties. Another two independent candidates are also running who might split up the moderate right-wing vote, taking away some of Botka’s potential support. However, because of his approval ratings and experience, the mayor is still a favourite to win.

Szeged, Hungary’s only openly socialist city
Szeged, Hungary’s only openly socialist city. Credit: Takk, Wikipedia

Another city in the countryside currently held by the opposition is Hódmezővásárhely. During last year’s byelections, Fidesz conceded a shock defeat in a city where it has always won since 1989. Péter Márki-Zay was the first mayor to be backed by all the opposition parties back in 2018 and the move paid off. However, since then Fidesz made retaking the city one of their top priorities and mobilized all available resources to do so: delegating a well-known pro-Fidesz journalist to the city and giving him a weekly radio show, continuing the negative campaign against Márki-Zay as well as constantly communicating the threat of withdrawing funds from the city. Additionally, Márki-Zay’s star seems to be vaining after a few inconsiderate slip-ups, such as his poor choice of words regarding child abuse.

Changing tides in the East

However, while the united opposition needs to watch their backs in their controlled cities in the south-east, Fidesz can’t relax in the north-east. In the industrial city of Miskolc, their incumbent mayor had to withdraw from the race due to terminal illness. The governing party decided to back his former clerk, Zoltán Alakszai against the opposition candidate Pál Veres. Veres seems to be an ideal and integrative candidate for the opposition as he is the principal of Miskolc’s prestigious Ferenc Földes High School and has no political past.

If one simply looks at the numbers, with a large turnout Veres does have a chance: Fidesz gained 45% during the European elections in the city which is lower than the combination of the votes of the opposition parties now backing Veres. The polls currently indicate Alakszai has a 7 point advantage over the school principal, however, around 30% of the local electorate are still undecided. Whichever candidate will be able to convince these swing voters will be the one to move into their new office come next Monday.

Tram in Miskolc
Tram in Miskolc. Credit: Szalax, Wikipedia

Two other cities in the region seem to be an even more attainable target for the opposition. Historic Eger sees the incumbent mayor, László Habis go up against Ádám Mirkóczki, one of the most well-known and nationally respected figures of the formerly far-right Jobbik. Mirkóczki stands a good chance as he is not only able to attract left-wing voters unlike any other Jobbik politician, but he might just steal a few of Fidesz’s moderate supporters as well. If one adds this to the fact that five years ago, Habis could only win with 38% of the votes with Mirkóczki then only supported by Jobbik gaining 26%, one could conclude that the opposition is the real favourite in the historic city.

Ádám Mirkóczki during a press conference
Ádám Mirkóczki during a press conference. Credit: Facebook

Mirkóczki would become the second Jobbik mayor of the region. Dávid Janiczak is backed by a wide range of opposition parties (albeit not all of them because his far-right views) and is expected to get another term in office. Yet, Debrecen, the cultural centre of the region is expected to stay in Fidesz’s hands as it is one of their safest seats.

Turmoil in the West

It is much more difficult to predict the winners in the west. The former socialist heartland, Pécs in the south has been in Fidesz hands for the past 9 years. However, as a result of broken promises of the cultural centre’s renaissance and highly questionable economic competency, the governing party’s critics are increasingly louder each month.

This is no good news for Fidesz as during the European elections they only gained around 42% of the votes, meaning that given the general dissatisfaction with their previous mayor and the alien-nature of their candidate, former water-polo player Attila Vári who does not live in the city, a united opposition could potentially regain Pécs. Unfortunately for them, complete unity could not be formed behind Attila Péterffy as green LMP launched their own candidate in József Kóbor. However, the green party’s total collapse in recent months might give Péterffy the boost of voters he desperately needs.

In the cultural centre of the Lake Balaton area, Veszprém, incumbent Fidesz mayor Gyula Porga could keep his seat, however not without a fight. Similarly to Miskolc, here the opposition rallied behind the former principal of the region’s most prestigious school, Sándor Katanics. Porga won with 52% of the votes last time around, but the European elections saw Fidesz gaining 46% of the votes in the region. Adding all this to the fact that Veszprém has notoriously been a swing-seat in the past few years, this race is almost impossible to predict.

The main square in Szombathely
The main square in Szombathely. Credit: szombathelypont.hu

Close to the Austrian border, in the city of Szombathely, the political climate is particularly heated. Early this year, after a series of conflicts, Fidesz lost its majority in the city council, paralysing its mayor. Dissatisfied with how he allowed this to happen, Tivadar Puskás was not allowed to rerun. Péter Balázsy is the Fidesz candidate who took his place.

Meanwhile, it seemed that the opposition would rally behind councillor András Nemény. However, in a final plot twist in the tale, Tibor Koczka, former Fidesz deputy mayor announced that he would also run. Right-wing Jobbik then decided to withdraw his support from Nemény, backing Koczka instead. With even some Fidesz voters dissatisfied with their local council, it would be no surprise if the opposition officially takes control of the city. Nevertheless, Koczka’s run might complicate things further.

The first step in the long road to defeat Fidesz?

Lies, orgies, and pamphlets

The prospects of Győr’s Fidesz mayor, Zsolt Borkai seemed relatively straightforward until very recently. Borkai has been in power for 13 years. Last time 61% of the city voted for him and Fidesz gained an absolute majority at the last European elections as well. However, last week video evidence emerged of Borkai participating in a cocaine and prostitute fuelled orgy in a luxury yacht.

In an ideal world, perhaps mayoral candidates would be judged on merit instead of ethnical misconduct in their private life, however, the incident is especially embarrassing for Borkai who campaigned on the basis of his high moral standing as a father and family man. Additionally, conservative Christians who are the core of his voting base, are even more prone to be influenced by the emergence of such videos. However, even this incident will probably not be enough for the opposition’s Tímea Glázer to overtake him this week.

Borkai is not the only victim of an extremely nasty campaign, even by Hungarian standards. Misinformation, leaks, harassment accusations, and intimidation have appeared throughout the country on all sides. The opposition’s candidate for mayor in Budaörs, Tamás Wittinghoff also found himself in the middle of a sex scandal with video details emerging of him engaging with a woman who is allegedly a prostitute. Imre László, alongside Momentum MEP Anna Donáth and Imre Papp, Gergely Karácsony’s clerk were all accused of sexual harassment. In addition, a number of leaflets, calls and propaganda articles were produced that stated incorrect or outright false information on opposition candidates.

Károly Nagy, who is running to be a councillor in Budapest’s District 18, was also targeted by Fidesz’s campaign of misinformation. The local paper published an article that said the local politician lived on the other side of the city in his wife’s apartment. Nagy told me that he felt this has been the nastiest campaign since the fall of the communist regime. “I was surprised by the extent of the lies of the pro-government media. I expected to be attacked, but I would have never imagined that completely untrue statements would be circulated.”-He says. “The reason for this is that for the first time ever, there is mass cooperation between the opposition parties and there is a realistic chance that the opposition will take control of cities from Fidesz.”

hungary-local-elections

The last chance

Overall, if the opposition manages to mobilize its voting base, they have a serious chance of wounding Fidesz. “With a very optimistic guess I think we can take districts one and eleven in Buda, a number of mayoral seats in the city centre, and all of South Pest.” -says a candidate in one of these districts.

Despite these hopes, one must feel that in some ways, whatever happens, these local elections will be a missed opportunity for the opposition. In many instances, in areas where they would otherwise have a clear chance to win, they are hindered by bad decisions on who their candidate should be (such as Budapest’s District, V, VII, and XX, or even the candidate for mayor, Gergely Karácsony himself). Contrary to recent years the opposition has a better chance with cities in the countryside where they seemed to have learnt their lessons and chose integrative candidates with manifestos focusing on genuine local problems that fall under local government competency.

But even if the opposition’s candidates do make gains, it is only their first step in the long road to defeat Fidesz. Most villages, as well as major regional regional centres, such as Debrecen, Zalaegerszeg or Esztergom, will remain in Fidesz hands. And if the opposition fails to make significant gains, it will be their most embarrassing defeat yet. Not only will they have exhausted their last remaining weapon of backing only one candidate against Fidesz in each district, but an entire generation of their politicians will have to end their careers by having experienced only loss and failure.

By Ábel Bede

Ábel Bede was born in Budapest and is currently studying History at Durham University. He wrote his dissertation on early 20th century Hungarian politics and culture and published several pieces in prominent Hungarian newspapers. Feel free to check out more of his articles right here!

0 comments on “Insight: The battle for local councils in Hungary

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: