The Opposition took over the majority of districts and the position of the mayor of Budapest as well as some major countryside towns at Sunday’s local and municipal elections.
A first socialist mayor in Budapest since the fall of communism
Hungarians made their way down to the polls this Sunday in great numbers. Throughout the day, various newspapers reported that the attendance numbers might be at a record high for a municipal election. Yet the mood stayed cautious. Memories of 2018 lived vividly in the minds of opposition-voters. Last year’s general elections were also held with a near-record turnout. During the day, analysts were quick to remind everyone how much this favours the opposition parties, only for Hungarians to wake up for a ⅔ Fidesz majority the next morning.
Things went rather differently this time. Nearly an hour after the polls closed at 18:00, results started to trickle in. The first result, with only 0.97% of the votes processed, showed opposition-candidate Gergely Karácsony 4% ahead of incumbent István Tarlós, the first sign that things would go significantly differently than they used to in the past nine years. As more and more votes were processed, it became obvious that Budapest would have a socialist mayor for the first time since the fall of communism. At around 9 pm, it was widely recorded that Tarlós congratulated Karácsony for his win.
In an unprecedented scenario, Karácsony and his allies, perhaps surprisingly even for them, walked to their press conference in the midst of loud cheers and applause. “Love and cooperation will always prevail over hate,” said the new mayor in his first speech. “The opposition finally understood that they can only win if they seek allies in each other and everyone who wants change. I am only one of many Budapesters, faith wants me to be the mayor of Budapest.”
The end of decades of Fidesz-hegemony in Buda
Not only is Karácsony one of many Budapesters, but he is one of many Opposition-winners in the capital, meaning that he will also have a majority in the council of Budapest. Fidesz lost a significant number of seats in the centre and middle-class Buda. Buda’s loss is a particularly painful one for them as it used to be their stronghold. The opposition managed to win in districts I, II, III, and XI, ending decades of Fidesz-hegemony there.
The race in District I was especially tight. The difference between the new mayor, Márta V. Naszályi and Fidesz’s Gábor Tamás Nagy was only around a hundred votes. “We knew we had a chance.”- says a member of V. Naszályi’s campaign team. “But there was an hour long period at around 10 when Nagy took the lead with 70% of the votes processed so it was unbelievable when we found out we won!”
In central Pest, Districts VI, VII, VIII, and IX also changed hands in favour of the Opposition, who held their safe-seat in District XIII, meaning Fidesz now only controls one out of the city’s seven central districts. These developments signal how Fidesz almost completely lost their support within posh, urban, educated, middle-class circles, a group whose votes they could steadily rely on until the early 2010s. In most of these areas, the opposition also managed to gain a majority in the local councils, therefore reforms they want to introduce will be easier to implement. The Opposition also gained control of Districts IV and XVIII in the outer rim while keeping their other seats, leaving 7 out of the 23 districts in Fidesz hands.
While the official opposition candidates were celebrating, Róbert Puzsér’s mayoral-candidacy turned out to be a failure. Not only he failed to reach his personal target of 5%, but he also failed in convincing a large proportion of the electorate that Karácsony is no different than corrupt Fidesz politicians as the new mayor gained more than 50% of the votes.
Making the most out of a bad result
The mood was also far from cheerful elsewhere. In a somewhat unfamiliar situation for them, Viktor Orbán and Fidesz had to speak in front of the cameras after a defeat. Many were curious as to how the Prime Minister and his allies will try to explain the results. The faces of government politicians usually glimmer of joy after election result announcements but not today. Only two politicians got to speak in a relatively empty room with slightly sombre faces in the background. Former Budapest mayor István Tarlós started off by saying that “There is no point in speaking a lot at times like this. This is how Budapest voted today, they elected Gergely Karácsony.” He then continued by wishing good luck to his triumphant opponent and thanking Budapest and his former district, Óbuda, for the past thirty years.
Then came Viktor Orbán who tried to mask his disappointment, obvious from his facial expression, by focusing on the overall result rather than Fidesz losses. “The strongest political alliance in Hungary is still the Fidesz-KDNP coalition,” he said. It became apparent from his speech that he would try to capitalise on his defeat by using it as a proof to dismiss criticism of the rule of law and democracy in Hungary. “This was a great and open battle, exactly like it should be in a democratic country.” He then went on to state that he accepts the decision of Budapesters and that he is ready to cooperate with the opposition and thanked the “Hungarian countryside” for their support and ensured them that they will be able to count on Fidesz.
The loss of a great number of important cities
But despite his appraisal of the countryside, Orbán cannot be satisfied with his results outside Budapest. True, Fidesz remained in control of the vast majority of county and local councils as well as some bigger cities. But they also lost a great number of prestigious or economically important cities.
As for the incumbent opposition mayors, László Botka won his fifth term as Szeged mayor with a 60% majority and Péter Márki-Zay also retained his seat in the former Fidesz-high ground Hódmezővásárhely. In the north, Dávid Janiczak kept his seat in Ózd and Ádám Mirkóczki (Eger) and Pál Veres (Miskolc) joined him as opposition-mayors in the region.
The Opposition also managed to win some cities in the west. Pécs, Szombathely and Tatabánya all went to opposition hands. They now also control most cities just outside Budapest, in Pest county. Nevertheless, apart from these few (but important) exceptions, Fidesz won the majority of the bigger cities in the countryside. Sometimes, in their safe seats like Zalaegerszeg and Debrecen, with as high percentage as 69 and 61 respectively.
The press and Borkai’s scandal
While the opposition and its media overwhelmingly consider Sunday night a resounding win, Fidesz’s communication-channels also try to make the most out of a bad result. Pro-government papers highlight Fidesz’s win in the countryside and only mention the opposition’s triumph in Budapest afterwards.
The outlets that do mention Fidesz’s defeat in Budapest attribute it to one thing only; Zsolt Borkai’s scandal that broke out shortly before election-day (Borkai was filmed participating in an orgy with prostitutes on a yacht and corruption and drug allegations were also implied). Interestingly enough, Borkai actually retained his seat in Győr, however dominant criticism from the pro-government media as well as reports suggests that he might not be able to keep his seat for much longer. Additionally, Fidesz also seems to have decided to use the defeat to continue its anti-immigrant rhetoric. Fidesz-senior Lajos Kósa publicly implied that Gergely Karácsony could only win because of Budapest’s immigrant population.
Whether or not Borkai’s scandal was the actual deciding factor in the outcome of the elections, we’ll never know. However, sources say that it caused rifts even within Fidesz itself. Additionally, the scandal entailed many elements of the criticism that Fidesz’s opponents often articulate; corruption and hypocrisy. “The Borkai scandal’s role was crucial”- says Károly Nagy, Momentum’s new councillor in District XVIII. “It mobilized the voters of the opposition and also upset some pro-government voters. For the first time since 2010, Fidesz made a number of mistakes during the campaign with the Borkai issue.”
The difficult part only comes now
But this scandal would not have hit Fidesz hard enough had the opposition parties not united behind a single candidate in most districts. It took them 9 years to realise that this is the only way they can win in the current system. However, for them, the difficult part only comes now. They have the majority in the council and mayoral seats in many cities and they need to make the most of that.
The opposition got a chance to prove that they are able to govern but from now on they cannot blame any misstep on the government. Their success on a local level is essential for them to beat Fidesz in a general election. Whether or not that day will come soon remains a question. Yet, Sunday’s elections are likely to change the whole atmosphere of Hungarian politics. Now both the Opposition and Fidesz know something which neither thought was possible before; that Viktor Orbán’s party can be defeated.
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!