Budapest, Hungary – 2019 was an exciting year in Hungarian politics with two elections, a number of surprises, and a lot of drama. Here’s our recap’ of everything that happened last year.
January: the gloomiest of months
December 2018 saw the most intense protests in Hungary for years. In the wake of the so-called “slave-law,” thousands went to the streets to protest for workers rights. The big question was whether the opposition had enough momentum to carry on the protests after the Christmas break. As expected the demonstrations slowly died down after one moderately well-attended demonstration.
The first month of the year also saw the start of the first round of the primary elections for the opposition’s candidate for the mayor of Budapest with more than 30 thousand voters participating. In the first round of the contest, Párbeszéd’s Gergely Karácsony went up against MSzP’s Csaba Horváth.
The gloomiest of months also saw the gloomiest of news. Producer Andy Vajna, father of the Hungarian National Film Fund, passed away at the age of 74. Politicians and celebrities from all around the world paid their respects to the Hollywood giant.
February: parking-mafias and family-protection initiatives
The results of the primary’s first round were announced. Gergely Karácsony won by a landslide; he gained 81% of the votes compared to Horváth’s 19%. He did not have a perfect month, however. Online paper 444.hu published their extensive investigative report on corruption related to parking in some of Budapest’s districts. The report portrayed the opposition’s new poster boy in a negative light by showing him as being complicit or at least unable to tackle the so-called “parking-mafia” in his district.
Meanwhile, on the other wing of Hungarian politics, Fidesz announced their “family-protection initiative” which was aimed to help address the problem of the ageing Hungarian population by giving tax breaks to families with multiple children.
March: a still unresolved spat
March saw the beginning of a still unresolved spat between Fidesz and their European party-family, the European People’s Party regarding propaganda posters targeting EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and then-presidential hopeful Francois Timmermans. The president of the People’s Party, Manfred Weber traveled to Budapest to negotiate with Viktor Orbán which resulted in the posters being taken down, a proposed solution to the issue of the Central European University as well as Fidesz’s voluntary suspension from the People’s Party.
Meanwhile, independent mayoral candidate columnist Róbert Puzsér saw a boost to his campaign, when alongside green LMP, right-wing Jobbik also decided to back him in the mayoral race.
April: full coordination in Budapest
April saw the start of the campaign for European Parliamentary elections as well as early preparations for the municipal elections in October. After some announcements in individual countryside towns, the opposition announced their fully coordinated election-bid in Budapest districts.
May: exceeding expectations
The European Parliamentary elections were held throughout the continent, producing some shocking results. They resulted in some exciting developments in Hungary as well. Fidesz could not achieve a significant breakthrough by their standards, “only” getting 14 seats of Hungary’s 21. Momentum and Democratic Coalition, on the other hand, had plenty of reasons to celebrate.
The young centrist party exceeded expectations by getting 10% of the votes sending not one but two MEPs to Brussels in Katalin Cseh and Anna Donáth. However, it was former PM, Ferenc Gyurcsány’s DK who produced the greatest shock by sending four politicians to Brussels instead of their expected one. Interestingly, amidst the European green wave, Hungary’s green party, LMP essentially collapsed by getting as little as 2% of the votes.
June: a new momentum
The results had a significant effect on the parties’ attitude to the municipal elections. After their collapse, the green party withdrew support from Róbert Puzsér which was quickly followed by Jobbik. Dk and Momentum emboldened by their success (particularly in Budapest) quickly announced their wish to participate in the second round of the primary by nominating former daily-politics show host Olga Kálmán and businessman Gábor Kerpel-Fronius respectively.
Puzsér (who found himself alone after both LMP and Jobbik withdrew their support from him in light of their election results), on the other hand, withdrew from the primary because he felt his previously set conditions were broken and announced that he would be on the ballot paper in October as an independent. The primary was conducted without him nevertheless with a turnout of almost 70 thousand voters. Gergely Karácsony won by gaining 49% of the votes compared to Kálmán’s 37% and Kerpel-Fronius’ 14%, thus becoming the United Opposition’s official mayoral candidate for Budapest.
July: Christian freedom vs liberal freedom
Every summer, Viktor Orbán makes an appearance at a Transylvanian festival in Tusványos where he discusses ideology and his view on current affairs with a buzzword that will dominate the public sphere for the next year. This was the event where his famous phrase “illiberal democracy” or his version of “Christian democracy” were coined. This year his keyword was “Christian freedom” which he contrasted with liberal freedom.
Fidesz appointed Judit Varga to the position of Justice Minister. Varga has played a key role in government communications both at home and abroad ever since as one of the few prominent younger, female figures in the party. Meanwhile, the opposition announced their mayoral candidates in a few countryside towns.
August: “good” Hungarians
The campaign period for the municipal elections officially began and the opposition finalised their candidates in all constituencies.
Prominent Fidesz figure and speaker of the Hungarian Parliament, László Kövér caused controversy when he stated that for someone to be considered a “good Hungarian” they have to have four children.
September: ambitious promises and megaphone politics
The political campaign was underway. In Budapest, Gergely Karácsony made a number of ambitious promises as part of his mayoral pitch, while the pro-government media consistently labelled him as “unsuited” for the position. Incumbent István Tarlós tried to campaign on the basis of his achievements as Budapest mayor, however made a number of mistakes in his messaging.
For instance, he was filmed with a megaphone in his hand, yelling at MP Bence Tordai which undermined his image as a calm and composed mayor. Róbert Puzsér shifted his messaging from the promise of a green, pedestrian-based Budapest to vehement attacks on his opponents (primarily on Karácsony and his incompetence in dealing with corruption).
Meanwhile, in the countryside, most opposition candidates were steadily campaigning on local issues, often battling the biases of local papers.
October: orgies, yachts, and the Devil’s advocate
The first week of October started with the event that changed the course of the campaign, and perhaps of the entire political atmosphere in Hungary. A blog called ‘The Devil’s Advocate’ published a video of Győr’s Fidesz mayor Zsolt Borkai participating in an orgy on a yacht. The governing party found it exceptionally difficult to react to the scandal which many attribute to their weak performance in the subsequent elections a week later. Fidesz lost the mayoral seat of Budapest and most of its districts (including their safe seats in Districts I, II, and III) as well as the vast majority of larger countryside towns. In October, Hungary’s political climate changed: Fidesz, the party that has ruled the country for nine years became beatable.
The cooperation of the opposition parties got off to a bumpy start, however. Democratic Coalition mayors appointed Csaba Czeglédy to be in charge of legal matters, which other opposition parties opposed due to his dubious past regarding corruption.
November: Orbán’s new stadium
Zsolt Borkai resigned shortly after being inaugurated as the mayor of Győr and new elections were called. Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Budapest which caused major disruption and sparked protests in the city. The new national stadium was also unveiled in the presence of Viktor Orbán who even posted a short video to commemorate the occasion, portraying it as a huge achievement for Hungary and governing Fidesz.
December: the Kulturkampf and more nude photos
The last month of the year was worthy of an eventful 2019. First, the government proposed new legislation that would give them greater control over the appointment of theatre directors. Critics argued that the move would limit the operation of independent theatres and would allow plenty of room for government censorship. The announcement sparked protests.
Parliament also passed a motion that would allow unemployed citizens to receive only emergency healthcare for free. The change was criticised by left-wing groups for putting an extra financial burden on those who can afford it the least.
Finally, in what many see as revenge for the Borkai scandal, a far-right media outlet, Vadhajtások published Democratic Coalition MP, Zsolt Gréczy’s nude photos. Gréczy was also accused of harassment when one woman stated that Gréczy sent her the photos without her consent. The MP announced his resignation shortly after the scandal broke out.
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!