October 22, 2019

Local elections in Hungary: Orbán no longer invincible, but his party is still the strongest

Sporting a traditional dress Piroska Kovacsne Bablena exits the ballot booth after voting in the nationwide local elections, in the village of Rimoc, Hungary, Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019.
Sporting a traditional dress Piroska Kovacsne Bablena exits the ballot booth after voting in the nationwide local elections, in the village of Rimoc, Hungary, Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019.

On 13 October 2019, Hungary held its municipal and local elections, which resulted in opposition parties taking over Budapest as well as several countryside cities.

However, even with these results, Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz still maintains its constitutional supermajority in the Hungarian parliament and full control over budgetary resources. Increasing polarization should be expected in the upcoming years between the central government and opposition-led cities.

Viktor Orbán’s party, Fidesz, has dominated the Hungarian political landscape with a constitutional majority through most of the past decade, winning every election held since 2010.

Key to Orbán’s historical success was that his party occupied the center right, while fragmented opposition forces were located both on the left and the right of the political spectrum. Hence, as long as Fidesz could prevent opposition parties from uniting, it could easily preserve its dominance over them. Additional factors that have strengthened Orbán’s positions have been the electoral legislation modified in Fidesz’s favor, near total control of the government over the media landscape, and the takeover of the nominally independent institutions of checks and balances.

In 2019, however, opposition parties managed to unite themselves behind joint candidates not only in Budapest, but also in 123 of Hungary’s 167 cities. This strategy successfully negated Fidesz’s traditional divide and rule approach by simplifying the choice into voting for Orbán or against him. In addition, shortly before the elections an explicit, kompromat-type sex tape was released about a prominent mayor of the ruling party, which helped mobilize opposition voters.

On 13 October, united opposition parties managed to win the mayor’s seat in Budapest (Gergely Karácsony was elected by 50,86% of the votes), as well as 14 of the 23 districts of the capital. In the countryside, out of the 23 major cities, Fidesz held on to 13, while the opposition won 10. Meanwhile, in small towns and villages, the ruling party maintained its near-complete dominance and won all 19 county assemblies as well.

These results, in particular their defeat in Budapest, apparently surprised Fidesz. However, it is important to understand that Orbán still holds a constitutional supermajority in the parliament, as well as total control over the budget. Decisive governmental dominance in the media landscape also prevails, as do the strong financial positions of government-affiliated oligarchs. Moving forward, the likely strategy of the government will be to use all possible means to try to break the unity of opposition forces before the next parliamentary elections, scheduled for 2022.

Meanwhile, opposition parties will need to preserve the coherence of the often very colorful local coalitions and to govern the cities, towns and districts they won. Moreover, they will have to do all of this under strong political, financial, and informational pressure.

All in all, the nearly three years to come are likely to bring increasing domestic polarization and sharpened political tensions to Hungary between the central government and the opposition-held cities, particularly Budapest.