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Hungarian municipal elections

28 October 2019 Blanka Kolenikova

Hungarian opposition parties made substantial and often unexpected inroads in nationwide municipal elections held on 13 October, including victory in the capital, Budapest. Their success raises the likelihood of a closely contested 2022 general election, but it is very likely that the conservative Fidesz government will remain stable in the meantime, owing to its majority status in parliament, with little need for a change in its policy course.

Newly acquired municipal positions will likely boost the resources and visibility of opposition parties, weakened by previous election defeats. Opposition candidates won mayoral positions in 10 of Hungary's 23 major cities and in 14 of Budapest's 23 districts, almost tripling their 2014 haul. They also formed majorities in many town councils, including in Budapest. In probably the most prestigious race, opposition-backed Gergely Karácsony was elected mayor of Budapest, beating a Fidesz incumbent. These victories - achieved via full co-operation among major leftist (MSzP, DK), liberal (Momentum, LMP), and even radical right-wing (Jobbik) parties in selecting a single opposition candidate for each race - provide the opposition an opportunity to revitalize itself. The opposition had found itself short on funding, personnel, and governing experience after consecutive election defeats in the past decade. Holding these positions will therefore provide opposition parties the opportunity to develop and showcase their governing skills, nurture staff and aspiring politicians, stabilize their finances, and receive better coverage in local media - all of which, if used successfully, would be likely to provide a popularity boost ahead of the 2022 parliamentary election.

However, it is unlikely that the opposition's successful co-operation strategy can be fully replicated in the 2022 parliamentary election. On paper, backing a single joint candidate in each race can be a potentially winning strategy in first-past-the-post districts, where 106 of 199 parliament members are elected. However, the parliamentary election also involves party lists (with 93 seats at stake), where no similarly obvious winning strategy exists. Running separate party lists would encourage opposition parties to emphasize their policy differences, likely making it more difficult to find mutually agreeable local candidates. Meanwhile, running a joint party list comprising all opposition parties would very likely bring tactical and personal differences to the fore as party leaders jostle for positions on the list, overshadowing policy-based campaigns and alienating many potential voters. A joint party list would also involve naming a de facto joint prime minister candidate - an additional source of rivalry that would risk breaking up an opposition coalition. Some technicalities of the electoral system (involving campaign financing, party list seat allocation, or entry thresholds) also work against closer opposition co-operation.

Despite losses at the municipal level, Fidesz remains the country's strongest party by far, and its ability to govern is very likely to remain intact until 2022. In post-election comments, Fidesz emphasized its positives, such as keeping the majority of mayor positions and sweeping all 19 county-level councils. These councils have limited powers and are elected via party list votes by those living in smaller towns and villages; Fidesz received more than 50% of the vote here, matching its support in opinion polls. The party publicly blamed its losses elsewhere on a pre-election sex scandal involving a Fidesz mayor in the city of Gyor, who was ironically re-elected but was subsequently asked to leave Fidesz. There were no other instances of finger-pointing, signaling that Fidesz is closing its ranks despite what may be viewed as a disappointing result. The election result brought no visible discontent within Fidesz with the party's leadership. As a result, defections or a party split are very unlikely, keeping Fidesz's two-thirds parliamentary majority intact. In turn, this means that the party will retain its ability to pass and execute laws until the next general election. Possessing a relatively limited autonomy, opposition-led local governments will also be unable to block or sabotage central government policy.

However, some initial restraint is likely, as Fidesz will be careful not to alienate opposition-leaning cities. Before the election, opposition critics voiced concerns that Fidesz would use its two-thirds parliamentary majority to curtail the powers of - or cut funding to - local governments, should a few major cities fall to the opposition. However, with an estimated 3.5 million of Hungary's 9.8 million citizens set to live in opposition-led cities, such a measure is now unlikely, as alienating that many voters (including many Fidesz supporters) would lead to a substantial drop in Fidesz's overall popularity. In fact, Fidesz prime minister Viktor Orbán confirmed in the days after the election that he would be willing to co-operate with new Budapest mayor Karácsony.

Indicators of changing risk environment

Increasing risk

  • Local corruption scandals tied to Fidesz and aired by incoming opposition mayors would likely cut into Fidesz's popularity, decreasing the party's chances of holding on to its two-thirds parliamentary majority in 2022.
  • If Fidesz were to "punish" opposition-led cities by cutting funds/projects (with the intent to bleed out an aspiring opposition mayor), it will likely prove counter-productive and result in a drop in Fidesz's popularity.

Decreasing risk

  • The resignation of opposition mayors and/or the dissolution of opposition-dominated local councils in the next 12 months would signal that opposition coalitions are too fraught to be able to function well, thereby lowering the chances of such a coalition successfully emerging to challenge Fidesz in the 2022 parliamentary election.

Posted 28 October 2019 by Blanka Kolenikova, Principal Analyst – Europe & CIS, Country Risk


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