The Illusion of Orbán’s Invincibility is Broken

On Sunday, local elections were held in Hungary, a country dominated by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party since 2010 and widely considered to be a right-wing stronghold in Europe. The country watched in shock as Fidesz lost – or at least failed to win – an election for the first time in more than a decade.

The post of Budapest Mayor was won by Gergely Karácsony, a liberal, pro-European politician. Karácsony’s victory is as important as it was unexpected: polls measured a close race, but none took a bet on the loss of István Tarlós, Fidesz’s mayor who led Budapest for ten years.  And the tide didn’t stop at the City level – 14 of Budapest’s 23 districts were won by opposition parties, and of the 9 Budapest Fidesz districts, only 4 returned Mr. Orbán’s party a clear majority. We also witnessed a change country-wide, where Fidesz held only 13 of the 23 largest cities in Hungary.

The factors behind the opposition’s success are manifold. First and foremost, there are the sex scandals of Zsolt Borkai, the Fidesz Mayor of Győr, which dominated the tail-end of the campaign period. While Borkai himself was re-elected – largely as a result of the opposition candidate’s weakness – scandals about his private life and corruption hit the party’s wider campaign hard. Secondly, Fidesz’s campaign was surprisingly weak – it lacked a central message and a coordinated image; perhaps local Fidesz politicians were also misled by their own pollsters, complacent in the face of ten years’ success. Thirdly, the opposition finally managed to present their candidates as a united front, successfully preventing a division amongst voters.

The opposition’s victory is not yet a tragedy for Orbán, who still commands a two-thirds parliamentary majority and therefore a clear opportunity to weaken the financial and political stability of opposition-led cities. One possible scenario is an amendment to the Hungarian Constitution in which Fidesz transfers powers and money from the cities to the county assemblies in which – except for the Budapest Assembly – they managed to preserve their majority.  In any case, one thing we can be sure of is that Orbán will not soften his policies now – his authoritarian trend will continue, and we can expect to see persistent conflicts between his government and the now opposition-led municipalities.

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Without a doubt, however, the significance of the damage inflicted to the illusion of Orbán’s invincibility cannot be overstated. Despite their differences, the opposition has learned to cooperate, and we may well see a tone in the local media, which commands an important role in Hungary. Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz prevails, but the result of the 2022 parliamentary elections is by no means the foregone conclusion it appeared to be this time last week.

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