Hungary and Poland are both preparing for elections which will take place on 13 October. Poland’s municipal elections last year can serve as a useful starting point to understand the Polish parliamentary elections and the Hungarian municipal elections.

Both Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz and Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice (PiS) arrive to the upcoming elections as incumbents. However, while Fidesz won every national election since the 2006 municipal elections with a considerable majority, PiS has only been in power since 2015.

The Polish right-wing party registered a considerable victory four years ago, nevertheless, it did not achieve the kind of hegemony that Fidesz did.

Consecutive scandals and clashes with EU institutions meant that ahead of the municipal elections in Poland in 2018 it appeared that the opposition might be able to put up a genuine fight. While the left side of the political spectrum mostly united in the Civic Coalition (KO), the more agrarian opposition of the governing party could find their representatives in the Polish People’s Party (PSL).

PiS won the election with a rather comfortable 34 per cent, which they communicated as a major victory; however, they have lost key cities (most notably Warsaw) and the opposition was able to hold onto nearly all major cities.

The new-born KO registered considerable gains, as it won nearly 27 per cent of the votes, while PSL came third with 12 per cent. However, considering that in Poland, just as in Hungary, local governments have limited powers and the main drive of the incumbents is towards centralisation, the losses were rather taken as a warning than as a genuine defeat.

However, come the 2019 elections, one can observe a more confrontational attitude from PiS. The main campaign message focuses on the “conservation” and “protection” of national identity and “traditional” values. This message has been most prominently on display with the intensification of rhetoric against LGBTQ communities.

Phony candidates

This kind of political messaging is reminiscent of the 2018 general election campaign in Hungary, where the main opposing forces were immigrants and the EU. While this kind of discourse dominates contemporary Polish political discourse, it is not the message that Fidesz chose for the municipal elections.

Fidesz politicians, as well as government-linked mediums, described the opposition as engaging in “wreck-racing” (roncsderbi). Meanwhile, Fidesz politicians are depicted as standing on the side of order and stability.

The rhetoric is supported by a kinetic operation as well, since a number of “phony” candidates have announced that they are willing to compete in the elections. These phony candidates arrived from various backgrounds ranging from the far-right to the far-left. They usually have a personal grudge against the more or less allied opposition and they also seem to have no problem collecting the necessary signatures for standing for office, despite having minimal to no visible presence on the streets.

According to Válasz Online, out of the 167 major cities in Hungary 22 have phony candidates. The same analysis shows that 120 of these seats could be places of contestation. This is a result of the unprecedented unity on the side of the opposition, akin to KO in Poland. However, there are still 40 municipalities where there is basically no chance for Fidesz to lose.

István Tarlós

The strategy of Fidesz was most visible in Budapest, where there are currently four candidates: the Fidesz-backed sitting mayor, István Tarlós; the opposition-backed Gergely Karácsony; the independent Róbert Puzsér; and the also ‘independent’ Krisztián Berki. Puzsér and Karácsony announced their wish to run approximately half a year ago.

Karácsony became the candidate of the “united” opposition, endorsed by all major opposition parties. Puzsér, a public intellectual, launched his campaign on a green and civil platform, attracting voters disenchanted with both Tarlós and Karácsony, seen as candidates of the last 30 years. Berki, an ex-footballer, and celebrity announced his candidacy in July.

Besides Tarlós, both Karácsony and Puzsér produced manifestos, while Berki had no such thing. Additionally, while Karácsony and Tarlós had no problem collecting the necessary 5,000 signatures to officially launch their campaigns, Puzsér himself said that he struggled collecting the necessary amount, despite being present in multiple junctures of the city with activists, for at least eight hours hours a day. Berki, with no such presence, produced 10,000 signatures.

Shortly afterwards, posters appeared that were paid for by Fidelitas, the youth wing of Fidesz, depicting the three opposition candidates as clowns: “Budapest is not a circus!”, the posters declare. This example illustrates how the government supports candidates who are deemed useful for their rhetoric.

Additionally, the government did not hold back when it came to backing Fidesz candidates: Gergely Gulyás, Minister of Prime Minister’s Office declared during an official press conference, that if Karácsony wins, the capital will not receive 1,000 billion forints worth of development funds for the next five years, previously agreed for by the government.

Head-on attacks

Besides using the “wreck-racing” trope, government-linked media did not shy away from attacking opposition candidates head-on. There were unsupported accusations, independently running conservatives were called the Soros-commando and a private conversation of Karácsony was leaked. In this recording, he talks about how the socialists are riddled with corruption, that he was threatened (by the socialists), and that his career would end if he did not win.

While Karácsony accused Fidesz with the leak, it is just as likely that a faction of the infighting coalition was responsible. As for the brutalisation of public discourse, the opposition is also not without faults: one of the opposition candidates posted pictures of drug addicts with the title “The Junkies have risen again!”, while a leaked sex tape depicts a Fidesz mayor enjoying the company of prostitutes on a private yacht.

A brutalisation is apparent in all areas of the public discourse.

The Polish and Hungarian electoral landscapes display striking similarities. In both instances, we see a strong governing party with a powerful message and a rather fractured opposition that attempts to galvanise support by uniting and forming a shared platform against the governing party. In both countries, there is a strong division in the electorate and rural and urban areas have vastly different preferences.

Most polls predict that Kaczynski’s party is likely to win the election on Sunday, despite the opposition’s efforts to form a united front. Based on the Hungarian example, opposition parties that are unable to produce a strong message other than “we are not them” will probably find it hard to beat the incumbents.

On the other hand, the Hungarian opposition will take courage from the Polish example – the structure and stakes of a municipal election could potentially suit them better than the grandeur of a general election. Whichever way the balance will tilt on Sunday, these two elections will indicate, whether Hungary and Poland really share the same path, or not.

Hungarian freelance journalist at Magyar Hang and a reporter for The International Cybersecurity Dialogue. He completed a Russian and East European Studies master's at the University of Oxford and currently serves as a researcher and analyst.

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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