The opposition in Hungary has got wind in the sails after the local elections on Sunday. Are there similarities to the situation in Poland?

Although Fidesz , which has been in power since 2010, has won in most districts, it has given the opposition a seat in several important cities, such as Miskolc, Szeged, Eger or Pécs.

The victory in Budapest should be considered as the most significant. The capital city used to be governed by mayor István Tarlós, who was associated with the ruling party. However, on Sunday he congratulated his 44-year-old competitor. Gergely Karácsony won by 6 percentage points, although hardly anyone expected it.

Karácsony takes power in Budapest

Karácsony’s win is a very important signal for the opposition to change its strategy. Until recently, the parties were divided and despite the advantage of the sum of votes they were not able to compete and win in single-mandate constituencies.

Meanwhile, the liberal Karácsony took over the structures of the leftist party and built a campaign on this platform that united the opposition. He successfully repelled slander and blackmail, carried out with the help of government media, as well as other guerilla methods that Fidesz readily uses. Orbán calls himself a political innovator for a good reason.

Innovations sound sexy, but at best they mean bypassing the law in practice.

As an illustration, we can cite the “interviewer’s method” as a new form of subversion. journalists described the case of the city of Tiszavasváriért, where Fidesz sent “interviewers-agitators” who, under the guise of public opinion research, targeted people who declared their dislike of the government. When the respondents revealed their preferences, the interviewer turned into an agitator who threatened them.

We saw cases of conditioning voters with threats or incentives in Poland during the 2018 local elections. However, while the Polish government kept a distance, the Hungarian one went all the way. This is one of the many differences between the anti-liberalities of Orbán and Kaczyński – many of them were described in our comparative report last year.

Which for Fidesz means the loss of power in cities

Lőrinc Mészaros

For Fidesz, the loss of influence in the largest centres is not only votes but also financial proceedings from tenders, set up for businessmen who are friends with Orbán. It is no accident that the shares of the richest company – owned by Lőrinec Mészaros, the former mayor of the home town of the prime minister – have begun to fall sharply. Analyst Dominik Héjj quickly linked on Twitter these drops with the tenders that the oligarch has won so far.

Hungary and Poland – there are differences, there are similarities

Compared to Poland’s political culture, therefore, you can see significant differences, although there are also some worrying similarities. First of all, the governments do not hesitate to use all entities to obtain votes, thereby crossing the borders of morality. Secondly, power centre – formal or informal – is trying to seize more areas of autonomy to force a favourable outcome – Edit Zgut wrote recently about this.

After all, most depressingly, politicians involved in the most serious scandals are free to run for election and, worse, get elected. In Hungary, the biggest scandal was the mayor affair of Mayor Györ, who paid for escort services with whom he organised orgies on a yacht. Despite the wave of indignation, this did not prevent him from re-election. In Poland, we also had a few scandal-ridden politicians who do not give up despite losing face. On the contrary – they go along and win. This is a bad sign for democracy.

The key question for Hungary – whether local government elections herald a change in national policy – can be postponed for now. Orbán has already announced his will to cooperate with the opposition, which has never happened to him, but let’s wait for results.

For now, the opposition is ruling in all capitals of the Visegrad Group countries, but in many other EU countries this is simply the norm, one that consolidates the city-village polarisation without translating into national policy.


This article is part of the #DemocraCE project. It was originally published on Polityka.

Editor-in-chief of Visegrad Insight and president of board at the Res Publica Foundation. His expertise includes European politics and political culture. Previously, he has been the editor-in-chief of Eurozine - a Vienna based magazine with a European network of cultural journals, and a Polish quarterly Res Publica Nowa. Wojciech also co-authored a book 'Understanding Central Europe’, Routledge 2017. Twitter: @wprzybylski

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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