Mayoral elections at Pécs: Defeat for the Hungarian socialists

To start at the end. Katalin Szili echoed István Gaskó the trade union leader after his strike turned out to be a bust: "it was a success but without results." She of course didn't use his ridiculous words, but the sentiment was that she lost but she didn't lose as badly as she could have. Most people more objective than the candidate herself would consider her loss pretty darned bad: her opponent Zsolt Páva, a lawyer who was mayor of Pécs between 1994 and 1998, won 65.8% of the votes and that, it doesn't matter how we slice it, is almost a two-thirds majority. The kind of majority Viktor Orbán would like to achieve at the next national elections.

First, some historical perspective. 44.14% of the electorate voted this year. Altogether 55,551 people. This turnout was on par with previous Pécs local elections. In 2002 when László Toller (MSZP) received almost 63% of the votes 43.85% of the electorate showed up. In 2004 a participation rate of 47.1%  was the highest of the previous seven years, but the results should have been a warning sign for the socialists that all was not well in the city of Pécs. The results were so close that a recount was necessary. In the end Péter Tasnádi (MSZP), the recently deceased mayor, received only 288 votes more than Zsolt Páva (Fidesz), this year's winner. In Hungary it is something of a taboo to speak ill of the dead, and therefore commentators analyze Tasnádi's record gingerly. I will be less polite: I think that Tasnádi was a very weak mayor. I'm sure that he tried hard and until his dying day he worked furiously, but to no avail. Things were going badly in the city. Pécs became indebted and the city fathers couldn't take advantage of the large sums of money that arrived for the European Cultural Capital project. Locals are convinced that most of the money ended up in the pockets of people responsible for the projects, of which very few materialized. It seems that the new superhighway between Budapest and Pécs will be built, but that's the central government's doing. People of the city are dissatisfied with the state of affairs. One has the sneaking suspicion that even without the disastrous standing of MSZP nationally Pécs was lost to the socialists.

Tamás Mészáros, an astute commentator, yesterday criticized MSZP and the socialist government for ignoring Pécs. There were so many reports about the problems "down there" that someone should have investigated and tried to make some kind of order in the city. One newly appointed project manager after the other quit. The infighting was unimaginable and it seemed that Tasnádi couldn't do anything except make excuses. Another negative for Katalin Szili, otherwise a popular member of parliament from the city of Pécs, was the fact that it was she who was responsible for promoting Tasnádi as a candidate after Toller's accident. Tasnádi was a relative unknown, and it was a miracle that he actually managed to win, even if only by a couple of hundred votes. Once in office he didn't live up to Szili's image of him.

I also thought that Szili started her campaign very late. It was only in the last week that she suddenly got wings. Out of the blue the socialist brass appeared in Pécs–from the prime minister to Ildikó Lendvai, the new party chief. The day before the election 1,600 women from all over the country descended on the city. I thought that this canvassing effort was a good idea. After all in the U.S. volunteers go from door to door urging people to vote, and Fidesz had successfully adopted that method. Well, I said to myself, at last. MSZP is learning. It turned out that it wasn't a good idea at all. Citizens of Pécs were outraged. Why? Hard to tell. Perhaps because these volunteers were "strangers," perhaps because they were so late. Fidesz volunteers were locals who had been recruiting potential voters for months. Some analysts think that this last-minute push actually cost MSZP a few thousand votes. Hard to tell. It's no more than a guess.

We do know that in February, when the campaign started, according to polls Szili was leading by 8%. Most likely this figure was realistic because both Fidesz and MSZP inside polls agreed on the figure. Fidesz apparently got scared and hired a second person to co-manage the campaign. Apparently at party headquarters Páva was considered to be soft, a candidate who had to be propped up.  MSZP also eventually sent a powerful campaign manager, Ferenc Bajai, with considerable experience. But by the end of March Szili had managed to lose her lead, in part due to the slow MSZP start. Of course the fact that Ferenc Gyurcsány resigned and the future of the government was in doubt didn't help Szili's case either. And in the last week of the campaign came the government decision to take away the extra thirteenth-month pension. Apparently a local socialist told one of the Hungarian newspapers that "they could have waited at least a week with this decision." Indeed.

What will happen in Pécs? Páva is promising to look into the alleged corruption cases but I doubt that he will suddenly find the billions lost. The government cannot "punish" Pécs even if they wanted to: next year Pécs will be one of two "European cultural capitals." It would be a terrible blow to the country's reputation if Pécs were as unprepared next year as it is now. The relationship between the two parties in the city is not as vicious as in some other towns. So Páva's situation is not as bad as it could be with a city council in which the socialists and the liberals hold a majority. Even his deputies come from the other side. A day after his election he got another bad piece of news: the Constitutional Court found Pécs's by-law forbidding the building of the radar tower he and the city of Pécs oppose unconstitutional. As he said: "that's a blow." I have the feeling that it will not be the last. The city's predicament is pretty dire.

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Mark
Guest
It is very difficult for me to judge the role of local factors, and the personalities (Szili’s popularity) in influencing the vote. But it is difficult to ignore the fact that Szili’s score in Pécs is almost exactly what applying the national opinion polls to previous election results (both at parliamentary and local level) would lead one to expect. I remember in late 2004 when a parliamentary by-election was held in Sopron (a city whose local political dynamics I do know pretty well), and that suggested to me that the situation was not as bad for the MSZP as opinion polls then suggested. This in contrast suggests that the polls are absolutely right – the MSZP can expect around 20% in the European election on 7th June. On the question of the local activists – what you say of the US is true of the UK too and having ran local campaigns myself my experience is that a strong grass-roots campaign normally appreciably improves a cnadidate’s result, especially in a local election where turnout is low. There are two potential reasons why this backfired here. Firstly, I noticed in 2006 that people in Budapest really disliked FIDESZ activists knocking on… Read more »
whoever
Guest

The MSZP have very advanced demographic data on most areas of the country, and I would have thought the only areas that they would “flood” would be their natural core areas. After all, most doorstepping is not aimed at winning new voters – it’s about getting existing voters out.
Fidesz’s strategy in 2006, as you describe it, was strange, and rather unsophisticated, given Budapest as a place which is not naturally sympathetic to the right-wing. It sounds like they wanted keep people busy, rather than developing a targetted approach based on clearly defined data sets.
The only explanation for this “backfire” would be severe disillusionment amongst traditional MSZP voters, vented on those strangers representing the MSZP on the doorstep. This is understandable and I absolutely sympathise.

SG
Guest
I think the decision to announce the pension cuts (or even get them through parliament?) just before the Pécs election was taken consciously. Either some people within MSZP wanted to harm Szili who, as far as I have heard, is not always willing to keep within party discipline, or the decision to move ahead with the pension reforms and to lose Pécs was taken consciouly. The whole Bajnai program will not exactly make MSZP win next year’s election. Bajnai is taking the right steps, but he is doing so knowing that the voters next year won’t be thankful at all. In the long run – in 2014, maybe – voters might be able to acknowledge that the Bajnai reform agenda was the bitter medicine the country needed. Now, people are just angry at MSZP. (Actually, I know some Hungarians who never showed any temper for years and who get furious if you mention MSZP or Gyurcsány to them…) MSZP has, as far as I think, accepted that they won’t be a part of the next government, and they are using the little time that remains to them before the elections to take some urgently needed reforms. On the other hand,… Read more »
Mark
Guest
Éva: “You’re mistaken. She received 30 some percent of the votes while MSZP’s standing is around 18-20%.” No I’m not. You’ve made an elementary mistake here in that you are comparing results in Pécs alone with opinion poll figures for the country as a whole. This would be fine if Pécs was representative politically of the country as a whole, but it hasn’t been – indeed it consistently hasn’t been during the whole of this decade; the MSZP is substantially stronger in the city than across Hungary. In fact across the three Pécs constituencies the three MSZP candidates won 53.25% in the first round in 2006 against a score of 40.26% for all MSZP candidates in individual constituencies nationally (I could have done the comparison with list votes where the MSZP polled just over 43%nationally but to get the Pécs results I’d have had to add up the votes cast in each of the 155 individual polling stations to get the city results – but it wouldn’t have shown anything too different). This pattern can be seen in every election post-2000. In other words the score the MSZP should get in Pécs ought to be around 13% in advance of… Read more »
whoever
Guest

From this, you could even argue that the national polling figures for the MSZP may even currently be inflated. If a large part of that 13% was actually a personal vote for Szili – which shouldn’t be discounted – it may be that the real situation for the MSZP is even worse than people are saying.

Mark
Guest
You could – you can make assumptions about Szili’s personal vote (though I’d say on of the advantages of creating a base for comparison from individual constituency results rather than the list votes is one of the three candidates in 2006 was Szili herself, and one of the other candidates – Toller undoubtedly had a smilar personal vote). You can also make assumptions about the likely numbers of SZDSZ and MDF voters who would have voted for Szili and get a very low MSZP figure. On the other hand it can be argued that Szili’s vote was depressed by the poor performance of the local government in the past three years. But we have no real evidence to evaluate the role these factors played. I think it is striking that Szili’s vote was so similar to what you would expect in the city given the MSZP’s current national opinion polling figures. This suggests that the voters treated it as simply a referendum on the MSZP. If this is the case, then in an election where both parties attempted to underplay the party affiliations of their candidates, voters still voted on party lines, and produced a result, which if repeated across… Read more »
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