I must say that I was not very optimistic this morning about the chances of Zoltán Kész, the independent candidate in the first electoral district of Veszprém County. Early morning here in the eastern United States, when it was around noon in Hungary, it looked as if the turnout was very low by comparison to 2014. A low turnout usually benefits Fidesz because, at least until now, Fidesz could mobilize its voting base much more successfully than the left-of-center parties. I was disappointed and depressed, thinking: What has to happen to move Hungarians politically? Don’t they realize the significance of this by-election? I was especially disappointed because I knew from an earlier poll that the independent candidate, who was supported by MSZP, DK, Együtt, and PM, was running strong. At that time, about a week and a half ago, Kész was still behind, but only by 6%. He was leading in the city of Veszprém itself but lagged in the countryside. It seemed that Kész might just stand a chance of winning. But only if his supporters got off their duffs and went to the polls.
By the afternoon the statistics had improved somewhat, although the turnout was still much lower than at the April 2014 election. At the final count only 42% of the eligible voters cast their votes. Admittedly, the turnout in by-elections is normally lower than at regularly scheduled national elections. Moreover, today’s weather was not at all kind to politics in and around Veszprém: it was raining and cold.
Why is this by-election an important political event? Most people would say that the importance of Zoltán Kész’s win lies in Fidesz’s loss of its two-thirds super majority. Yes, that is important, very important. But even more significant to my mind is the loss of a seat that had been firmly in Fidesz hands for almost two decades. The man who held the seat until last November was a key Fidesz politician who served in all three Orbán governments. Tibor Navracsics was chief-of-staff to Viktor Orbán between 1998 and 2002. When Fidesz was in opposition, he headed the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, and in 2010 he became minister of justice and deputy prime minister. He was a Veszprém native and popular in his district. In 2014 he won hands down, with 47.25% of the votes against 27.64% for the candidate of the united opposition. Veszprém was one of the strongest bastions of Fideszdom.
After 2014 Navracsics was no longer a major force in national politics. For one reason or other Viktor Orbán had stopped relying on his advice. But the prime minister is usually generous with people whom he decides to drop, and therefore Navracsics was appointed to the European Commission. Hence the need for a by-election in this particular district.
Whatever his relations with the prime minister, Navracsics is a loyal party member. He campaigned on behalf of Lajos Némedi, the Fidesz candidate, whom he more or less hand picked for the job. The Fidesz leadership, however, expended little energy on the campaign, at least initially. Most likely they were convinced that the district was safe. Zoltán Kész’s campaign focused on the issue of Fidesz’s super-majority, arguing that the two-thirds majority can be broken by the “brave” people of Veszprém and environs. Fidesz politicians belittled the importance of the issue. They claimed that the two-thirds majority is no longer of vital importance for the Orbán government. The government has done everything it wanted to. The “great work” has been accomplished. Now comes only fine tuning, which the government can do without a super-majority.
About half way through the campaign Fidesz must have realized that something was amiss in Veszprém. Most likely they hired pollsters who reported to party headquarters that Fidesz was no longer popular in the city. That’s when Fidesz activists moved into high gear and when the party spent a considerable amount of money in an attempt to change the prevailing anti-Fidesz sentiment. The government promised a new Olympic size swimming pool. Mihály Varga, minister of economy, told the voters in a robo-call that if they don’t vote for the Fidesz candidate they will not receive any favors from Budapest. Neither the promise nor the threat worked.
So, let’s see the figures. Four “independent candidates” were registered and ran, some of whom were men Fidesz enlisted to confuse the voters. The ruse failed. One such “independent” got 70 votes; another received 111; and a third man, 221. By comparison, Zoltán Kész, the winner, got 13,871 votes and his Fidesz opponent, Lajos Némedi, 10,939. The communist party also ran: 124 people voted for them.
According to the final count, Zoltán Kész (MSZP-DK-Együtt-PM) received 42.66% of the votes, Lajos Némedi (Fidesz-KDNP) 33.64%, Jobbik 14.14%, and LMP 4.57%. Both Jobbik and LMP dropped in popularity from the 2014 election. In 2014 Jobbik received 16.48% and LMP, running the same Ferenc Gertsmár, 6.27%.
This is a terrible blow to Fidesz and Viktor Orbán. If an opposition candidate can beat the Fidesz deputy mayor of the city of Veszprém, Fidesz is in trouble. The psychological blow must be especially hard since nobody predicted such a large win. In fact, I think some opposition politicians would have been happy with even a close loss. This win should lift the flagging spirits of the opposition. It also gives them a huge boost in the next round of by-elections in the #3 electoral district, also in Veszprém County, where the incumbent Fidesz member of parliament died recently.
Just yesterday Ferenc Gyurcsány made a speech at the Second Congress of the Demokratikus Koalíció where he again repeated that his party is preparing for an early, 2016 election. However much I would have liked to believe that this was a real possibility, I thought that under the circumstances it was no more than a pipe dream. Well, today I’m not so sure.