Although I watched two political commentators’ analyses of the results of the Tapolca-Ajka-Sümeg election, my reactions here are only first impressions. Perhaps my greatest surprise was the relatively strong showing of Zoltán Fenyvesi, the Fidesz candidate, who, as things now stand, lost the election by only 261 votes out of approximately 30,000 votes cast. It was also something of a surprise how poorly the socialist Ferenc Pad did, although after seeing the candidates debate last Friday I strongly suspected that it would not be the MSZP-DK candidate who would win this election.
According to the official statistics, Lajos Rig (Jobbik) received 35.27%, Zoltán Fenyvesi (Fidesz) 34.38%, Ferenc Pad (MSZP-DK) 26.27%, and Barbara Sallee (LMP) 2.05% of the votes. As the votes were coming in, it was apparent that voter turnout in Tapolca, a Jobbik stronghold, was higher than in Ajka, where MSZP is the dominant party.
Jobbik took this election very seriously. For example, Gábor Vona, the party chairman, moved to Tapolca for a good two weeks and campaigned all day long. Although about 600 MSZP activists descended on the electoral district, they campaigned only in the last two days. That is not an effective way to campaign. By point of comparison, on May 6–I know it’s an odd date–the town in which I live will have local elections, and the campaign is already on. In fact, half an hour ago two Republican activists appeared at the door with a complimentary copy of the local service directory and a flyer touting the party’s accomplishments in 2014 and its plans for 2015. I assume the Democrats will follow soon enough, although they usually arrive empty-handed.
People familiar with modern campaign techniques increasingly comment on the inability of the left-of-center parties to wage an effective campaign. Fidesz was a pioneer in the field by borrowing the American practice of door-to-door campaigning. What they also borrowed was something that according to Hungarian law is illegal: keeping lists of potential supporters. MSZP, by not following in Fidesz’s footsteps, lost the “campaign game” some time ago.
Of course, lists are not enough if prospective supporters don’t actually go to the polls, and in the last year or so Fidesz hasn’t managed to get out the vote. Admittedly, turnout in by-elections is usually low. This time only 41.6% of the eligible voters cast their votes, as opposed to 59.9% a year ago. A large number of Fidesz and MSZP voters stayed away, while Jobbik, which got 10,110 votes or 23.49% in 2014, got 10, 354 votes or 35.27% this time around. I guess we will have to wait a bit for a deeper analysis of the figures to find out where the Jobbik votes came from. The detailed data from all the towns and villages should give us some answers.
As I said, I watched the three candidates debate on Friday’s Egyenes beszéd (Straight Talk) on ATV. You may recall that in an earlier post I reported that the Fidesz candidate had initially been ready to participate in a debate scheduled for Thursday but in the last minute he retreated and the event was cancelled. The Fidesz leadership then changed its mind and agreed to a debate, which was broadcast on Friday. I guess they decided that avoiding a face-to-face meeting with their adversaries would give the impression that the party was afraid of its opponents.
Watching the three candidates was an interesting experience. First of all, Lajos Rig, the Jobbik candidate whom I had seen only once before, on a video where reporters confronted him about his tattoo, made a better impression than I expected. On the earlier video he handled the situation very badly and came across as not too bright and painfully inarticulate. This time, by contrast, he was well-spoken. He was also quite aggressive. For example, he was the first candidate to respond to the reporter’s initial question. No hesitation, his message was clear and intelligent.
Zoltán Fenyvesi was too much of a government candidate. His answers sounded as if they had been written by the official spokesman of the party. Given Viktor Orbán’s problems, Fenyvesi might have positioned himself as just a bit more independent. He did, however, deliver the only “where’s the beef” message to the electorate: “If you vote for me, the district will get favorable treatment from the government.” It’s possible that this message resonated with some of the voters. I should, in passing, point out another negative in his debate performance, which probably made no difference in the outcome of the election. He claimed that he met all the mayors of the 60 towns and villages in the district. This claim turned out to be untrue.
Ferenc Pad is soft-spoken and mild-mannered. In the free-wheeling conversation he was usually the last to speak on any given subject. He may have been a successful trade union leader, but I doubt that he was the best choice for a political candidate. Moreover, even though we heard how hard he and his team worked and that he visited every village in the district, it’s difficult to assess how effective all this effort was. I got the impression that on a typical day in the campaign the candidate would arrive alone in a village and settle down in the pub where he would talk to the customers. And that he would strike up conversations with passers-by. That’s not a winning strategy in the twenty-first century.
After today’s election Fidesz will have to pay more attention to the party to its right. Until very recently the Fidesz leadership didn’t seem to be worried about Jobbik. In fact, they often adopted Jobbik’s ideas and presented them as their own, hoping to attract Jobbik voters to their party. It was only about a week ago that Zoltán Balog and János Lázár began referring to Jobbik as a “Nazi party.” It will be interesting to see what Fidesz comes up in this new situation.
As for MSZP, finishing third in this election most likely won’t help the party find a way out of its present morass. MSZP’s popularity hasn’t moved up one whit since the last election. DK is slowly edging up in the polls, and I suspect that at the moment the DK leadership is not at all happy that they decided to support MSZP’s choice. Whether this defeat will have an effect on future cooperation between these two parties remains to be seen.