Most Hungarian commentators that I follow look upon yesterday’s Jobbik victory in the Tapolca-Ajka-Sümeg district of the county of Veszprém as proof that the political system Viktor Orbán so carefully constructed is now in shambles. In Orbán’s political constellation, there are insignificant parties on both the right and the left while Fidesz rules the center with such a large majority that it is assured an absolutely free hand in legislation. Due to the weakness of the parties on either side of it, this system also guarantees years and years of Fidesz governance. But something went terribly wrong. The “central power,” the present governing party, has been steadily losing voters while one of the “fringe” parties, Jobbik, is gaining ground.
I am less sanguine about the significance of Jobbik’s victory yesterday than most of the commentators. First of all, Jobbik won by only 261 votes over Fidesz. What is perhaps even more important, Lajos Rig won this race only because the voters of the town of Tapolca, who last year solidly voted for the Fidesz candidate, Jenő Lasztovicza, this time decided to support Rig, who is one of them. According to an Index report, the fact that Rig was from Tapolca made a great difference. His Fidesz opponent, from Ajka, is now a high school principal in Várpalota, a town outside of the electoral district. Therefore, the people of Tapolca looked upon him as a stranger. And without Tapolca, Zoltán Fenyvesi, the Fidesz candidate, would have won decisively.
Just to give you an idea of how important the town of Tapolca was, here’s a graph that compares the three parties’ results in 2014 and 2015.
A year ago Fidesz won in all fifteen polling stations in Tapolca; these year all went for Lajos Rig. The official election results available on the internet reveal that in Tapolca alone Jobbik received 3,689 votes. Pestisracok.hu, which is a Fidesz-financed site, claims that everywhere outside of Tapolca Fidesz held its own and that since Fidesz lost by only 261 votes Fidesz’s trouble is not as great as it appears on the surface. Others, for example Róbert László, an analyst with Political Capital, are convinced that Jobbik won the election in the villages. László argues that it had been known that Sümeg would vote Fidesz, Ajka socialist, and that Tapolca was Jobbik through and through. Therefore, it was in the villages that Jobbik’s strong showing made a difference. Of the 58 villages Rig won in 30, including some larger villages, while Fidesz won in only 24 smaller settlements.
There is no question that Tapolca’s support for Jobbik made a huge difference and assured its victory. But what pestisracok.hu neglects to factor in is the rate of mobilization which, according to the calculations of the think tank Political Capital, in the case of Fidesz was only 52.3% of its voter turnout in 2014. Although MSZP-DK’s results were abysmal, their rate of mobilization was still higher (70.5%) than Fidesz’s. Jobbik, by contrast, outdid itself: its mobilization rate was 105% of its 2014 number.
Talking about mobilization, here are a few tidbits about the campaign. Yesterday I reported that Jobbik had put an incredible amount of energy into the campaign because they knew they had a chance of winning. It turned out that besides the constant presence of Gábor Vona, the chairman of the party, in the last week or so several Jobbik members of parliament were also on the spot. And unlike the Fidesz bigwigs, who appeared for an hour or so, they stayed for days. In addition, the party had 70 young activists who volunteered their services. The party paid only for their room and board. Fidesz had hundreds of paid campaigners, whose heart was not always in the job. One reporter encountered a scene where a man’s car was full of Fidesz posters but the man assured Vona that he will vote for Jobbik. He just needs the money.
Jobbik’s campaigning strategy was apparently quite sophisticated. Its messages were tailored to local conditions. After checking the needs or gripes of each village, the activists specifically addressed those issues. They made sure that the encounters between the visitors and the locals in the smaller villages were intimate and therefore, for example, although Vona visited 44 of the 58 villages the party kept his itinerary a secret. It didn’t want reporters disturbing the ambiance of the meetings between the party chairman and the locals.
Last Friday, before the Tapolca election, Viktor Orbán in his usual interview on Kossuth Rádió alluded to the fact that Fidesz has “its own polls.” Therefore he must have known that Jobbik and Fidesz were neck to neck. That’s why he decided to visit the district’s three larger towns as the campaign was winding down. Did his visit help the Fidesz cause? We will never know, but his appearance in Tapolca was a disaster thanks to a demonstration organized, it seems, by Solidarity. Orbán is not accustomed to demonstrators who nearly prevented him from delivering his speech. But this is exactly what happened, which didn’t do much for the aura he has cultivated over the years. So, as far as his personal prestige is concerned, his appearance there was certainly counterproductive.
What will Fidesz’s answer be to the challenge Jobbik is posing to Fidesz and Viktor Orbán’s government? I’m cautious when it comes to predictions, but judging from Orbán’s reluctance to change course and thereby admit a mistake, I don’t expect any great change in strategy. As he said in his Friday interview, “nix ugribugri.”
Well, this expression needs an explanation. Like most of his “sayings” over the years, it is not an Orbán original. György Moldova, a popular Hungarian writer, the author of about 70 books since 1955, published a report way back in 1986 on long-distance truckers. In the 70s and early 80s these were the lucky ones who had a chance to see the world outside of Hungary. Moldova tells the story of a truck driver who is greatly bothered by an infestation of lice. Somewhere in Germany he stops and goes to a pharmacy to get some medication, but he wants to make sure that it is for lice, not for fleas. But he doesn’t know any German. So he comes up with “nix ugribugri,” meaning “not hopping here and there.” Orbán is no flea; he is planning to hold a steady course. He wants to finish what he started and wants to accomplish everything he promised the Hungarian people. But what if the Hungarian people have had enough of his experimentation?