I decided that we must take a trip to János Lázár’s Hódmezővásárhely, where an election campaign is being waged with incredible intensity. The Fidesz leadership of the city acts as if the party’s future was hanging in the balance. As if the defeat of Zoltán Hegedűs, the Fidesz contender for the post of mayor, against the independent Péter Márki-Zay would mean the end of the Fidesz era, not just in Hódmezővásárhely but in the country at large.
Some people call this local election a “dress rehearsal” for what’s coming on April 8, the day of the national election — if, that is, by some miracle the opposition parties could coordinate their strategies and have a single candidate running against the Fidesz hopeful in all 106 electoral districts. This is more or less what happened in Hódmezővásárhely. Both Jobbik and the left-of-center parties refrained from putting up their own candidates. Whether this was just a coincidence or there was some kind of tacit understanding among the parties to test the waters with a conservative candidate whom even the left-of-center parties could support, I don’t know. In any case, Márki-Zay has already been accused both of being a candidate of Jobbik and of being an agent of Ferenc Gyurcsány. The latter is a cardinal sin in Hódmezővásárhely. As János Lázár put it, “Fidesz in Vásárhely can work with anyone, we are open to all new suggestions, and we are ready to cooperate with everybody. There is one exception. We cannot work with somebody who sold his soul to Ferenc Gyurcsány.” (Márki-Zay is supported by both DK and MSZP.)
The palpable fear on the part of Fidesz, which one can sense in the descriptions of the mood of the city, would seem to be utterly unwarranted. Based on the results of the last municipal election, Fidesz shouldn’t have anything to worry about. In 2014 the Fidesz mayor received over 61% of the votes against Jobbik’s 17%, MSZP-DK-Együtt’s 15%, and a radical left party’s 7%. And yet, from the intensity of the campaign it looks as if both the local and the national Fidesz leadership are genuinely worried about the outcome. The campaign has been relentlessly waged for almost two months, and it is getting uglier by the minute.
Here are a few of Fidesz’s campaign tricks. Lajos Kósa, who was recently demoted to be in charge of the Modern Cities Program, announced that Hódmezővásárhely will receive 12 billion forints, the equivalent of half of the city’s annual budget, before the national election. A day later Defense Minister István Simicskó arrived in town to take a look at the army barracks that are being renovated to the tune of 5.2 billion forints. The next day the prime minister invited the Fidesz mayoral candidate for a cup of coffee, where the candidate asked Orbán for extra money for the renovation of the city’s churches. A few days later city hall announced that the Elizabeth cards worth 10,000 forints (about $40), which the town was supposed give to pensioners before Easter, will be distributed before the local election this Sunday.
As for the interest of the voters in the local election, Index found one town hall meeting that was practically deserted, although János Lázár was there to campaign on behalf of the Fidesz candidate. But a local paper called Promenád reported a huge gathering in the “garden city” section of town.
A speech given by the chairwoman of the local KDNP is indicative of the state of democracy in Hungary. She reassured her audience that “having multiple candidates is not a bad thing” because, after all, there is democracy in Hungary. The trouble is that behind Márki-Zay “an opportunistic coalition” stands. For her, there is something very wrong with democracy as it is being practiced in Hódmezővásárhely. And the local Fidesz chairwoman expressed her disgust that the independent candidate had besmirched the good name of the city by talking about a local dictatorship and comparing Hódmezővásárhely’s political system today to that of the Rákosi regime.
To help ensure a Fidesz victory, László Kiss-Rigó, the bishop of Szeged-Csanád, announced that a new Catholic church will be erected in the town thanks to the largess of the Orbán government. The city also quickly signed a contract with a company that will build a bypass, which will lessen traffic in the city. The Fidesz line is that thanks to the Orbán government the future of the town is assured. “At stake in the election is whether Hódmezővásárhely will be a winner or a loser.” That is a line from an interview the Fidesz mayoral candidate gave to Magyar Idők. Of course, the threat is real. Voters have to ask themselves whether it is worth replacing Fidesz’s autocratic rule in the city with uncertainty at best or outright discrimination against the city at worst.
Now that we are getting closer to the day of the election, János Lázár has become involved practically full time in the campaign in Hódmezővásárhely. He is having a relatively easy time of it because of the political inexperience of Márki-Zay, who in one of his speeches bemoaned the fact that Hungarians are easily intimidated. Other nations are not so patient; they stand together; they fight for their rights. He is not going to say what would happen in Ireland, in Scotland, or in France to this government because then he would be labelled an aggressive agitator. “Thus I don’t want to say what lampposts can be used for, in addition to putting posters on them. … This government is very lucky that the Hungarian people are so sheep-like. This terribly lovable and tolerant Hungarian people even accept this [government].” Of course, Márki-Zay was intimating here that Fidesz politicians in other countries would be hanged from lampposts but was adding that it is not something he recommends. This isn’t the first time that unfortunate statements like this one are used against the candidate. Something like that happened to László Kövér in 2002 when he lashed out at those who don’t have enough self-confidence. If Hungarians believe that they are an untalented people who are incapable of achieving great things, they should go down to the cellar and commit suicide because life isn’t worth living with this kind of attitude. This so-called “rope speech” (köteles beszéd) contributed to Fidesz’s unexpected electoral loss.
In the last few days Lázár threw himself into the campaign with his usual gusto. He first gave an interview to the local Vásárhely 24 in which he accused Márki-Zay not only of conducting a hate campaign but also of undermining the reputation of Hódmezővásárhely. He accused him of acting for selfish reasons. When he settled in town, Márki-Zay offered his services to city hall but was ignored. “Personal failure cannot be remedied by politics,” said Lázár. If Márki-Zay is elected, the city will not be governable because Fidesz is in the majority on the city council. “I doubt that stigmatization and whipping up hatred are the right means to effect change. I want to live in a country where such methods cannot be successful. We count on the sober majority.” On the same day Lázár also showed up at the local television station where he used stronger language. “The people of Vásárhely shouldn’t elect a madman! I suggest voting for a man who is of sound mind.”
There are so many questions for which at the moment we have no answers. Did Márki-Zay with his limited opportunities to spread his message convince dissatisfied voters to go to the polls? Are the people of Vásárhely angry enough at what goes on in Lázár’s city? Will total unity among the opposition, left and right, be enough to remove the top Fidesz officeholder in the city? One thing is sure. The Fidesz leadership seems to be anxious. Even a close election could be a warning sign to Viktor Orbán who, by the way, is furiously campaigning himself.