Tag Archives: by-election

Dress rehearsal for the national election? By-election in Solymár

Yesterday, on December 10, a local by-election for a seat on the town council was held in the sixth district of Solymár, a suburb of Budapest, which is described in its English-language Wikipedia entry as “a desirable destination for affluent city-dwellers moving to suburban homes outside of Budapest.” The extremely detailed Hungarian Wikipedia article portrays the small town of 10,000 as a bustling, culturally active community where there is a strong attachment to the German traditions that became nearly extinct with the deportation of a great number of indigenous German inhabitants of Solymár. The list of prominent writers, artists, and politicians who are associated with the town is impressive. Some well-known people from the right also seem to favor the place. The anti-Semitic leader of MIÉP, István Csurka, used to live there and Zsolt Bayer is still a resident. So is Pál Schmidt, the former president, who had to resign in disgrace.

Solymár is known as a Fidesz town through and through, a designation that is well-deserved, at least since 2006. Solymár has had a Fidesz mayor ever since that time, and all eight electoral districts of the town elected Fidesz-KDNP candidates. MSZP-DK, Jobbik, and Együtt-PM each received one place from the compensation list. The contested District #6 was handily won in 2014 by Gergely Gaal with 61.96% (215 votes) over MSZP-DK’s candidate with 27.67% (96) and Jobbik’s with 10.37% (36). A by-election had to be held because Fidesz-KDNP chose Gaal to replace György Rubovszky, a long-standing member of parliament (KDNP) who died in June. Gaal joined the Christian Democratic caucus, which represents a political formation that actually doesn’t exist.

All of the left-of-center opposition parties, including LMP and Momentum, two parties that are dead against any kind of cooperation with those they find politically unacceptable, decided to throw their weight behind an independent candidate, Zsuzsanna Kárpáti, a photographer who is well known and well liked in town. Jobbik decided not to enter the race, which was interpreted as a tacit endorsement of Kárpáti. Some of the independent media outlets heralded the event as “the dress rehearsal” for the national election next year. 24.hu considered the by-election in Solymár “a great deal more important than an ordinary by-election.” Having “only one competitor against the Fidesz candidate” is the sole formula by which Fidesz can be beaten. Magyar Nemzet also looked upon the Solymár by-election as a “litmus test” for next year’s election.

Zsuzsanna Kárpáti and supporters / Source: HVG

The election duly took place yesterday, and Attila Dalos, the Fidesz-KDNP candidate, won, receiving 225 votes (56.8%) against Zsuzsanna Kárpáti’s 169 votes (42.7%). The government propaganda machine was ecstatic. Magyar Idők interpreted Kárpáti’s loss as “a slap in the face to opposition cooperation.” The victory, in the opinion of the right, was “a win hands down.”

Gergely Gaal, whom Attila Dalos will replace as a member of the town council, interpreted the figures as proof that “the government parties have actually become stronger in Solymár” in the last three years. I predict a great career for Gaal in national Fidesz politics because his claim that Fidesz-KDNP has become stronger since 2014 when “Fidesz-KDNP received 55.6% and now 56.8%” is simple hoodwinking. Solymár is part of the Electoral District #2 of Pest County where Fidesz received 46.54% of the votes at the national election of 2014. Solymár with its 55.6% of Fidesz votes in the 2014 national election shows that Solymár is a Fidesz stronghold in District #2. Gaal is comparing apples and oranges when he compares municipal election figures to the numbers in the national election in order to portray the by-election as a great victory. The fact is that although the Fidesz-KDNP candidate won, the earlier overwhelming support for Fidesz (61.96%) in the local election slipped by more than five percentage points this time around. And the single challenger did considerably better (42.7%) than the MSZP-DK candidate (27.67%) in 2014.

As is usually the case, the other side finds the results encouraging. Gábor Vágó, a former LMP member and nowadays a civil activist and journalist, thinks that “Solymár shows that the national election is not a done deal.” Vágó, in comparing the figures, said that in 2014 there was a 121 vote difference between the Fidesz winner and the MSZP-DK challenger which by now “has melted to 56.” Thus, says Vágó, cooperation among the parties has a mobilizing effect on the electorate. I think that Vágó’s explanation is too simplistic. One must keep in mind that Jobbik didn’t enter the race, and it’s not evident if its supporters turned out to vote anyway and, if so, for whom they voted. Considering that there is no love lost between Jobbik and Fidesz, they may have cast their votes for Kárpáti. In 2014 the Jobbik candidate received 36 votes. In addition, 26 more people voted this time than three years ago. All in all, it’s not obvious that the narrowing of the gap between 2014 and 2017 was due solely to party cooperation.

The socialists are also optimistic. The party believes that “if in District #6 of Solymár one can have such close results it means that Fidesz can lose in the majority of the 106 electoral districts.” After all, the argument goes, this is a super-strong Fidesz district, and therefore it is not a good indicator of future results.

The oddest assessment of the Solymár results came from Zoltán Tóth, who is considered to be a real wizard in the analysis of election laws. Unfortunately, he has a great deal less skill as a political analyst. For some strange reason he thinks that Jobbik stayed away from the fray because it wanted to help Fidesz win. Neither the figures nor current Fidesz-Jobbik relations support this assessment. It is enough to take a look at Jobbik’s internet news site, alfahir.hu, which notes with satisfaction that “Fidesz’s advantage has been greatly reduced.” After comparing the current and the 2014 results, the article concludes that “it is clear that a unified, independent candidate is capable of putting pressure on the Fidesz candidate even in Fidesz strongholds.” Surely, Jobbik was not on the side of Fidesz in Solymár. On the contrary.

Viktor Szigetvári of Együtt, who used to be an electoral number cruncher before he decided to become a politician, points out that only a 60% participation rate can remove the Orbán government, even if only one challenger faces the Fidesz candidate. Whether the opposition parties, whose main preoccupation seems to be fighting among themselves, will be able to mobilize those voters who are unhappy with the present government only time will tell.

December 11, 2017

By-election in Dunaújváros and its lessons

In the middle of February a local internet site reported that the Tolna County police were investigating an old murder case. Two years earlier, a well-known businessman had been reported missing. His body was eventually discovered, cemented over, in the backyard of a house in Dunaújváros. One of the men accused of the murder was Roland Gál, a Fidesz member of the Dunaújváros City Council. Soon enough, he was stripped of his party membership and removed from his position as a member of the city council. Hence, the necessity of a by-election, held yesterday.

The result in a nutshell. Fidesz’s candidate won, but only because MSZP, DK, and PM, the three democratic opposition parties, ran separately. If they had agreed on a common candidate (assuming he got the same number of votes as the total of the three opposition candidates), Fidesz would have narrowly lost the election. Everybody anticipated a Fidesz victory considering the fractured left. That was no surprise. The Fidesz candidate received 405 votes (39%), DK 241 (23%), Jobbik 199 (19%), MSZP 97 (9%), and PM 84 (8%). The very poor MSZP showing most likely sealed the fate of József Tóbiás; he is unlikely to be reelected chairman of MSZP. Tóbiás sacked the local party chairman, who was against a joint ticket, even though he himself apparently encouraged the locals to run on their own.

The DK leadership is convinced that their failure to reach an agreement with MSZP is the sole fault of MSZP. Their argument rests on a 2014 agreement between the two parties that stipulated that, in the event of a new election, the right of nomination would belong to the party whose candidate originally ran. Since at the 2014 municipal election the united opposition’s candidate was a DK politician, DK expected their man to run again. However, the local MSZP leaders refused to recognize the existence of such an agreement, arguing that it applied only to national, not to local elections. The top leadership decided to support the locals, who claimed that their candidate was more likely to succeed than DK’s man. As it turned out, it was a very bad decision.

One could ask why DK’s leaders insisted on such a confrontational strategy. For the sake of peace, why didn’t they simply go ahead and support the MSZP candidate? Apparently, Ferenc Gyurcsány himself was inclined to let MSZP have its way, but other top leaders of DK argued that such a conciliatory attitude would be a sign of weakness. DK was not aggressive enough when it came to bargaining for better positions on the party list in 2014, the result of which was a lopsided parliamentary representation in favor of MSZP. DK ended up with four members who have sit with the independents because the party didn’t meet the threshold for having a recognized parliamentary delegation, while MSZP has a 28-member caucus. And the ratio of their vote totals was at the time three to two.

The DK activists at work / Source: 24.hu / Photo by Márton Neményi

DK activists at work / Source: 24.hu / Photo by Márton Neményi

Once the decision was made that the democratic parties would go their own ways, the die was cast. Fidesz would undoubtedly win the election. The relatively low turnout (32%) was most likely due to the pessimism that greeted the decision against cooperation. Reporters who visited the city prior to the election came back with the distinct feeling that “the majority is sick of Fidesz but this way they will surely win.” So, it would be a waste of time even to bother to vote.

Even with the fractured democratic opposition, Viktor Orbán was worried enough about the outcome to schedule a campaign trip to Dunaújváros only a few days before the election. On May 31 he and the Fidesz mayor of the city signed an “agreement of cooperation,” which consisted of 20 billion forints the central government, or more precisely the European Union, would invest in Dunaújváros projects. It would take too long to list all the goodies Orbán promised the city for those measly 400 some votes. Clearly, this election was important to Fidesz and personally to Viktor Orbán because the lost by-elections of the last two years have become not just embarrassing but also worrisome. Reports written on the spot before the election yesterday noted that the Orbán trip made a real impression on the local Fidesz community. Although they know that support for the party is on the decline in town, “now that Viktor Orbán came to see us things have changed,” one Fidesz supporter remarked.

Apparently, Fidesz activists also put an incredible amount of effort into getting out the vote. While DK and MSZP activists campaigned on the streets, Fidesz representatives quietly visited reliable Fidesz voters, urging them to vote.

DK’s strong showing surprised everybody, as did the very poor performance of the socialists. Their degrading loss was interpreted as a wake-up call for the overly self-confident socialist leadership. This seemingly unimportant by-election, where only about one thousand votes were cast, may be a milestone as far as the future of MSZP is concerned. Within a few weeks MSZP will hold its congress and elect a new chairman. Vying for the post are three serious candidates: the current party chairman, József Tóbiás, whose chances even without the failure in Dunaújváros were slim; Tibor Szanyi, who wants to move the party farther to the left and believes that in a head-to-head confrontation MSZP can win against Fidesz; and Gyula Molnár, to whose candidacy I devoted a whole post. A few weeks ago the consensus was that Molnár was the favorite, but then he made the mistake of revealing his plans to approach the other democratic parties, specifically DK, in the hope of closer cooperation. The anti-Gyurcsány forces within the party were less than enthusiastic. Some people feared that Molnár might have blown his chances by taking a conciliatory approach to the man who in October 2011 left MSZP to establish a party of his own. After the debacle of Dunaújváros, however, there is a good possibility that the delegates might realize that “going it alone” is not an option.

The funniest reaction came from the party leaders of PM. One young PM member, who is a council member in one of the Budapest districts, already envisages PM sailing into parliament in 2018 with 10% of all the votes cast. Dunaújváros, in his opinion, is the very beginning of PM becoming an important force on the left. Gergely Karácsony, the co-chairman, sees the results as a confirmation of the party’s belief in the necessity of holding primaries before the actual election as a means of finding the “right person” to head the ticket of a loosely united opposition. Three of the opposition parties support the idea: MSZP, PM, and Együtt.

And the socialists, headed by the candidate himself / Source: 24.hu / Photo by Márton Neményi

And the socialists / Source: 24.hu / Photo by Márton Neményi

So, let’s talk about this notion of primaries. When I first heard about the idea of introducing primaries into the Hungarian political system I was less than thrilled. Although I dutifully cast my vote in my state’s primaries, I’m not at all sure they are the best way to pick candidates for the U.S. presidency. I don’t want to dwell on U.S. domestic politics, but the fact that Donald Trump will be the Republican candidate doesn’t speak well for the process which, by the way, has been uniformly used only since 1968.

Mátyás Eörsi, a former SZDSZ politician and now a DK supporter, wrote a good opinion piece in Népszabadság in which he outlined his objections. “Elections—just as primary elections—are by nature divisive.” So, primaries will only sharpen the ideological and personal differences between the candidates. Moreover, primaries in the United States are held within one single party and not among three or four or perhaps five different ones. Thus, a primary would in fact be a full-fledged election, after which voters whose candidate lost would be asked to abandon their party and vote for the leader of another. A hopeless idea. Especially since in Hungary the political culture is totally unsuited to the practice of burying the hatchet. Eörsi is so convinced about the lethal effect that primaries would have on the opposition’s chances that he fairly confidently announced that its already small chance of success in 2018 would be totally annihilated by holding primaries.

In the last few months, four times a week, György Bolgár, the host of the popular radio call-in show “Let’s Talk It Over,” poses the question: “What’s To Be Done?” Callers as well as politicians, political commentators, and intellectuals interested in politics have an opportunity to share their thoughts on how to save Hungary from another six years of Fidesz rule. At the beginning I enjoyed the exercise, but by now it is becoming tedious. I could count on one hand people who came up with truly insightful suggestions.

Perhaps what we should do is to strive for the ultimate, the maximum, the ideal. The one which at the moment is just a dream but which is actually the only sure way to stand against the Fidesz onslaught. Eörsi talks about this solution briefly, saying “If we dream, let’s dream big. In order to be able to take up a battle with the Orbán regime what we actually need is not cooperation but one big left-of-center party.” Indeed, this should be the ultimate goal. If the parties repeat their sorry performance of what they called “cooperation” in 2014, failure is guaranteed.

They should work very hard to create a brand new party. Forget about MSZP, DK, Együtt, PM. Create what could be called, for example, Magyar Demokraták Pártja. I would certainly include the word “democracy” in some form in the name of the party because it is no longer a struggle between left and right but between the adherents of democracy and the supporters of autocracy. Right now the formation of such a party seems impossible, but it is impossible only until the leaders of the opposition decide that it is worth working for in order to remove a cancer from the Hungarian body politic.

June 6, 2016

Sándor Lezsák’s fiefdom in Lakitelek came to an abrupt end

Yesterday several by-elections were held, with mixed results. Here I will concentrate on the election held in Lakitelek, a large village about 30 km from Kecskemét.

Before 1987 few people had ever heard of Lakitelek. But in September 1987 Sándor Lezsák, a minor poet, offered the backyard of his house in the village for the first gathering of anti-communist forces. There they established the Magyar Demokrata Fórum (MDF). The vast majority of the people who attended this meeting belonged to the Hungarian equivalent of the German Völkisch or the Russian narodnik movement.

Sándor Lezsák, a typical representative of the narodnik (népies) Hungarian literary tradition, has since drifted far to the right. By 2004 he was expelled from MDF, along with some other like-minded politicians. In no time they joined Fidesz as members of a political group they named Nemzeti Fórum.

Lezsák is a great supporter of Turanism, a nationalistic ideology that believes that the Hungarian people migrated from the steppes of Central Asia. A couple of years ago he was the honorary president of Kurultaj, a tribal meeting of Turanian people. A private initiative five or six years ago, this annual event is now sponsored by the Hungarian government and aided by generous grants.

The Hungarian narodniks were always keen on educating talented peasant boys and girls. After 1945 they established so-called people’s colleges, which were forced to close after the 1948 communist takeover. A few years ago Lezsák and his wife established a foundation and began building a people’s college (népfőiskola) of their own. On four hectares the Lezsáks have been erecting an ambitious complex, naturally with generous government grants. In 2015 the Orbán government gave the Lakitelek Népfőiskola 2.3 billion forints. In 2014 the income of the college was 445.7 million, of which 343 million came from the ministry of human resources.

As you can see from the plans, Lakitelek is Lezsák’s Felcsút. When the campus is completed, the college will have a swimming pool, tennis courts, a guest house, café, restaurant, print shop (with a separate building for its publications), gallery, mini golf course, chapel, horse stable, “national statue park,” and, rounding things out in appropriate fashion, yurtas. Classes in Azeri, Bashkir, Belarus, Georgian, Kazakh, Kirgiz, Tatar, Turkmen, Uyghur, and Uzbek are already offered. How much the students will learn in 32 hours of instruction I have no idea, but I have my doubts about the usefulness of Lezsák’s educational methods.

Plans for Sándor Lezsák's very own people's college in Lakitelek

Plans for Sándor Lezsák’s very own people’s college in Lakitelek

Lezsák has been running the show in Lakitelek ever since 1990. In fact, the local internet site is called Lakitelek Lezsák-falva, meaning “the village of Lezsák” where nothing happens without his say so. In the past, the majority of the town council and the mayor were all members of Lezsák’s Nemzeti Fórum, a party with a status similar to that of the Hungarian Christian Democratic Party. It has eight members in parliament within the Fidesz parliamentary caucus. In 2014, however, an unheard-of event took place. A Nemzeti Fórum candidate for mayor lost the election to an independent, Mrs. Anita Kiss-Zoboki. Her margin was slight. Moreover, in the town council Fidesz-NF members remained in the majority. Although Kiss-Zoboki was most accommodating, Lezsák and his men refused to work with her. In fact, when the new mayor asked for an appointment with the great man, he refused to meet with her for six solid months. The situation in Lakitelek began to resemble the one that developed in Esztergom after 2010 when its independent mayor ended up with a totally uncooperative city council with a Fidesz majority. Just like in Esztergom, the Fidesz-NF majority refused to work with the new mayor until, at the end of January, the Fidesz-NF deputy mayor suggested the dissolution of the council and new elections. He sure made a mistake.

First of all, this time 61% of eligible voters cast ballots, as opposed to 45% in 2014. In the October 2014 election Anita Kiss-Zoboki got 867 votes as opposed to her opponent’s 795, a difference of 72 votes. Yesterday she received 1,377 votes; her Fidesz-NF opponent, 827. In the six-member council formed in 2014 there were four Fidesz-NF affiliated members and only two independents. Today all six council members are independents belonging to Kiss-Zoboki’s team. That’s called a rout.

The village is described as politically divided, and therefore articles in local papers that appeared before the election predicted a close contest. The Fidesz-NF leadership in town seemed to be worried because apparently the party’s local supporters distributed phony leaflets trying to tie the independent candidate to Ferenc Gyurcsány. On the leaflets one could see a picture of Anita Kiss-Zoboki with the colors of DK in the background. The ads claimed that if she wins the election the whole town will be full of migrants and same-sex marriages will be allowed.

According to Hírösvény, an internet news site serving Kecskemét and environs, such a huge win was totally unexpected because other left-leaning opposition parties are not at all represented in Lakitelek. Clearly, the people of Lakitelek had had enough of the local politicos acting like medieval barons. The people also realized that voting for a non-Fidesz mayor but allowing a Fidesz-ruled council doesn’t work. The result is a non-functioning local government. And so, while the people of Lakitelek were at it, they got rid of the whole bunch.

May 9, 2016

Viktor Orbán’s speech: Ignoring the gathering clouds

Since last night I must have seen at least twenty articles in French, German, and English about Viktor Orbán’s eighteenth speech on the “state of the nation.” They all emphasize his forceful attacks on the European Union, but for those of us who have heard or read his earlier speeches there was nothing new in his latest harangue, except that he was much less belligerent in criticizing his domestic opponents. He went so far as to admit that calling members of the democratic opposition “communists” is pretty senseless when almost half of the population were either born after 1990 or were too young to have been politically aware in the last years of the Kádár regime. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Fidesz politicians will stop calling their political adversaries “commies.” I can’t imagine that László Kövér will be able restrain himself and stop insisting that “communism” is still flowering in Hungary, it is just called something else.

The milder, kinder tone toward the opposition is necessitated, in my opinion, by the uneasy domestic situation, which may be more serious than some of the recent opinion polls would indicate. The chief reason for the unreliability of the polls is the inordinately high number of undecided voters. In one of the recent polls it was measured to be 47% of the electorate. Another poll found that only 39% of eligible voters would bother to go to the polls if the election were held today.

There is no denying that the overwhelming majority of the Hungarian people support Orbán’s refugee policy and that 85% of the adult population reject the mandatory resettlement quotas (according to Századvég, Fidesz’s favorite polling company). Naturally, Fidesz supporters are most adamantly opposed to admitting any refugees (97%), but voters from the opposition parties are not exactly enthusiastic about them either: MSZP (56%), LMP (51%), and DK (49%). So, as long as Orbán can play the migrant card he can feel pretty safe.

It’s not clear, however, how long Orbán can capitalize on this issue. At the moment no refugees can be seen anywhere in the country. Of course, one could argue on the basis of recent incidents at the border, where in the last few days hundreds of refugees broke through the fence, that the issue will be kept alive as long as refugees gather south of the Hungarian border. But if the pressure intensifies, the fence is demolished, and thousands again show up in Hungary, Orbán will not be able to tell his people: “You see, I defended Hungary from the onslaught. My policy was correct. We spent 260 million euros on the fence but it was worth it.”

gathering clouds

But one doesn’t have to wait for the possible collapse of Orbán’s refugee policy. There are other storms on the horizon which, at least in public, Orbán refuses to recognize. He did utter a couple of sentences about the problems in education and healthcare, but he made light of them. And yet the opposition to the kind of education the government has forced on the teachers and students is widespread, and there is no sign that the two sides will find common ground any time soon. What the government has offered thus far doesn’t satisfy the teachers and those educational experts who want radical change, an entirely different educational philosophy that is antithetical to the very essence of this regime.

On healthcare issues one cannot expect the kind of unified action from the doctors as one sees among the teachers. The doctors are sharply divided on both the state of healthcare and their pay scale. Some doctors are doing exceedingly well under the present system; they more or less run their practices in state facilities at the state’s expense. The public, however, is dissatisfied with the poor healthcare the state is currently providing and may put pressure on the government to improve it.

And finally there is the huge victory for the democratic opposition in Salgótarján, county seat of Nógrád county, where Zsolt Fekete, the joint candidate of MSZP and DK, won the mayoralty. First, a few words about the town itself. The city limit lies on the border between Slovakia and Hungary, and the area was once known for its productive coal mines. Fidesz politicians talk about Salgótarján as a “socialist city.” But the last time there was a socialist mayor of Salgótarján was between 2002 and 2006. Since then the same two people battled for the post: Mrs. Széky, neé Melinda Sztrémi (Fidesz) and Ottó Dóra (MSZP). Both in 2006 and in 2010 Mrs. Széky won, even if narrowly. In 2006, when 48.69% of the electorate participated and about 12,000 people cast their votes, the difference between the Fidesz and the MSZP candidates was only 210 votes. In 2010, when practically the whole country turned orange, Mrs. Széky received the majority of the votes (51.39%). Mind you, participation was low, only 36.95%. Then came 2014 when Dóra at last succeeded, but just barely. He received only 50 more votes than Mrs. Széky. Again, participation was low (39.32%). A year later Ottó Dóra died suddenly at the age of 53. Hence the by-election that was held yesterday.

For a by-election, participation was extraordinarily high, almost 50%. And the difference between the two candidates, in favor of Zsolt Fekete (MSZP-DK), was 1,802 votes. It was a huge victory for the democratic forces. Fidesz apparatchiks can try to explain away their loss in public, but apparently in private they admit their disappointment. As one of them said to the reporter of vs.hu, commenting on the high turnout, “it’s obvious that they went out in order to vote against us.” Some Fidesz politicians bemoaned the fact that László Kövér, while campaigning in Salgótarján, practically threatened the voters of the city: if they want to have a better future for their children and grandchildren they should vote for Fidesz. They must choose a mayor who can develop a good relationship with the government. Others felt that it was a mistake to send leading Fidesz politicians to Salgótarján to campaign on behalf of the candidate because this way Fidesz’s nationwide problems were imported into the city. Moreover, the Fidesz candidate’s chances were not enhanced by the fact that he was originally the local director of KLIK and lately was named one of the department heads at the central office of that much hated institution in Budapest.

It is almost certain that Salgótarján will be punished. Already after 2014 when the socialist candidate won, the government stopped financial support for the city. Here are some statistics. In 2011 Salgótarján received 608 million forints, in 2012 1.2 billion, in 2013 1.1 billion, and in 2014 60 million. The future might be even bleaker. Zsolt Becsó, Fidesz MP from Salgótarján, finished his congratulatory speech after the lost election with “God save Salgótarján.” What I find amazing is that the inhabitants of Salgótarján must have known what is waiting for them and yet they still voted overwhelmingly against Fidesz. That says a lot of the mood of the people, feelings that might not show up in the polls.

February 29, 2016

The day after: What happened in the Tapolca by-elections?

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.

The Tapolca results, 2014-2015  /valasztas.hu

The Tapolca results, 2014-2015 / valasztas.hu

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.

Map of the electoral district

Map of the electoral district

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?

Jobbik won the by-election in Tapolca

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.

Lajos Rig campaigned to the last minute / Origo/ Photo Attila Polyák

Lajos Rig campaigned to the last minute / Origo/ Photo Attila Polyák

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.

A Fidesz full-court press in advance of the Veszprém County by-election

Exactly a week from today the parliamentary by-election in Veszprém County’s 3rd electoral district (Tapolca, Ajka, and environs) will take place. This district has been Fidesz territory for a long time. Jenő Lasztowicza, whose death necessitated the by-election, had represented the district since 1998. Last year the Fidesz candidate received 43.1% of the votes. Both the liberal-socialist and the Jobbik candidates trailed him by a wide margin, with 27.3% and 23.5% of the votes. Today the situation is apparently different. No one dares call the winner. The predictions one reads are merely guesswork. The only polling in the district was conducted by a company that is considered to be a Jobbik think tank. According to its results, the Fidesz and Jobbik candidates are neck to neck while the candidate of MSZP-DK is trailing badly.

The government party seems to be worried about its candidate’s chances. László Kövér, while visiting Tapolca, assured the party’s voters that winning the district has only “prestige value.” One extra vote on the government side makes no difference now that the two-thirds is gone, but what is important is electing a man who can represent the district well. That man, of course, is Zoltán Fenyvesi, the Fidesz candidate. Kövér said that Jobbik’s real message is a “Nazi ideology” while the MSZP-DK candidate is just a typical trade union leader. János Lázár was even more hard-hitting: there can be no choice in a race where the Fidesz candidate’s challengers are a Nazi and a communist. On the spot Fidesz activists are working very hard, occasionally using less than honorable methods against the Jobbik and MSZP-DK candidates. Both turned to the police to investigate the unknown culprit who has been distributing below-the-belt Fidesz campaign literature. It is getting ugly and we still have another week to go.

The government also decided to bolster the chances of the Fidesz candidate in Tapolca, where Jobbik is supposed to be strong. The Fidesz government was planning to close the small, inadequate local hospital, a decision that apparently turned even more voters toward Jobbik. The government suddenly found 2.3 billion forints for the renovation and modernization of the facility. A similar bribe didn’t work in Veszprém, and I doubt that it will work in Tapolca. Ajka, the largest town in the district, is an MSZP stronghold, but even here the government is attempting to induce voters to switch allegiance. Fenyvesi announced yesterday that the government will support the Le Bélier company with 507 million forints for a new project that will provide 100 new jobs in Ajka. The latest is that Viktor Orbán himself will campaign in Tapolca, where he is supposed to make an earthshakingly important announcement.

Will all this be enough? It is worth taking a look at an excellent article that appeared in HVG a few days ago: “Facts are hard to argue with: Fidesz in deep trouble.” The conclusion of the article is that although Fidesz is still leading nationwide according to opinion polls, when it comes to actual performance in elections it is doing very badly. Since the last national and local elections 37 by-elections were held, and  Fidesz underwhelmed.

In these 37 by-elections Fidesz-KDNP nominated its own candidates in 11 (two national and nine local elections). It won only three of these 11 elections, and in one the Fidesz candidate ran unopposed. Jobbik has not been doing too well either. Its candidates ran in eight elections but won only two. The Jobbik candidate even lost in Tiszavasvár, which has a Jobbik mayor and which Gábor Vona called “the capital of Jobbik.” On the other hand, MSZP put up candidates in six elections and won in three. These wins were in addition to Veszprém, where Zoltán Kész was supported by MSZP-DK and the other democratic parties. One of the conclusions of this survey is that the democratic parties no longer have to hide behind independent candidates. An MSZP-DK candidate can win with explicit party support.

It was Ipsos that came out with the nationwide results that placed Jobbik only a few percentage points behind Fidesz, which scared not only Hungarians but democrats all over the world. Therefore, I think it is important to look at the results of surveys by five different polling companies taken at approximately the same time.

Fidesz1As you can see, Ipsos’s results for Fidesz seems extreme in comparison to those of the other four.

Fidesz2The same is true about Ipsos’s measurement of Jobbik’s strength between May 2014 and March 15. Medián and Tárki show stagnation or a slight decrease in popularity.

Fidesz3Here it is Nézőpont that seems to underestimate MSZP strength. One must realize that the numbers for MSZP are somewhat misleading because the graphs don’t show DK’s popularity, which stands at 7%.

The problem with Fidesz is that it cannot motivate its voting base. Fidesz employs the most modern campaign techniques, using carefully constructed voter lists, but all this is in vain if alleged Fidesz supporters refuse to go out and vote for the party. HVG‘s article quotes a conversation between a Fidesz activist and a former Fidesz voter in Veszprém:

Good afternoon! On Sunday we are deciding on the successor of [Tibor] Navracsics. Surely, you will come and vote for Fidesz.

Well, let’s forget about that now, OK? I will vote for Fidesz again when I have a watch like János Lázár’s.

Jobbik has always had an enthusiastic voting base, but that was not the case with MSZP. Just the opposite. In the past Fidesz and Jobbik easily managed to get out the vote while MSZP supporters were hard to move, partly because the party’s campaign techniques were so poor. But lately MSZP voters have been ready to go to the polls in order to defeat Fidesz. And DK voters have always been a motivated lot. These parties need to recapture some of the voters they lost after 2008. That will not be an easy task, although it seems to me that Viktor Orbán and his minions are doing everything in their power to make the democratic opposition’s work easier.