Hungarian opposition takes a crucial step, but still a long way to go for the left
Updated: Dec 15, 2020
The local government elections brought advances for the opposition but also new challenges for the left. The most important outcome of the election is the fall of the myth of Fidesz’s invincibility.
Gergely Karácsony defeated ruling party-backed incumbent István Tarlós in the Budapest mayoral election this Sunday. With 99% of votes counted, Karácsony gained 50.9% of the votes against the 44.1% for Tarlós. The opposition made enough of an advance in the capital to gain a majority in the Budapest Assembly as well. It now runs 14 districts out of the 23 in Budapest. Last time in 2014 Fidesz won in 14 out of the 23 districts. In addition to Budapest, there are 23 further cities – regional centres, so-called towns with county rights – in the country, here Fidesz fell back from 20 to 13 mayors and the opposition improved from 3 to 10. These are significant gains in an increasingly authoritarian hybrid regime. However, outside the more populous towns, Fidesz gained even more seats than five years ago based on the county-level results. Further analysis is needed to assess the gains and losses in small towns and villages, but rural Hungary seems to be even more solidly Fidesz territory than before. Being present at the municipal level is a vital precondition for keeping alive the little political plurality that is left in Hungary, and is key for the organisational survival of the opposition. From this perspective, the local government elections brought advances for the opposition but also new challenges for the left.
The most important outcome of the election is the fall of the myth of Fidesz’s invincibility. The opposition scored a critical symbolic victory that will allow it to regain momentum. After nine years of defeats, the opposition shows signs of vitality. There is a very long way to go to build a competitive alternative against Orbán’s Fidesz, but it became clearer what the crucial steps are. The strength of the opposition in cities lied in finding credible candidates, forming an electoral alliance and engaging in heavy fieldwork and grassroots outreach. This proved to be decisive even on a heavily tilted playing field, with the media and public institutions dominated by Fidesz. Gergely Karácsony, a former political scientist and campaign adviser, is a not a member of the pre-2010 left-liberal political elite, though not a total newcomer to politics either. He was the mayor of one of Budapest’s local districts for the last five years, scoring one of the few opposition victories at the 2015 municipal elections. He is chairman of a small left-green political party, Dialogue, a party formed by former LMP (Politics Can Be Different) politicians with an agenda of renewing the left and forging electoral alliances to re-democratise the country.
Karácsony was championing the idea of using primaries to elect the candidates of the divided opposition. Although often criticised for being too friendly and avoiding conflicts, during the campaign Karácsony also showed his passionate side. At the same time, his cooperative attitude proved to be essential in forging the oppositional alliance. The primary was able to mobilise not only established parties but also social movements and activists. You cannot beat Fidesz’s imperial walkers with a bunch of uncoordinated rebels. This was the first time that parties agreed to this method, which proved to be a success, mobilising a large number of voters in Budapest in the summer to decide the mayoral candidate. As a result, the parties of the opposition were not preoccupied with infighting this time – a significant step ahead compared to previous elections. It took some time for politicians to learn to adapt their electoral strategy to the new regime, but it clearly paid off. Fidesz is no longer able to claim predominance over the ‘political centre’, a core tenant of Orbán’s illiberal regime that relied on competing oppositional forces to its left and right. With the electoral coalition between left-liberal parties and the deep-right Jobbik, the opposition looks competitive in size. This is important to further fracture the seemingly monolithic power bloc around Fidesz. The opposition needs enough weight to pull critical social groups out of the orbit of Fidesz.
However, finding the technically optimal form to cooperate is just a crucial first step. Regaining credibility after the disastrous years in government between 2002 and 2010 also requires new faces, new messages and a novel political style. After long years of technocratic politics, Karácsony brought a new focus on social justice, sustainability and participatory politics. His program focused on social housing, improving health care, increasing the role of public transportation and expanding green areas. His party is advocating for guaranteed basic income, and as a mayor, he introduced the first municipal-level guaranteed minimum income scheme. Crucially, so far Karácsony managed to stay clear of the murky, informal political-financial dealings that caused so much trouble for the Socialists.
At the same time, the pre-2010 elite learnt to step back. Ferenc Gyurcsány, the last prime minister of the Socialists who presided over the catastrophic collapse of the left has not yet retired but has visibly withdrawn, leaving space for less-tainted figures to dominate the opposition. This is in sharp contrast to the last municipal elections when the opposition ended up backing Lajos Bokros as a mayoral candidate in Budapest. Bokros, a former finance minister, is the most important symbolic figure of neoliberal austerity politics in Hungary, clearly connecting the opposition to the pre-2010 era much rejected by voters. Importantly, the opposition achieved these changes in political identity and style without deadly infighting this time. Cooperating and renewing the opposition in parallel seems to be thus feasible. From this Monday on, Hungary has several new mayors coming from progressive, social and environmental movements both in Budapest and outside the capital. Through Budapest, they will have a chance to show how they conceive of running a town – and a country. This is a crucial move towards disrupting Fidesz’s hegemony and building a viable political alternative against Fidesz for the 2022 national elections.
Unlike the last few elections, this election was also different because of the scandals of the previous few weeks. In the past, these scandals were targeted against the opposition by the right-wing political-media machinery. This time, dissenting members of the right-wing economic elite in a crucial town, Győr, aired a video about a drug-fuelled orgy involving the town’s mayor, Zsolt Borkai. This culminated into a nationwide scandal, revealing not only how the mayor likes to ‘spend his free time’ but also his shady business dealings. Although Borkai managed to regain his seat – Győr is a strongly right-wing town – the affair contributed to the success of oppositional candidates in other municipalities. Elsewhere, I have shown that the domestic business elite sides with Fidesz in the hope of access to state funds and protection against transnational competition. I argued that this is one of the crucial pillars of the new right-wing hegemony in Hungary’s authoritarian capitalist regime. As long as the opposition does not manage to rupture this coalition, it will be tough to gain a majority. The Borkai-affair shows that disgruntled members of the economic elite might turn against Fidesz, and this can indeed improve the chances of the opposition. It remains open how far Fidesz will be able to keep up his alliance with the national business class, or whether others will follow in turning against them.
Another crucial pillar of the new right-wing hegemony is the working-class in medium-sized towns, the rural middle class, small scale farmers and villages. The small-scale farmers and the rural middle classes have been historically leaning towards the right; it would be very hard to convince them to support the left. However, the collapse of the Socialist Party was in no small degree facilitated by the rightward turn of the working class disillusioned with the neoliberal agenda and the corruptness of the Socialists. Many of these towns voted solidly left until the second half of the 2000s; however, both Fidesz and the now-less-radical-right-wing Jobbik also made significant advances in the former working-class strongholds of the left. Although the few new mayors gained this Sunday in the large cities throughout the country contribute to the symbolic and organisational capital of the opposition, the disembedding of the left from small-medium sized towns has continued. This is what we have elsewhere called the ‘structural trap of labour politics’ in Hungary: if the left remains confined to cities and their liberal-urban voters, it will be unable to forge a majority without the working middle classes of medium-sized towns. Due to Hungary’s electoral geography, with more than 3000 municipalities, it is unable to gain a majority without small-medium towns. Local electoral alliances led by Jobbik achieved several of the most significant victories in medium-sized municipalities. Former left-wing working-class strongholds are still solidly right-wing territories, even if Jobbik decided to ally with left-liberal forces. Such a tactical alliance seems to be crucial to re-democratise Hungary, but it also results in cementing the hegemony of the right in medium-sized towns. Furthermore, Fidesz is as strong as ever in villages and small towns. Using large towns to re-establish a foothold at least in medium-sized industrial cities is a crucial challenge ahead for the opposition. At the same time, the left will have a tough time to strengthen its networks in these territories, a vital task if it wants to be able to govern in the future without the support of the deep-right Jobbik.
This Sunday, Hungarians decided not to put another nail in the coffin of Hungary’s dying democracy but to give it a chance with the defibrillator to revive it. Although Fidesz is as strong as ever in small towns and rural areas, in cities the opposition got stronger and regained control over Budapest. Similar to Turkey, this shows that competitive authoritarian regimes have their weak spots as long as they rely on elections to legitimate their rule. It is up to the opposition now to build the necessary social alliances required for a nationwide majority. At the same time, the left should not accept its role confined to the major cities, and be prepared to regain territory in industrial medium and small towns as well.
Photo by OSCE PA/Andreas Baker, under Creative Commons.
 Gabor Scheiring, Hungary’s regime is proof that capitalism can be deeply authoritarian, Open Democracy, April 2018, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/can-europe-make-it/hungary-s-regime-is-proof-that-capitalism-can-be-deeply-authorita/
 Gabor Scheiring, Lessons from the Political Economy of Authoritarian Capitalism in Hungary, TNI, April 2018, https://www.tni.org/en/publication/lessons-from-the-political-economy-of-authoritarian-capitalism-in-hungary
 Gabor Scheiring and Kristof Szombati, The structural trap of labour politics in Hungary, Rupture Magazine, August 2019, https://rupturemagazine.org/2019/08/04/the-structural-trap-of-labour-politics-in-hungary-gabor-scheiring-kristof-szombati/
The article originally appeared on the website of The Foreign Policy Centre on 14 October 2019.