Hungary's opposition scores stunning upsets in local elections

Hungary's opposition scores stunning upsets in local elections
Opposition candidate Gergely Karacsony won the Budapest mayoral race comfortably.
By Levente Szilagyi in Budapest October 14, 2019

Hungarian opposition parties made eyecatching headway in the local elections on October 13, securing a stunning win in Budapest and other big wins in major cities across the country. 

The unexpected victory by the united opposition marks the first electoral blow for Viktor Orban since 2010. Turnout was 48.5%, up from 44.5% in 2014 and above 50% in the capital.

Fidesz has lost Budapest after nine years as incumbent candidate Istvan Tarlos won just 44% of the votes, while Gergely Karacsony, the joint candidate of the left-liberal opposition parties received more than 50% of the ballots.

The polls showed Tarlos leading between 3-10pp two weeks before the ballot, while some pollsters called it a neck and neck race just before the vote.

Tarlos, who was district mayor for 26 years ran for his third term in office as an independent candidate supported by Fidesz.

"At a national level, the result is nice, but we need to pause to think about Budapest," the 71-year-old mayor said, referring to the mixed results, as Fidesz managed to hold on to its vast base outside the capital.

Opposition parties have had little to celebrate since 2006 when leftist-liberals led by Ferenc Gyurcsany beat Orban’s party in the general election. 

In the last nine elections since October 2006, including parliamentary, local and European ones, Fidesz won resounding victories in all of them.

"October 14 marks the start of a new era for Hungary in its quest to regain its freedom", Karacsony said in his speech. "The victory was not his or the opposition parties’ but that of Budapesters who were fighting to win back the capital," he added. 

Karacsony, mayor of Budapest's 14th district, has faced a coordinated smear campaign by government media in the last few months.

His campaign events were regularly hacked by politicians from the Fidesz youth organisation. In the campaign finish a wiretapped tape from a meeting was leaked, in which Karacsony spoke of major discord between parties supporting him.

Fragmented opposition parties joined forces to field joint candidates instead of running separately, which proved to be a successful strategy. 

They sealed 14 of the 23 districts in the capital including some upset victories in Fidesz strongholds. In the 2014 local elections, Fidesz won 18 districts in Budapest, the opposition just 5.

Hence, the ruling conservative party has lost its majority in the Budapest Municipal Council, which is made up of district mayors.

The elections map shows Fidesz' prevailing dominance outside of Budapest

Fidesz remains the strongest force in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban told supporters at Fidesz’s campaign HQ. The ruling party won comfortably in smaller towns and villages and in 13 of the 23 county seats. The party secured a 50% majority on the party lists in all 19 counties.

Orban said the election campaign had been a tough, big and open political battle as should be the case in a democracy based on a competition between parties.

Independent analysts point out that the campaign has been the nastiest ever. In addition, in more than 900 municipalities, including towns with at least 20,000 voters, people had no choice other than to support the incumbent leader fielded by Fidesz. 

Fidesz on the defensive after sex scandal 

The sex scandal engulfing the mayor of Gyor, home to Audi's Hungarian subsidiary with the largest engine factory in the world, was decisive in this particular vote, independent analysts said. Unlike in previous elections, Fidesz was forced to play it defensively in the campaign finish and their communication fell apart thanks to scathing reports in a blog.

An anonymous blogger leaked footage of a sex orgy taped in May 2018 in Croatia on October 4, showing Zsolt Borkai and his lawyer friend on a luxury yacht with prostitutes.

The blogger also made serious corruption allegations naming lawyers, local government officials and Borkai himself accusing them of diverting HUF1bn (€3mn) annually from the city's coffers.

Some of the stories unveiled in the blog were already covered by the press years before, such as the acquisition of the land by an offshore company owned by Borkai's lawyer.

The offshore company reportedly made HUF5bn in profit from the deal after the plot was reclassified from agricultural land to an industrial area when it was sold to Audi.

Fidesz and its loyal media were silent for days. The official line later was that the sex tape was Borkai's private matter. But the story did not die down; on the contrary, new details emerged.

The twin sisters appearing on the sex tapes received EU funds to assist their small business and an independent MP revealed that the wife of Borkai had a 4-hectare estate with tennis courts.

Although the allegations in the blog were not backed up by documents, the detailed description of the corruption schemes and people involved seemed credible. 

Borkai apologised and acknowledged that he was on the tape in a short interview on October 7 but he denied any corruption charges. He withdrew himself completely from the campaign.

On October 9, the local chapter of Jobbik, which backed the left-liberal mayor candidate in Gyor suddenly pulled out of the coalition, which sparked rumours that they were bought up by Fidesz to divide the united opposition. 

The party headquarters condemned the move and launched an ethical probe against the rebels. The local Jobbik politicians were later filmed drinking with officials from the local civil party, widely seen as the puppet of Fidesz.

In districts, where the race promised to be a close one, unknown candidates emerged out of the blue. Analysts said this fitted into the strategy of Fidesz to divide the opposition further and confuse voters.

In Budapest reality show celebrity Krisztian Berki was chosen for this post and he enjoyed the support of the propaganda-oriented media.

Independent media reported that Berki easily collected the necessary 10,000 signatures to run for the post, but he received some 4,000 votes on Sunday, less than 1%.

The local election office, with a majority nominated by Fidesz, rejected Karacsony's appeal to investigate the signatures obtained by Berki, which may have been falsified. Opposition politicians suspect that the same names appeared on the sheets supporting Berki as the Fidesz-backed mayor, which is unlawful.

Gyor has been a stronghold for Fidesz since 2006 when Borkai an Olympic champion gymnast won his first race by a landslide, which he repeated in 2010 and 2014.

Despite the largest political scandal in years, Borkai won by some 600 votes, or 1.5pp against the opposition candidate on October 13. His win seems to a pyrrhic one, as it may have cost the seats of some heavyweight Fidesz leaders.

The common view is that Borkai will be forced to resign soon. Orban made it clear on October 11 that he will make a decision about the future of the 54-year politician after the elections.