Orban withdraws Fidesz candidate to try to unseat opposition Budapest mayor

Orban withdraws Fidesz candidate to try to unseat opposition Budapest mayor
Alexandra Szentkiralyi withdrew from the race for the Budapest mayor post. / bne IntelliNews
By Tamas Csonka in Budapest June 7, 2024

Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party has withdrawn its candidate for Budapest mayor, leaving the June 9 election a wide-open contest between incumbent liberal Gergely Karacsony and David Vitezy, a former Fidesz technocrat fielded by the green LMP party.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban is taking a gamble with the move in order to topple the high-profile opposition mayor of the capital.  The decisions could backfire if Karacsony remains in power.

It also sends the message that Fidesz, which has dominated each general election for the last 14 years, is unable to field a potent politician for the capital and is withdrawing after spending millions of forints in ads. 

Karacsony had predicted that Fidesz would withdraw its candidate in social media posts.

"So the charade is over."  he said on Facebook on Friday, calling the deal a "betrayal" of voters and part of a "dark and cynical political deal".

Orban has long wanted to take revenge for losing the city five years ago, when Karacsony scored an upset victory against Fidesz-supported independent Istvan Tarlos. Budapest had had its funding cut and state taxes hiked, leaving it with little money to make  investments. 

An hour after the prime minister finished his regular interview with state radio,  Fidesz candidate Alexandra Szentkiralyi announced she would step back from the race two days before the vote and called on supporters to vote for Vitezy, a 38-year-old expert in transport and urban development with a Fidesz background.

Szentkiralyi had  not bothered with an election agenda but instead ran a negative campaign linking Karacsony to Ferenc Gyurcsany, the former Socialist prime minister, who remains a  highly divisive figure in Hungarian politics.  

"For me, the most important thing is still that they are voted out of office," she said in a video post on Facebook. 

The speculation that Szentkiralyi, the wife of Defence Minister Kristof Szalay-Bobrovniczky, would step back at the last minute has popped up from time to time, but these predictions were always immediately rejected by Fidesz. On Thursday night, former Fidesz insider Peter Magyar posted that the decision had been made at the Fidesz HQ.

Fidesz continued to gauge public sentiment right until the last minute, asking the electorate about their preferences if it would be a two-way race, leaving the door open for these speculations.

Pundits say Orban  probably made his decision based on the latest polls by right-wing think tank Szazadveg, which showed that in a two-way race, the LMP candidate would win by a margin of 48-42%. Last week, a poll showed the incumbent mayor at 40% followed by Vitezy and Szenktiralyi at around 25-26%. 

Polls have shown Fidesz trailing significantly behind the opposition in the capital, but given the fragmentation of its opponents, it is still the biggest party with 22%. The three-party leftwing coalition of DK-MSZP-Dialogue stands at 20%, and the list of new challenger Peter Magyar at 16%. LMP’s list headed by David Vitezy is at 13%, followed by the liberal Momentum and the joke Two-Tailed Dog Party, also above 10%.

Much depends on how supporters of Magyar will vote in what will be a tight race. The former Fidesz cadre  has been critical of opposition parties from the left  and has said Budapest deserves better leaders than Karacsony. If he calls on his followers to vote for Vitezy, he would openly support a Fidesz-backed candidate and this could lead to serious credibility issues.

Under Szentkiralyi's post Magyar wrote: "There is nothing new under the sun, you have always been known to lie to your own voters. You fool them wherever you can."

After the news broke, Vitezy posted on Facebook: "The first win is there, the second will come on Sunday."

"As mayor, I would not form a coalition with either Fidesz or the leftist Democratic Coalition. Budapest and the capital's companies would be run by professionals rather than failed party cliques," he added.

Aged 38, Vitezy is an urban development expert and a former state secretary of the Orban government in charge of public transport. He was appointed to lead the Budapest Transport Centre at the age of 25 in 2010 and five years later he spent six months as ministerial commissioner of the development ministry in charge of public transport.

He ran on a professional, non-political platform focusing on urban development and transport issues, which may appeal to many voters fed up with polarised party politics.