On 25 February Peter Marki Zay, an independent candidate gained 57.5% of the vote in a by-election in the southern Hungarian town of Hodmezovasarhely defeating Zoltan Hegedus, the candidate of the governing Fidesz party, who secured 41.63% of the vote. The by-election saw a particularly high voter turn-out of 62.45% compared to 36.38% in the 2014 municipal elections. This surprise result, in a town which had long been considered to be a Fidesz stronghold, had not been predicted by pre-election opinion polls. The election result comes in the run-up to the 8 April general election, and has led to a reassessment of the polls possible outcome. .
Hodmezovasarhely is a small town with a population of 36,700 close to the borders with Serbia and Romania. It has been controlled by Fidesz since 1990. The by-election was caused by the death of the incumbent mayor, Istvan Almasi, from the Fidesz satellite, Christian Democratic People’s Party. Istvan Almasi had taken over in 2012 from Janos Lazar, who moved to become Minister for the Office of the Prime Minister (Viktor Orban) in Budapest. In spite of this move to the capital Janos Lazar has remained a powerful political influence in the wider Hodmezovasarhely region. With its provincial location and proximity to the border Hodmezovasarhely should, theoretically have been receptive to the anti-migrant message used by Fidesz both at local level and in the national parliamentary election campaign. The opposition were, however, were able to tap into a wider and growing sense of public dissatisfaction at the corruption and cronyism reportedly flourishing under Orban’s government. A recent European Union investigation has highlighted the way in which an EU funded contract to provide public lighting in Hungarian towns was secured by Elios Innovativ, a previously company owned by Istvan Tibocz, Viktor Orban’s son-in-law. The lighting provided by Elios Innovativ was allegedly over-priced and substandard. Hodmezovasarhely was one of the towns which received public lighting as part of this scheme. Istvan Tibocz sold Elios Innovativ shortly prior to the commencement of the EU investigation.
Peter Marki Zay, an electrical engineer and economist, stood as an independent, but had the backing of a broad range of opposition parties. These included the left-wing Hungarian Socialist Party, the liberal Politics Can Be Better, and the radical right Jobikk. This opposition unity appears to have been crucial in terms of mobilising voters, many of whom had previously been politically uncommitted. During the campaign Peter Marki Zay was attacked by Fidesz who suggested that he was an ‘American agent’ and that he was connected to George Soros, who is a favourite target for Fidesz as the alleged co-ordinator of a conspiracy against Hungarian interests and values.. Anonymous leaflets also appeared listing and attacking supporters of Peter Marki Zay’s campaign. In a speech given after his election victory Peter Marki Zay described the vote as a public demand for ‘liberty, democracy, a market based economy, and the rule of law.’ He went on to state that ‘we want to get rid of the big boys bullying the whole class.’ The state controlled and pro-Fidesz media initially sought to minimise the importance of the result giving it limited coverage. The live-stream of Peter Marki Zay’s speech was, however, watched by 100,000 Hungarians.
Prior to the Hodmezovasarhely by-election result it had been assumed that Viktor Orban and Fidesz were on course for a relatively easy third-term election victory. Their by-election defeat came as a considerable psychological shock to the Fidesz leadership. Viktor Orban’s initial response was to state that it showed that Fidesz would have to ‘work harder’ in order to secure victory in the parliamentary elections.. There were signs of dissension at a meeting of the Fidesz party board on 26 where some senior party members called for the party to develop a more positive election message, and to stop relying on attacks on migrants and the alleged influence of George Soros. By the end of the week, however, the Fidesz position appeared to have stabilised and they had returned to their familiar anti-migrant and anti-Soros themes. Whilst on an election visit to the town of Miskolc on 2 March Viktor Orban stated that Hungary faced a choice between electing a .national government’ led by Fidesz ‘in which case Hungary will not become an immigrant country’ or an opposition government which would transform Hungary into an ‘immigrant country’. In a similar vein Janos Lazar at a press conference in Budapest on the same day framed the election as a choice between Viktor Orban and George Soros.
The ability of the opposition to capitalise on the Hodmezovasarhely result will largely depend on whether they repeat the ‘opposition unity’ formula which was successful in this contest in the parliamentary constituencies which are fought on a first-past-the-post basis. Under the Hungarian electoral system 106 out of the 199 MPs are elected from single member first-past-the-post constituencies. The broad ideological and policy differences amongst the opposition, from the Socialists on the left to Jobikk on the radical right, may, however, make such an agreement on joint candidates hard to achieve. Without such an agreement Fidesz may be able to triumph electorally again over a fragmented opposition in spite of evidence of an increasing level of public discontent at the conduct of their administration.