Hungary’s ruling right-wing nationalist party Fidesz suffered an unexpected setback at the weekend when its candidate for mayor in the southern city of Hodmezovasarhely was defeated in a closely watched contest.
The liberal opposition-backed independent candidate, Peter Marki-Zay, had 57.5% of the vote over Fidesz’ Zoltan Hegedus, who captured 41.6% of the electorate. Election officials said turnout was significantly higher than last round of parliamentary elections in 2014, with 62.4% of eligible voters in Hodmezovasarhely having cast a ballot.
Located in Hungary’s south-east, near the country’s borders with Romania and Serbia, Hodmezovasarhely is traditionally a stronghold of nationalist sentiment in the Hungarian heartland. Fidesz – the party of firebrand far-right populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban – has been in power of the small city of 45,000 for over two decades. Up until the close of the polls on February 25, Orban had been confident that Hegedus would easily secure a victory for Fidesz.
Marki-Zay’s victory came as a shock not only to the Fidesz’ leadership, who had expected to cruise to an easy victory but also to the Hungarian electorate as the nation heads to the polls on April 8 for parliamentary elections.
“We stood up, and Hodmezovasarhely has shown that we want to get rid of the big boys bullying the whole class,” said Marki-Zay at a news conference shortly after his victory was announced. “A new era has begun today…there is an enormous demand for corruption, lies, and intimidation to cease in the country.”
Backed by the Socialists – the country’s main opposition party, the radical nationalists Jobbik, and the liberal LMP party, Marki-Zay’s victory could boost the hopes of the opposition as they look to oust Orban after nearly eight years in power.
Fidesz has dominated Hungarian politics since it swept to power in 2010, brandishing a harsh brand of Eurosceptic nationalism and nativist populism that has at times bordered on xenophobia and anti-Semitism.
Orban is considered one of the EU’s most hardline nationalists for his anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric. He has also gained a reputation with the Czech Republic’s President Milos Zeman as one of Europe’s most pro-Moscow leaders due to his warm relationship Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Budapest’s past dealings with the Kremlin had been difficult, at best, in the years since the 1989 collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe – mainly due to Hungary’s memories of a pro-democratic revolution that was brutally crushed by the Soviet Armed Forces in 1956. Under Orban, however, Hungary’s historic opposition to Moscow’s influence has been cast aside.
Since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, Orban has repeatedly decried the EU’s “anti-Russian policies” while calling for better relations with the Kremlin, and for the West to end the harsh sanctions imposed on Russia in the wake of Putin’s actions in Ukraine.
Orban’s government has cracked down on the country’s independent media and moved to follow Moscow’s lead in branding non-Hungarian NGOs as “foreign agents”.
Since 2015, Fidesz has been embroiled in an ongoing conflict with Budapest’s Central European University, founded by the Hungarian-born US businessman and philanthropist George Soros. Orban has threatened to shut down the university, claiming it is used as a training centre for the democratic opposition that is bent on removing him from power.
Soros has accused Orban of “stoking anti-Muslim sentiment and employing anti-Semitic tropes reminiscent of the 1930s” via an advertising campaign launched by Fidesz that portrays Soros, who is Jewish, of being “a political manipulator”.
In a move that echoed Putin’s crackdown on independent NGOs in Russia, Orban and his populist nationalists have moved to register, penalise, and bar people that it deems to be supporting illegal immigration through foreign-funded organisations. The groups found guilty of violating the proposed law will be forced to pay a 25% charge on financing obtained from abroad, while foreigners deemed in support of illegal migrants will be subject to deportation.
The European Commission sued Hungary in December 2017 for its crackdown on foreign-funded NGOs and universities, saying “the law violates the freedom of association enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union”. The European Parliament is in the process of debating whether to suspend Budapest’s voting rights for Orban’s repeated attacks on the EU’s provisions regarding the rule-of-law and the democratic process.
According to recent polls, the Fidesz party and Orban – who publicly claimed in 2014 that he wants to build “an illiberal state” modelled after the autocratic regimes of Putin’s Russia and Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – are favoured to win the April vote.