Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s ruling party suffered an unexpected setback at a local government by-election on Sunday (25 February) when an opposition-backed independent comfortably beat the Fidesz mayoral candidate weeks before a national election.
Orbán’s rightwing nationalist Fidesz is seeking a third consecutive term in parliamentary elections, campaigning with a fierce anti-immigrant message, coupled with increased spending on wage rises and promising more money to pensioners.
But preliminary results showed Péter Márki-Zay, a political novice, beating Zoltán Hegedus with 57.5 percent of the vote against 41.6% at the election for mayor of the southern town of Hódmezővásárhely, a Fidesz party stronghold.
“We stood up and Hódmezővásárhely has shown that we want to get rid of the big boys bullying the whole class,” Marki-Zay told a news conference, drawing a big round of applause, with one of his children standing by his side.
#Fidesz loses the mayoral bi-election in its important stronghold, #Hodmezovasarhely – the independent candidate supported by all opposition parties gets 57,54% of the votes. #HungaryElectionhttps://t.co/Hs90cWfsdm
— Hungary Journal (@hungary_journal) February 25, 2018
“A new era has begun today,” he said, adding that public opinion polls showing a dominant Fidesz lead “could be thrown into the garbage bin.”
With six weeks left before a parliamentary election, the outcome is an embarrassment for Orbán’s Fidesz party and Hódmezővásárhely native János Lázár, Orbán’s chief of staff, who had personally campaigned in favour of Hegedus.
Orbán’s Fidesz is still a strong favourite at the 8 April election, but a political analyst said Sunday’s result could change dynamics within the opposition, which had thus far struggled to mount any serious challenge.
Marki-Zay ran as an independent, but was backed by the Socialists, radical nationalist Jobbik, the main opposition party, as well as LMP, a small liberal party.
“This (result) has a sweeping psychological significance,” said political analyst Robert Laszlo at think tank Political Capital.
“It shows that Fidesz is beatable even in a place like this and the result could jolt opposition parties into action and rethinking their strategies.”
At 62.4%, turnout was higher than expected, surpassing even the 58.8% at the previous parliamentary election four years ago.
Big win for the candidate of the united opposition in the mayoral election in #hodmezővasarhely. This is a city which has been voted for #Fidesz since the 1990s. It is the home city of #Orban’s powerful cabinet minister János #Lázár.
— Katalin Halmai (@eublogo) February 25, 2018
The leftist opposition has been in a disarray since the resignation of their candidate for prime minister, László Botka, in October.
Jobbik has been trying to lure voters by projecting a more moderate, centrist image.
Orbán, who has clashed repeatedly with European Union authorities over reforms affecting the judiciary and the media, has presided over a downward slide on the global corruption league table, watchdog Transparency International said on Tuesday.