Veszprém

Recent Hungarian by-elections

I assume most readers want me to say something about the Putin visit, but I think it’s better to postpone writing anything more on that subject until after the meeting itself. Instead, I’ll spend some time on another “hot topic,” the extreme-right Jobbik party and recent election results.

According to Ipsos, Jobbik has gained considerable strength since the beginning of 2014. And since October 2014 its rise has accelerated: it gained another 4%. At the same time Fidesz lost about 12% of its voters. Most of the disenchanted Fidesz voters moved over to the large undecided bloc. With the exception of the Demokratikus Koalíció, parties of the democratic opposition seem to be unable to capture the voters’ imagination.

The fear of a Jobbik resurgence was reinforced by the party’s success at the municipal elections on October 12, 2014 when they captured fourteen mayoralty positions as opposed to the three they won in 2010. Most of the towns Jobbik won were small and insignificant on the electoral map, with two exceptions. One was Ózd, near Miskolc, where the Jobbik candidate won over the incumbent Fidesz mayor by a margin of 66 votes. The Fidesz leadership, with the blessing of the Debrecen Appellate Court, decided to contest the result. It was a big mistake. The citizens of Ózd were outraged and decided to show their dissatisfaction with the “arrogant, condescending and corrupt” local Fidesz leadership. While in October only 10,214 people voted, for the second round 15,982 showed up. Jobbik’s candidate in October received 4,214 votes. In November he got 10,299 votes. The DK-MSZP candidate in October received 2,238 votes, in November only 520. Most local citizens voted for the Jobbik candidate not because they were committed Jobbik supporters but because they were convinced that he was the only person who had a chance of unseating the Fidesz incumbent.

The situation was different in Tapolca, which is located not in the underdeveloped area of Hungary where Jobbik has traditionally been strong but in the relatively affluent Transdanubia. Between 2010 and 2014 the Fidesz government had been generous to the town and funded a lot of improvements. So, even Jobbik supporters were stunned when it turned out that the Jobbik candidate, Zoltán Dobó, had unseated the incumbent Fidesz mayor in the 2014 municipal election. The margin was small, 146 votes, but the win was significant. It indicated, at least at first blush, that Jobbik was extending its influence into the better-off regions of the country. Reporters talking with locals, however, found out that some of the people who voted for Dobó didn’t know he was a member of Jobbik.

So, what happened? It seems that the Fidesz mayor didn’t keep his finger on the pulse of the electorate. He shut himself off from the voters. By contrast, Dobó, a council member since 2010, kept a high profile. And then there was a local affair that stirred up deep sentiments: the fate of Tapolca’s little hospital, which the government wanted to either close or strip of most of its functions. The local Fidesz leadership naturally supported the government’s decision–until it was far too late. By that time Zoltán Dobó and Lajos Rig, another Jobbik city father, had taken over the fight for the local hospital. Apparently, that was the main reason for Dobó’s success at the polls. The town itself, which has been in Fidesz hands since 1998, still has a predominantly Fidesz city council. On the eleven-member city council Jobbik won only four seats.

Mezőkövesd is another interesting case. Two candidates for a seat on the city council received exactly the same number of votes. If I wanted to be charitable I would call János Kötél, the Jobbik candidate, a man of limited abilities who is also a racist. For instance, a day before the repeated election a journalist for Index discovered that on Facebook Kötél had called the Roma “the biological weapon of Jews.” Yet he gained supporters between the two elections and ultimately prevailed. Were the voters endorsing his views? Most likely not. I suspect that the voters decided to gang up against the Fidesz candidate the second time around. The Mezőkövesd case reminds me of Ózd. The slogan seems to be “anyone but the incumbent Fidesz guys.”

All in all, since the local elections held on October 12 not one Fidesz candidate has managed to win a by-election. And now it looks as if Fidesz might even lose the Veszprém and Tapolca parliamentary by-elections, which must be held because of Tibor Navracsics’s departure to Brussels and the death of Jenő Lasztovicza, a member of parliament for the Tapolca district. If either of these two by-elections is lost, Fidesz will no longer have a two-thirds majority. How serious a blow that would be to Fidesz is a matter of debate. Some commentators claim that the lack of a super majority would make no difference because there would always be some people in Jobbik who would be glad to vote with Fidesz-KDNP. Others claim that the lack of a two-thirds majority would prevent Fidesz from transforming the present parliamentary system into a powerful presidential one, with Orbán at the helm. In either case, a Fidesz defeat in one or both of these districts would give an immediate boost to the democratic opposition and further damage the governing party.

Tibor Navracsics’s seat in and around the city of Veszprém will be decided on February 22, while voting in Jenő Lasztovicz’s district in Tapolca and environs will take place on April 19.

Source: Index / Photo Orsi Ajpek

Source: Index / Photo Orsi Ajpek

A few words about the election in Navracsics’s district. Veszprém’s first district traditionally votes Fidesz. At the last national election Navracsics beat the MSZP candidate by 20% (47% to 27%), with the Jobbik candidate receiving 16%. After a lot of hesitation, Fidesz decided to nominate Lajos Némedi, the deputy mayor of Veszprém. About a week ago a secret opinion poll was taken, with surprising results. Zoltán Kész, an independent candidate supported by all the democratic parties except LMP, is doing extremely well. In fact, he is leading in the city of Veszprém, though trailing in the villages. As it now stands, Némedi has 43%, Kész 37%, Jobbik 11%, and LMP 4%. Jobbik seems to have lost voters since last April. The poll showed that the majority of the people think that the country is moving in the wrong direction (61%). Left-leaning voters are solidly behind Kész. Even 6% of Fidesz voters plan to switch their votes, and 31% of LMP voters say they will opt for Kész. Kész has a slight lead even among younger voters. Voters with only an eighth-grade education prefer Némedi (64% to 25%), but among university graduates it is 49% to 28% in Kész’s favor. In this latter group only 2% would vote for Jobbik.

In the last few days Fidesz changed the campaign slogan. Earlier their orange-colored posters read “Trust Fidesz!” but it was decided not to advertise Fidesz too much. Now the poster reads: “Trust Némedi!” Meanwhile, the anti-Kész campaign is in full swing, and  Fidesz is promising that fabulous government projects will be built in Veszprém if the district votes for Fidesz. We’ll see whether the voters of Veszprém take the bait.

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Yada yada. And next?

The demonstration just ended. I didn’t have a chance to hear all eight speeches, but those I did listen to greatly varied in quality. There were some that demonstrated political naivete and some that questioned the very notion of a market economy, which was described as a system of exploitation. Not surprisingly, the politically most sophisticated speech was delivered by a former politician, Gábor Vágó (LMP). In the speeches of the two organizers of MostMi!, Zsolt Várady and Bori Takács, a frequent refrain was that “we will have to figure out what kind of Hungary we want.” I found this worrisome. It seems that once again Hungarians want to invent something new and unique instead of following the examples of successful democracies that offer their citizens a decent living and security.

According to Abcúg.hu, “this first demonstration of the year was one of the shortest and least eventful of the past few months.” The reporter overheard someone saying that “we have been hearing the same thing over and over,” which is of course true. Speakers complain about the government and about all politicians and parties while the crowd chants “Orbán scram!” The demonstrations, quite frankly, are becoming boring. But the trouble is that the organizers have no idea how to go beyond demonstrations, how to elect a new government, how to create the idyllic Hungary they would like to see after the fall of Viktor Orbán.

There was one speaker, Bernadette Somody, a lawyer who is the director of the legal think tank Károly Eötvös Institute, who pointed out some practical problems facing those who are dissatisfied with the present political situation. In order to rid Hungary of the whole system, the politicians who take over after the fall of the Orbán government must cleanse the government edifice of Orbán appointees. But that will be exceedingly difficult because Viktor Orbán made sure that most of the appointments are of very long duration.

Otherwise, the speeches were full of vague notions about the full participation of citizens at every level of decision-making. A politically engaged citizenry will discuss every issue. Politicians will not be able to make decisions without their approval. I guess I don’t have to elaborate on the impossibility of creating a large-scale participatory democracy in today’s world.

I was greatly disappointed in László Kálmán, He showed a surprising lack of knowledge about anything practical. He said, for instance, that one needs neither a centralized nor a community-based school system. Parents will get together and establish their own. There is a saying in America about those academics who “can’t even tie their own shoe laces,” meaning they are singularly impractical. Well, Kálmán seems to be one of them.

demonstrcio jan2

Although it is a welcome development that there is a growing awareness of widespread poverty and sympathy for the poor, the two speakers speaking for the homeless talked in quasi-Marxist terms that poor Marx wouldn’t recognize. In Hungarian this kind of primitive Marxism is called “vulgár marxizmus.” These speakers talked about the poverty that is inseparable from the capitalist system. There was a lot of talk about exploiters and exploitation. Once the present system is gone, they suggested, there will be an “even distribution” of goods. Another hopeless idea.

And the biggest problem of all: the rejection of party politics. One of the speakers, unfortunately I forget which one, announced that “we don’t need parties but a new alternative.” He neglected to tell us what this alternative is. Several speakers, Várady and Kálmán for example, found all the parties of the last twenty-five years totally incompetent. I am much more charitable. It’s a lot easier to be a Monday morning quarterback than to be on the field in real time. In 1990 an inexperienced crew took over the reins of government in incredibly hard times. The country had a staggering national debt, the collapse of the socialist economic system led to more than a million people being unemployed, inflation was over 30%. Under these circumstances the new government had to lay the foundations of a democratic regime. On balance, they and their successors didn’t do a bad job. For instance, by 1998 Hungary’s most serious economic problems were over. Yes, they made mistakes, but to say that they botched up everything is simply not true.

The organizers’ anti-party attitude went so far today as to refuse Zoltán Kész, the independent candidate supported by all parties with the exception of LMP in the crucial Veszprém by-election, the opportunity to speak. Péter Krekó of Political Capital, a think tank, rightly pointed out that this was a grave mistake. Kész is not a party candidate. He can be considered a civic-minded citizen, an English teacher in town. His slogan is: vote for me and you vote against the two-thirds majority. This election for Tibor Navracsics’s old seat is important for Fidesz also. The government just gave 800 million forints to the city just to make sure that the voters know who butters their bread. And yet the organizers who are so eager to unseat Viktor Orbán didn’t allow this man to speak. Incredibly short-sighted.

All in all, I don’t know where this movement is going. Let’s just hope it’s not another Occupy Wall Street, which fizzled. I was pleased to hear that a large demonstration is planned for February 2 when German Chancellor Angela Merkel is supposed to visit Budapest. But as long as the opposition remains fractured, as long as people’s dissatisfaction is expressed only in the form of demonstrations and not in political organizing, Viktor Orbán doesn’t have to lose sleep. Foreign pressure might be a different story.

The Újpest election: A large gain for the left

Some people might argue that the socialist win in the parliamentary election that had to be repeated in Budapest’s 11th electoral district was a foregone conclusion and is not even worth talking about. At least this is what Fidesz wants its supporters to believe. The new election in Újpest was occasioned by the death of Péter Kiss, an important and beloved politician within MSZP, on July 29 at the age of 55. Before the national election in April the party knew that Kiss had cancer and might not live to take his place in parliament, but by endorsing his candidacy they wanted to lift his spirits. Újpest is an old socialist stronghold where Kiss won time and again, and he won again this time although with a smaller margin than in the past.

Imre Horváth, the elderly gentleman as András Schiffer called him

Imre Horváth, the elderly gentleman, as András Schiffer called him

MSZP named a locally well-known man, Imre Horváth, a former officer in the border guard, to run for the vacant seat. During the campaign it was discovered that Horváth, like all border guard officers, took a half year course in Moscow under the aegis of the KGB. Naturally, the opposition was up in arms. As a result, the Demokratikus Koalíció and Együtt-PM withdrew their support. Yet it seems that this campaign against him made nary a dent. Horváth won big.

After receiving the final results, Fidesz announced that “nothing has changed.” After all, a socialist won last time and it was expected that the new socialist candidate would easily win the district. A closer look at the numbers, however, reveals a considerable loss of support for Fidesz and a large gain for the left.

First, let’s take a look at the figures from the April national election. Péter Kiss received 40.7% of the votes while Fidesz’s candidate got 35.2%. And here are the new figures. Horváth received 50.62% of the votes while his Fidesz opponent, Antal Hollósi, got only 30.67%. It seems that in the last six months Fidesz lost about 5% of its voters–or at least the party was unable to mobilize them. Jobbik and LMP also lost support. In April 12.7% of the voters chose Jobbik and LMP garnered 7.1% of the votes. These figures also shrank despite the fact that Jobbik’s candidate was a popular soccer player for the Újpest team. This time Jobbik received only 9.8% and LMP only 5.1% of the votes.

Horváth’s win was impressive. He won at every polling station with the exception of one, in which he and the Fidesz candidate got the same number of votes. That station in October, at the municipal election, was Fidesz territory. At one of the polling stations Horváth received twice as many votes as his opponent. Voting participation, as usual at by-elections, was low but not lower than average.

Speaking of Újpest, I read with some amusement András Schiffer’s assessment of the situation in this district. According to the chairman of LMP, the stakes in this particular election were high. The question was whether a new era is beginning in Hungarian politics; if so, the results may even influence the outcome of the 2018 election. Schiffer may have been right, but of course he was thinking about his own party’s candidate, who ended up with 5.1% of the votes.

There will be another election sometime at the beginning of next year in Veszprém, where Tibor Navracsics’s seat will be contested. Tibor Navracsics, earlier minister of justice and and then minister of foreign affairs and trade, became Hungary’s commissioner on Jean-Claude Juncker’s European Commission. Thus he had to resign his seat. If the left were to win that seat, Fidesz would lose its two-thirds majority. That’s a long shot. Navracsics won in April with 51.85% of the votes while his socialist opponent, Béla Pál, got only 24.99%.

Lately there have been two national polls, and both indicated a loss of support for Fidesz. Nézőpont Intézet, a firm close to Fidesz, showed a 3% loss between October 14 and November 3 for the ruling party and a considerable gain for Jobbik and LMP. Two days ago Ipsos came out with a new poll that indicated an even greater loss for Fidesz–a full 5%, which means 500,000 potential voters. Ipsos’s results showed practically no gain for the other parties. Those who would no longer vote for Fidesz moved over to the large camp (35%) of undecided voters. I suspect that Fidesz’s downward spiral will continue given the mood of the country.

It is hard to tell whether the results of the Újpest election indicate a real change in the political landscape or not, but one cannot ignore a 10% gain for a candidate who was not nationally known and who had never been in national politics.