Opposition faces uphill battle in maintaining coalition through 2022

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The substantial gains won by the political opposition in October’s municipal elections revealed unexpected truths about the composition of the Hungarian electorate. Fidesz lost in ten cities with county rights countrywide, including in four of the country’s five largest cities, while the mayorship and control of the city council in Budapest were taken over decisively by the opposition.

However, Fidesz’s popular support nationwide remains undiminished. The governing coalition’s base continues to be as large as in previous cycles when Fidesz-KDNP won sweeping majorities, if not larger. Fidesz-supported incumbent István Tarlós, despite losing, received more votes in the Budapest mayor’s race than when he last won the seat in 2014.

Despite Fidesz’s continued ability to turn out voters in large numbers, inter-party coordination among the opposition proved that, in many parts of the country, Fidesz supporters represent a minority of the voting population. Where in previous elections the opposition parties ran their own individual candidates against one another and split the opposition vote, agreeing to run a single candidate per voting district against Fidesz in October resulted in losses for the ruling party not seen since its re-entrance to power in 2010. 

The opposition’s ability to cooperate gives Fidesz plenty of reason to worry: not only will it face much tougher elections in 2022 if its opponents maintain their truce, but such victories could mobilize opposition voters to turn out in even greater numbers. 

This is best demonstrated by an election in the city of Jászberény. In October, after that city’s joint opposition mayoral candidate Loránt Budai defeated the Fidesz incumbent Tamás Szabó by only 14 votes, Szabó contested the results and succeeded in scheduling a new election. When it was held under a month later, Budai defeated the incumbent not with 14 votes, but 3,758. 

The case of Jászberény shows that voters sensing the potential of a Fidesz defeat can turn out in record numbers: never had so many ballots been cast in a Jászberény local election. With all of the major opposition parties signalling their intention to continue their pact of cooperation in 2022 national elections, Fidesz will be forced to devise a new strategy for contending with an opposition which has, until now, been atomized.

According to an analysis by 444’s Péter Magyari, Fidesz faces some unavoidable strategic dilemmas. Its losses at the polls can be largely attributed to the pressure it placed on the opposition parties, which forced them to view total unity as the only road to electoral success. A fractured opposition competing with itself was the key to Fidesz’s domination, but now, maintaning the previous level of pressure risks further galvanizing the unity of its otherwise heterogenous competitors. 

However, Fidesz must also maintain the enthusiasm of its supporters, which it has traditionally done by demonizing the opposition (as well as immigrants, George Soros, Brussels, and others). Relenting in its politics of fear and taking a more conciliatory posture toward its opponents could disenchant the Fidesz base and de-escalate the atmosphere of danger and crisis it thrives on. The ruling party thus finds itself in a Catch 22. 

In this new political environment where Fidesz is now in opposition in many major cities including Budapest, the party must decide whether it will pursue a new policy of mutual compromise or to double down on its domination approach. In the first months following the elections, the ruling party has shown some signs of cautious cooperation with the new leadership in Budapest: after granting conditions demanded by the city council and the Ninth District, the government reached an agreement with Budapest Mayor Gergely Karácsony on holding the 2023 World Athletic Championships in the city. The deal came as a surprise: such openness to compromise between Fidesz and an opposition party is an exceedingly rare anomaly. But it remains to be seen whether such willingness to negotiate will prevail as the next national elections draw closer.

If Fidesz does decide to adopt a more aggressive stance to ensure victory in 2022, it must do so by fracturing the opposition’s tenuous coalition: while the parties have said they would pursue a policy of cooperation going into 2022 elections, none of them have yet entered into cross-party discussions and their history of mutual hostility would not be difficult to exploit.

Additionally, a number of legislative restrictions authored by Fidesz will make it very difficult for the opposition to succeed, even if they manage to overcome hurdles in electoral law by running joint candidates. Because the law states that a party can only form a national list if it has a nominee in at least 27 of the 106 voting districts, the entire opposition can only field three national party lists if it opts to run joint candidates. This also puts financial pressure on the opposition since those parties with a nominee in all of the 106 districts receive the most campaign funding.

Furthermore, a law passed by Fidesz in December requires that only those MPs who were elected on their party’s national list may form a parliamentary caucus, making the formation of multi-party joint list impractical.  

All of these factors will make the opposition’s task difficult enough. But seamless cooperation between MSZP, DK, Momentum, Jobbik and LMP should in no way be taken for granted. The ideological disparities among the parties are substantial, and personal enmities exist between their leaders, most notably between MSZP and DK. As Momentum gains strength, Jobbik declines and LMP remains below the threshold for entering parliament, Fidesz would have an easy job of exploiting divisions between the parties, if they do not boil over on their own. 

In contrast to the success of the opposition’s unity strategy in municipal elections in October, which required no single leader, their need to collectively rally behind a joint candidate for prime minister in 2022 could put that strategy to its greatest test yet. 

This article is based on a piece published on 444 in Hungarian by Péter Magyari.

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