“We will take this city back to Europe!” Fidesz takes a beating in Budapest

Bernard Rorke - 15 10 19

Hungary’s combined opposition parties scored a stunning victory against the far right Fidesz in Sunday’s municipal elections. Bernard Rorke reports on a bad night for Viktor Orbán.

After Budapest’s sitting mayor, István Tarlós was ousted, and the opposition won a majority of 13 out of the 23 urban districts, the newly-elected city mayor, Gergely Karácsony, addressed a jubilant crowd. He told them that this was a historic victory for the people of Budapest who fought to take their city back. He declared that this victory meant that love and cooperation always trump hate; that truth will triumph over lies; and that “Budapest will be green and free … We will take this city back to Europe!”

The contrast could not be greater between the urbane, mild-mannered 44-year-old left-liberal Karácsony, and the dour, often crude demeanour of Tarlós, who refused to publicly debate with his challenger. The defeated former mayor provoked controversy in 2011 when he forced through the appointment of the extremist György Dörner as director of the city’s Új Színház (New Theatre), who pledged to put an end to the “degenerate, sick, liberal hegemony” in the arts together with Hungary’s best-known anti-Semite, the late and unlamented MIÉP leader István Csurka. Tarlós brusquely dismissed protests from the Berlin Academy of Arts as intolerable and “meddlesome”.

As for LGBT issues and Budapest’s annual Gay Pride March, Tarlós flaunted his prejudice when he famously claimed not to comprehend what was good about the parade, found it “incompatible with the graceful historical environment of Andrássy Avenue”, and considered the whole thing “unnatural and disgusting”.

Targeting Budapest

Budapest was the main target for the opposition, and during the campaign Karácsony compared the race in the Hungarian capital to the Istanbul mayoral election in March: “Istanbul voted against an aggressive illiberal power in many ways similar to Orban’s regime.”

When the polls closed, Fidesz could claim a national victory: while the opposition won in 10 other cities; the regime won in 13, and maintained its grip in rural areas. Viktor Orbán declared: “We can count on the Hungarian countryside and the Hungarian countryside can count on us.” But there is no doubt that the opposition victories in Budapest and other significant cities have caused panic in the ruling party, which had become used to landslide election wins since 2010.

Since that time, in addition to state capture, deep corruption and the removal of checks and balances, Fidesz stands accused of gerrymandering the electoral boundaries and changing the rules to make things difficult for smaller opposition parties to compete. This has enabled the regome to win two-third majorities in national, European and local elections despite half the electorate voting against it. Opposition bickering and disunity was also a factor, but this time round, the fractious left-liberal opposition parties formed a pact, fielded Karácsony as the sole challenger to the city mayor, and stood single candidates against the ruling party in each constituency.

At the outset of the campaign, Fidesz had a comfortable lead in the polls, and took a relaxed attitude to the elections. They stuck to the reliable tactics of denigrating their opponents as Soros puppets who would flood towns and villages with migrants and Muslims, handing out vouchers and foodstuffs, and inferring that opposition-led districts could expect less funding.

Sex, lies and kompromat

In the final weeks, as Budapest mayor Tarlos’s lead in the polls vanished, Fidesz became less complacent and decidedly more aggressive. Tamás Deutsch, Fidesz MEP, condemned Karácsony’s pre-election visit to the European Union, describing him as “unfit” for the job of mayor of Budapest traipsing to Brussels to meet Frans Timmermans, “admitting that he is not the candidate of the people of Budapest but the nominee of the European and pro-migrant political forces.” 

On September 12, Gergely Gulyás, Orbán’s chief of staff, announced that if Karácsony won, Budapest would lose trillions of forints promised in a deal signed between Orbán and Tarlós in November 2018, as the deal would become null and void because that contract was signed by the two men as private citizens. Tactics got rougher with audio tapes being leaked aiming to discredit Karácsony, masked trolls disturbing press conferences, lies, slander and police harassment. In mid-September a fake news story in a pro-government daily provided the pretext for a police raid and search of an opposition campaign office, with lap-tops seized and the campaign manager interrogated. 

Then came the sex, cocaine and corruption videos leaked through pro-government media targeting opposition figures. According to Attila Juhász from Political Capital, “Fidesz was trying to discredit its opposition by mimicking the Putin regime: they are using private life-related kompromats against them,” in a manner that was “more intense than in any other previous campaign in Hungary”.

But nothing compared to the kompromat dished out by the anonymous blogger Devil’s Advocate against the Fidesz mayor of Győr, Zsolt Borkai, whose erotic yachting escapades on the Adriatic migrated to Pornhub. More than the unsightly sex, it was the in-depth, insider details of corruption revealed by the Devil’s Advocate that rattled Fidesz and put its propaganda operatives in a dizzy spin: as Index reported, articles were published then promptly pulled in pro-government media; contradictory press statements were issued; and a press conferences announced by the offending mayor was subsequently cancelled.

“There is only one Fidesz”

Having been at the receiving end of smears and kompromat, the opposition in Budapest lost no time dishing it back to Fidesz. The mayoral candidate in District 15 declared: “If you vote for Fidesz, you vote for Borkai—There is only one Fidesz.” Momentum’s activists in District 11 graffitied the windows of the local Fidesz headquarters with “God, Homeland, Family = Public Money, Cocaine, Whores.” Yes, there is only one Fidesz, said Gergely Karácsony at his closing campaign rally and concert, and “it is rotten to the core.”

Overall, the results in Budapest and other cities marked a hugely important victory for the opposition, a defeat would have proved catastrophic for the future of multi-party democracy in Hungary. Sunday’s election results shattered the myth of Orbán’s invincibility, saw the state propaganda machine falter and derail, and vindicated the merits of good old-fashioned relentless electoral campaigning, in the streets among the people for a politics of hope that is “transparent, green and social”.


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