The Southeastern city of Hódmezővásárhely has had right-wing mayors since the end of Communism in 1989. That string of Fidesz and KDNP leaders came to an end last night with the surprising electoral upset of Péter Márki-Zay, the joint opposition candidate who beat Fidesz politician and Deputy Mayor Zoltán Hegedüs by nearly 16%.
The by-election, which was scheduled due to the unexpected death of Fidesz Mayor István Almási, who passed away while in office at the age of 73, had widely been viewed as a bellwether of sorts for Hungary’s upcoming parliamentary elections on April 8th, and as such has received far more political and media attention than might ordinarily be expected for mayoral elections in a city of roughly 47,000.
A Brutal Campaign
From the beginning, the by-election took on added significance due to the involvement of János Lázár, head of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), a highly prominent Fidesz politician who himself had served as mayor of Hódmezővásárhely for a decade before his election to Parliament in 2012. He campaigned personally on behalf of Zoltán Hegedüs, a long-time Fidesz politician who was the city’s Deputy Mayor. In an unusual twist, Hungary’s opposition parties, including MSZP, LMP, and the formerly far-right Jobbik all threw their support behind Márki-Zay, an independent candidate who was noted for being a conservative figure and a practicing Catholic.
In addition to Lázár’s personal campaigning, a number of controversial issues emerged over the course of the campaign, including the late entrance into the race of a Socialist politician who critics argued had been incited to do so in order to divide the opposition and raise the chances of Hegedűs.
Newspapers reportedly aligned with Lázár and Fidesz also published a two-page advertisement which
listed the names of private citizens who had “brought shame upon the city” by supporting Márki-Zay. You can view the pamphlet below:
This tactic rather quickly backfired, as city residents expressed their displeasure with what many described as intimidation tactics.
On top of all this, religious figures became mixed up in the election as well. In the middle of January, László Németh, pastor of the Catholic Church in Hódmezővásárhely, gave a speech at the end of a mass which he had not presided over. Speaking inside the church for roughly ten minutes, the priest urged his flock to vote for Hegedüs, and against Márki-Zay, who is himself a parishioner of Németh’s church. In addition, the Catholic pastor spoke extensively about the Orbán government, claiming that, since the Second World War, “the Catholic Church has never enjoyed such support, as under the current government.”
The priest’s comments incited a great deal of anger among his parishioners, as many were both confused and upset that he had so openly mixed politics with religion, and felt that he had abused his position as a local spiritual leader in order to play politics from the pulpit. According to news site Index.hu, one parishioner expressed his disbelief at Németh’s speech, wondering,
How did Father think this up? Did he think he could drive us like sheep, and that we would agree with everything he said?
Another woman, reacting to the sermon, complained that the priest had “sold himself, and sold the church as well.”
A Surprising Upset
With such intense political pressure being brought to bear, and with the city’s long history of conservative voting, most observers thought that Fidesz would easily prevail in Hódmezővásárhely’s by-election.
Nevertheless, when the dust cleared on Sunday night, Márki-Zay was the clear winner, with 57.49% of the vote to Hegedüs’ 41.63%. Hernádi, the Socialist politician who threw his hat into the ring as an independent, came in third with just 0.88%.
In a speech celebrating his victory, the newly-elected mayor Márki-Zay hailed the day’s voter turnout of 62.45%, which was a new record for the city.
Speaking to a press conference after the election, Márki-Zay thanked all voters who cast a ballot, regardless of whom they supported, saying that
The election showed that this is still a democratic country, people expressed their opinion clearly today.
The new mayor also argued that, with his election in the former Fidesz stronghold, “Hódmezővásárhely has made history,” and added that his win showed that
there is an enormous demand for corruption, lies and intimidation to cease in the country.
In a separate press conference held after the vote, Janos Lazar, whose constituency is in the city, congratulated Marki-Zay on the win at a separate press conference “We will continue to work for Hódmezővásárhely as we did in the past 27 years, and will put the welfare of the city first,” Lazar said and thanked all those who cast their ballots.
In a statement evaluating the interim elections over the weekend, Fidesz said that the party won “with a sweeping majority” 14 of the 17 interim local elections held in the past year.
In addition, Fidesz mayoral candidate Zoltán Hegedüs said that he would resign his position as Deputy Mayor; he congratulated his opponent on his electoral victory (without ever mentioning him by name), while also claiming that
the dirty campaign has triumphed over clean work.
Hungary’s opposition parties hailed Marki-Zay’s election, whom all opposition parties had supported in the city.
Gergely Karácsony, prime ministerial candidate of the Socialist-Párbeszéd-Együtt coalition, thanked local parties and politicians for “making the miracle happen instead of waiting for it.” They gave hope to all who want change at the upcoming general election, he said.
Jobbik leader Gábor Vona, Democratic Coalition (DK) leader Ferenc Gyurcsány, and the Együtt party all welcomed the results as a “turning point” ahead of the Aril 8 general election.
And in the wake of yesterday’s electoral upset, news outlets Magyar Nemzet and Index.hu report that Bernadett Szél, PM candidate of the green party LMP (Politics Can Be Different) has expressed interest in cooperating with the MSZP-Párbeszéd-Együtt Coalition and with Jobbik on
reciprocally withdrawing candidates in individual districts, so that each district would only have one major opposition candidate running against Fidesz.
Index also reports that, while the left-wing LMP is willing to work with both the Socialists and the right-wing Jobbik, former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Democratic Coalition is not expected to be included in this cooperation.
For being a mayoral by-election in a minor Hungarian city, yesterday’s vote received a great deal of international attention, with articles being published about Fidesz’s “surprise setback” in outlets including the BBC, Reuters, the Associated Press (whose article was republished by papers such as the Washington Post), Bloomberg, and the Guardian.
In addition, Fidesz’s surprising defeat in Hódmezővásárhely has led many Hungarian op-ed writers and journalists to question whether the upset has endangered the political fortunes of the city’s most prominent son, PMO Chief János Lázár. In an article entitled “Now What’s Going to Happen with János Lázár?” the conservative outlet Heti Válasz speculated that Lázár’s prominent role in the local election campaign has “damaged his political image,” and may in fact lead to his downfall.
Via MTI, index.hu, mno.hu, Reuters, the Associated Press, Bloomberg, the Guardian, 24.hu, and valasz.hu
Images via Facebook and mno.hu