On Sunday April 12, the far-right Jobbik candidate won a by-election in the individual constituency of Tapolca. The election took place due to the death of former Fidesz MP Jenő Lasztovicza in early January 2015. The electorate dissatisfied with the performance of the government turns to the political side it considers capable of defeating Fidesz. On February 22 in the Veszprém by-election this meant giving the mandate to the individual candidate supported by left-wing parties, Zoltán Kész, and in Tapolca backing Jobbik candidate Lajos Rig. With this the governing party’s “central power field” strategy that worked well in 2014 has suffered a setback, just as the myth that Fidesz can stop the rise of the far right. Jobbik can consolidate its position as the challenger of Fidesz and could even go first in the polls. A flash analysis of the left-leaning researcher Political Capital.
As the mobilisation rates suggest, in the two interim elections held this year less than half of Fidesz supporters abandoned the party. However, due to lower turnouts, in Veszprém and Tapolca (both are constituencies in western Hungary) alike Fidesz’s challengers managed to attract more voters to the polls than those voting for the respective party lists one year earlier in the same individual constituencies. Jobbik could gain a lot of new voters, especially from the small villages.
Win was ‘protest vote’
Sámuel Ágoston Mráz, head of the Nézőpont Institute, said the poll outcome pointed to a “protest vote”. Tamás Lánczi, chief analyst of the Századvég Foundation, said no conclusions can be drawn from the by-election about national trends. Jobbik had done a good job of mobilising its supporters in a region where traditionally it has fared well, he said. The left wing had “lagged behind dismally”. Whereas the difference between Jobbik and Fidesz had been a few hundred votes, the gap between Fidesz and the left was several thousand.
Jobbik: breakthrough at individual level, steady move to centre
Jobbik could expand its support for three main reasons: a) their moderate shift, b) their comfortable position as the only relevant, “clean” political force that has not discredited itself in power; c) the lack of strong and united left-wing opposition.
Research does not indicate rising anti-Semitism and racism in Hungary as the driving force of Jobbik’s current rise and success. Its success suggests that most of the voters no longer look at the party as extremist: taboos that have once kept a large number of undecided voters away from Jobbik have fallen to the wayside.
This might sound surprising if one considers Rig’s views: on the one hand, he was accused of having a tattoo similar to the German SS’ infamous motto. On the other hand, he regularly published Facebook posts with a clear anti-Semitic and racist stance. In one of Rig’s posts he shared his thoughts about the Roma being the biological weapons in the hand of the Jews in order to eliminate the non-Roma and non-Jewish population of Hungary.
Jobbik’s electoral victory has confirmed what we have maintained all along: there is no limit to Jobbik’s expansion, and the process could only be checked by its political rivals, although there are no signs for this to happen any time soon.
Following the parliamentary and municipal elections, the results of the current election serve as additional proof that Jobbik’s attempt to re-brand itself as a moderate party has been largely successful. All this consolidates party president Gábor Vona’s position within the party: in the future he can move it in the direction of the centre-right with more confidence. Simultaneously, the result offers Vona the opportunity to eliminate his opponents inside the party who accused him of being “soft”.
Incidentally, similar to what we have seen in Veszprém, Jobbik’s victory can also be attributed to the fact that it fielded a local candidate, working hard up and down the electoral district and managing to profit even from an anti-establishment sentiment. The current victory will clearly have an impact on support for Jobbik; there may be a widespread perception that Jobbik is a party capable of replacing Fidesz, and with this the party may consolidate its second place or even take the leading position in public-opinion polls.
Vona smashes glass ceiling
Radical nationalist Jobbik has become the key opposition force in Hungary, party leader Gábor Vona said after Lajos Rig’s victory in Sunday’s by-election in Tapolca. Vona said the win is “of historic importance” because it dispels the “myth” there is a “glass ceiling” over the party. Rig scored 35.27% of the vote ahead of Zoltán Fenyvesi of Fidesz with 34.38%. Left-wing candidate Ferenc Pad was third with 26.27%. The final result was expected to be announced on Thursday. Vona said the by-election had demonstrated Jobbik’s potential to replace the government. The Socialists and Democratic Coalition had been unable to score any significant success in Tapolca, so Jobbik had emerged as the main challenger for the ruling parties in the next elections. He said he was determined to develop Jobbik into a people’s party and promised to eliminate political excesses. Jobbik does not have and will not have a programme that discriminates on the basis of ethnicity or religion, Vona insisted. Those that expected the opposite had chosen the wrong party.
Fidesz: no magic bullet
The governing party’s “central power field” strategy (built on the concept that Fidesz remains the sole governing force whose position cannot be challenged by weak opposition forces lined up at the two ends of the political spectrum) has failed. In fact, the party suffered two defeats at the hands of leftist candidates (in November 2014 in an individual constituency in Budapest and in February this year in Veszprém) and in Tapolca it received a blow from the (far-)right direction.
Moreover, it is precisely in this fundamentally right-wing district (in April 2014 the Fidesz candidate received almost as many votes as his challengers from the right and the left combined) where the “central power field” strategy would have been expected to work. Yet, this time Fidesz simply managed to make the mark. Presumably, the party is in an even poorer condition nationwide.
The current election also made it patently clear that the party has no magic bullet when it comes to mobilisation: neither the so-called “Kubatov-lists” (databases used for door-to door campaigning), nor Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s personal appeal sufficed to guaranteed victory.
The interim election in the constituency around Tapolca has also confirmed the assumption that the durability of established institutions is a function of the prevailing balance of power in party politics – and not the other way around. As hard as Fidesz has tried to consolidate its power through a series of election reforms and centralisation keeping everyone in a dependent position, once support is withdrawn the whole structure collapses as a house of cards.
With all that, Fidesz may attempt to redraw the electoral system once again (after Tapolca, the governing party may reconsider whether the elimination of the second-round ballot would serve its purpose in the 2018 general election). However, to pass another reform Fidesz would have to find an ally in Parliament because it lost its two-thirds majority in the Veszprém by-election (currently it has but 131 delegates in a 199-seat parliament and 133 would be needed for the two-thirds).
At this point there are no signs that Fidesz is capable of adjustment, and even the current tight loss is unlikely to force it to change course. Apparently, Viktor Orbán hopes to turn the tide of public mood, putting his trust in the government’s next secret weapon, tax cuts. In the meantime, with intensifying internal conflicts, recurring management blunders, a rhetoric of “the electorate will understand it all by the end of the term” and the collapse of the party’s media and intellectual background, increasingly the third Orbán administration’s future foreshadows the ordeal faced by the leftist government after 2006.
In addition, apparently Fidesz has no adequate response for the Jobbik phenomenon: for years having essentially failed to attack its rival to the right on ideological grounds, in the final stretch of the campaign it opted for a tactic of the left that clearly failed in the past few years: the stigmatisation of Jobbik (“Jobbik is a neo-Nazi party” – as leading politicians of Fidesz repeatedly said in recent days). Although Fidesz will continue to maintain that it represent a guarantee against the far right, the message no longer carries much weight either in Hungary or abroad.
Leftist parties in shock
Far-right Jobbik’s win in Tapolca indicates that voters want a different government, however their victory is a “warning sign”, Ágnes Vadai, deputy head of the Democratic Coalition, said. Viktor Szigetvári, co-leader of the Együtt party, said his party is “not happy” just to see that ruling Fidesz’s policy “has failed”, because “the democratic opposition was running the wrong candidate and in a wrong cooperation”. By contrast, he referred to the Veszprém by-election in February where the leftist opposition supported an independent candidate, who won. “Jobbik’s gaining ground is a problem and the democratic opposition cannot rejoice,” Szigetvári added. Bence Tordai, spokesman for the Dialogue for Hungary party, called it “shocking” that an “extreme right party, which promotes (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s interests” won. Tordai also advocated maintaining the “Veszprém model” in which “both the old left and the new left” supported one candidate, whereas he said he saw no such cooperation on Sunday. The Liberals said Jobbik’s win was “shameful” for the country. Leader Gábor Fodor said the democratic opposition should make it clear that those voters who want a change of government and want Hungary to belong to the Western world must support the Liberals and the democratic left.
A win over Fidesz not only on its “home turf” (i.e., in Budapest districts) and not merely by supporting an independent candidate (as in Veszprém) would have meant a breakthrough for the Hungarian Socialist Party. It failed to achieve its goal (clearly more daunting than in the past) and with this its role as a potential challenger has become even more doubtful. This, in turn, will intensify tensions within the leftist camp and rekindle demand for new political players, a recurring issue since 2010.
For the leftist opposition the Veszprém strategy may offer a more successful recipe: in the long term the left should stand behind locally known and popular candidates and try to attract undecided voters disaffected with the government (and by now turn them away from Jobbik).