Hungarian municipal elections 2019

by Bonifác Makkai
Has Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán truly suffered a defeat?

Has Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán truly suffered a defeat? – a closer look into the Hungarian municipal election of October 13, 2019

“Hungary’s Opposition wins Budapest election”, “Orbán Loses Budapest as Hungary’s Opposition Breaks His Hegemony”, “Orbán suffers defeat as opposition wins Budapest mayoral race” are just some of the main headlines on the recent Hungarian municipal election from major international media outlets like Reuters, Bloomberg or Politico. How should the results be understood in terms of Hungarian domestic politics? What does this mean for PM Orbán’s long-standing ruling party and what consequences could it present to EU level healthcare policy coordination? A closer look into the election statistics should caution us from making premature conclusions.

Ever since the landslide victory of Mr. Orbán and his right-wing Fidesz-KDNP (Christian Democratic Party) coalition in 2010, it seemed that his political hegemony in Hungary cannot be challenged. Electoral success after success, Mr. Orbán even made it clear during his victory speech on May 10, 2018 – following last year’s general parliamentary election – that he was thinking in terms of a 12 years-long mandate – effectively governing until (at least) 2030. His political approach gained European attention as well especially due to his vocal opposition to the EU’s handling of the migration crisis that started in 2015. Many speculated that this line of political communication meant Mr. Orbán had serious European political ambitions. However, now it seems that both these visions might fall short of realisation. First, the European Parliamentary elections in May 2019 did not bring the desired results for him across the European Union (with his key foreign allies getting weaker support than expected and Fidesz’s position within the European People’s Party remaining uncertain); second, the recent municipal elections of October 13, 2019 saw key positions won by opposition parties1. Now, these results might also affect Mr. Orbán’s plans regarding the government’s healthcare policies which has seen serious challenges recently in terms of decision-making efficacy.

The Janus-faced nature of the election results

The turnout of the municipal election was 48.58% percent – higher than 5 years ago. Without a doubt, the most important arena was for the mayoral post in Budapest. Only a few days prior to the election night, analysts would have said that the Fidesz-backed incumbent István Tarlós was the favourite. However, by the afternoon on the day of the election when partial results were already available, it was clear that Gergely Karácsony, the common mayoral candidate of the opposition parties would become the next mayor of Budapest who ran on a campaign of a green and European capital. A considerable blow for Fidesz-KDNP.

 

However, that was just the tip of the iceberg. Bearing similar importance, opposition parties managed to claim the majority of Budapest’s districts even winning key battles in some areas that were considered long-time Fidesz strongholds (having been Fidesz-led districts since 1990!). Opposition parties gained 259 district representative seats compared to 178 seats in 2014, while Fidesz-KDNP lost 83 seats in the capital city in the same time period.

 

On a national level, opposition candidates took over leadership in over two dozen large towns (above 10,000 inhabitants) from the ruling Fidesz-KDNP coalition as well. At first glance then, it seems that the opposition victory is as complete as ever in the past decade (a statement which stands to be true on its own).

However, a larger context provides a more balanced picture. If we look at the general support for Fidesz-KDNP in terms of the percentage of the total vote count in the past four elections, it shows that the popularity of Mr. Orbán’s ruling party remains relatively unchanged and strong2. This is true for this municipal election as well with the Fidesz-KDNP coalition having managed to increase the total number of votes received. Although 10 out of the 22 county towns (capitals of the counties – the main administrative areas in the country) in Hungary have been overtaken by opposition candidates, the Fidesz-KDNP coalition still heads the remaining 12 county towns as well as the general assemblies in each and every county in Hungary. Thus, while Fidesz-KDNP might have lost key positions in numerous large cities and towns, the rural villages remain firmly dominated by the governing party. The data could therefore be interpreted as showing a trend according to which Mr. Orbán’s party is losing the confidence of the Hungarian educated and urbanised population while cementing its lead among the less educated and poorer segments of the population. A closer look into the results of key capital districts even shows that some of the Fidesz-KDNP mayoral candidates received more votes compared to 5 years ago – but still lost.

 

If the support for Fidesz-KDNP remains stable and enduring in term of sheer numbers, how could the opposition claim such a victory? The answer foremost lies in the recent strategy of opposition parties putting forward one common candidate against Fidesz-KDNP wherever possible. Through deliberate and persistent negotiations, the opposition parties worked out numerous deals all over the country for key positions, i.e. they commonly supported one another’s candidates wherever a deal was reached. This strategy translated into success in many places. Secondly, Fidesz-KDNP suffered a PR crisis just days before the election day when a whistleblower revealed a sex scandal and potential misuse of public funds by a Fidesz-KDNP mayoral candidate for the county town Győr which may have cost the governing party votes across the country (noting that despite the scandal the candidate still won the mayoral seat).

While support for Fidesz-KDNP in terms of crude electoral numbers have not diminished overall, the pooling and concentration of opposition voters have clearly influenced the election results. However, therein also lies the conundrum: if the general electoral support for Fidesz-KDNP has not decreased, then can it be said that Mr. Orbán’s “hegemony” has been broken? In terms of the current opposition morale and certain key political positions – perhaps; in terms of crude numbers – hardly. Many voters remain satisfied with the governing party and consider its economic and family policies successful – ensuring continued electoral support for Fidesz. The results nevertheless remain indicative that the opposition can still be capable of winning by working out commonly agreed political strategies. The Fidesz-KDNP coalition will now certainly evaluate these results and develop strategies to counteract the coordinated moves of its political rivals.

It remains to be seen whether opposition parties can capitalise on this perceived electoral success and turn it into a momentum in the coming general election in 2022. If the past 10 years are any indication at all, they have a very rough road ahead.

The uncertain future of Hungarian healthcare policy

How has the election affected the state-of-play of healthcare in Hungary and what does this mean for the implementation of the EU’s public health strategy?

Hungarian public health and healthcare issues are mainly undertaken by the Ministry of Human Capacities, a super-institution that included several areas including healthcare, education, higher education, vocational training, research and development – among others. Following the landslide victory of the Fidesz-KDNP coalition at the general election in April 2018, the competencies of the ministries were restructured to varying degrees, as such, some of the responsibility areas of the Ministry of Human Capacities were transferred to the newly created Ministry of Innovation and Technology led by former State Secretary for Higher Education, László Palkovics. The new Minister of Human Capacities, Dr. Miklós Kásler, an oncologist, faced challenges from the start of his tenure. Since then, several major areas have been transferred to the Ministry of Innovation and Technology, including higher education, major scholarship programs, and societal integration. Most recently – after the recent municipal election – news emerged that clinical drug trials as well as medical vocational trainings will also be overtaken by the Ministry of Innovation and Technology signifying that even the health portfolio is now getting restructured. The uncertainty caused by these changes were exacerbated by abrupt replacements in key leadership positions as well within the Ministry of Human Capacities – including the recent replacement of the State Secretary for Healthcare – which caused difficulties in the decision-making processes slowing down the adoption and implementation of numerous public health initiatives.

These issues within the Hungarian healthcare administration may adversely affect the EU-level cooperation efforts as well as the implementation and coordination of the European Commission’s public health strategies. National representatives based in Brussels have to regularly report to and consult with their responsible national head institutions for directions and official positions. Should prolonged difficulties arise in this process at home, it can slow down EU-level legislative and coordination efforts in Brussels, especially in fields of transnational relevance, such as patients’ rights in cross-border healthcare, legislative processes regulating medicinal products, or even financial negotiations on cohesion funds with relevant healthcare applications.

Some political analysts believe that there will be a leadership change at the head of the Ministry of Human Capacities in the near future which would fundamentally change how healthcare legislation and public health initiatives are tackled in Hungary and in turn, how public health issues would be coordinated vis-á-vis the European Union. The concrete effects of such a change can only be quantified, however, if and when a decision is made.


Sources: National Election Office, Index.hu, 444.hu, nepszava.hu, magyarnemzet.hu, kormany.hu, magyarkozlony.hu, bloomberg.com, politico.eu, reuters.com

[1] Opposition parties here reffered to (from left to right on the political spectrum): Hungarian Socialist Party, Democratic Coalition, LMP (Politics Can Be Different), Momentum Movement, Jobbik

[2] Precise comparison between elections is inherently difficult to make since the voting rules and the method of result calculation are different, nevertheless, the comparison still serves the general point.