The surprise defeat of Orbán’s party in Budapest and major cities on the municipal elections on October 13 may turn out to be a turning point in the uninterrupted forward march of Orbánism.
Similarly to Erdogan losing Istambul, Orbán has lost Budapest and several major cities in the local elections. (Autocrats of every color are historically always less well received in towns and cities – while the rural population is always easier to lull into a monomaniacal world view.) Orbán’s Fidesz has also lost majority in the Budapest city council and several district councils were the mayoral seat went to Fidesz – pointing at an eventful five years ahead.
Opposition candidates won mayoral seats in 14 out of Budapest’s 23 districts and 10 out of 23 major cities in Hungary. (Five years ago only 6 Budapest districts and 3 major cities went to non-Fidesz candidates.)
A data visualization by index.hu illustrates the new Budapest, where even some Fidesz (orange) districts have opposition-majority councils.
The countryside remained Fidesz though. According to the data visualization of index.hu, Hungary now looks like this.
This election was, however, still about Orbán – and not the opposition.
It is the first and biggest crack on Orbán’s system so far. As a political scientist put it, this was the first election (of any kind) since 2006 that Orbán did not win. He did not lose it either. His party has not weakened and most of the Fidesz mayors who lost their seats have not lost any votes since 2014. But for a strongman who built his system on the belief of his undefeatability, this is a crushing non-victory.
The psychological impact on the population cannot be overestimated.
People who lost the hope that Orbán’s era might ever end have seen the impossible happening before their eyes. Well, some of them have. Readers of only Orbánist media would be excused to believe that Orbán’s party has won everywhere and Budapest still has an Orbánist mayor. As a digital folk artists put it, Orbánist papers delivered the news of the orange party’s defeat in a way that would trick the uninitiated eye.
Non-Fidesz voters have long given up on hope that Orbán can ever be defeated, even in little things. Those who persevered and still dared to stand at elections or actually go out and campaign for a non-Orbánist candidate in their town often did it with the resigned certainty of defeat, defiantly pushing ahead without any real hope.
But when the first results started coming in, eyes grew wide in surprise and the invisible crust of apathy cracked.
Orbán did not lose this election, but Hungary is no longer a single-party state, no longer a “central force field” as Orbán likes to call himself, referring to the elimination of concurrent political parties by tricky means. The so-called (also by Orbán) “dual-pole politics” is back – meaning that there is an opposition after all. It doesn’t mean that Orbán will be defeated any time soon. It just means that a non-Orbán Hungary exists and – for the first time since 2010 – knows about its own existence. To understand what that means, you must understand how deeply hopeless it appeared just a day earlier.
It is not that those opposition parties are back either. The uneasy coalition that formed for this election took 9 long years for the opposition to build, and it was only meant to defeat Orbán. It was a reluctant acknowledgement of the new electoral law that made it impossible for more than two sides to compete. So they formed a single side – despite their differences and despite the best and nastiest effort of Fidesz – but there was no love in it. And it will get even more difficult to set a single candidate for the coming elections – now that there is a real chance of winning. It was the certainty of defeat, the death of hope, that made an all-opposition coalition possible for the parties involved. It made them put aside their egos, but only because there was no juicy mayoral seat to look forward to, anyway.
But now the single-party political force field is over and politics is back. Both for Orbán and for the opposition.
Orbán now looks defeatable
This blog has been counting the instances when Orbán had to retreat – even on the tiniest things – and so far we could count them on one hand.
The futility of resistance is the cornerstone of authoritarianism. It is learned helplessness. When its victims internalize that there is nothing they can do, there is nothing they can change, no courts, no media, no election, no protest can achieve anything – they will be much cheaper to subdue. And once they have internalized that sense of helplessness, it is very difficult to unlearn it.
An autocrat cannot afford to slow down or show any weakness. A democratic politician can accept a setback, even a defeat, and carry on. An autocrat is in a corner. For an autocrat it is an uninterrupted chain of victories or political death – maybe even prison if there was corruption involved. (I’m just kidding, there always is.)
A day before the local election Orbán’s defeat was unimaginable in Hungary and apathy was so tangible, people were reluctant to even get outraged at scandals. It hurts when your outrage proves to be toothless over and over again. When the impossibly outrageous sex tapes and corruption allegations against a local Fidesz strongman emerged, people were actually quick to opine that “well, at least we know who he is. We don’t know the opposition yet.” Meaning that they managed to justify and swallow the incredible insult of a local politician snorting coke and doing pros on a yacht on their taxpayer money – not to mention the wealth he is supposedly hiding in plain sight and on the Maldives. When voters justified it for themselves they were motivated not by their love of crooks but their sense of helplessness.
The next scandal, the next whistleblower will probably meet with an audience more ready to get angry.
The next election will probably see more activists who dare to expose themselves as non-Orbánists.
The next election will see a bickering opposition and a massively changed Orbán – neither of them is known yet.