1. Why do these elections matter?
Orban returned to power in 2010 after an earlier four-year stint and proceeded to build a regime that concentrated power to a degree unprecedented in the European Union. That prompted the bloc to launch a probe over Hungary’s erosion of the rule of law. Orban’s avowedly “illiberal” politics meld nationalism, cultural conservatism and a powerful central government. His Fidesz party’s near total control of town halls across Hungary has been crucial to increasing its influence and preventing cash-strapped challengers from mounting serious challenges in the past decade.
2. What are rivals doing?
The opposition is looking to break this trend by posting gains in younger, more liberal urban areas, where voters are less receptive to Orban’s hard-line anti-immigration and euro-skeptic rhetoric. Wins may help these parties gain resources and visibility, which they could then use as a springboard for the parliamentary election in three years.
3. Why does the opposition think it has a chance now?
Rival parties have agreed to the most extensive alliance of any election in the past decade, fielding a single candidate against the ruling party in Budapest and other metropolitan areas. The aim is to break Orban’s magic political formula of fragmenting the opposition, which has become even more effective since he changed election rules to award extra parliamentary clout to the top vote-getters in each district. The change amplified the dominance of Fidesz and has given it a parliamentary supermajority in each election since 2010, despite winning only about half the ballots.
4. How dominant is Orban?
Extremely. His ruling party has managed to expand from its traditional voting base in rural Hungary to the biggest urban areas. Fidesz currently controls 20 of Hungary’s 24 biggest cities, including Budapest. The party, which was originally founded in 1988 as an anti-communist youth group, also dominates all 19 county assemblies. Orban’s allies preside over Hungary’s biggest propaganda network -- comprising hundreds of websites, newspapers and TV and radio stations -- and the tightly controlled state media. Formerly independent institutions, including the State Audit Office, have also fallen under Orban’s sway.
5. What’s the race to watch?
Budapest. Since coming to power, Orban has stripped the capital of much of its autonomy and reduced the power of the mayor, but it’s still the economic engine of Hungary. Control of Budapest brings significant political stature. It’s also one of Hungary’s most liberal cities, where up to 100,000 took to the streets in protest last year after Orban clinched his third consecutive mandate. Fidesz claimed the capital for the first time in 2010, backing an independent candidate who’s closely affiliated with the party. Istvan Tarlos, the 71-year-old mayor, is now running for a third term. The opposition is fielding Gergely Karacsony, the 44-year-old mayor of a Budapest district, who’s tied with Tarlos in some polls.
6. Why are people comparing Budapest to Istanbul?
Hungary’s opposition has drawn inspiration from the shock outcome in Istanbul’s mayoral race earlier this year, when the candidate backed by autocratic Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lost the vote. Orban and Erdogan are friends and allies who both reject liberal European values and believe in a strong executive. During his campaign, Karacsony visited the new mayor in Erdogan’s former stronghold to compare notes on how to win an election against an outsized opponent. In a Bloomberg interview, Karacsony said the Istanbul upset showed that “in the battle between David and Goliath, David can win.”
7. Would big opposition gains spell the end of Orban?
Hardly. Fidesz is still the most popular party in Hungary and has especially strong grass-root support in rural areas. The EU’s fastest economic growth, coupled with surging wages, have also helped create an aura of political invincibility around Orban. Success in local elections would give opposition parties a shot at chipping away at that. But even if they manage an upset, the real battles lie ahead. Orban has warned, for instance, that he may financially punish cities that switch political allegiances. Poland’s example is a warning sign: Last year, the country’s opposition -- battling its own illiberal government that’s mimicked many of Orban’s policies -- swept nearly all of the major cities, including Warsaw. Yet on Oct. 13, the same day as Hungary’s local election, the ruling party is predicted to coast to victory in parliamentary contests.
(Updates with detail on Budapest mayor in fifth section, Orban’s economic record in seventh.)
To contact the reporter on this story: Zoltan Simon in Budapest at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at email@example.com, Andy Reinhardt, Andrew Langley
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