The election success in Jászberény and what lies behind

Galgóczi Eszter – Vető Balázs

In a world of consecutive Fidesz two-thirds, it seems like a miracle of God when one of the opposition parties wins by such a margin.Of course, there are some places where these wonders are more common. Just think of József Tóth and his team, who won the elections for mayor and local councillor in District XIII.But the emergence of a new miracle always inspires political wonder-wishers. Jászberény has become such a “wonderland”. But no miracle has happened here.

What happened in Jászberény? In the 2019 local elections, Lóránt Budai was elected mayor under the colours of the Közösen Jászberényért Association. He confirmed his position with a second election, as the election had to be repeated at the initiative of Fidesz due to the small difference in votes between the mayoral candidates.The second time around, Budai won by a comfortable margin of 3,758 votes, almost twice as many as the incumbent Fidesz mayor.However, the political situation in the assembly was less favourable, with Fidesz still holding half of the seats and winning six of the seven seats in single-member constituencies. The mayor also received seven opposition votes and there were some politicians who won seats for Mi Hazánk.

This division first made substantive work impossible, and then led to the dissolution of the board. József Gedei, a local man from the Democratic Coalition, who was formerly an MSZP member of parliament and then mayor of the city for one term, played a major role in all this. Gedei initiated the dissolution of the board with the support of Fidesz. However, one of the most unlikely political coalitions in post-2010 Hungary has now embarked on a path to complete failure. One reason for this is that the mayor and his remaining supporters gave an unusual response in Hungarian politics: they voted to dissolve the board. They did not flee into the lukewarm swamp of abstention and explanation, but stepped up and took up the challenge.

The results speak for themselves, with the mayor – practically maintaining his 2019 support – winning a landslide victory over Fidesz’s so-called independent candidate. Candidates of the Közösen Jászberényért Association won ten of the ten municipal constituencies. The mayor now has a stable majority in the council, with Fidesz holding a total of four seats on the list. József Gedei of the DK, who started the whole dissolution avalanche, has been expelled from the city council.

How did this happen? It is worth looking at the numbers. The first unusual thing is the level of participation. The most common pattern in this respect is that the turnout in parliamentary elections is usually significantly higher than in local elections.Until 2019, this was no different in Jászberény, where the level of activity remained below fifty percent in both 2014 and 2019, with local elections moving 40-45 percent of voters. The turnaround was the repeat mayoral election, where activity levels exceeded 60 percent and remained at that level for the by-election

Overall, this means that there are between 3,500 and 4,000 voters who have not previously been involved in local politics, but since 2019 feel they have a say in local politics. They are the ones who first felt they could not stay at home in the run-off mayoral election. Who are they? If we compare the number of votes cast for mayor with the number of votes cast for local party lists in the 2022 parliamentary elections, we see that the opposition’s joint list received almost as many votes (8246 votes) as Lóránt Budai (8267 votes). If we compare these vote totals with the list results of the 2018 parliamentary elections, where the opposition parties ran separately, we also get a very close result (8,621 votes).

In drawing lessons behind the numbers, the first vote in 2019 is of great significance, as Budai did not have the united opposition behind him then. At that time, the majority of local opposition sympathisers, like many of their fellow Fidesz citizens, thought that they did not need to participate in the municipal elections. The rerun of the election has transformed this situation, and based on the numbers, Lóránt Budai was able to turn this situation to his advantage, to mobilise the opposition camp. The Fidesz candidate was not able to do the same, or only to a lesser extent. The mayor was then able to maintain the unity and activism of the camp behind him, despite having to live with a political situation of conflict that made effective city management impossible.In such a way that the local leader of the Democratic Coalition, the party that provides a significant part of his support base, after a while openly defied him.

The main reason for this is that political identities need organic connections in order to be valid. A supporter needs to identify with a political actor in order to become a voter, to cast his or her vote in the privacy of the polling booth.Lóránt Budai was able to achieve this organic connection, and the opposition voters saw and see in him the actor who represents them. Local reports show that they also see him as the politician who cares about them, whom they can reach, whom they can trust.

Of course, this also requires another thing that is rare in Hungarian politics today: political courage. Courage in those situations where a choice has to be made between the risky but characterful path and the easy but blurry one.Lóránt Budai could have fiddled, negotiated, mumbled the by-election and tried to fill the remainder of his term as lame mayor. He did not. He chose the risky road, went down it and came out stronger.

Overall, there was no miracle here. It is not a miracle if a politician pursues a policy with character, courage, representing the interests of those who elected him and maintaining a genuine relationship with them. Politics in which winning power games is not an end in itself, but a means to an end, to implement his programme, to lead the community to shared success. This is called political work, which the opposition in Jászberény, led by the mayor, has done.

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