Cracks appear in Hungarian PM's election campaign

A week ago Hungary's right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban, campaigning against immigration and George Soros and boosted by a robust economy, looked a shoo-in for another commanding election victory on April 8.
But a shock landslide defeat for his Fidesz party in a local mayoral vote last Sunday has raised opposition hopes that maybe, just maybe, Hungary's most powerful leader since communism is vulnerable.
In what could be a model nationwide in next month's general election, in the southern city of Hodmezovasarhely the opposition parties all backed the same candidate.
Unheard of just a few months ago, Peter Marki-Zay, a church-going father of seven and self-declared former Fidesz supporter, duly routed his opponent by 57 to 42 percent, as voters turned out in droves despite the freezing weather.
It was the biggest defeat for Fidesz since it came to government in 2010, potentially bringing dozens of parliamentary seats thought unwinnable into play next month.
"We have shown that Fidesz can be beaten, and in April, Hungary can do the same," Marki-Zay, 45, said in his victory speech. "There is hope!"
- Lords of the manor -
Orban, 54, won a two-thirds majority at the last election in 2014 and opinion polls before Sunday indicated a repeat on April 8, with Fidesz enjoying a towering 30-point lead over its rivals.
The focus of Orban's campaign has been a continuation of his offensive against Hungarian-born US financier and philanthropist Soros, accusing him of orchestrating mass Muslim migration into Christian Europe.
But in Hodmezovasarhely at least, voters appeared to have other concerns, such as run-down local services and suspicions of corruption.
"I always voted for (Fidesz)," pensioner Juci, 70, told AFP in the snow-covered city this week.
"But after falling sick recently I was shocked to see the bad state of hospitals these days," she said.
Hodmezovasarhely is the fiefdom of Janos Lazar, 43, Orban's chief of staff, recently linked to an ongoing scandal of alleged graft centred on the premier's son-in-law, and a lavish mansion outside town with murky ownership.
"People here have had enough of Fidesz behaving like lords of the manor, it's like we live in the Middle Ages," said local businessman Zoltan Palinkas, 45.
- Trouble ahead? -
Few are writing off Fidesz, with its control of large swathes of the media, its deep pockets and benefitting from Hungary's predominantly first-past-the-post electoral system it redesigned under Orban.
But if the feat of Hodmezovasarhely can be repeated in 40 or more districts, this could even rob Orban of an absolute majority -- an unthinkable prospect a week ago.
"If disillusioned and passive voters vote en masse for one unified candidate then Fidesz could be in trouble," Andras Biro-Nagy, an analyst with the Policy Solutions think-tank, told AFP.
Since Sunday, opposition parties have signalled willingness to withdraw candidates in districts where rivals are clearly stronger, some even cautiously approaching the far-right Jobbik party.
But Jobbik, whose leader Gabor Vona has toned down the radical elements of his party in recent years, insists that only it can beat Fidesz.
The Socialists' prime ministerial candidate has ruled out coordination with the far-right.
"Newly energised anti-Orban voters could become apathetic again if the opposition doesn't act together convincingly and quickly," said Biro-Nagy.
- 'Panic attack' -
Meanwhile cracks are appearing in Fidesz, with local media saying there was a "panic attack" at party headquarters after Sunday's result and pressure on Orban to change strategy.
Pro-Orban TV pundit Andras Bencsik said Monday that it was time to "drop the primary school level" long-running campaign against Soros.
But Orban said Monday his party needs to double or triple its efforts after Hodmezovasarhely, stressing that immigration remains "the only issue at stake".
Indeed a new Fidesz campaign clip alleging that Soros and opposition leaders want to dismantle Hungary's anti-migrant border fences was released Wednesday.
"Orban's takeaway from the defeat is to deliver the same message even more intensely," Peter Kreko, an analyst with Political Capital, told AFP.
by Geza Molnar with Peter Murphy in Budapest
© 2018 AFP