The Fidesz Party of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban lost the supermajority it has held since 2010 in by-elections held Sunday. Independent Zoltan Kesz claimed victory in the voting district of Vaszprem, beating out Fidesz’s Lajos Nemedi for a seat left vacant after Tibor Navracsics’ appointment as E.U. commissioner.
Most by-elections resulting in a single-seat parliamentary swap would attract little notice. But in this case, Orban’s party clung to its two-thirds majority by a single seat. And the Fidesz loss is a symbolic as well as a practical turning point. After the results were announced, Kesz reportedly said “we have shown a yellow card to the government.”
The Fidesz years have seen a significant paradigm shift in Hungarian politics, marked by systemic changes made possible by the party’s uncheckable two-thirds vote. Hungary has evoked serious criticism since 2010 for what many analysts characterize as anti-democratic measures.
Measures spearheaded by Fidesz have included changes to the Hungarian constitution that minimized checks and balances in the government, thereby concentrating political power in the hands of Orban’s party. Other crackdowns on the freedom of speech, press and religious expression have also caused concern among Hungarian opposition and abroad. Orban has publicly asserted his intention to build an “illiberal democracy” in his country, citing the examples of Turkey and Russia as models.
A Fidesz victory in Vaszprem was once all but assumed, but the party’s popularity seems to have waned in recent months. Orban and his party once enjoyed widespread approval for their role in avoiding an economic crisis like the one that befell Greece. But recent complaints of nepotism, corruption and unsavory alliances have eroded the prime minister’s base. According to one poll, Fidesz lost a full 12% of its supporters — or 900,000 people — in December alone.
Even without its supermajority, Fidesz maintains control over most of the parliament — so the Vaszprem upset is more likely to block future ambitions than roll back actions that Fidesz has already taken. But this change is not just a matter of domestic politics. Orban’s status as the E.U.’s enfant terrible has had a direct effect on Hungary’s foreign policy.
Indeed, Fidesz’ hold on Budapest has profoundly changed the country’s relations with both Brussels and Moscow. The warming bilateral ties between Orban and Putin have been a source of frustration for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who sees Hungary’s support of the Russian president as an inappropriate message to be sending in light of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. And yet, Orban and Putin’s relationship shows no signs of cooling: the two countries just signed a new gas deal this week. While many Hungarians see the ties with Moscow in a positive light — some credit Russia’s economic boost with warding off recession — others are more skeptical. Some analysts even partially attribute Fidesz’ fall from popular grace to its cooperation with Russia, a country that many Hungarians still resent for its stronghold over them during the communist era.
Finally, Fidesz and its illiberal policies have presented an ideological challenge to the E.U. project. In a period of deep-seated anxiety over the wisdom of the euro, proponents have countered that the E.U. is a political rather than an economic project. As such, Orban’s years of semi-autocratic rule pose a big problem. Rolling back the influence of Fidesz could be the first step to counteracting it.