The ruling Fidesz party of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban suffered an unexpected setback in one of its strongholds when its candidate for mayor in the southern city of Hodmezovasarhely was defeated in a closely watched contest.
With more than 92 percent of votes counted on February 25, opposition-backed independent candidate Peter Marki-Zay had 57.5 percent of the vote to lead Fidesz candidate Zoltan Hegedus with 41.6 percent.
Turnout was higher than expected at 62.4 percent, topping the 58.8 percent of the last parliamentary election in 2014.
Orban’s right-wing nationalist party had expressed confidence of winning the mayoral race in the Fidesz stronghold to give it momentum leading up to the April 8 parliamentary elections.
Fidesz has governed the city of about 45,000 people for the past two decades.
"We stood up, and Hodmezovasarhely has shown that we want to get rid of the big boys bullying the whole class," Marki-Zay told a news conference.
"A new era has begun today," he said, adding that his victory indicates "there is an enormous demand for corruption, lies, and intimidation to cease in the country."
The independent Marki-Zay was supported by the Socialists; radical nationalist Jobbik; the main opposition party; and LMP, a small liberal party.
Polls indicate that Fidesz is still favored in the April elections, but a political analyst said the latest result could be an indication of a mood shift and serve as a boost of confidence for the opposition.
"This has a sweeping psychological significance," political analyst Robert Laszlo at the Political Capital think tank told the Reuters news agency.
Analyst Gabor Torok wrote that "from now on, the opposition can believe -- whether it's true or not -- that it's not playing in the old game where it has no chance to win. Instead, a new match is beginning, where if it takes to the field with smart tactics, its situation isn't hopeless."
Orban, who critics say is too close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, has called for closer ties between the EU and Moscow and has criticized what he calls the "anti-Russian" policies of the West.
Orban in February 2017 said hostility toward Russia had become “very fashionable,” making economic cooperation more difficult.
In his February 18 annual national speech, Orban said that "dark clouds are gathering” on the continent and that Hungary remained a last bastion in the fight against the “Islamization” of Europe.
“We are those who think that Europe’s last hope is Christianity…If hundreds of millions of young people are allowed to move north, there will be enormous pressure on Europe. If all this continues, in the big cities of Europe, there will be a Muslim majority,” he said in his speech.
Democracy monitor Freedom House in 2017 cited Orban in its warning that recent populist successes at the polls had increased dangers of instability in postcommunist Europe and Eurasia.
It said the populist "revival" had begun in Europe with Orban’s 2010 return to power, leading to "eviscerated" checks and balances in the EU member state, and encouraging attacks on civil society and the press in the Balkans and "nativist fear-mongering over migration across Europe."
Orban's government has also been at odds with the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, which was founded by the Hungarian-born U.S. financier Soros and which the government sees as bastion of Hungary's liberal opposition.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, The Guardian, and Bloomberg