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Even In A Traditional 'Fidesz Village,' The Locals Are Getting Restless Ahead Of Key Hungarian Vote

Interviews with some of Taplanszentkereszt's 2,000 residents suggest that the ruling Fidesz party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban shouldn't necessarily take their support for granted.

TAPLANSZENTKERESZT, Hungary -- Vas county, near Hungary's western border with Austria, lies on an ancient trade route between Sicily and the Baltics known as the "Amber Road."

It is home to one of modern Hungary's oldest recorded settlements, Szombathely, which was founded by Romans in the first century A.D. and has since survived a devastating earthquake and invasions by the armies of Attila the Hun and Mongol khans.

But it also features many of the smaller, less-storied towns and villages that mark a more recent historical crossroads for Hungarians.

This is Fidesz country.

The farming village of Taplanszentkereszt, with its 2,000-plus residents, is a case in point.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's ruling party has won the local district in each of the last six elections, dating back to its unexpectedly quick rise to victory in 1998. A decade before, Orban and Fidesz's other founders made their political names promoting liberal democracy and ushering in multiparty elections as the Soviet grip loosened on Central Europe.

Heavily rural western Hungary's embrace of Fidesz was fueled initially by the party's fervent anti-communism in a region that for decades lay tantalizingly close to the West and its freedoms, and in subsequent decades by Orban's vague notions of national, religious, and cultural traditionalism.

Regions like this could prove pivotal -- for Fidesz and its Christian Democratic People's Party (KDNP) ally or for the United For Hungary alliance that is fielding a unified opposition candidate for the first time ever, small-town Mayor Peter Marki-Zay -- in what are likely to be Hungary's closest national elections in more than a decade on April 3.

The exchange rate and inflation are soaring, but people are still Fidesz."
-- Szabolcs

And interviews with residents of Taplanszentkereszt suggest their support shouldn't be taken for granted.

Whether sparked by billions of dollars in social handouts and tax cuts from Orban ahead of the vote, or the fallout from Russia's war on neighboring Ukraine, locals here complain that prices have shot up in this heavily agricultural community and elsewhere in the country.

"The exchange rate and inflation are soaring, but people are still Fidesz," Szabolcs, a local resident in his late 20s or early 30s who has spent his life working under the broad skies of this eastern edge of the Carpathian Basin, tells RFE/RL's Hungarian Service.

The region grows maize, wheat, and barley, in addition to winter rapeseed, red clover, and millet, crops that keep most of Taplanszentkereszt out of poverty but don't adorn it with conspicuous signs of wealth like the palatial homes and luxury cars of some richer communities. There has been more construction of late in Taplanszentkereszt, partly a result of some of nearby Szombathely's 78,000 residents moving out to the country.

With just weeks to go before the vote, Szabolcs won't say whether he thinks Fidesz will continue its win streak in his village.
With just weeks to go before the vote, Szabolcs won't say whether he thinks Fidesz will continue its win streak in his village.

Like all of the residents interviewed by RFE/RL during a visit earlier this month to Taplanszentkereszt, Szabolcs asked us not to publish his full name -- although he and others happily pose for photographs.

He is a conspiracy theorist, by his own acknowledgement. But he's unvaccinated against COVID-19, he says, not because of any of the outrageous claims but because he thinks a young body like his can mount a sufficient immune response on its own.

Szabolcs expresses regret over the plight of Ukrainians fleeing the war since Russia's invasion, but adds that "we help, even while there are also people in need in Hungary who wouldn't be given five forints."

But he thinks relative stability and economic prosperity could help the ruling party.

"When Jobbik was a far-right party, the youngsters voted for them," Szabolcs says of the conservative Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik), which finished second in the elections four years ago. "But by now [those voters] have their own property and they vote for Fidesz." Jobbik is a part of the opposition United For Hungary alliance.

With just weeks to go before the vote, Szabolcs won't say whether he thinks Fidesz will continue its win streak in his village. Some of his neighbors don't see a clear path to victory here for Fidesz, either.

Polling suggests the ruling Fidesz-led alliance should be looking over its shoulder for the first time since winning a supermajority in 2010, allowing it to reshape the constitution, tilt the electoral system in its favor, and consolidate control over civil society and state and private media to buttress power ever since.

A farmer who asks not to use his name at all says Marki-Zay, chosen through a groundbreaking opposition primary last year to challenge Orban for the prime minister's seat, is at least highly regarded in Taplanszentkereszt, even if he is not necessarily popular.

He dismisses the notion of former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany (2004-09), whose Democratic Coalition party is part of the United For Hungary grouping that picked Marki-Zay, leading a credible opposition threat himself. Gyurcsany is "arrogant," the farmer says, and "spouts nothingness."

WATCH: The European Commission will be unable to take action if Hungary's elections in April fail to meet democratic standards, according to its vice president for values and transparency, Vera Jourova.

Brussels Unable To Enforce Democratic Standards In Hungary Vote, Admits EU Commissioner
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Gyurcsany's political fortunes and his Socialist-led government were hobbled after the leak of an infamous party address in 2006, which came to be known as the Oszod Speech, in which he repeatedly and profanely accused his own government of deception and paralysis in the face of Fidesz and the political right.

For the farmer, the war in Ukraine is a concern. He thinks Orban won't join EU neighbors in funneling weapons to Ukraine to defend against the Russian invasion because he "doesn't want to lay a finger on [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. He can't -- tyrant, of course."

He is also feeling the pinch from the nearby conflict on his ability to farm. He can't get special oil for tractors, the farmer says, and fertilizer is increasingly scarce and costly.

"Everything is uncertain," the farmer says.

Other residents have come to resent the dominance of the Fidesz party that has transformed Hungary into a European stronghold of nationalist populism and "illiberal democracy."

Istvan originally voted for Fidesz but now is "annoyed by their hostility to Europe" and "their great friendship with dictators and autocratic leaders."
Istvan originally voted for Fidesz but now is "annoyed by their hostility to Europe" and "their great friendship with dictators and autocratic leaders."

Istvan, a bearded man described by another as a teacher, is a former Romanian army recruit who emigrated to Hungary during an easing of travel restrictions in the mid-1980s. He earned a college degree and taught Spanish and English, also working as a welder in Spain. He has also taken on community service jobs, linked to him receiving unemployment benefits.

He voted for Orban and Fidesz back when they were young liberals, and he expresses support for their "national and family policies." But he has since soured on them.

"I don't like them because they have centralized the governance of the country, because they have made parliament a voting machine, because they have practically turned the public media into their own mouthpiece, because they have deprived cultural and scientific institutions of their independence," Istvan tells RFE/RL.

He is also "annoyed by their hostility to Europe" and "their great friendship with dictators and autocratic leaders."

That has not translated into unqualified support for the opposition, however. Istvan cites the relative weakness of several parties in the united opposition, and says joint opposition candidate Marki-Zay is "reckless and sometimes talks bullshit."

Taplanszentkereszt is one of 127 settlements whose ballots combine to form Hungary's second-largest single constituency, known as Kormend.

Electoral changes implemented after Fidesz won a supermajority in 2010 call for a single round of voting to determine individual as well as party-list seats under a system that critics say heavily favors the ruling party.

The constituency seats distributed in first-past-the-post races account for 106 seats, or more than 53 percent of the National Assembly's 199 total seats. The remaining 93 national seats are then distributed by party list.

Istvan vows he'll vote for the single candidate from the United For Hungary opposition in his district and give his other vote to one of Hungary's spoiler parties.

"I'll be voting for the Dog Party so as not to be tortured by self-blame for helping the future government with my vote," he says. It's a reference to the Two-Tailed Dog Party, which began as a joke in 2006 but registered in 2014 after successfully challenging its exclusion before the Supreme Court.

The Dog Party's proposals have included a ban on the Eurovision Song Contest, mandatory nap time, and a program to "waste" state funds.

It fell short of parliament in the 2018 elections with just 1.73 of the vote.

Written by Andy Heil based on reporting by Gyorgy Kerenyi in western Hungary.
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    Gyorgy Kerenyi

    Gyorgy Kerenyi is a senior correspondent in the Budapest bureau of RFE/RL's Hungarian Service.

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden.