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Hungarian opposition mounts strong challenge to Orban's Fidesz party in Budapest

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Opposition Socialist candidate Gergely Karacsony
Opposition Socialist candidate Gergely Karacsony -
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A fiercer-than-expected battle is raging for Hungary's capital in Sunday's (October 13) municipal election.

The main opposition candidate is hopeful a win could "prise open a crack in Viktor Orban's system", whose party, Fidesz, has not lost an election for 13 years.

More than 3,000 mayors and 16,000 councillors will be elected nationwide in Hungary on Sunday, and although the ruling Fidesz party is in the lead, its margin of error is tighter than usual — especially in Budapest.

Fidesz's candidate, incumbent mayor Istvan Tarlos, is expected to gather 49% of the vote, according to Europe Elects, five percentage points higher than his closest rival, the main opposition candidate Gergely Karacsony.

But according to Andras Bozoki, professor of political science at the Central European University, "due to the changing political environment, polls are not reliable anymore."

"Anything can happen," he told Euronews.

Back in 2014, Tarlos had secured his reelection with a 49% share of the vote, ahead of the fragmented opposition by nearly 13%.

'Undue advantage'

This time around, five opposition parties — including the Socialist party, two Green formations, centrist parties and the right-wing Jobbik — have banded together to support a single, common candidate in the hope of circumventing the changes to election rules Prime Minister Orban introduced after his landslide win in 2010. These changes gave Fidesz an "undue advantage", according to the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe.

"They finally realised that under this electoral law (a) fragmented opposition has no chance to win. Their resources are scarce anyway so they need to collaborate in the elections," Bozoki explained.

The strategy was similarly deployed earlier this year in Turkey when opposition parties joined forces to take Istanbul, weakening President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party.

The candidate they've chosen to rally around is socialist Gergely Karacsony, currently at the helm of one of Budapest's districts. The 44-year-old has pledged to burnish the Hungarian capital's green credentials, tackle corruption, and alleviate the affordable housing shortage.

Tarlos, 71, has, meanwhile, been touting his record of modernising the city's infrastructure and promised further investments.

He also refuted that he is simply a mouthpiece for the Fidesz party, arguing that he has, at times, argued with government officials, adding, however, that it would be less "detrimental" for Budapest to be led by someone who is not in opposition with the government.

Bozoki disputed this, telling Euronews that "Tarlos is the man of the 1980s, an old fashioned engineer with no ideas. "

"He is not independent from the Fidesz leader, in fact he is widely seen as a servant of Viktor Orbán.," he added.

'Stakes are high'

He told reporters on Friday that a victory would constitute "the first serious check on power" for the government, which he accused of centralising "not just politics but the economy and the media".

"Winning back the capital can prise open a crack in Viktor Orban's system," he added.

Sunday's municipal elections will be the last test for Fidesz until the parliamentary elections of 2022 and a loss would be highly symbolic. Orban's party has not lost an election since 2006, sweeping the board in local, parliamentary and European elections since then.

Additionally, the capital is home to over 15% of the country's population and accounts for about 30% of its economy.

For Andras Piko, the opposition candidate in the capital's eighth district, a victory would allow the opposition "to build a power-base and get access to resources".

"If it shows it can govern, it can then mount a serious challenge to Orban in 2022," he went on, adding: "the stakes are high."