It was only a by-election for one seat, in a smallish country and in a region that Australian media notoriously ignore. But last Sunday’s vote in the Veszprém 1 constituency in Hungary has implications beyond the immediately obvious.

First a quick refresher on the background. Hungary’s right-wing government – “centre-right” in this case seems something of a misnomer – took office after a landslide election victory in 2010, which gave it a two-thirds majority in parliament. It used that position to enact a raft of controversial measures, including a new constitution and new media laws, that many saw as undermining the rule of law and advancing the political interests of the governing party, Fidesz.

In last year’s election, Fidesz suffered a substantial swing against it, but, partly due to changes it had made to the electoral system, narrowly retained its two-thirds majority, with 133 of the 199 seats – despite winning only 44.5% of the vote. Since then, prime minister Viktor Orbán has remained a controversial figure, antagonising many of his European Union colleagues and pursuing closer relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

The Russian angle has in turn helped turn the United States against Orbán as well. Last October a number of officials, including the head of Hungary’s tax office, were put on a US watch list for alleged corruption. Fidesz in response accused the US of colluding with the Social Democrat-led opposition; Orbán’s chief-of-staff said that “behind the leaders of the [Social Democratic Party] there is the American chargé d’affaires in Budapest.”

So with the government’s two-thirds majority at stake, a by-election in a government-held seat – caused by the controversial appointment of former Fidesz minister Tibor Navracsics to the European Commission – was always going to be politically interesting. It was made even more so when the opposition chose as its candidate an independent activist, Zoltán Kész, who is not only not a Social Democrat but is a leading advocate of free market policies.

That was a bridge too far for the Greens, or LMP, who fielded their own candidate. Also splitting the non-government vote was the neo-fascist Jobbik, Hungary’s third-largest party. Given that Navracsics had beaten the opposition by almost 20 percentage points last time, or more than 9,000 votes, that meant Veszprém 1 was going to be a big ask.

But Kész nailed it, with room to spare. Official results give him 42.7% of the vote, almost 3,000 votes clear of Fidesz with 33.6%, followed by Jobbik with 14.1%.

The government has put a brave face on the defeat, saying that “it no longer has any need for a super-majority, having already made all the major changes it has planned.” But it’s clearly a bad omen for Fidesz’s future – including, most immediately, its chances in another looming by-election, in the neighboring seat of Veszprém 3, caused by the death of a government MP.

No-one suggests that social democrats and free marketeers are going to become the best of friends as a result. But the co-operation between the two in Hungary is an interesting commentary on the media’s treatment of party politics in Europe and elsewhere, most of which still assumes that the division on economic policy between supporters of state and market is the most important issue around which party alignments revolve.

Not so. The presence in government of an authentic right-wing authoritarian, a self-styled “illiberal”, makes it clear that there can be such a thing as a broad centre-left alliance united by something much bigger than economics.

Hungary’s liberals and social democrats have been close for a long time; they governed in coalition from 1994 to 1998 and again from 2002 to 2008 (not an unusual combination for central Europe in the immediate post-communist period). The main liberal party, SzDSz, disappeared after the 2010 election, but the remaining small liberal groups still work together with the Social Democrats. As Fidesz – which ironically enough started out as the youth wing of SzDSz – has drifted further to the right, it has evidently made it clear to both centre and centre-left how much they have in common.

Their alliance is a neat counterpart to the way in which support for Putin has become a common thread uniting the European far left and far right, showing again that political allegiance is not as simple as it seems.

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