April 4, 2018 / 4:28 PM / 7 months ago

RPT-Orban re-election campaign in Hungary may be undercut by tactical voting

(Repeats with no changes to text)

* Ruling Fidesz leads polls with stable base, fractured opposition

* Fidesz will certainly stay largest party, polls show

* But many Hungarians want change

* Tactical voting may support strongest challengers

By Marton Dunai

BUDAPEST, April 4 (Reuters) - Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban leads the polls by a mile, his opposition is a bickering patchwork of smaller parties that won’t coordinate and he dominates the public agenda through his firm grip on the media.

Yet there is still a chance - a slim chance - that he could lose his majority on Sunday.

That’s because a growing number of voters - guided by widely publicised independent and party-sponsored surveys available online - may be set to discard ideology and party allegiances to vote for the candidates who are most likely to win.

“Voters might actually do what these parties fail to do, which is vote for the candidate who has the best chance,” Csaba Toth, strategic director of local thinktank Republikon Institue.

With a stable base of around two million voters - a quarter of the total - Orban will in all likelihood win a third consecutive term on April 8, his fourth overall, making him by far the longest serving premier in Hungary’s post-Communist history.

But polls show voters are increasingly willing to vote tactically. On Wednesday Citibank gave a 10-15 percent chance that Fidesz would fail to get a parliamentary majority, injecting an unexpected note of uncertainty into an election long seen as a sure thing.

Orban’s record is mixed: he has fixed the economy but unwound democratic freedoms, and while his opposition to migration has earned him success at home, it has sown distrust among his partners in the European Union.

According to a March poll by thinktank Zavecz Research, as many as 46 percent of Hungarians voters want to see a change in government, against 40 percent who want Orban to stay. The remainder said they weren’t sure.

“The forces who want a change in government ... have become ready to cooperate,” respected independent analyst Gabor Torok told the news web site 24.hu in February. “The prime minister has forged very strong ties with his voters, but in the meantime he completely alienated voters who want a government change.”

The key to Orban’s success has been positioning his party in the centre against a fractured opposition of six parties, including leftists and the former far-right Jobbik, in an electoral system that tends to favour the winner.

The potential for opposition success was shown in February in a municipal by-election in the Fidesz stronghold of Hodmezovasarhely, when the opposition parties fielded one candidate and won.

Opposition voters want their parties to repeat the strategy nationally, withdrawing weaker candidates to leave a single challenger in each district, a survey from Median showed this week.

Few opposition candidates have obliged, although on Wednesday the Socialists and a small liberal party, Egyutt, stepped aside in several districts, including the hotly contested Budapest district that includes parliament and the Buda Castle, leaving one leftist candidate and one for Jobbik.

Zavecz Research published data on Wednesday showing that almost a third of Jobbik supporters polled in March were willing to support leftist candidates, up from 19 percent in February. Leftist voters were even more enthusiastic: 43 percent of them said they would vote for Jobbik if need be, up from 26 percent.

Even if Fidesz is beaten, it will remain the largest and strongest party, said Republikon Institue’s Toth.

Various polls in March showed Fidesz support in the 27-to-41 percent range, versus between 25 to 41 percent for all the opposition put together. One million voters would not comment.

“Forcing Fidesz into a minority... is possible to do even under the present scenario,” Toth said. “If you actually want to emerge either in the left or Jobbik as bigger than Fidesz, that (requires) coordination. But that’s not a likely scenario today.”

SOFT COORDINATION

Hungarian voters will mark two ballots on Sunday: a list of individuals running for 106 seats from local districts and parties on the so-called national list, allocating 93 seats.

The district elections are decided first past the post, favouring the largest party, which also skews the national list because the winner is able to pass to his or her party in the national list those excess votes that he or she did not need.

In 2014, Fidesz won 96 of the districts and 45 percent of the votes on the national list, ending up with a two-thirds majority in parliament.

The splintering of the opposition is on display in places like Miskolc, a former industrial city in the northeast where Fidesz, Jobbik and leftist parties came within five percentage points of each other in 2014. Fidesz won that contest.

Today, polls suggest Fidesz and Jobbik are neck-and-neck in Miskolc and if voters opt for the strongest candidate instead of their favourite, Jobbik could win.

“I really don’t care who wins as long as it’s not Fidesz,” said Margit Orehovszki, a local pensioner, as she headed for a Jobbik street forum. “I think Jobbik has a better chance, although I like the Socialists too.”

Several surveys compiled by activist groups and pollsters using various methodologies, including one sponsored by Jobbik, have yielded lists of the strongest candidates in the most closely contested districts. The results, available on a website called “Orban Must Go”, are generally similar.

Adam Sanyo, a 29-year-old data analyst, has built a web site called Tactical Voting that directs voters to opposition candidates he has identified as most likely to win, using data from the 2014 election and polls in the run-up to Sunday.

His sparsely furnished living room is dominated by a large electoral map and a bank of screens. Post-it notes signify districts where the opposition has a chance. Budapest is nearly all pink, indicating as many as 18 potential leftist victories; the countryside has more than a dozen yellow Jobbik stickers.

A high turnout is likely to benefit the opposition more than Fidesz, said Gabor Toka, who led the research effort of Country for All, launched a year ago by prominent activist Marton Gulyas to identify the strongest candidates in 25 districts.

“In eastern Hungary especially, there has been a seismic shift,” Toka said. “Fidesz is no longer in the centre of the political spectrum. Which means that even if Jobbik and the leftists attack one another, their voters are ready to cooperate against Fidesz.”

The groups hope to reach 1.5 million people in a targeted social media ad campaign in the days leading up to Sunday.

“We know the districts where this can make a difference,” said organiser Katalin Igaz. “We need to reach people who may possibly entertain tactical voting, mobilise them and point them to the strongest candidate.”

Their advice is that voters split their vote: support the strongest candidate locally and their party nationally.

“If parties won’t agree on anything then civilians like me must press them or at least show who stands to win in every district,” Sanyo said.

Editing by Sonya Hepinstall

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