* Loss reminds Fidesz that victory not certain
* Opposition has ‘awakened’ - Fidesz veteran
* Change in opposition tactics in prospect
* Election set for April 8
By Gergely Szakacs and Krisztina Than
BUDAPEST, Feb 26 (Reuters) - A shock byelection defeat for Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party has triggered fresh efforts at closer cooperation among opposition parties and delivered an uncomfortable reminder to Fidesz six weeks before elections that it is not invincible.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s rightwing Fidesz, a runaway favourite in opinion polls, suffered a setback on Sunday in a mayoral race in a southern town called Hodmezovasarhely, a rural bastion of the anti-immigrant Fidesz for more than 20 years.
Orban, who poses as a saviour of Europe’s Christian nations, seeks a third straight term, pushing a fierce anti-immigration message and pursuing policies that diverge politically and economically with mainstream European Union peers.
But a shadow was cast over his prospects when an opposition-backed political novice comfortably beat the Fidesz candidate for mayor in Hodmezovasarhely near the Serbian border, a town defended by a steel fence to keep out migrants, one of Orban’s defining policies from the past four years.
“Our opposition has been dead, and now has awakened ... in the worst and best possible moment,” Fidesz founding member Zsolt Bayer wrote in the pro-government Magyar Idok, calling the outcome the first serious defeat for Fidesz in over a decade.
Despite frequent posts on his Facebook page about campaign visits, the 54-year-old Orban has yet to comment on the result.
Political analysts said Sunday’s surprise victory could trigger a change in tactics among opposition parties in the 106 constituencies in coming weeks, because it showed that Fidesz could be defeated in the April 8 contest with backing from nationalist Jobbik party.
On Monday, the strongest leftist opposition party, the Socialists, said they were ready to broaden cooperation.
“Our task is to widen the alliance if possible on the side of the democratic opposition,” the Socialists’ candidate for prime minister, Gergely Karacsony, told a news conference.
But he said he did not see a chance for a structured cooperation with Jobbik. Former far-right Jobbik has been trying to lure voters by projecting a more moderate, centrist image.
Karacsony, however, called on Jobbik to withdraw its candidates in places where an independent candidate stands a better chance, just as the Socialists did, he said.
Jobbik’s leader Gabor Vona said the by-election was a turning point.
“This sends the message that Fidesz can be defeated in every part of the country,” he said in a video on Jobbik’s website.
Akos Hadhazy, co-chairman of the green liberal LMP party, told Reuters that LMP last week decided to start talks with the Socialists and Jobbik about how to handle voter districts.
“I have no further comment until the talks bear fruit. LMP is ready for compromise as long as our principles are upheld. The result in Hodmezovasarhely shows what we have held for along time: only a credible candidate is worth our support.”
Orban has clashed repeatedly with the European Commission, over reforms affecting the judiciary and the media, which critics said put Hungary on an authoritarian path, and more recently over the EU’s migration policy which he rejects.
Based on the latest February poll by institute Zavech Research, Fidesz had 32 percent support, with Jobbik on 11, the Socialists on nine, and 34 percent of voters uncertain.
Peter Kreko, director of think tank Political Capital, said the weekend’s election sent a strong message to both the opposition and Fidesz.
“This came in time for the opposition to cooperate if they want to ... and also came in time for Fidesz to tweak its campaign,” he said. “It showed that there is not only a mathematical, but also a political, chance to beat Fidesz.”
A broad opposition alliance could redraw the pre-election map in Hungary’s 106 constituencies. However, the opposition is facing a mounting and sudden challenge now as it will be hard to align candidates due to the fragmentation.
“From now on, the opposition could believe .... that it is no longer playing an old game where it stands no chance of winning, but a new game starts where its situation is not hopeless, provided it pursues a smart tactics,” Gabor Torok, a political analyst wrote on his blog. (Writing by Krisztina Than, Editing by William Maclean)