“The RMDSZ (Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania) is the oldest and largest minority party in the country, since its democratic chapter was established after the fall of Communism, and aside from minor gains from smaller challengers, mostly in the homogeneously Hungarian Székelyföld or Szeklerland, it was able to consolidate its power among most Hungarian-speaking voters across Transylvania. Of course, this was never enough to ensure healthy political representation for these communities, because in ethnically mixed counties the key positions would normally go to Romanian politicians.”
Romanian local elections are rarely cheerful events for the Hungarian communities living in Transylvania. The number of Hungarians is dropping at a slow but steady rate (from 1.6 million in 1992 to 1.2 million in 20111) and in consequence their chances for political representation in key positions are also declining. Traditionally, Hungarian parties stand a chance only in constituencies where Hungarians are the majority, so in the past thirty years they have largely lost the diverse urban centres, as soon as the Romanian population there surpassed 50 per cent. Yet despite this trend, this year’s election showed us that Transylvanian politics can be much more than just ethnic headcounts, and that communities can move forward to heal their wounds together.
The RMDSZ (Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania) is the oldest and largest minority party in the country, since its democratic chapter was established after the fall of Communism, and aside from minor gains from smaller challengers, mostly in the homogeneously Hungarian Székelyföld or Szeklerland, it was able to consolidate its power among most Hungarian-speaking voters across Transylvania. Of course, this was never enough to ensure healthy political representation for these communities, because in ethnically mixed counties the key positions would normally go to Romanian politicians, to whom the interests of their Hungarian citizens make little to no difference in the long term. Romanians tend to have a hard time understanding the everyday problems minorities face in the country, and are usually ready to compromise only when it is vital to defeat other parties. This time it was different. After years and decades of losing ground in diverse urban centres, the RMDSZ was finally able to mobilize its voters in unprecedented numbers and score a historic victory in September that changed the outlook of Transylvanian politics. Specifically, it has won the election in 199 constituencies and four counties, but most importantly it was able to claim the mayor’s seat in three cities that have not been majority Hungarian for a long time now.2
The surprising and general trend of this election was that RMDSZ candidates gained significantly more votes than the ethnic composition of the areas in question would have predicted. Gábor Kereskényi easily won in Szatmárnémeti (Satu Mare in Romanian) with almost 52 per cent of the votes, despite the fact that the city’s population is only 37 per cent Hungarian. The RMDSZ victory in the 55 per cent Hungarian-speaking Nagykároly (Carei) came as no surprise, but winning almost 70 per cent of the votes certainly did. Another pleasant surprise was the case of Szászrégen (Reghin), where only a quarter of the residents speak Hungarian, yet RMDSZ candidate Endre Márk became the mayor with over 43 per cent of the vote, replacing Romanian mayors in the city for the first time in 12 years.3
Without any doubt, the most significant victory of the RMDSZ — both practically and symbolically — was achieved in the city Marosvásárhely (Târgu Mureş) which had been governed by the same Romanian mayor for the past twenty years. But to understand why the election of Zoltán Soós into the mayor’s office gave way for widespread celebrations across both Transylvania and Hungary, we first have to look at this event from a historical perspective.
Marosvasarhely has for centuries been regarded as the capital city of Szeklerland. It grew as an important trading and administrative centre in the Middle Ages, quickly becoming a cultural and political hub in the region. During the Ottoman occupation of central Hungary, two of Transylvania’s princes were crowned in the city, further heightening its strategic and political importance. Later, in the 19th century, Marosvasarhely saw an accelerated process of urbanization and industrialization, which — with grandiose architecture unusual in cities of a similar size — established it as one of the most elegant cultural centres in Hungary.4
At the time of the Treaty of Trianon in 1920, Marosvasarhely was close to being 90 per cent Hungarian. Realizing its strategic importance as home to the biggest Hungarian bloc in the country, Romanian authorities both before and under Communism systematically sought to significantly change those numbers. As in other big cities of Transylvania, the deportation of Hungarians and forced settling of Romanian citizens into their homes, and the construction of new housing districts were routine practices and had tremendous results. By the time the Soviet Bloc fell, the proportion of Hungarians living in Marosvasarhely had dropped to just above half. It was time for one final push.
One of the darkest chapters of contemporary Romanian history was the so-called Black March, a violent pogrom against ethnic Hungarians living in the city, though it is still unclear who organized it. In March of 1990 a caravan of 13 buses, full of armed Romanian civilians from different villages, arrived in the city and launched an attack on locals who were protesting their lack of rights to Hungarian-language education. The ensuing battle lasted for days, and even though the military arrived with a number of tanks, the soldiers were ordered to stand down and do nothing while the people fought with batons, axes, pitchforks and Molotovs. The results of this pogrom turned out to a catastrophe for Marosvasarhely. Five people died, hundreds were seriously wounded, but most importantly, it successfully planted fear inside locals’ hearts. Fifteen thousand people left the city in the following years, changing its face forever.5
These bloody events of 1990 are widely remembered as “The Fall of Marosvásárhely”, and rightly so. The gradual demographic change gave way to the election of Dorin Florea as mayor in 2000, who ruled uncontested for five consecutive terms. As the proportion of Hungarians dropped close to 40 per cent, people seemed to have given up on ever having Hungarian leadership in the city again. But 2020 is no ordinary year, and miracles sometimes do happen. Zoltan Soós, the RMDSZ candidate, won the election with over 50 per cent of the vote. Now, one might ask what the reasons behind these unforeseen victories might have been? How could the RMDSZ overperform in the most contested areas, even where the ethnic composition was unfavourable? The answer, as always, lies in a range of different factors which could produce this outcome only in fortuitous alignment. The most significant reason is the turnout. Although turnout at local elections is usually above 50 per cent, this year marked a record low turnout of 45 per cent.6 The pandemic certainly played a role in this, as well as the drawn-out campaign, which may have dampened voter enthusiasm. The election was initially planned for the spring of 2020, but the first wave of infections forced the government to postpone it by half a year. It seems that one single party was able to keep its voters interested, even after months of delay: the RMDSZ. Of course, the high voter turnout among Hungarians was also due to the fact that the governing party of Hungary, Fidesz, was aiding and supporting the RMDSZ throughout the race.
Another factor could have been the deeply divided nature of Romanian politics. On a national level the campaign was all about the constant fighting and blame-shifting of the two giants: the National Liberals (PNL) and the Social Democrats (PSD). In recent years, neither party has been able to stay in government for long, and public trust in both has been steadily haemorrhaging. This has led to the establishment of new and aspiring parties, such as the progressive USR-PLUS Alliance and the liberal Popular Movement Party (PMP), who seek to gain voters at their expense.7 With the Romanian voters split between half a dozen parties in each constituency, it was easy for the RMDSZ to take the lead with the unified Hungarian voters.
The most decisive reason for their success, however, seems to have been the RMDSZ’s new campaign strategy which proved extraordinarily successful. As the party representing the largest minority in Romania, the RMDSZ has usually run on a platform of explicitly nationality-centred rhetoric, trying to base their message on the patriotic sentiment of their voters. Of course, given the ethno-cultural nature of the party and the situation of Hungarians in Romania, it would be foolish not to do so. But this year they tried something different, namely by addressing Romanians as well. Indeed, the RMDSZ were particularly careful to ensure that their messages would also reach the Romanian-speaking voters by, for example, making all campaign materials available in both languages from early on. Then they carefully reframed their issues and talking points to make them appealing to a wider audience. Soos did not spend the whole campaign talking about the interests of Hungarians in Marosvasarhely, but instead systematically pointed out the failures of his predecessor, uncovered massive corruption scandals and made compelling promises of progress and harmony for all the residents of the city.8 His message was one of peace and unity, regardless of nationality, and that has unquestionably attracted a significant number of Romanian supporters to his camp.
In the end, that is the only viable message that can make a real difference. Communities cannot reconcile with the past unless they do so together. The horrors of the Black March have left their mark on Marosvasarhely for decades, but now the time has come to move forward together. Politically, the Hungarians have retaken cities that they thought had been lost forever, but in order to really benefit from these gains, they must keep up the spirit of this campaign, the spirit of peace and unity. Those cities are home to both communities; at long last let them build their communities together.
1 “Népesség, etnikumok”. ErdélyStat, retrieved 6 November 2020. http://statisztikak.erdelystat.ro/adatlapok/erdely/3280.
3 Imre Örs Márkos, “Törtenelmi magyar győzelem…”, Origo, retrieved 6 November, 2020, https://www.origo.hu/nagyvilag/20200928-kiutessel-gyozott-az-rmdsz.html.
4 “Marosvásárhely története”, Visit Mures, retrieved 6 November 2020, https://visit-mures.com/hu/l/marosvasarhely-tortenete.
5 Csaba Zoltán Novák, “Forradalom és rendszerváltás Marosvásárhelyen”, MTAK, retrieved 6 November 2020, http://real.mtak.hu/15339/2ZMarosvasarhely%2520tanulmany06.pdf.
6 “Alegerile locale 2020”.
7 “Romania — 2020 General Election”, Politico, retrieved 6 November 2020, https://www.politico.eu/europe-poll-of-polls/romania/.
8 Bálint Ablonczy, “Húsz ev után újra…”, Válasz Online, retrieved 6 November 2020, https://www.valaszonline.hu/2020/09/18/romania-erdely-marosvasarhely-valasztas-soos-zoltan/.