BUDAPEST—In southeast Hungary, not far from the borders with Serbia and Romania, sits a small city of some 47,000 called Hódmezővásárhely. In February, its mayoral election delivered a stinging and unexpected defeat to Fidesz, the seemingly unbeatable party of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. That race, which pitted an independent candidate against Zoltán Hegedűs, the Fidesz favorite, provided a hypothetical roadmap for how a fractured and weakened opposition could unite to defeat Orbán and Fidesz in this Sunday’s parliamentary election: If all the opposition parties were to band together in support of a joint list of candidates in each of Hungary’s 106 individual parliamentary districts—a big if, given the wide ideological and philosophical differences between all the parties in question—they could attain enough votes to surpass Fidesz candidates.
It’s not obvious why the fate of a town the size of San Luis Obispo, California, offers lessons about the fate of democracy itself. But Viktor Orbán's Hungary has been a disturbing case study in democratic decline. Since his latest term began in 2010, he has moved to restrict freedom of the press, made it harder for the opposition to win elections, and wielded the judiciary in ways that seem to punish his political opponents. He has spoken proudly of instituting what he calls “illiberal democracy”—a system he has described as more akin to the government of Russia or Turkey than that of Hungary’s European neighbors. As Hungary's national elections approach, it’s unclear whether what happens at the ballot box can stop this trend.