Stinging defeat for Orban's party in local Hungary vote

Prime Minister Viktor Orban has previously branded the opposition as "hopeless" (AFP Photo/Attila KISBENEDEK) (AFP/File)

Budapest (AFP) - Hungary's ruling party suffered a shock defeat in a local by-election on Sunday, spelling potential challenges ahead for Prime Minister Viktor Orban with only weeks to go before a general election.

Orban, known for his fierce anti-migrant, populist rhetoric, will seek a third consecutive term in an election on April 8.

Earlier this month, he branded the opposition as out of touch and "hopeless", but Sunday's triumph for Peter Marki-Zay in key constituency Hodmezovasarhely may yet prove him wrong.

Marki-Zay, who ran as an independent but enjoyed the backing of the full spectrum of the opposition, won 57.5 percent of the votes, against 41.5 percent for ruling party Fidesz candidate Zoltan Hegedus, with 92 percent of the votes counted.

Analysts view the battle for Hodmezovasarhely, a small town in southern Hungary, as a bellwether for the national voting mood.

The result was a major shock for Fidesz's supporters, particularly because Hodmezovasarhely is home to key Orban ally Janos Lazar, who heads the prime minister's office. In the last local election in 2014, Fidesz won with 61 percent of votes.

- 'Change the mood' -

Voter turnout at over 61 percent on Sunday appeared to show that supporters of a fragmented opposition could pose more of a challenge to Orban than previously thought.

Leading news website noted not just the opposition candidate's victory, but also the 15-percent margin with which he won.

"This victory holds several lessons," the website said, adding that it will encourage the opposition to work together against Orban.

"While this victory does not endanger the probable triumph of Fidesz, it will certainly change the mood of the country in the final weeks before the election."

The Fidesz party has been polling around 50 percent although an unfolding corruption scandal involving Orban's son-in-law, and a row over an alleged government cover-up of refugee intake numbers have provided unexpected bumps for the government in recent weeks.

The size of Fidesz's likely majority is seen by analysts as the main factor to watch, with a drop from the two thirds majority won four years ago potentially loosening Orban's tight grip on power.