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Hungary’s Fractured Opposition

Viktor Orbán's political opponents are deeply divided.

Major media outlets reported in October that Péter Márki-Zay, a relatively unknown small-town mayor, won the first-ever primaries held by opposition parties in Hungary. Márki-Zay’s potential to bring undecided or even conservative voters to the opposition was seen as a trump card to defeat Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in the general election on April 3.

Péter Márki-Zay has been showered with praise and interview opportunities on CNN, as well as French and German media outlets. Politico‘s European outfit put him on their list of most influential people to watch in 2022. French President Emmanuel Macron, the European People’s Party’s Manfred Weber and Donald Tusk, and several European commissioners all met with him. However, the honeymoon phase is over, and many on the left are now ringing the alarm bells.

Hungary’s opposition parties—socialists, liberals, greens, and far-right Jobbik—announced their formal electoral alliance in December 2020. Their idea was simple enough: If they combined their forces, they could beat the center-right alliance of Fidesz and the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP), who repeatedly have won clear mandates with two-third majorities in the national elections of 2010, 2014, and 2018. 

Opposition parties held joint primaries last autumn to select common candidates for each of the 106 constituencies as well as a common prime minister candidate. The primaries have dominated headlines in the Hungarian media for months. Yet, the political outcome was mixed, to say the least. 

Former socialist prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Democratic Coalition (D.K.) party came out on top. His candidates won the primaries in most constituencies, and his wife, Klára Dobrev, finished on top after the first round of the prime minister-candidates’ race. 

But Ferenc Gyurcsány has been the most toxic public figure in Hungary since 2006, when a leaked recording of him admitting to lying and misleading the public to win re-election that year aired on radio. Consequently, thousands protested in the streets of Budapest and police used brutal force against demonstrators. (These events coincided with the 50th anniversary of the 1956 revolution, when Hungarians revolted against the Stalinist regime. The Hungarian freedom fighters were defeated when Soviet tanks put a brutal end to the revolution.)

The events of 2006 shocked the entire country. However, Gyurcsány held on to power until 2009 and has remained a member of parliament ever since. After leaving the socialist party, he formed a party of his own, which grew into the strongest opposition party in the 2019 European parliamentary elections.

The second round of primaries would decide the opposition’s prime minister candidate. Behind Klára Dobrev, Gergely Karácsony, the mayor of Budapest, was considered likely to be the winner. However, he came in second. Péter Márki-Zay, running as an independent, surprisingly finished third. The three of them qualified for the second round.

Liberal outlets worried, because Karácsony and Márki-Zay risked splitting what the left considered centrist-liberal voters. This would have effectively handed Dobrev the victory with a relative majority. Because of her husband, Dobrev obtaining the candidacy was widely considered likely to lead to a resounding defeat of the opposition at the elections this year. 

Péter Márki-Zay and Gergely Karácsony discussed joining forces, but Karácsony pulled out under ambiguous circumstances. He announced that he would step down and support Márki-Zay, and his support was about as sincere as Bernie Sanders’s when he backed Hillary Clinton in 2016. 

Márki-Zay’s aggressiveness and self-portrayal as a Christian conservative was seen as a game-changer in winning over undecided voters. Finally, a fresh face who could turn the tables—or so many claimed. He was expected to deliver the undecided voters to the opposition, and perhaps even gain the support of some disgruntled Fidesz voters. Pollsters showed the joint opposition leading the ruling Fidesz-KDNP alliance. 

In December, the first public-opinion poll ordered by the opposition created a major shock. The anti-Fidesz media nervously reported that 52 percent of Hungarians would like to see the governing parties stay in power, while only 43 percent would like to see a change in government. Support for the alliance of Fidesz-KDNP was measured at 46 percent and the opposition alliance at only 32 percent. A conservative think tank’s report also confirmed the opposition’s poor performance and showed Márki-Zay’s ratings sinking since becoming the prime minister candidate in October. 

Márki-Zay had made very negative comments about the most popular policies of Viktor Orbán’s government: zero tolerance on illegal immigration and a cap on energy prices for households. Márki-Zay also expressed readiness to scrap the minimum wage (which is now higher than the average wage was during the socialist-liberal governments, and which was raised again as of 2022). 

Furthermore, Márki-Zay had his “deplorables” moment, labeling Hungarians who support border protection and the cap on energy prices as “dumb” and “mushrooms, kept in the dark, fed manure.” He later doubled down on his statement, repeating the word “dumb” over and over again. His oft-humiliating remarks about his allies have continually made coordination difficult and caused party leaders to consistently and publicly shoot back at him.

A new low of the campaign occurred on January 9, when Márki-Zay made anti-Semitic comments during one of his regular Sunday Facebook live videos. Even leftist journalists and analysts publicly expressed their outrage. Some did so sarcastically, while others abandoned all hope of victory and called for the elections as soon as possible to put the opposition out of its political misery. Still others hinted at hiding Márki-Zay from the public until election day. Jewish organizations also slammed Márki-Zay for his words. 

White-washing Jobbik, the traditional party home for anti-Semitism, of its bigotry—at least on the surface—was the bare minimum needed to make a unified opposition a reality for this election cycle. This has been a long and concerted effort that has taken several years. Back in 2012, Jobbik M.P. Márton Gyöngyösi called for “assessing the people with Jewish origin who live here, sit in parliament and in the government, who pose a certain national security risk,” from the parliament floor.

The Fidesz-KDNP government, opposition parties, and Jewish organizations slammed Jobbik for his remarks. Back then, opposition M.P.s wore yellow stars in protest and the leftist D.K. party called on the attorney general to outright ban Jobbik. Yet today, D.K. and Jobbik are the backbone of the opposition’s electoral alliance. They are poised to pick up the most seats on the opposition side. As one might predict, the left in Europe and the United States still remain silent about Márki-Zay’s comments, just as they remained silent when the electoral alliance with Jobbik was announced.

The opposition parties still have no manifesto on which they can agree on, nor a flagship policy proposal. Their only visible call to action is a collection of signatures to organize a referendum with two questions, one about blocking a Chinese university from starting a campus in Budapest, and the other about extending the duration of the unemployment benefits. 

The highlight of the announcement was when Péter Márki-Zay, speaking on behalf the large group of opposition candidates behind him and apparently clueless about their new unified proposal, said that the opposition alliance wanted to extend the unemployment benefit to 90 days. He was corrected by his advisor, who said that their aim was to extend it to 180 days. That was wrong again. A third person intervened from the crowd behind him to finally get it right, naming 270 days (nine months) as their goal. After a quick discussion on the spot they agreed that 270 days was, in fact, the correct number. Everyone who saw the press conference—from politicians to journalists to average citizens—was stupefied by this level of incompetence.

The opposition must also agree on a common party list. In the Hungarian parliament, 106 seats are won in single constituencies and 93 seats are apportioned according to votes cast for party lists. As prime minister candidate, Márki-Zay had plans to form a group of his own, dividing the pie between seven, rather than six, opposition groupings. He was denied by opposition parties in early January, but Márki-Zay expressed hope that the parties still might change their minds. 

In countries with so many parties in a ruling coalition, coming to an agreement often takes several months. The Hungarian opposition must now pull this off in record time and with no prior experience. The parties are losing their patience with Márki-Zay. This does not bode well for their desired national-election outcome this coming April—to best Orbán at the polls and wrest political control of Hungary away from the Fidesz-KDNP coalition that Orbán leads.

Joining forces seemed a good idea—on paper. But striking a deal without any ideological common ground, other than their expressed desire to remove Viktor Orbán from office, is yet another headwind for the opposition parties to overcome. They held primaries, but none of the parties was able to win outright with a definitive mandate to lead the opposition. And now they have a prime ministerial candidate who doesn’t want them and whom they don’t want either. 

András László is a political advisor to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party. He has served as head of cabinet to the Fidesz campaign director and spent 2 years in the European Parliament as press and communications advisor to the Hungarian EPP delegation.

Matthew Tyrmand is a Polish-American journalist and commentator who covers Central Europe and the EU frequently for numerous outlets in the United States and across Europe. He is a Lincoln Fellow at the Claremont Institute.