Hungary’s Opposition Picks a Wild Card
Péter Márki-Zay, mayor of the former ruling-party stronghold Hodmezovasarhely, is the designated joint, prime ministerial candidate of the democratic opposition, and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s main challenger going into next April’s parliamentary elections.
Márki-Zay, often simply called MZP, is a conservative shooting star who unexpectedly became the favorite between the first and second rounds of opposition primaries held between late September and mid-October. While the primaries saw several well-known opposition faces fade into the distance—first and foremost Gergely Karácsony, the mayor of Budapest and once the main opposition favorite, and Peter Jakab, leader of the former radical-right party Jobbik—from an opposition perspective the primaries were still a considerable success.
The opposition not only demonstrated its organizational skills and competences, but more importantly, opposition politics dominated the media throughout September and October, bringing back the long-forgotten impressions of real and meaningful political competition into the Hungarian public’s eye.
The October 13 televised debate between Márki-Zay and the other main candidate, Klara Dobrev, attracted more than 800,000 viewers and was the most watched television show in the country since the European football championship final last summer. Out of the 8 million Hungarian citizens eligible to vote, more than 660,000 cast ballots in the second round of the primaries and more than 800,00 in at least one of the two rounds, far exceeding the organizers’ original goal of 400,000.
The results are even more impressive if one considers both the cyberattacks that deliberately targeted the online infrastructure of the primaries and the independent news sites that reported on them. In addition, as the Telex news site reported, the governing Fidesz party spent more money on public campaigns to ridicule opposition candidates and the primaries than the opposition parties spent on political advertising.
While the countrywide primaries were a success, it remains to be seen whether Márki-Zay will turn out to be a blessing or a curse for the opposition.
The Wild Card
His ability to seem authentic and run a great campaign aside, Márki-Zay’s victory was enabled, first by Karácsony’s strategic mistakes, then by his support once he decided to drop out of the race in favor of MZP.
In the first round, Márki-Zay finished third with 20.4 percent of the votes cast. The first round overall reflected the preferences of opposition-leaning voters. In first place was Dobrev (34.8 percent), the candidate of the left-progressive Democratic Coalition and the wife of former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, followed by Karácsony (27.3 percent). But then, in the second round, Marki-Zay was able to gather the most votes based on preference ranking, mostly at the expense of the Democratic Coalition, which is often regarded with reservations outside of the party’s core electorate.
Márki-Zay’s exceptional mobilization was clearly supported by his “anti-establishment” character. He is not affiliated with any of the six parties of the democratic opposition; he has pursued a business career in the United States and Canada, among other places; and he disparages political correctness with his rhetorical style clearly distinguishing him from his progressive-left, professional politician contenders.
His anti-establishment credentials and right-conservative values might be key assets for the united opposition list. With that background, Márki-Zay might be able to mobilize passive voters, among them disillusioned, former right-wing voters as well, who would be otherwise unattainable for candidates from traditional opposition party ranks. All this year, Fidesz and the united opposition have run neck-on-neck in the polls, so this extra mobilization boost might be essential to an opposition win. Gerrymandering by Fidesz has also resulted in a situation where other parties need to gather at least 3 percent more votes than Fidesz to win a mandate in most districts. Thus, unless the opposition attracts new supporters from rural and conservative districts, they have barely any chance to form the next government.
However, these assets might just as easily become liabilities. Except for Jobbik, the once radical-right party now closer to the center, all opposition parties represent the progressive—left or liberal—segments of the political spectrum. For opposition voters it might be relatively easy to accept Márki-Zay’s attitudes and follow his lead owing to the overlaps between his anti-Orbán populism and their overriding preference to get rid of the Orbán regime. But the same cannot be said of the opposition parties.
For the progressive opposition parties, ideological distance is not the only reason why Márki-Zay’s success is hard to swallow. This wedge of the political spectrum is reluctant to trust him for several reasons: His frequent attacks on the “old opposition,” his claim to be an outsider critical of both Orbán and the opposition party elites, and, most importantly, his unpredictability and keenness to build a power base (a political faction and potentially a new party) for himself.
Doomed to Success or Doomed to Fail?
Three factors will determine whether Márki-Zay helps mobilize voters or ruins the opposition coalition.
First, whether MZP’s popularity continues to climb. Next, his desire to carve out power positions for his own political movement at the cost of the six opposition parties. Finally, whether his day-to-day dealings with the parties will be driven primarily by cooperation or conflict.
Just days after the primaries, on October 18, Márki-Zay stunned his allies by demanding to have his own political group in the next parliament, a step that will complicate the negotiations on ranking candidates within the single opposition list, as it amounts to a threat to try and poach opposition candidates in the 106 single-mandate constituencies, just over half the total of 193.
This kind of maneuvering is easily understood in light of Márki-Zay’s desire not to be completely dependent on other parties if he becomes the next premier. However, he’s dangerously close to crossing the red line, and is making the impression that he is more focused on his political career in the long run than on mobilizing all resources and supporters to beat Fidesz in the short run, an essential prerequisite of any further power aspirations.
If support for the opposition list rises with Márki-Zay as the top candidate, if he can accommodate the sensitivities of the opposition parties and maintain close and cooperative working relations with them, and if he prioritizes short-term campaign goals over longer-term power politics, he will also be able to enjoy the full support of the six opposition parties, as beating Orbán is the topmost priority for all of them.
However, if voter support for the opposition plummets, or Márki-Zay continues to lash out against parties of the united opposition, or if he attempts to establish a new party and integrate it into the opposition alliance, the united anti-Fidesz forces could collapse, or abandon MZP and opt for a new leader. With just months to go before the elections, either outcome would be disastrous for Hungarian democracy, as the opposition would suffer a body blow to its chances of challenging the illiberal, ever more autocratic regime of Prime Minister Orbán.
Although international partners might be reassured by Márki-Zay’s pro-European and transatlantic orientation, they should be also aware of the short-term concerns orbiting around him. Márki-Zay, the joker in the pack of Hungarian politics, is raising the stakes both for Orbán and the united opposition. With him as leader, the democratic parties might have the best chance to win an election in a decade. Or to crash the ship on the rocks with no rescuer in sight.
This article was first published in Transitions on October 26, 2021.