The Left's plan failed miserably
Everyone here in Budapest was shocked. They were sold the idea that Péter Márki-Zay, the small town Conservative mayor, and now the honorary knight of La Mancha, could put a stop to Orbán’s rule by appealing against his many corrupt economic practices, chastising his statism and calling him a Fascist and a Communist at the same time.
All this happened while the overwhelming majority of leftist and liberal observers and pundits (including yours truly) told the public that the opposition might stand a chance in this election. There was a single party list of most opposition parties that, combined in 2018, got more votes than Fidesz — with single constituency candidates and a prime ministerial candidate selected by core opposition voters in a tumultuous primary last autumn.
The problem was that the designers of this plan forgot the most important ingredient to any electoral breakthrough: reading the room, and reacting accordingly.
The southern small-town knight of La Mancha was not interested in that. His success in the primary came after viral interviews in Hungary’s hip new YouTube channel, and gathering a small group of young, upper-middle-class faithfuls who saw him as some kind of a centre-right, pro-Western replica of the Hungarian prime minister. But the reality was that neither Márki-Zay or his opposition backers, including Budapest mayor Gergely Karácsony, had any idea about what would be their counter-offer for Hungary in the place of Orbánism.
In truth, the real challenger to Orbán came not from the Left, but from the far-Right party rival Jobbik. Following Jobbik’s emergence on the electoral map in 2010, Orbán was deft in moving the party Rightward and taking anti-immigrant territory previously dominated by Jobbik. The party soon found itself in political no-mans land, with its momentum being completely halted. The party’s then leader, Gábor Vona responded to the challenge by gathering supporters for a carefully formulated and slow shift towards a political centre. That project was, again, stopped by Orbán in his populist offensive in the 2018 election.
By 2022, Jobbik voters, whom the liberal elite and Márki-Zay both considered voters successfully converted and pacified into a pro-Western, pro-market liberal consensus, turned out to still be Jobbik voters in the 2010’s-mould: angry, radical, anti-liberal, partially opposing Covid measures and vaccines.
The liberals could not see this, but Orbán could. His resounding success was a message to pacify this most difficult, far-right electorate, with the promise of staying out of Putin’s war in Ukraine, and a centralised management of the deep economic crisis looming over Hungary. Instead of outdated dreams of a return of a capitalist-democratic gilded age, Orbán promised voters peace and a shield against the collapsing global economy and order.
If you are paying attention in Europe in 2022, you can’t say you could not see it coming. But most commentators, and all the knights of the neoliberal La Mancha order, failed to do so.