by Alexander Faludy
Monday, 18
October 2021
Dispatch
15:26

Viktor Orbán is about to face his biggest challenge yet

Hungary's opposition parties may have found a winner in Péter Márki-Zay
by Alexander Faludy
Péter Márki-Zay

Last night’s opposition primary victory by Péter Márki-Zay (‘PMZ’ ) is perhaps the most surprising electoral result in the last ten years of Hungarian politics.

The independent mayor of the southern provincial town of Hódmezővásárhely (population 44,000) — a place whose name even Hungarians struggle to pronounce — came from nowhere to score a convincing second round victory over establishment rival Klára Dobrev. Now he will lead the combined forces of Hungary’s opposition in the general election against Viktor Orbán next Spring. 

His victory is all the more remarkable for the disparity in financial resources available to both candidates. PMZ’s campaign budget was a mere 3.7 million HUF (£8,700) compared to Ms. Dobrev’s 57 Million HUF (£133,000) — respectively the smallest and largest war chests of any candidate.

So how did he pull it off? For one, Ms. Dobrev is a divisive figure in Hungarian public life. As the wife of disgraced former Socialist PM Ferenc Gyurcsány, she struggled to win the confidence of disillusioned Fidesz supporters and floating voters — key groups for any opposition candidate.

But more importantly, Mr. Márki-Zay is a tricky politician to box, subverting many political stereotypes in Hungary. Fidesz was unable to paint him as woke or a liberal-Leftist because he is a conservative Catholic with seven children. Instead, Márki-Zay took hold of the narrative by framing his opposition to the government not in culture war terms but as a vigorous anti-corruption platform combined with robust defence of civic pluralism and the Rule of Law.

This is not the first time Márki-Zay has unsettled Fidesz. Back in early 2018, he was elected as Hódmezővásárhely’s first non-Fidesz mayor in nearly 30 years, which laid the groundwork for future opposition victories, most notably Green-Socialist candidate Gergely Karácsony as mayor of Budapest in late 2019. 

And it was Karácsony who stood aside at the last moment of this week’s elections, convinced that Márki-Zay’s conservative profile offered a better chance of victory against Fidesz then his own Left-liberal one.

PMZ’s rise does not herald the decline of populism but its development. Untainted by party support, his lack of establishment backing was crucial to his success, and his victory was as much a rebuke of the opposition party elites as it was to Orbán himself. Now, however, it is the Prime Minister whose position is looking more under threat than ever before.

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