Hungary’s Opposition Struggles to Take the Fight to Fidesz

What looked like the first and best chance to unseat Orban is bogged down by infighting and inertia.

By , an international correspondent based in Vienna.
Peter Marki-Zay speaks at a campaign rally.
Peter Marki-Zay speaks at a campaign rally.
Peter Marki-Zay, mayor of Hodmezovasarhely, Hungary, and conservative opposition candidate for prime minister, speaks at a campaign rally in Budapest, Hungary, on Oct. 10. Marton Monus/REUTERS

In October, Peter Marki-Zay, a man few people had ever heard of, became Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s sole challenger for 2022’s parliamentary election. The independent mayor of Hodmezovasarhely in the country’s southeast went from political obscurity to the opposition’s hope after six parties decided to present a united front in a bid to deny Orban a fourth consecutive term.

Now, a year after the opposition finally united and just a few months before the pivotal vote, Marki-Zay’s challenge is to keep a fractious and disparate coalition together long enough to unseat Orban and his Fidesz political machine. Together, the United Opposition is almost neck and neck with Fidesz, according to a Politico poll—no small feat given that Fidesz controls most of the media landscape and has deep coffers to fund extensive advertising and online engagement. But if the coalition fractures—as repeatedly happened since Orban’s key victory in 2010—Fidesz will have little trouble overcoming a splintered vote.

An opposition defeat would be bad news for Hungary, a state considered only partly free by Freedom House due to constitutional reforms made by Fidesz. Budapest has been at war with the European Union over rule of law, misuse of EU funds, and the undermining of the country’s independent judiciary. Hungary was the only EU member state not invited to U.S. President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy in early December, a move Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto described as “disrespectful.”

In October, Peter Marki-Zay, a man few people had ever heard of, became Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s sole challenger for 2022’s parliamentary election. The independent mayor of Hodmezovasarhely in the country’s southeast went from political obscurity to the opposition’s hope after six parties decided to present a united front in a bid to deny Orban a fourth consecutive term.

Now, a year after the opposition finally united and just a few months before the pivotal vote, Marki-Zay’s challenge is to keep a fractious and disparate coalition together long enough to unseat Orban and his Fidesz political machine. Together, the United Opposition is almost neck and neck with Fidesz, according to a Politico poll—no small feat given that Fidesz controls most of the media landscape and has deep coffers to fund extensive advertising and online engagement. But if the coalition fractures—as repeatedly happened since Orban’s key victory in 2010—Fidesz will have little trouble overcoming a splintered vote.

An opposition defeat would be bad news for Hungary, a state considered only partly free by Freedom House due to constitutional reforms made by Fidesz. Budapest has been at war with the European Union over rule of law, misuse of EU funds, and the undermining of the country’s independent judiciary. Hungary was the only EU member state not invited to U.S. President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy in early December, a move Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto described asdisrespectful.”

But there are already signs of incipient cracks in the coalition, including from parties like center-right Jobbik and the liberal Democratic Coalition. Anna Donath, leader of the centrist Momentum Movement, one of the six parties that make up the opposition, leveled criticism at Marki-Zay, saying he’d wasted valuable campaign time. “To the outside, it looks like the opposition has leaned back, and that’s not very good,” she told Hungarian media, adding the opposition needs to press the “start button” on the campaign.

Backroom politics is one of the problems: Although Marki-Zay is running as an independent, he supports a new center-right party, the Everybody’s Hungary Movement (MMM), which he will officially join after the election. Speaking to Foreign Policy, he said one of his immediate concerns was ensuring independent candidates who support MMM and won in the opposition primaries will be able to join the new formation in spring and not be required to pledge allegiance to one of the founding six parties.

But internal bickering is distracting the United Opposition from carrying out the kind of white-knuckled political ground game it will have to master to have any chance of beating Fidesz, which has strong support in the countryside.

“While I don’t think there is a real danger of the opposition breaking up, they have not capitalized on the momentum at the end of the primaries, when they could dictate the political agenda,” said Andrea Virag, director of strategy at the Republikon Institute, a think tank. “They have left opposition voters alone a bit, and in order to win, it’s paramount they continue intensive campaigning.”

Unlike previous challengers to Orban, who have highlighted their differences to the 58-year-old, Marki-Zay sometimes highlights his similarities. Like Orban, he comes from a rural background; Hodmezovasarhely’s population is just 48,000 people. Marki-Zay voted for Fidesz between 1998 and 2010 and is socially conservative. That’s one of the reasons Budapest’s mayor, Gergely Karacsony, an early favorite, dropped out of the opposition primaries: The opposition needs to battle Fidesz on its own turf, not just in the capital.

But Marki-Zay’s deep conservatism could hinder the opposition. A devout Catholic with seven children, he told Foreign Policy he “absolutely” supports same-sex marriage in a secular state but not in the church, describing the issue as “sensitive.” But LGBTQ+ issues will have a more central role for the opposition early next year, with a referendum scheduled on Orban’s so-called child protection law, which includes a discriminatory ban on showing minors content that includes homosexuality or gender reassignment. 

“On LGTBQ+ issues, the traditional opposition is more liberal and for equal marriage,” Virag said. “Peter Marki-Zay is openly conservative, and while he supports the LGBTQ+ community, it’s not an important issue for him, and that could cause some problems.”

Meanwhile, there is little ambiguity in Orban’s messaging, which has become a lodestar for the U.S. far right; both Fox news host Tucker Carlson and former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence courted Orban in visits to Budapest this year. Already, the ruling party is getting into election mode by issuing sweeteners, such as a 5 percent hike in pensions in 2022, and its campaign against the opposition will no doubt ramp up in January next year. That will likely highlight the party’s anti-immigration stance and Marki-Zay’s political inexperience. Orban has already accused the United States and his nemesis billionaire financier, George Soros, of trying to interfere in next year’s election, telling a crowd in Budapest they plan to use the media, money, and networks to ensure an opposition victory.

For the opposition, that makes it all the more important to accelerate what seems a stalled campaign.

“We support Peter Marki-Zay. He is our biggest chance of winning next year’s election,” said Katalin Cseh, a Momentum Movement member of the European Parliament. “Of course we are impatient. People expect a lot from us. We’re ready to get going.”

Amanda Coakley is an international correspondent and Milena Jesenska journalist fellow at the IWM in Vienna. She covers Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Twitter: @amandamcoakley

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