A lengthy face off. This is what lies ahead between the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the single candidate for the opposition, Péter Márki-Zay, who are gearing up to the parliamentary elections to be held next April. A crucial moment for Hungary, whose electorate is called to choose whether to reconfirm their confidence in the outgoing premier or opt for change.
Truthfully, Márki-Zay’s threw his hat in the ring already a few months ago, when he decided to participate in the primaries organized by the various opposition parties. A competition created to support a single candidate to oppose Orbán, and significantly increase the chances of victory.
On the eve of the primaries the outcome seemed clear. The favorite to win was the green and progressive mayor of Budapest Gergely Karácsony, who emerged in early summer as the main opponent to the government’s plans to build the Chinese Fudan University campus.
However, the first round of voting presented an unexpected scenario, with Karácsony being overtaken by the Democratic Coalition’s Klara Dobrev. Immediately behind her, the independent outsider Márki-Zay, just off a brilliant election campaign, and the most charismatic candidate in the televised debate between the candidates. At that point, the mayor of Budapest decided to retire and to through his support behind the latter, considering him the ideal profile for the race for the position of prime minister. A choice that turned out to be correct, since Márki-Zay won the ballot against Dobrev with 56.7% of the votes.
Politically placed on the center-right, Márki-Zay is often referred to as an American politician. Behind him he does not have a real party, but a movement he launched in 2018, when he ran and won the municipal elections in Hódmezővásárhely, a town in the south of the country, for which he is still mayor. He is forty-nine years old, a Catholic, and lived for many years in Canada. As a young man he was a supporter of Fidesz, Orbán’s party, as he revealed recently in an interview with Le Grand Continent. The departure began in 2002, when the party began to take on an increasingly populist imprint. Today Márki-Zay identifies the Fidesz government as “corrupt” and made up of “criminals”. In more recent years he has also been approached by Jobbik, a once extreme right-wing party, which also participated in the recent primaries. Advances that he has always refused.
His victory in the primaries first surprised the parties that participated in the electoral coalition. András Bozóki, professor of political science at the Central European University in Vienna, explains that the biggest difficulty at the moment is precisely to keep his allies at bay. “There are technical problems, for example on who will have to lead the electoral campaign”, he observes, “he, on the other hand, does not have good relations with the parties. However, I think these are problems that will be solved. They are all in the same boat because their common goal is to defeat Orbán”.
Clinging to Power
In April, Viktor Orbán will run for his fifth term as prime minister, the fourth in a row. His electoral campaign officially began on October 23rd, on the anniversary of the Hungarian revolution. A campaign that for the first time sees him chasing his opponents. According to a poll released last month by the think-tank Zavecz Research, the opposition will overtake Fidesz by four percentage points. A situation that Bozóki explains as follows, “Orbán is in trouble and is becoming increasingly unpopular. The radios and televisions close to him try to convey the message that everything is going well, but that’s not true. The country was in serious debt during the period of the pandemic”.
To try to regain support, the Hungarian premier loosened the government’s purse strings. The main beneficiaries will be pensioners, who in 2022 will receive a 5% adjustment on the expected monthly payment. In addition, in February, just before the election, they will receive a one-month bonus. A similar policy was adopted for the labor market, with a 20% increase in the minimum wage, while in the fiscal field there was a cut in taxes on employment equal to 750 billion forints (about 2 billion euros). Against these expenses, inflation has soared, reaching 7.4% in November, while the budget deficit indicated by the government for this year will be 7.5% of GDP.
In addition to this strategy, the opposition denounced the risk of opaque maneuvers to change the outcome of the vote. A month ago it went to the Constitutional Court because of a change to legislation on the definition of residence, which would consider “residence” what is in reality a simple domicile. The fear of observers is that this stratagem could be used to tip the balance in the most uncertain constituencies. In this way, Fidesz could relocate thousands of votes at the last moment and possibly win.
Another irksome element could be the oligarch György Gattyán, the third richest man in Hungary, founder and owner of Docler Holding, a tech multinational with 1300 employees worldwide. A few days ago, he announced he would be running. “It was a real surprise. He does not even live in Hungary” comments Bozóki, “it is possible that he was persuaded to participate by Fidesz with the aim of dividing the opposition”.
Bozóki also points out that if Márki-Zay were to win, a problem of no small importance would arise. “Orbán has created a kind of deep state, with key men in its main apparatus. Even if the opposition wins, it will be difficult to remove these people. A qualified majority is required to turn things around. The impression is that the prime minister wants to prepare a scenario whereby if he loses there will be a chaotic situation and he will be able to return after a couple of years”.
The European Key
Notwithstanding these maneuvers, Márki-Zay’s chances of victory are good. Compared to his opponent, he can draw on a wider electoral pool. In addition to the votes of the left, he could also pick up the votes of those discontented with Fidesz.
Furthermore, being moderate could play an important role on the European front. A couple of weeks ago Márki-Zay met with the Polish opposition leader Donald Tusk, president of the European People’s Party, in Warsaw. One of the issues addressed would have been the possibility of getting his future party to join that political group. The visit made a few days ago by French President Emmanuel Macron to Budapest is also of note. The French president met not only with Viktor Orbán, defined as “a European ally, but a political opponent”, but also with representatives of the opposition parties.
Márki-Zay’s strategy seems to be that of a net of alliances yet to be woven, while Orbán continues to walk a very uncertain line with European partners. The Hungarian premier greeted the end of Angela Merkel’s chancellorship with a long message, in which he hinted that he was ready to challenge the new German Social-Democrat-led coalition, who is expected to inaugurate a more progressive stance on issues such as immigration, LGBT rights and the vision of Europe. Probably, relations with the new German government will ultimately also depend on the question of Next Generation EU funding, still blocked by the EU Commission due to doubts over Hungarian transparency and ability to fight corruption through the judicial system. Funds amounting to 7.2 billion euros, which would undoubtedly be very convenient to Budapest (and Orbán).
If until now Merkel’s realpolitik had been a diplomatic channel on which to rely, the picture has now changed, and in the European arena, Hungary, like Poland, appears more isolated than ever. If and how it manages to get out of the corner, will depend on the outcome of April’s elections.
Cover Photo: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán holds his annual press conference – Budapest, December 21, 2021 (Attila Kisbenedek / AFP).
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