Who Wants to Beat Viktor Orbán?
Fabio Turco 17 September 2021

Everyone against Viktor Orbán. In view of the general elections scheduled for April 2022, the various different souls of the Hungarian opposition have decided to join forces and stand united against Orbán and the conservative and Eurosceptic government formed by his party, Fidesz.

The official competitor of the Hungarian Prime Minister seeking his fourth consecutive term in office will be decided by the ballot box. For the first time in the country’s history, a prime ministerial candidate will in fact be chosen using primaries. Representatives of the five main opposition parties will compete against each other.

 

Take your chance

The favourite, who also has the greatest media exposure, is the mayor of Budapest, Gergely Karácsony, the candidate of the centre-left and pro-European parties MSZP, Dialogue (Párbeszéd) and LMP. Karácsony was elected mayor of the Hungarian capital in 2019, thanks precisely to the joint vote of the opposition, thereby managing to defeat outgoing mayor István Tarlós, a Fidesz member, who had held the post since 2010.

Surveys indicate that Klára Dobrev too has a good chance, running for the Democratic Coalition (DK), a centre-left party founded in 2011 by an offshoot of the MSZP. Dobrev is a MEP and married to Ferenc Gyurcsány, current chairman of the DK and prime minister between 2006 and 2010.

In recent weeks Fidesz has publicly attacked both Karácsony and Gyurcsány with a people’s petition started against them to remind voters of the problems caused by the centre-left government. This is an initiative that those on the receiving end have described as a “kindergarten” game.

A possible outsider in these primaries may be Péter Jakab, running for Jobbik, a political party that assumes centre-right positions. Jobbik represents a paradox in Hungarian politics. Born as an extreme right-wing party, with neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic connotations, over the years it has progressively become de-radicalised while remaining a conservative party. Jobbik has always been opposed to Fidesz, considering it a corrupt political party.

According to the polls the other two candidates in these primaries are unlikely to succeed and they are the conservative Péter Márki-Zay, co-founder of the Everybody’s Hungary Movement, and the pro-market András Fekete-Győr, a candidate for Momentum.

 

The rules of the game

These primaries will be divided into two rounds. The first, from September 18th  to the 26th, when the 106 candidates who will stand in the uninominal constituencies will be chosen. In the same round, voters will be asked to choose the candidate for the position of prime minister.

Should none of the five candidates obtain 50% of the votes there will be a run-off held between October 4th and 10th. According to the polls this is certainly what is expected to happen.

Voting will take place in a hybrid manner. Voters will be permitted to visit one of the 106 mobile voting points all over the country or choose to vote from home using the specific Előválasztó 2021 platform. All those who will be 18 years old by April next year will be permitted to vote.

The organisational machine is impressive. Between three and six volunteers are expected to be present in each of the tents set up, while between one and two thousand people will be called upon to count the votes.

 

Why use primaries?

Whoever wins the primaries will be the opposition’s only candidate. This was unthinkable a few years ago given the extremely varied background of the parties that form the opposition. This “cartel” became necessary so as to make it hard for Orbán to win a fourth consecutive term as prime minister, the fifth overall if one considers his experience in government between 1998 and 2002. It is a necessity that has its roots in the Hungarian electoral system, shaped by the prime minister himself in 2012.

The electoral law envisages a mixed single-round system. Of the 199 members of parliament, 106 are elected using the majority system in simple single-member constituencies. As long as the opposing parties stood separately in the elections, Fidesz had an easy time, since it only needed one more vote than any other contender to secure a seat. This time the game will be a more open one.

The remaining 93 MPs are elected using the proportional system in which parties present candidates on blocked lists. This provides more fertile ground for Orbán who will also be able to rely on the votes of Hungarian citizens resident abroad, traditionally supporters of his party. One must emphasise that in recent years Orbán has worked hard at guaranteeing citizenship to the extent that this had been possible to citizens of Hungarian origin living in neighbouring countries.

Hence the battle will be a close one and the path to defeat Orbán anything but easy. Opposition parties can however rely on one precedent, that of the 2019 local elections. On that occasion, in addition to Budapest the opposition managed to take from Fidesz 10 of the 23 main cities in Hungary, among them Szeged, Eger and Miskolz. On that occasion the main political parties had supported just one candidate. As far as Budapest was concerned, Jobbik did not formally join an alliance but avoided presenting his own candidate, thereby effectively supporting Karácsony’s candidature. In that round of voting, Orbán’s party obtained the majority of ballots but for the very first time had its power system effectively weakened.

 

A long march 

Orbán’s challenger will be officially introduced on October 23rd, a national holiday on which the anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian revolution is celebrated. The elections will be held six months later and a tough campaign is expected. There is the risk that during this period of time disagreements will emerge within the different opposition groups dissolving the enthusiasm that now exists.

There are also economic issues. Organising these primaries has required a significant financial commitment, amounting to between 130 and 160 million forints (between 370,000 and 457,000 euros). Fund raising has brought to the organisation only 1.7 million forints (a little more than 4,000 euros). It is feared that during the coming months there will not be enough money to finance Fidesz’ election campaign.

One of the goals will be to restore enthusiasm to a discouraged electorate. A recent survey by Zavecz Research reported by the Financial Times revealed that 49% of respondents want change in the country, but only one fifth believe it is possible for Orbán to lose the election. On the other hand, Fidesz won the 2010, 2014 and 2018 elections by winning a two-thirds majority in parliament. For many, the feeling is that beating Orbán is an impossible challenge.

 

Fidesz’ problems

The coming months, however, risk becoming complicated also for the Hungarian PM with a number of issues at stake. The most important one is linked to the unblocking of the Recovery Fund. The European Commission has frozen the 7.2 billion euros that should be allocated to Hungary within the framework of Next Generation EU funding. The reason lies in the fact that approval of this plan is linked to a series of guarantees that are tied to the judicial system’s transparency and the battle against corruption. These are guarantees that Budapest had not yet been able to provide. For the moment Orbán’s position has been that of openly challenging Brussels and claiming that Hungary can do without these funds.

The decision to freeze these funds was also, though not officially, influenced by the law on “homosexual propaganda” approved last June. This law prohibits the discussion of homosexuality and gender identity issues in public places attended by minors, such as schools, but also using television programmes, books and multimedia content. The law, which actually started out as an anti-paedophilia law, has been severely criticised by the European Union, and has cost Budapest an infringement procedure. Orbán has announced that a referendum will be held on this issue.

And it is also with a referendum that Orbán would like to resolve the thorny issue involving Fudan University. At the beginning of June the government had envisaged the possibility of building a campus for the Chinese institute in Budapest’s university district, currently undergoing construction. This project was firmly opposed by most of civil society. The cost was considered excessive, amounting to about 1.5 billion euros, and the unknowns as far as its usefulness are also too many. About ten thousand people took to the streets to protest.

It was precisely the mayor of Budapest, Gergely Karácsony, who was the first to oppose this operation. His position is that Budapest’s university district must not be used for any objectives differing from those for which it was planned. Should this project move forward, he has threatened to stop the 2023 World Athletics Championships that are expected to be held in the Hungarian capital. Although this threat did not appear to intimidate the government much – the municipal authorities do not have the power to stop the organisation – the case involving the Fudan University has marked a turning point in the long run up to next year’s elections and projected Karácsony into the position of being Orbán’s main opponent as well as that of the system created in the past decade.

 

Challenging Orbanism 

Attacking his opponent, Karácsony openly spoke of “a dictatorship that serves the interests of 1% of the population against the remaining 99%.”  It is a concept he holds dear and repeated on the day of his candidacy in the primaries: “I will be at the service of 99% of the citizens”. His idea of Hungary, based on liberal and progressive values, is diametrically opposed to that of the country shaped by Viktor Orbán over the last ten years. It is a country that, by virtue of its overwhelming majority at the polls, Fidesz was able to change from the ground up. Starting with amending the Constitution, through the aforementioned electoral law, to almost total control over the media sector, Fidesz has become a sort of state-party, whose apparatus will be difficult to destroy even if the opposition wins the elections.

At an international level, Orbán has become a symbol of sovereignty in recent years, and his conflicts with Brussels have provided a dark image of Hungary, considered, like Poland, the Trojan horse of authoritarianism in the Union. Time will tell whether there will be the conditions needed to change the political direction taken by the country. The opposition primaries that start this weekend could be considered a first sign of this.

 

Cover Photo: Gergely Karacsony greets his supporters after being elected Budapest’s mayor – October 13, 2019 (Attila Kisbenedek / AFP).


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