For over a decade, Viktor Orbán has steadily eroded democratic norms in Hungary, creating clientelistic networks of power and influence that bend the country to his will. The electoral system has been adjusted to the advantage of Fidesz, the party Mr Orbán leads. A pro-government media empire has been carefully constructed, while independent outlets have been targeted by smear campaigns and starved of cash. Critical voices in education and the arts have been harassed and intimidated.
During Hungary’s progress towards a kind of soft autocracy, opposition political parties on the left and right have been on a steep learning curve. In parliamentary elections in 2018 they were divided, and duly fell – delivering Mr Orbán a handsome majority. But a year later, in local polls, they joined forces and won notable victories, including the mayoralty in Budapest. This “united front” strategy, comprising six parties from across the political spectrum, now faces its greatest test as Mr Orbán seeks to win a fourth term in the spring.
Last weekend, following a voting process in which over 600,000 Hungarians participated, the opposition alliance reached a decision on who will lead it into battle. The choice voters made was a fascinating one: Mr Orbán will not be challenged by one of the liberal, city-based politicians whose views he delights in caricaturing; instead, the opposition will be led by the conservative Catholic mayor of a provincial southern town. Péter Márki-Zay, 49, has no background in formal party politics, but came to prominence in 2018 when, as an independent, he defeated the Fidesz candidate in his hometown of Hódmezővásárhely – the first time the party had lost there since 1990. In the primaries, Mr Márki-Zay made a virtue of his lack of establishment credentials, campaigning as an “anti-corruption” candidate, committed to cleaning up politics.
His victory was made possible by the withdrawal from the race of the charismatic mayor of Budapest, Gergely Karácsony, after the first round. Mr Karácsony then backed the small-town mayor in the hope that he would be able to attract the support of undecided centrist voters and disaffected followers of Mr Orbán. Mr Márki-Zay has reportedly described himself in the past as a disappointed Fidesz voter.
Within the opposition alliance, a provincial conservative Christian figurehead will inevitably not be to everyone’s taste. But as the defeated centre-left candidate, Klára Dobrev, said while pledging her support last Sunday, finding a way to restore good democratic practice to Hungary is the overriding priority. Mr Márki-Zay’s proven capacity to win in a rural district promises a new kind of threat to Mr Orbán, who derives most of his backing from the more conservative countryside. Importantly, he also represents a clean pair of hands – not only in relation to the Orbán years but also to the unpopular austerity and scandals which preceded Fidesz’s victory in 2010.
Neck-and-neck polls suggest that the coming election will be by far the most difficult that Mr Orbán has had to fight. Having committed to shelving their differences in order to oust Hungary’s bullying, over-mighty prime minister, the country’s opposition parties now seem to have made another strategic choice on who should take him on.