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Opposition primaries in Hungary: Looking back (and ahead)

The air was filled with excitement and heated political debates during the second round of the Hungarian primaries that took place last October. In Budapest, one could really feel a revolutionary atmosphere after the voters decided that Péter Márki-Zay would be Viktor Orbán’s final challenger in this spring’s elections. This is a historical moment in Hungarian politics, as the six most prominent opposition parties united behind a single prime minister candidate after years of disagreement and discord to overthrow the Fidesz-KDNP coalition that has been in power for the last decade.

The alliance includes the centrist Momentum Movement, the centre-right Jobbik, the centre-left Democratic Coalition (DK), the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), the liberal green party of LMP and the left green Dialogue for Hungary, which started to work on a common programme through lengthy negotiations and compromises since October 2020. Out of the five prime minister candidates, the final round was between Péter Márki-Zay, the independent conservative mayor of Hódmezővásárhely, and Klára Dobrev, the vice president of the European Parliament (candidate of DK). The situation where the voters could choose from two candidates was made possible by the withdrawal of Budapest’s mayor Gergely Karácsony’s candidacy in favour of Márki-Zay, which could significantly affect the outcome of the second round. Firstly, it is generally believed that choosing between two contestants can result in a higher voter turnout. This might be one of the reasons why more people participated in the second round compared to the first one. Secondly, Karácsony’s abdication could alter the composition of the voters, too, as 220 thousand new voters appeared in the second round, while 191 thousand of the first round’s voters did not come.

These all led to Márki-Zay receiving 56,69% of the votes and Dobrev lagging with 43,31%. This is a significant contrast compared to the first-round results, where Dobrev received 34,76%, Karácsony 27,31%, and Márki-Zay 20,43% of the votes. This means that Márki-Zay could triple the number of his votes for the second round, while Dobrev could only increase hers by 32%. Consequently, it can be concluded that the voters of the other opposition parties were more in favour of Márki-Zay and that a lot of people were mobilised in the second round, who did not initially believe that Márki-Zay has a chance of winning.

Why is the result surprising?

Márki-Zay was undoubtedly the dark horse of the elections. Until August last year, his support was under 5%, while Dobrev and Karácsony were named the most popular candidates in various opinion polls. In September, however, Márki-Zay started to climb up in the polls. Yet, nobody seriously expected him to qualify to the second round of the primaries. It was surprising when Karácsony announced the withdrawal of his candidacy after the first round in favour of Márki-Zay, despite the fact that he was more than 7% behind him. They argued that after considering different polls, they concluded that Márki-Zay has a better stance against Orbán in the spring.

There are different theories why Márki-Zay could make such a rapid advance and what were the secrets of his successful campaign. One of these is that he could address the “people of the internet” by appearing in several interviews and YouTube videos, presenting his views. This is underlined by the fact that two-thirds of his first-round voters were under 40 years. Additionally, he portrayed himself as a patriotic Christian conservative dad with seven children who respects the values of others, which was appealing to many voters. By being a civil candidate with no party, he could also exploit the anti-party and anti-politics sentiments in the country. He has introduced a relatively new politics to Hungary, the anti-elite politics. This type of politics has been present in Western democracies for a long time and tends to gain considerable support, especially in times of crisis or when democracy is under threat.

On the other hand, considering the long-term success of such movements in other countries, it can be observed that after the vast initial support, they often lose popularity as they are unable to fulfil their promises and tackle the crisis (for example, the Five Star Movement in Italy, Syriza in Greece, and Podemos in Spain).

Change in the opposition?

Márki-Zay and the Momentum Movement declared at the beginning of their campaign that the opposition should be purged of those who are “under the shadow of corruption”. It was astounding that this trend started to emerge during the primaries, as some politicians lost support in the opposition because of accusations in their pasts. The most prominent figure of this trend was Csaba Tóth, a member of MSZP and candidate in Zugló. Before the first round, this district was in the crossfire of public attention as Tóth’s support was one of the most divisive topics in the opposition. Eventually, all parties withdrew their support for him and stood behind the other opposition candidate, the famous anti-corruption MP, Ákos Hadházy (who then won by a landslide in the first round). This event signalled a critical change in the opposition’s perception, as it gave more authenticity to their promise of cleansing the country of corruption.

Implications for Fidesz

The outcome of the elections was not only surprising to the public but also to Fidesz, the governing party of Hungary. With Márki-Zay’s win, Fidesz needs to rethink its campaign for the spring. It targeted Ferenc Gyurcsány, the former prime minister of Hungary and the leader of DK (and the husband of Klára Dobrev) and portrayed the left parties as his puppets. However, Márki-Zay is from the right, which could lure Fidesz’s voters to him. Additionally, during the first round of primaries, even the director of communication in Fidesz said that Márki-Zay could not win as he is not one of “Gyurcsány’s people”. It should also be noted that Márki-Zay was already a dark horse in the 2018 mayoral by-elections, as he unexpectedly won and became mayor in the city of Hódmezővásárhely, which was a Fidesz stronghold for decades.

Looking ahead

Márki-Zay’s chances next spring are a lot more complicated, as he does not have a party behind him, which may have contributed to his success so far, but could be a disadvantage in the future elections. As most of the joint candidates who won in the constituencies in the first round are from the DK (33/106), the party became the strongest in the united opposition, which can lead to its dominance in most questions in the future. However, this diversity of nature and voices of the opposition can also be unfavourable in the future, as the success of Fidesz so far can be seen in the party’s strong cohesion and unity, which is precisely what the opposition lacks. Now, the biggest question is whether Márki-Zay can lead and unify the parties until the elections or whether Fidesz can divide them alongside their disagreements.

The original article was published by Mace Magazine on the 4th of January 2022.

Blanka Kovács is a visiting fellow at the Institute for Politics and Society from the Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC) in Budapest.