Surprise Victory in Hungary's First-Ever Opposition Primary

October 19, 2021

To the great surprise of many pollsters and political analysts, Péter Márki-Zay, an anti-establishment conservative Mayor, has won Hungary's first-ever opposition primary, organized by an alliance of six, ideologically diverse parties that have united to oppose Prime Minister Orbán's attempts to secure a fourth consecutive term in power. Márki-Zay's victory could yet cause ruling party Fidesz difficulties, however Orbán, who has led the country for eleven years, remains in a formidable position ahead of the forthcoming general elections in April 2022.

An unlikely winner

In May 2021, when Mayor of Budapest Gergely Karácsony launched his candidacy in Hungary's first ever primaries, many took it for granted that he would be elected by opposition voters to challenge Viktor Orbán as the PM candidate of the unified opposition parties. By contrast, Márki-Zay, the Mayor of the Southern Hungarian city Hódmezővásárhely, was expected to finish in fourth place. Five months later, Márki-Zay won the second round of the primaries with 56.71% of the votes, ahead of Klára Dobrev from social democratic party DK, after Karácsony withdrew after the first round, throwing his support behind Márki-Zay.

Before 2018, Márki-Zay enjoyed a varied career as an economist, a logistics and marketing expert in Hungary, a door-to-door salesman in Canada and a marketer in the United States. In 2018 he announced his run, as an independent candidate, for the Mayoral elections in his hometown, previously renowned as a Fidesz stronghold. Shortly after his surprising victory, he launched Everybody's Hungary (MMM), a nationwide movement that now has a good chance to secure strong parliamentary representation in the next term.

Márki-Zay's political views suggest he could pose a stronger threat to Fidesz than the more progressive, left-leaning Dobrev or Karácsony. While traditionally a conservative (he has a strong religious background, is anti-abortion and against divorce), he nevertheless is supportive of gay marriage and believes the State should remain secular. He is also very pro-business and economically liberal, a rare position in Hungary, which traditionally leans economically to the left. The pivotal question is whether he can unify the wide-ranging political views of the anti—Fidesz support into a coherent and winning campaign.

In this regard, Márki-Zay's most important advantage could be his profile as a conservative but anti-establishment candidate, as well as being a self-proclaimed, disappointed former Fidesz voter. On the other hand, he is a notoriously outspoken and unpredictable politician with almost no experience in national politics, something that poses a huge risk when up against the well-oiled machine of Fidesz's electioneering.

Mobilizing the opposition

Primaries are not a well-established institution in Hungary – in fact, the recently held race was the first on a national level since the regime change in 1989-90. Following two landside Fidesz victories in 2014 and 2018, the opposition parties Democratic Coalition (DK), Socialist Party (MSZP), Momentum Movement, Dialogue for Hungary (P), Politics Can Be Different (LMP) and Jobbik, decided that the Hungarian election system gave them no chance of overcoming the huge Fidesz majority next April, without joining forces. To select candidates for MP and Prime Minister, they adopted a method that is well-known and established abroad: primaries.

In the first-round, opposition voters elected MP candidates in constituencies and the three leading PM candidates advanced to the next round. Budapest Mayor Karácsony (who came in second) and Márki-Zay (who came in third) agreed that one of them needed to withdraw to prevent Klára Dobrev (wife of the highly unpopular former Prime Minister and current leader of DK, Ferenc Gyurcsány) from winning. Following a week of negotiations just ahead of the runoff vote, Karácsony stepped back, despite gaining more votes than Márki-Zay.

Márki-Zay received more than 371,000 votes in the second round, defeating Dobrev by a 57%-43% margin. The turnover in both rounds exceeded 600,000 voters, indicating that the primaries were a huge success for the participating opposition parties. Sources have claimed that the high surprised the Fidesz campaign staff of Fidesz, who had expected low levels of interest and turnout in the primary. Moreover, some independent polls are now showing a small opposition advantage, although polls in Hungary have proven notoriously unreliable in recent years.

A more open race?

On the face of it, therefore, many are viewing the forthcoming elections as the most open since 2010, although Fidesz remains in pole position: the party enjoys far greater election experience, financial resources and media support than the opposition and is favoured by the complex Hungarian election system. Tellingly, Fidesz has also announced an extensive pre-election welfare program including tax rebates for parents, extra money for pensioners and salary increases for teachers, nurses, nursery caretakers, cultural and social workers. The election starting gun has fired.

Despite its strong position, Fidesz seems far from complacent about the election, with critics claiming it has implemented a series of measures designed to prepare for the previously unthinkable case of an election defeat (such as the outsourcing of almost all state-owned universities and other state wealth assets to private foundations and cemented the roles of a host of powerful allies). With the 2019 municipal election results still fresh in the memory (when the unified opposition defeated Fidesz in key cities) and the further impact of the pandemic's latest wave still unknown, the opposition senses an historic opportunity.

There are still six months before the elections, however, with plenty of twists and turns doubtless to come. Only time will tell whether Márki-Zay can rally a range of opposition parties behind him and lead a coherent campaign that will resonate with the electorate and be robust enough to take on a Fidesz party aiming for a hat-trick of election victories.

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          Chris Dobson, Kesarev Partner at c.dobson@kesarev.com