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Meet the conservative who could unseat Viktor Orbán

Exclusive: In Péter Márki-Zay, the opposition may finally have a candidate capable of ending 12 years of increasingly authoritarian Orbán rule

Daniel Nolan
14 January 2022, 3.19pm
Hungary’s opposition candidate Peter Márki-Zay
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Gabriella Barbara/Alamy Live News/Composite Image

It has taken over a decade, but the Hungarian opposition may finally have a suitable candidate to face prime minister Viktor Orbán, ahead of national elections on 3 April.

While the international press anointed Budapest mayor Gergely Karácsony in the autumn, dark horse Péter Márki-Zay was making a splash in televised debates ahead of an unprecedented opposition primary to select its prime ministerial candidate. Karácsony, a political pollster by trade, saw the writing on the wall. Stepping aside, he cleared the way for a Márki-Zay victory against Klára Dobrev, a centre-Left member of the European parliament, who is the wife of Hungary’s divisive former prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsány.

This is not the first time Márki-Zay has shaken up Orbán and his nativist Fidesz party. The 49-year-old’s 2018 victory in a mayoral by-election in the southern city of Hódmezővásárhely – population 48,000 and a Fidesz stronghold since 1990 – cracked Orbán’s veneer of invincibility after an uninterrupted procession of national, local and EU election landslides stretching back to 2006.

After years of posturing as the defender of Christian Europe, father-of-five Orbán will face a devout Catholic father of seven next spring. Márki-Zay, a conservative leading a six-party rainbow alliance that ranges from the Left to the centre-Right, has been charged with winning an election and putting Hungary back on a path to democracy. Moreover, the primary campaign in which voters also elected joint opposition candidates for each of Hungary’s 106 constituencies has energised opposition voters and taken the spotlight off Orbán – no mean feat in a country where he controls 80-90% of the media.

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“Our project is to dismantle the system, so that nobody in Hungary's future can hijack democracy like Orbán did,” Márki-Zay tells openDemocracy in his mayoral office at Hódmezővásárhely town hall. “We need checks and balances, because our pre-2010 constitution apparently did not have sufficient checks and balances.”

Since winning a majority in 2010, Orbán’s Fidesz-Christian Democrat coalition government has unilaterally rewritten the constitution and packed formerly independent institutions with party loyalists. The National Office of the Judiciary, the Supreme Court, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the Fiscal Council and the Constitutional Court are all now controlled by Fidesz appointees. “Orbán has been able to double the headcount in the constitutional court and fill it up with Fidesz lawyers,” Márki-Zay says, “and also [in] the public prosecutor’s office and the media council.”

Everything that Fidesz has done in order to keep power forever is unconstitutional

Orbán has also gerrymandered election districts and changed electoral laws to safeguard his majority. When the pandemic hit, Fidesz introduced emergency rule by decree, which allows Orbán to bypass Parliament. Aside from a few months in 2020, this has remained in place ever since.

In December, Orbán’s outgoing families minister, Katalin Novák, was announced as Fidesz’s nominee for president at the 2022 elections. As Márki-Zay pointed out at the time, this goes against the convention that the head of state should be a non-partisan figure. Should the opposition win this spring, Novák – who, if she is elected at a secret ballot of MPs, will have the power to veto laws – may prove a further obstacle to its ability to govern.

“The obvious truth is that everything that Fidesz has done in order to keep power forever – to never lose an election, to be invincible – is unconstitutional,” Márki-Zay says. “This means that these nominations and certain laws are invalid, and that we have to find a legal solution for that.”

The opposition has assembled a committee, made up of former judges and justice ministers, lawyers and academic experts, to rewrite Hungary’s constitution should it win power. The rewritten Basic Law would then be submitted for approval via a referendum. Led by Zoltán Fleck, a law and sociology professor at Budapest university, ELTE, the committee is advising the anti-Orbán alliance on how to restore and shore-up popular support for constitutional principles and the parliamentary process in the event of a Márki-Zay victory, as well as how to safeguard Hungary against future power grabs.

Márki-Zay knows that victory is not guaranteed, however – not least because of the links between much of Hungary’s media and the government. “Opposition politicians cannot get any airtime on public television paid for by our taxpayers’ money,” Márki-Zay says. “In the four-year cycle, an entire opposition party can only get five minutes airtime on public television – you know, it's just outrageous.”

Marki-Zay sits on a chair in his mayoral office
Márki-Zay cracked Orban’s veneer of invincibility by winning the 2018 mayoral election in Hódmezővásárhely
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Daniel Nolan. All rights reserved

A marketing expert by profession, Márki-Zay has had to look for other ways to reach the public. Often, this results in a marathon Facebook Q&A session, which run for hours. “You have to be controversial, shocking, frank and outspoken – and then your message will be heard. Sometimes I intentionally put some outrageous words in my Facebook messages, knowing that Fidesz media will pick them up for that one word. But I will get the rest of the message to their readers. And they will attack me for a part of it. Maybe rightly so. But in the meantime, they still carry the message.

“I talk a lot about migration – not because I hate migrants, but because Fidesz hates migrants and at the same time, that's their [ preferred subject for political] communication.”

Márki-Zay’s line of attack may raise eyebrows among liberal observers: he accuses Fidesz of hypocrisy, for “letting in five times as many migrants as Soros suggested”. This is a reference to an article that US-Hungarian financier and philanthropist George Soros wrote at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015, suggesting the EU would need to give asylum to around a million people a year. Ever since, Fidesz has attacked the proposal, labelling it “the Soros plan”.

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As Márki-Zay recalls, Soros’s suggestion would have meant Hungary taking in around 10,000 asylum-seekers a year. “Orbán just let in 55,000 in 2019, and 43,000 in 2020. So you know, that's five times the ‘Soros plan’. So yes, I'm criticising Fidesz for it. And they don't like to talk about it, because they are ashamed of it. They can lose their voters if it's revealed that they are hypocrites.”

Márki-Zay also accuses Fidesz of hypocrisy in its promotion of conservative social values. “They attack me for traditional views on child-raising, then for speaking about homosexuality inside Fidesz.” (In December 2020, MEP József Szájer, co-founder of Fidesz and the main author of the 2011 constitution, which stipulates that marriage is a union between a man and a woman, was caught fleeing a lockdown-busting gay orgy in Brussels.) “They actually do me a favour because they prove their own propaganda wrong, in their own supporters' eyes,” Márki-Zay says.

Nevertheless, Fidesz has decided that the 3 April election will take place on the same day as a referendum on LGBTQ rights. Widely derided as a ‘push poll’, it will ask voters four questions, including “Do you support the promotion of sex reassignment therapy for underage children?” and “Do you support the unrestricted exposure of underage children to sexually explicit media content that may affect their development?”

Márki-Zay is also keen to present himself as a defender of Hungary’s Roma communities, which make up at least 8% of the population and are for the most part sidelined from mainstream politics and society in Hungary. “There was this huge racist anti-Roma rally [after] a guy was stabbed in the centre of Budapest. Fidesz portrayed the whole thing as a Roma killing, but the perpetrator wasn't even Roma. Only two politicians in the entire country spoke out – Gergely Karácsony and myself,” he says.

In the four-year cycle, an entire opposition party can only get five minutes airtime on public television

Despite Hungary’s authoritarian turn under Orbán, Márki-Zay still finds grounds for optimism. “People like myself or journalists are not shot openly on the street. So in this world, the difference is that you can still beat Fidesz with communication although he [Orbán] controls communication channels just as much as the Communists did before 1990.”

Márki-Zay hasn’t always been an opponent of Orbán, with the latter beginning his political career as a social liberal. After an electoral disaster for Fidesz in 1994, Orbán repositioned the party on the centre-Right, and formed a coalition government in 1998. “They turned into a Christian democratic right-wing conservative party; anti-Putin, pro-Europe,” Márki-Zay says. “I campaigned for Fidesz amongst my friends.”

His enthusiasm was waning by the time of Orbán’s “irresponsible” 2006 election campaign, which Márki-Zay says incorrectly portrayed Hungary as a country in decline. Márki-Zay, who has a PhD in economic history and is a free-market advocate, voted for Fidesz one more time, in 2010, but was put off by changes that included Orbán’s turn towards Russia. “After 2010 they became anti-Europe, pro-Putin, radical right-wing; not only nationalistic but mostly a racist party,” Márki-Zay says. “Ideology doesn't mean a thing for Orbán: the only meaningful things are power and corruption.”

Members of Márki-Zay’s organisation, the Everybody’s Hungary Movement (MMM), hope that his tenure as mayor of Hódmezővásárhely will serve as a model for his national campaign. “In 2018, Márki-Zay realised that all opposition parties needed to hold a primary and then unite and work together,” MMM coordinator Margit Szabó tells openDemocracy. “His aim is to achieve similar primaries and activism throughout the country.”

According to Márton Tompos, spokesperson for Hungarian centrist party Momentum, the six-party opposition alliance is currently finalising a joint manifesto, ahead of formal campaigning, which begins in February. “After Márki-Zay won the election, he had dozens of suggestions for modifications, and 95% of these have been decided upon,” Tompos tells openDemocracy.

Some policies, such as a plan to overturn Fidesz’s so-called ‘slave law’, which increased the amount of overtime employers can demand and the delay payment by up to three years, have been easier to agree on. Others, such as the reintroduction of same-sex civil partnerships, have caused disagreement among the uneasy alliance of left-wing, liberal and conservative parties. Tompos says that Márki-Zay supports the policy, but that it met strong opposition from Jobbik, a far-Right party that has sought to redefine itself as part of the mainstream conservative opposition in recent years. “It’s a heavy debate,” Tompos says, “but it can be done.”

In the meantime, Fidesz is running online adverts that portray Márki-Zay as a left-wing ‘agent’ of Soros, or as the ‘Mini-Me’ to Gyurcsány’s ‘Doctor Evil’. While these claims lack credibility, they are ubiquitous in Hungarian media and may yet prove effective.

Orban’s fortified position after three consecutive terms offers other competitive advantages too. This week Fidesz announced a price-cap for ‘basic food items’ that have been impacted by inflation but now must be lowered in price to October 2021 levels. Meanwhile the Hungarian government is using the official coronavirus website to highlight recent tax cuts it has made, worth over €4.2bn. The website does not mention Hungary’s 40,000 COVID-related deaths nor that the country currently has the world’s fourth-highest rate of COVID deaths per capita.

Márki-Zay is defiant in the face of these methods, however. “You can only use such campaign tactics for so long,” he says. “It's like vaccination: after a while people just become immune. If you show the trick, the magician loses its appeal.”

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