October 19, 2021

Europe

HUNGARY: Primaries bolster opposition, but challenges remain

BY Andrius Tursa

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( 4 mins)
  • Primaries gave the opposition bloc an early boost ahead of the general election scheduled for spring 2022.
  • The newly elected opposition leader Peter Marki-Zay poses a formidable challenge to incumbent Viktor Orban.
  • Both opposition and the ruling Fidesz still face multiple hurdles that could tilt voter preferences to either side.

An independent small-town mayor, Marki-Zay received 56.7% of votes and claimed a victory over Klara Dobrev (Democratic Coalition, DK) in the second round of the opposition primaries that ended on 16 October. However, out of six opposition members, DK will field most candidates (32 out of 106) in single- mandate constituencies, followed by the right-wing Jobbik with 29, a coalition between the liberal Dialogue for Hungary and the Hungarian Socialist Party with 25, the centrist Momentum Movement with 15, and Hungary’s Green Party with four contenders.

Regardless of the outcome, the primaries proved immensely successful for the opposition as it mobilized more than 800,000 voters (around 10% of the electorate) and reaffirmed the benefits of cooperation. It was also a transparent and democratic method of selecting a prime ministerial candidate and contenders in 106 single-mandate districts, which otherwise could have become a headache for the diverse opposition bloc. Importantly, the whole process has captured considerable public attention, thereby disrupting Fidesz’s usual dominance of the political agenda.

A sudden rise of a charismatic anti-establishment politician such as Marki-Zay could prompt voter excitement and pose notable risks for Fidesz. As a practicing Catholic, a self-described conservative, and as a father of seven with a track record of beating a Fidesz candidate in its electoral stronghold, Marki-Zay is well-positioned to appeal to a few crucial segments of the electorate: (1) disillusioned former Fidesz voters who previously could not find a suitable center-right candidate; and (2) young more-educated urban voters (especially on the center-left) who generally oppose Fidesz but also do not associate with the established left-wing parties/movements.

Despite a promising start, the opposition still faces multiple challenges ahead of the vote. It is unclear whether all members of the opposition bloc will put aside their individual ambitions and cooperate effectively under the leadership of a relatively unknown independent leader. One important test will be the formation of the opposition’s joint electoral list for a multi-member constituency. The lack of pre-agreed criteria as well as a recent request by Marki-Zay – who was not part of the original six-party agreement – to include a seventh faction into the list could complicate the task. At the same time, the Fidesz-controlled media will closely follow the process and seek to exploit even the smallest disagreements and controversies.

Moreover, the opposition – and Marki-Zay in particular – will have to delicately balance their campaign messaging in order not to alienate voters from across the political spectrum. Framing the election as a battle between pro-Fidesz and anti-Fidesz forces might help deflect attention from potentially divisive issues such as the fate of Fidesz’s extensive social support schemes or the flat income tax regime in case of an opposition victory.

In the meantime, Fidesz has been following its usual pre-election playbook, which includes a mix of generous benefits to key voter groups and an aggressive media campaign targeting the opposition. As usual, the ruling party is positioning itself as the country’s “protector” against the allegedly impending wave of refugees, the spread of LGBTQ+ “propaganda” among children, or the return of a deeply unpopular leftist government. While such tactics have yielded excellent results for Fidesz in the past, it might be less effective this time. For example, Marki-Zay’s conservative views and his limited previous involvement in politics complicates Fidesz’s attempts to paint him as a puppet of the “old-left”. Also, faced with the united opposition bloc, the mere mobilization of Fidesz’s core voters might not suffice for an electoral victory. The party therefore needs to find ways to engage with undecided/centrist voters. Aside from the campaign, Fidesz also faces challenging months ahead considering the elevated inflation rate and deteriorating epidemiological situation.

In terms of the election outlook, it is noteworthy that equality in the polls might be deceiving. Since the electoral system is tilted in favor of Fidesz, opposition parties would need to win the electoral contest by at least a few percentage points in order to secure the same number of mandates as the ruling party.

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