The Hungarian opposition have united behind a conservative opponent of Viktor Orbán, ahead of parliamentary elections in the spring.
Endre Ady, widely regarded as the greatest Hungarian poet of the 20th century, was also a polemicist and sharp-eyed social critic. In a poem he composed in 1905, Ady described Hungary as a ‘ferry-land’, endlessly crossing between two shores in its dreams, moving from ‘east to west but preferably back, in the opposite direction’.
Since 2010, under the premiership of Viktor Orbán and his ruling Fidesz party, Hungary has been moving determinedly ‘eastwards’, distancing itself from the ‘west’ and from progressive values, including liberal democracy, secularism, LGBT+ rights, cosmopolitanism and gender equality. As the self-proclaimed champion of ‘illiberal democracy’ and ‘Christian values’, Orbán and his associates have succeeded in creating a ‘partly free’, authoritarian polity, characterised by systemic corruption and the cynical manipulation of public opinion through campaigns directed against ‘migrants’, ‘financial speculators’, the European Union and, most recently, members of sexual minorities.
The de facto expulsion of the liberal and internationally acclaimed Central European University from Budapest, the alarming shrinkage of independent media platforms, the erosion of judicial independence and oversight, the promotion of hyper-nationalist dogmas in schools, museums and theatres, the transfer of vast sums and commensurate responsibilities to the most fiercely conservative and politically quiescent churches—together with the cultivation of increasingly close links with authoritarian regimes in Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and China—have fostered a stiflingly reactionary social and political climate, which Ady would have found instantly familiar and deeply disquieting.
Can this relentless process of ‘de-democratization’ and turning ‘eastwards’, away from enlightenment values, be halted or even thrown into reverse? Can the democratic gains achieved in Hungary, in the first two decades following the collapse of communism, be restored?
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Writing in 2018, the veteran Hungarian-born journalist and political commentator Paul Lendvai was pessimistic. Lendvai cast doubt on the possibility of removing the Orbán regime through the ballot-box, concluding that ‘[t]he bastion of power’ built by Fidesz since 2010 was, ‘as far as it is humanly possible to tell, impregnable to external assault’.
Yet, in recent weeks, a mood of optimism has been palpable among opposition politicians and their supporters across Hungary. Having accepted that the only way to defeat Orbán would be to unite behind a single list of candidates, whether in national or local elections, six opposition parties—ranging from the Hungarian Socialist Party on the left to the arch-nationalist Jobbik on the right—formed an electoral pact, including agreement on backing one candidate as their choice for prime minister.
On October 17th, following a widely-publicised and hotly-contested two-stage primary, with well over 600,000 people turning out to vote in each of the two rounds, Péter Márki-Zay emerged as the surprise winner. Having come third out of five candidates in the first round, with just over 20 per cent of the votes—well behind Klára Dobrev of the left-liberal Democratic Coalition and Gergely Karácsony, the popular mayor of Budapest—Márki-Zay swept to victory in the second round after Karácsony withdrew, declaring Márki-Zay the only candidate with the broad electoral appeal needed to defeat Orbán.
For many Hungarians, disillusioned with the cronyism, economic mismanagement, hollow populism and authoritarianism of the Orbán government, Márki-Zay’s decisive victory in the primaries—he received over 56 per cent of the vote in the second round, easily defeating Dobrev—is cause for celebration. Currently mayor of Hódmezővásárhely, a small town in southern Hungary, he is a self-declared political conservative, practising Catholic and married father of seven.
Dobrev’s political instincts are liberal and cosmopolitan and her husband, Ferenc Gyurcsány, is a controversial former socialist prime minister. By contrast, Márki-Zay cannot easily be portrayed by Fidesz and its media allies as a dangerously left-wing figure, intent on undermining Hungary’s cultural and spiritual values. Indeed, he has stated in numerous interviews that he practiseswhat Fidesz merely preaches.
By defeating a Fidesz candidate, in 2018, to become mayor of Hódmezővásárhely—a Fidesz stronghold since the regime change in 1990—Márki-Zay showed he is able to attract significant numbers of disillusioned Fidesz voters, many of whom live in villages or in small towns like Hódmezővásárhely. Such people would be far less likely to vote for secular, metropolitan figures such as Dobrev or Karácsony.
Yet there remains considerable unease among many Hungarians desperate for decisive political change. There are well-founded fears that rivalries and inter-personal tensions among the opposition leaders could wreck the unity achieved to date. The difficulties involved in maintaining an electoral pact among six opposition parties representing starkly different—frequently mutually contradictory—ideologies, are also widely recognised.
Until it underwent a major political rebranding in 2014, Jobbik was chiefly known for its militant anti-Gypsyism and anti-Semitism, attitudes impossible to reconcile with the value system of liberal parties such as the Democratic Coalition. Having elected an exceptionally capable challenger to Orbán and having shown unprecedented discipline and cohesion, the opposition is now braced for a ferocious campaign by Fidesz to undermine and discredit Márki-Zay and his supporters in the months leading up to parliamentary elections next spring.
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Among left-liberal Hungarians, who would undoubtedly have been more comfortable with Dobrev or Karácsony as the opposition choice for prime minister, support for Márki-Zay remains qualified. It’s based, very largely, on the fact that he is not Orbán and that, realistically, he has the best chance of toppling Hungary’s corrupt and authoritarian governing system.
Recent comments by Márki-Zay, in which he said that he would not attend a Pride march and that racists should be treated with ‘love’ (‘the racists are Hungarians too’), have served to remind left-liberals that, apart from their mutual detestation of the self-serving and mendacious Orbán regime and their commitment to Hungary’s continued membership of the European Union, they have little in common with Márki-Zay, who confessed to having previously voted for Fidesz.
Yet, last Saturday afternoon, at a rally near Budapest’s Heroes’ Square, addressed by Márki-Zay, it was possible to believe that, despite their disparate politics, the opposition parties will remain united as the price of removing a regime which threatens to destroy even the vestiges of the rule of law and democracy in Hungary. I watched, almost in disbelief, as Jobbik banners, a distinctive white Cross of Lorraine in their centre, were held aloft alongside the banners of the Socialist Party, Momentum and others, as an enthusiastic crowd cheered.
Although it’s too early to be certain, perhaps Ady’s ‘ferry-land’ is changing course after all—and returning westwards to Europe.