Hungary’s Opposition Unites in a Bid to Defeat Orban

In 2018, opposition candidate Peter Marki-Zay’s surprise victory in a mayoral by-election in the small town of Hodmezovasarhely pushed Hungary’s opposition into a half-hearted bid to cooperate in that year’s parliamentary vote. However, the effort never got off the ground, leaving Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party to stroll to yet another two-thirds supermajority.

Now, with months to go before the next elections, a diverse slate of six opposition parties insist that this time, they’re determined to unite in a bid to finally defeat Orban’s illiberal regime, which has ruled the country since 2010. Last month, the United Opposition selected the 49-year-old Marki-Zay to lead the charge in the polls, which are due to be held in April or May of 2022.

The effort to maintain an alliance among parties that range from far-right-turned conservative and neoliberal to green and ex-communist is clearly ambitious. But Orban’s grip on power has become so strong that the opposition is left with little choice. 

“They have no alternative,” says Gabor Gyori, a senior analyst at the Budapest-based think tank Policy Solutions. “It took a while, but the opposition now understands that electoral collaboration is the only route left open to them.”

The test now for the unwieldy sextet is to keep their divisions on ice and maintain unity. There were still plenty of signs of stress during last month’s primary race that saw Marki-Zay emerge as the coalition’s standard-bearer to challenge Orban for the premiership.

However, encouragement also arrived that same month curtesy of elections in the nearby Czech Republic. The five-party, center-right “Democratic Bloc” ran a highly disciplined campaign, proving that unity can pay off with its victory over the country’s populist prime minister, the billionaire Andrej Babis, who happens to be a close ally of Orban’s.

Hungarian opposition figures say the Czech results were a welcome morale boost. But they also caution that taking on Orban is a much more daunting task.

For all his political and economic might, Babis was in power for just one term. His short stint at the head of a weak minority coalition gave him no chance to tilt the Czech electoral or judicial systems in his favor, and while he owns major media assets, the Czech press is still much more open and pluralistic than Hungary’s.

Orban, on the other hand, has enjoyed a two-thirds parliamentary majority for most of the past decade. That gives him the power even to change the Hungarian constitution, and it’s one he has regularly wielded to rig the rules of the game in his favor.

“The fall of any Orban ally offers hope regarding the collaboration of the Hungarian opposition, but there’s little comparison,” says Marton Gyongyosi, the vice-president of Jobbik, the largest opposition party in the current parliament. Having emerged as a far-right party, Jobbik has been forced toward the center in recent years due to Fidesz’s success in co-opting its former base.

“While Babis made some unusual moves, you cannot compare that to the strategically profound and deep-rooted changes that Orban has overseen, resulting in a hybrid regime that has hollowed out all democratic institutions,” Gyongyosi adds. 

Sean Hanley, an associate professor in Central and Eastern European politics at University College London, agrees. Hanley noted that the Hungarian opposition is “much more constrained” by Orban’s overhaul of the electoral system, his control over the vast majority of the country’s mainstream media outlets and his willingness to use public entities such as the state audit office and tax authorities to attack his rivals.

Milan Nic, a senior fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, adds a warning that the Czech election result does not necessarily signal that illiberal leaders like Orban are on the retreat. 

“Interpreting Babis’ electoral defeat as a sign of receding populism in Central and Eastern Europe could be premature,” he writes, noting that close to 50 percent of votes in the Czech election still went to populist and extremist parties.

Orban won’t relinquish power without a bitter fight, and he will likely use all of the state machinery and media power he has captured to try to split the opposition. 

Polls taken since the Hungarian opposition’s primary race wrapped up suggest a similar pattern, putting them neck and neck with Fidesz. But a lot can still happen in six months. 

Orban won’t relinquish power without a bitter fight, and he will likely use all of the state machinery and media power he has captured to attack Marki-Zay and try to split the opposition. 

Lingering signs of division among the opposition bloc will offer him targets. The center-left Democratic Coalition, or DK, was surprised when its candidate, Klara Dobrev, lost in the second round of the primary to the independent Marki-Zay, an economist with strongly conservative views.

However, as the Czech election results suggest, the center-right is probably better-positioned than liberals and the left to defeat populist strongmen in Central Europe’s current political climate.

Dobrev is also married to former prime minister and current DK leader Ferenc Gyurcsany, a toxic figure for some parts of the electorate due to his admission in a leaked, expletive-ridden 2006 speech that he “lied, morning, noon and evening” to win that year’s election. Had Dobrev won the nomination, her husband’s background would have made her a much easier target for Fidesz. 

In contrast, Marki-Zay is not tainted by the grubby national politics that have been the norm in Hungary since communism fell in 1989 and is viewed as a potential symbol of genuine change.

A Catholic father of seven, his conservative views should also help protect him from Fidesz attacks. Orban has built his power by convincing poorer and provincial Hungarians of the dangers posed by what he calls “globalist conspiracies,” such as immigration, LGBT rights and the European Union. 

Even committed liberals like Budapest Mayor Gergely Karacsony, the initial favorite to head the opposition, are now convinced that Marki-Zay has the best chance of defeating Orban. Opposition parties hope he will be able to attract moderate Fidesz supporters who have grown wary of the prime minister’s tightening grip on power and weary of the massive corruption that reportedly drives it.

“Marki-Zay has already defeated Fidesz twice in mayoral elections in small-town Hungary, which is exactly the electorate the opposition needs to attract if it is to win the national vote,” Gyori points out.

Many analysts are also convinced that the opposition parties will make it to election day with their unity intact, because the glue that binds them together is basic survival. 

“The logic of the parties’ collaboration makes a split almost impossible,” says Peter Kreko, head of the Budapest-based think tank Political Capital. “They’re all now aware that they can’t survive, let alone challenge Fidesz, without collaborating. Breaking that unity would equal collective suicide.”

Marki-Zay is well aware of the need to maintain cohesion. Speaking after his victory in the primary was announced, he told a crowd in Budapest that “now we have to leave our turbulent rows behind us and hold hands.”

Should Marki-Zay manage to lead the United Opposition to victory, however, there’s understandable concern that unity might fall by the wayside soon thereafter. Shorn of their existential incentive, the six incongruent parties could struggle to maintain cooperation, suggests Gyori. 

Nor would they have any help from Orban, who would fancy his chances of coming back even stronger if he can help hasten a collapse of the government that succeeds him. Fidesz would do all it can to split them, Gyori points out, with their divergent views on social issues such as immigration and LGBT rights a potential minefield.

A further challenge could come from Orban’s deep reach into the state apparatus, a factor he’s been busy reinforcing just in case. 

Assets totaling billions of euros—including state companies, real estate and higher education institutions—were removed from the state’s oversight earlier this year and allocated to “foundations” headed by senior Fidesz officials and government-friendly business leaders. Hence, any new government would struggle for leverage over the economy and state institutions. 

Orban allies are also being given key government posts, joining the large ranks of political appointees that now dominate Hungary’s democratic institutions. 

A big potential problem for any future United Opposition government is that any significant revision of this system would require a constitutional majority. That’s a threshold it’s very unlikely to cross, suggesting it could struggle for efficacy and stability—in short, a gift for a skilled populist like Orban.

“There’s a clear risk that any opposition government would very quickly find itself in trouble,” warns Kreko, “leaving the way open for Orban to return, potentially in an even stronger position.”

Tim Gosling is a Prague-based journalist who has covered the Central European region for several years. He has contributed to Politico Europe, Deutsche Welle and the Financial Times, among other publications, and also provided analysis on the region for the Economist Intelligence Unit and IHS Markit.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

Articles: 14418

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *