Hungary Insight

Opposition primaries bring democratic buzz to illiberal Hungary

Budapest, Hungary – On the night of September 12, Hungarian viewers saw an almost forgotten spectacle when they switched to ATV, the country’s most viewed current affairs channel. The prime ministerial candidates of the united opposition chose the channel as the venue for their first debate.

Though the debate received some criticism as the candidates clearly pulled their punches most of the time, its mere existence demonstrates a revolutionary innovation in Hungarian politics. When Fidesz overhauled the country’s constitution after their landslide victory in 2010, the new electoral system made it nearly impossible for a fragmented opposition to oust Viktor Orbán’s party.

Beating Fidesz’s “central force”

To beat Fidesz’s hegemony and break its so-called “central force” (Fidesz was to the right of traditional left-wing parties but to the left of the far-right party, Jobbik) there were two paths for anti-Fidesz forces: They had to either build up a brand new party that’s able to integrate left-wing, liberal, and moderate conservative voters or the entire opposition from left to right had to unite.

From the Socialists to Jobbik

This debate was most pressing in the early parliamentary years of LMP. While the party’s leader András Schiffer was adamant that the party had to grow and take on Fidesz alone, an emerging young politician, Gergely Karácsony advocated something that, at the time, seemed radical; the entire opposition from the Socialists to Jobbik had to unite. The conflict was not settled and Karácsony, with a handful of other LMP MPs, seceded from the party and founded a new one, Párbeszéd in 2013.

Karácsony’s idea fell on deaf ears until 2018 when despite a few individual withdrawals, cooperation efforts failed again resulting in the most crushing defeat of the opposition yet: Fidesz won the election with a ⅔ majority again. It then became clear that the opposition had to unite for the 2019 local elections, which was a huge success. Fidesz lost Budapest and plenty of major cities in the country. The recipe was found for 2022.

But while in 2019, the common candidates, apart from the mayor of Budapest, were decided without the public via backroom political deals, to decide who will run in 2022 there are primaries in each constituency as well as a national one to decide who the common candidate for Prime Minister will be.

The system, of course, is far from perfect. There is a handful of constituencies where there is only one candidate. The recently introduced online voting system initially seemed to be massively underdeveloped compared to the volume of people who would be interested in casting their votes that way, and capacity still has to be expanded continuously. In some constituencies, certain candidates withdrew as part of backroom deals with other parties only days before the voting was supposed to start. And finally, the suspension of voting for the first weekend after a suspected cyber attack is not a good look for the opposition, regardless of whether they can prove that their system was hacked.

A success story, so far

But apart from the few hiccups, the primaries seem to be a success story. So far, more than 440.000 people have voted, which exceeds the expectations of the organisers. Two youtube channels, Partizán and Jelen TV organise debates in several constituencies, and this Friday saw the second debate between the prime ministerial candidates on national TV.

And this is where the real democratic revolution of the primaries lies; in the past few weeks, Hungarians could watch real debates between candidates, based not on smear campaigns but differences between societal context and ideology.

For example, the contest in Budapest 01 constituency is a race between an environmentalist and a committed liberal who both articulated their arguments openly and clearly. During the first prime ministerial debate, Gergely Karácsony and Péter Márki-Zay showed a well-reasoned disagreement on tax policy. These might sound basic to ears that are used to debates in healthy democracies, but Hungarians have not seen a proper prime ministerial debate in 15 years, and regular ideology based well-reasoned debates are a breath of fresh air.

After years of simply reacting to Fidesz’s actions, the Opposition’s initiative has been dominating the news cycle for a month now.

Who will be Viktor Orbán’s challenger?

The contest that understandably attracts the most interest is the race to become the Opposition’s candidate for Prime Minister. Though six candidates intended to run originally, former Fidesz-cabinet member and former president of the Hungarian Academy of Science, József Pálinkás could not manage to collect the number of signatures from the members of the public to run. He still hopes to be in parliament in 2022 as he is contesting a seat in Debrecen during the primaries.

Gergely Karácsony

The frontrunner is Budapest mayor Gergely Karácsony, supported by the Hungarian Socialist Party, and two smaller green parties, LMP and Párbeszéd. Karácsony was the last candidate to start his campaign back in late spring but managed to burst onto the scene with a large-scale protest, organised against the planned Budapest campus of Fudan University, which proved to be a success as Fidesz seemed to have produced a U-turn and shelved the project.

Though Karácsony is still the likeliest candidate to win as he remains popular both home and abroad, he will have a tougher run for his money than previously expected. Since the Fudan protest, Karácsony’s campaign seems to have lost momentum during the summer and critics suggest his team might have taken his victory for granted. He is now expected not to win the first round, with some polls even only putting him in third place. However, as he is likely to integrate voters in the second round, his overall victory is still likely. 

Klára Dobrev

The candidate likely to win the first round is the only woman in the race, DK’s Klára Dobrev. The European Parliament’s vice-president has an extremely strong core vote, as DK supporters tend to be older and highly enthusiastic, therefore they are easily mobilised. Dobrev’s main problem, however, is that despite her and her party having the most voters in the whole coalition, they are also the most widely rejected and disliked both among the rest of the anti-Orbán and swing voters.

Thus, she will not be able to add a significant number of votes to her tally in the second round of the contest. She does have a chance if the turnout is low (which seems unlikely at the time of writing), however, her victory would give a real headache to the opposition as she is very unlikely to convince swing voters, putting the electoral success of the united opposition in serious jeopardy.

Péter Jakab

Competing for third place are the two right-wing candidates in the race, Péter Jakab and Péter Márki-Zay. Jakab, the leader of Jobbik, surprised Hungarian politicos with his campaign. After the near-collapse of the party in 2019, Jakab gave Jobbik a new, distinct character that’s different from both the party’s radical far-right past as well as 2018’s projected image of moderate conservatism. The new Jobbik is an economically left-wing, culturally right-wing democratic populist party, and its leader is positioning himself as the voice of the countryside’s common people.

Jakab gained popularity with his confrontational parliamentary speeches targeted at Viktor Orbán in which he could channel the frustrations of an uneducated everyman, an ability the other prime ministerial candidates arguably lack.

His misfortune is that his campaign seems to be running out of steam just before the finish line. While the everyman image was strong earlier this year, Jakab failed to build on it or improve his act. His relative inability and apparent disinterest in attracting those who would not be his natural supporters is not helping him either. This is apparent from the recent outrage after Jakab seemed to relativise rape as he stated in parliament that in prison, even Viktor Orbán could become Viktória Orbán.

Given that at one point, it even seemed possible that he wins the primaries, not even getting to the top 3 would be a serious disappointment for him. Regardless of his final position, he will have a crucial role to play in the 2022 campaign in the Hungarian countryside. 

Péter Márki-Zay

Jakab’s third problem is the emergence of Péter Márki-Zay as a serious candidate. Márki-Zay’s name is intertwined with the opposition’s unity, just like Karácsony’s. In a 2018 mayoral by-election in Hódmezővásárhely, a former Fidesz stronghold, he was the first-ever united-opposition candidate and managed to win. His campaign is gaining momentum just as Jakab’s is waning and he, surprisingly, even managed to collect more signatures than Jobbik’s leader.

His presence is incredibly strong in the online world, which would not mean a lot in a normal election, but it is worth bearing in mind that the primaries’ core audience is a group of voters who are engaged with politics more than the average population.

Therefore, he has a serious chance of pulling off a surprise and getting to the second round. Even this, in itself, would be a huge success for him. He is the candidate who is most likely to convince the undecided as he is not supported by any of the six parties in the primaries and speaks the language of former Fidesz voters and right-of-centre individuals.

He is supported by a conservative organisation MMM, which might be his main advantage as prime minister: he owes no loyalty to any party, therefore he does not have to make any compromises. But being a right-of-centre candidate without any party backing might raise questions about his ability to hold the otherwise economically left-of-centre alliance together. He is also somewhat gaffe-prone, which Fidesz’s cruel communications machine could easily exploit.

András Fekete-Győr

The final candidate is Momentum leader András Fekete-Győr. The 31-year old is the youngest in the race and the leader of the newest party (Momentum was founded in 2017). Fekete-Győr collected the fewest number of signatures among the candidates and has very little chance of advancing to the second round. This is largely thanks to his campaign which has been nothing short of a disaster.

Fekete-Győr was unable to communicate a clear message and essentially wrote himself out of the contest in April after a disastrous interview with youtube channel Partizán. He is unpopular even with Momentum voters; there are stories circulating about how low the share of people who otherwise signed for the local candidate is who were also willing to sign for Fekete-Győr. One source put this number at around 10-20%, which is shockingly low.

His impressive performance in both tv debates is likely to boost the chances of individual candidates in constituencies, but Fekete-Győr probably damaged himself too much in the past 6 months to be able to make a significant difference to the chances of him being the United Opposition’s candidate for prime minister.

Key battlegrounds

It is not just the Prime Ministerial race that attracts attention. There are several key constituencies that produce widely open contests and the composition of the next parliament will ultimately be decided in individual constituencies.

The DK and Jobbik deal

One of the main stories in the primaries is the surprising apparent deal between DK and Jobbik, the two parties who are perhaps the furthest away from one another in the united coalition. As part of this deal, DK and Jobbik candidates are not competing against one another in several constituencies. As a liberal party with an urban voting base, DK is supported by Jobbik in several city constituencies, while DK supports Jobbik candidates in the countryside, where the former far-right party has a better chance of winning.

Apart from the unlikely deal between two sides whose voters otherwise hate each other, the pact also has an interesting dimension for Jobbik. It is widely thought that the election will largely depend on key constituencies in the countryside as the opposition is already likely to win in cities.

Due to its position as part of the deal, the election will be an all-or-nothing scenario for Jobbik; if the opposition win, Jobbik will also win big, but if they lose their parliamentary faction will likely be tiny.

Old vs New

Another battle to look out for is the fight between the old opposition parties and the new opposition parties. A key question of the 2022 elections is whether the opposition will be able to demonstrate that they are not the continuation of the socialist-liberal coalition of 2002-2010. A way to demonstrate this would be to point at their candidates who could show that they are largely composed of the so-called post-2010 parties: LMP, Párbeszéd, Jobbik, and Momentum and not the two older parties DK and MSZP.

This battle is most apparent in Budapest. In most constituencies in Buda, there is a contest between DK candidates and Momentum or Párbeszéd candidates. While DK’s position is strengthened by its pact with Jobbik, the new parties still have a good chance in the capital for three reasons.

First of all, simply because Jobbik made a deal with DK, its voters are not guaranteed to follow suit. Jobbik voters are more likely to vote for literally any other party than the party of Ferenc Gyurcsány, a prime minister who they used to loath. Secondly, many of these constituencies have disillusioned Fidesz voters living in them, who are also unlikely to vote for a DK candidate. Finally, apart from Jobbik, all other opposition parties tend to back the candidate who is not running for DK.

Of course, the battle of the new wave versus the old established parties is not exclusive to Budapest. In one of the most exciting constituencies, Szombathely in Western Hungary, DK’s Csaba Czeglédy takes on LMP’s Péter Ungár, a billionaire who is Hungary’s youngest sitting MP.

The battle for Zugló

But the most symbolic battle is taking place in Zugló, the largest district in Budapest, where former LMP vice-president and anti-corruption superstar Ákos Hadházy takes on local socialist strongman Csaba Tóth. Tóth has found himself in many corruption scandals in the past few years, hence Hadházy’s candidacy has a clear message. Hadházy is only supported by Momentum, the Hungarian Two-Tailed Dog Party, and Péter Márki-Zay’s MMM, while Tóth enjoyed the support of DK, MSZP, Párbeszéd, and Jobbik, although he recently lost the support of Gergely Karácsony, Párbeszéd, and DK.

The contest is so symbolic that most Momentum candidates tend to bring it up in debates in different constituencies as well.

In their narrative, the battle is for the soul of the opposition; will the old opposition which was not alien to corruption scandals not unlike Fidesz return or will an actual regime change happen if they win. The race in Zugló has produced ugly scenes, Csaba Tóth even sued Ákos Hadházy, while Hadházy unearthed documents which seemed to prove Tóth omitted significant wealth from his declaration of assets he submitted before the primaries, which resulted in many of the parties withdrawing from backing him.

Budapest 06

But not all close competitions are a contest between the old and the new. In what is often dubbed the most exciting contest in the entire primaries is Budapest 06 constituency consisting of districts 8 and 9. Four strong and charismatic candidates are running in the race; Márta Demeter, supported by Jobbik, András Jámbor supported by MSZP, Párbeszéd, and emerging new-left movement Szikra, DK’s Dániel Manhalter, and Anett Csordás, supported by a grassroots local organisation as well as Momentum.

The winner will likely be either Csordás or Jámbor. If the latter wins, Jámbor could become the first new-left MP in Hungary which might give Szikra a boost to emerge as a serious left-wing presence in post-Orbán Hungary.

There is still a long way until 2022 and the outcome is far from guaranteed. But for the past few weeks, the opposition parties have taken control of their own destiny. If they can replicate the innovation, enthusiasm, and energy they showed this September, the six parties will have a serious chance to turn the tide of Hungarian history.

By Ábel Bede

Ábel Bede was born in Budapest and has two degrees in History from Durham University. He specialised in Central Europan history and has been contributing to Kafkadesk since 2019. Feel free to check out more of his articles right here!

Coordinated by Ábel Bede, Kafkadesk's Budapest office is made up of a growing team of freelance journalists, editors and fact-checkers passionate about Hungarian affairs and dedicated to bringing you all the latest news, events and insights from Hungary.