Péter Márki-Zay to lead the united democratic opposition in bid to topple Orbán

In spring 2o22, for the first time ever, Hungary’s strongman ruler Viktor Orbán will face a united opposition running a single slate of candidates spanning Jobbik on the right to the Democratic Coalition on the liberal left. This rainbow coalition, more disciplined in maintaining the united front needed to finally topple the rule of Viktor Orbán than ever before, will be led by Péter Márki-Zay, a conservative Catholic mayor with seven children. In the second and final round of primaries, Márki-Zay won 57 percent of the vote and Klára Dobrev garnered 43 percent. Some 850,000 Hungarians cast ballots in the two rounds of voting — a figure that suggests a high level of political engagement in the ranks of people who desire an end to the current regime.

The 49 year old Márki-Zay’s political experience to date centres on his successful mayoral campaign in Hódmezővásárhely in February 2018, where he tore the southeastern Hungarian town of 43,000 residents from the grips of Fidesz. The campaign was his baptism by fire, so to speak. The centre-left opposition parties, still in disarray at the time, supported his candidacy, while Jobbik provided logistical and strategic assistance to his campaign. Despite the united opposition, Márki-Zay faced anything but a level playing field against Fidesz. His campaign was mostly denied coverage in the local media and Fidesz launched the sort of shrill campaign of hate and intimidation against the opposition’s local leader that is the bread and butter of “Christian Conservative” politics in Hungary. Márki-Zay, who was Chair of Parish Pastoral Council at St. Stephen the King Roman Catholic Parish, was publicly disowned by the pastor of his own church. Father László Németh used his homily at Sunday Mass to pressure his parishioners into voting for Fidesz. Father Németh went as far as to label the parish’s lay leader nothing more than a liar who puts on a “cheap theatrical performance.” Márki-Zay was accused of “worse,” including that he was doggedly set on erecting a mosque in Hódmezővásárhely — an accusation with absolutely zero grounding in fact.

Although Márki-Zay remains on the centre-right of the spectrum, and has a history of socially conservative views, his Everybody’s Hungary Movement (Mindenki Magyarországa Mozgalom) strikes a tone of inclusion and reconciliation.”The movement will build a bridge between different parties and ideologies…The members of the movement believe that Hungary needs a new political culture. To achieve this, they welcome every decent Hungarian who is interested in change”–the movement declares.

It’s a vague sort of manifesto, but the call to build a new political culture in Hungary is the basis of everything else.

Happily, it seems that this new political culture may be taking root — at least within the ranks of the opposition. Klára Dobrev, Márki-Zay’s left-centre rival in the opposition primaries, was gracious in congratulating her opponent’s win and calling on the entire opposition to maintain a united front. Although the Democratic Coalition’s politician scored several victories outside Budapest, she did not wait for the final results to offer her support and congratulations. “I congratulate him from the bottom of my heart. He is now the joint candidate for prime minister of the six-party opposition coalition. I have assured him of my full support”–Dobrev said, adding that the opposition must now turn its focus squarely on Viktor Orbán and on defeating him.

The Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), reduced to a shadow of its former self, also congratulated the united opposition’s new leader and defined its agenda priorities in the next election:

“We expect the Prime Minister-designate to help coordinate the work of the diverse coalition and represent a common agenda to build a country of equal opportunities for all, to be committed to increasing low Hungarian wages, abolishing the slavery law, strengthening the social safety net, raising low pensions, and ending the housing crisis. We also see him helping in the strengthening and improving of the quality of publicly funded education and healthcare, ending corruption, holding those who harm the Hungarian people to account, and restoring Hungary’s international standing. Peter, you can count on us!”

It appears as though Márki-Zay may have managed to mobilize more than 220,000 new voters — people who had not voted in the initial round of the primaries. It was only after that, and after Budapest Mayor Gergely Karácsony’s decision to leave the race and throw his support behind Márki-Zay that he became the front runner.  Márki-Zay promised to bring new voters into the opposition tent, and based on the second round results, he may have succeeded in this. But here’s a personal anecdote that suggests the same. Two weeks ago I spoke with a friend who is well-versed in Hungarian politics and who had not voted for the opposition in the past decade. He felt now, more than ever, that Fidesz was past its best before date. The systemic and blatant corruption had become intolerable. In the upcoming national election he could support Márki-Zay in a way that he could not support the politicians of the Democratic Coalition.

Viktor Orbán now faces the first real ballot challenge since returning to power eleven years ago. His many cronies face the prospect of being held to account.

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