An uncorrupted newcomer: a hope for change in Hungarian politics?

On April 3, parliamentary elections will be held in Hungary. Unprecedented in the country’s political history, the opposition has formed an alliance to name a single person to run against current Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Last year, six of the biggest opposition parties formed a coalition called Magyarország Mindenkié Mozgalom (Hungary is Everyone’s Movement). After the local elections of 2019 where the opposition successfully nominated a common candidate against Fidesz in each municipality, they realised that the only way to win the national election would be to set aside their differences and decide on a joint prime minister candidate and joint candidates for each electoral district. Thus, in the autumn of 2021, they organised primaries to choose a common candidate.

Fidesz has been in power for over ten years now. In 2010, Fidesz and the Christian-democrats (KDNP) won the election with a “super-majority” of 54%, which meant that they got two-thirds of the seats in the Parliament. This made it easy for them to pass almost any law they wanted. In 2012 they passed a new constitutional law, which was heavily criticised for undermining the rule of law, eroding checks and balances by, for instance, “brutally restricting” the powers of the Constitutional Court.

Here, the government changed the way Constitutional Court judges are nominated. This is now done by a committee which mirrors the political composition of the parliament giving the governing party a majority. In addition, the legislation process is done extremely quickly, like in the case of the Central European University or the case against NGOs. The constitutional law also outlined the governing party’s conservative values which, among other things, favours Christianity above other religions and prohibits gay marriage. Hungary has been one of the biggest recipients of EU structural funding, yet the government has invested hundreds of millions of forints into campaigns to paint a bad picture of the EU.

Prime Minster of Hungary Victor Orbán arrives for a meeting with European Union leaders in 2018 (Credit: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock.com)

Since 2012 the level of corruption and inhibition of rights and freedoms have degraded. It has reached a point where the state is controlling all the main media outlets, is able to replace the heads of universities and cultural institutions with its own subservient people, subject civic organisations to humiliating control and change the compulsory school curriculum and prescribe uniform textbooks for primary and secondary schools.

These re-fashioned textbooks directly convey the government’s viewpoint instead of providing the students with objective and up-to-date information. And while the wealthiest party-loyal people are only getting richer, the education system is on the verge of collapse due to a lack of teachers and low wages, the healthcare system is overburdened and underfunded, and the poorest parts of the population, like the Roma and the homeless, get the least social support. In light of all this, it is easier to understand the opposition’s slogan: “Now that Viktor Orbán is leading the country into a ravine, the question is not to go right or left, the only way is up!”.

Government flyer from 2019 criticising the EU’s migration policy by informing people about the plans of George Soros, Jean-Claude Juncker and Brussels: “You have the right to know what Brussels is up to!” (Credit: Peter Csaszar / Shutterstock.com)

With the help of volunteers and civilians, the opposition held two rounds of primaries. By the second round only two candidates remained,  Klára Dobrev and Péter Márki-Zay. Klára Dobrev represented the Democratic Coalition party (DK), but even though she received the most votes in the first round of the primaries, she would have faced great difficulties in uniting people in the parliamentary election due to her link to her husband, Ferenc Gyurcsány, who was forced to resign as Prime Minister in 2009. Finally, Márki-Zay, the mayor of Hódmezővásárhely, won the primaries and is now preparing to face Viktor Orbán in the national election of 2022.

While it is a big step for the democratic parties that a coalition has formed, and that a single candidate has been chosen to represent the opposition in the election, the question is: does this mayor from a small city of 44 000 people stand a chance at the national level? He won the local election in Hódmezővásárhely in 2018 as an independent candidate, despite Fidesz’s previous domination in the region. Márki-Zay has experience in local politics, which gives him competence and confidence, and he has not been embroiled in national political scandals unlike other politicians.

Peter Marki-Zay at a campaign event in September 2021. (Credit: Raketir / Shutterstock.com)

Márki-Zay is a conservative, family-oriented father of seven children, Catholic, pro-EU, well-educated person, a previous Fidesz voter who speaks fluent English, German and French. He holds degrees in marketing, economics, electrical engineering, history, and economic history. His broad-ranging interests and expertise can appeal to both previous conservative Fidesz supporters, families, intellectuals and EU advocates alike. This also makes him a difficult opponent to attack for the present government. Nevertheless, it will be a challenge to address such a wide group of people and juggle the competing interests within the alliance.

If he wins, Márki-Zay has promised to set up an anti-corruption institute which would investigate corruption cases that have occurred in Hungary in the last 20 years, with a view to eliminating the oligarchic system that Orbán established. He also wants to restore Hungary’s good relations with the EU and other countries as an equal partner, while maintaining Hungarian national interests. He does not outright oppose cooperation with the Chinese or Russians, however, Márki-Zay wants to create partnerships on more equal terms. He also wishes to establish a government made up of experts based on skills as opposed to nepotism and party loyalty.

It is undeniable that the current government has much more resources to finance and execute its electoral campaign than the opposition, and the electoral system is now (since 2012) heavily biased in favour of Fidesz, but this is the closest Hungary has been to change its government in the past 12 years. Even if the opposition wins the election, keeping such a broad spectrum of political views together will pose a major challenge for the coalition. This is why it will be crucial for a new government to not choose ministers according to their party affiliation but rather based on their skills and assets. It remains to be seen how the elections turn out, but as we say in Hungary, it is the hope that dies last.

Nora Eliassen

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