Hungarian opposition bets on unity as campaign to oust Viktor Orban begins
Gergely Karacsony’s victory in the Budapest municipal elections two years ago at the head of a unified opposition campaign has been hailed by the liberal politician as a “model” to beat Hungarian veteran Viktor Orban at the polls.
Karacsony is now trying to prove it nationally. He and his political rivals are debating their differences to select a single candidate to fight Orban and his ruling Fidesz party in the April 2022 general election.
Six opposition parties are participating in a series of primary election contests this month and next, which will also decide unified candidates for each parliamentary seat.
“The opposition has united because our cause trumps all differences,” Karacsony told the Financial Times during a campaign stop in Budapest.
Most of Hungary’s fragmented opposition see this as the only way to defeat Fidesz, which before the 2019 Budapest contest swept all elections – local, national and European – for a decade.
Polls show that if the opposition rallies voters behind a single candidate, the 2022 election could be a neck-and-neck race. A third of voters have yet to make their decision and the polls have the opposition at their fingertips.
Karacsony is in the lead, ahead of Klara Dobrev, vice-president of the European Parliament who would be Hungary’s first woman prime minister, and Peter Jakab, president of the former far-right Jobbik party.
Still, the primaries, which are set to end on October 10, are just a precursor to what will be a formidable challenge for Orban.
Orban, 58, has a stranglehold on power that begins in parliament, where he has commanded a two-thirds “supermajority” for most of the past 12 years, allowing Fidesz to change all laws themselves.
During his tenure he created a self-proclaimed illiberal regime in which he controls most aspects of public life. State institutions and resources promote his party’s agenda, and loyalists fulfill key public roles.
He has clashed with Western allies while forging friendly ties with Eastern powers, especially Russia and China, and has become an outsider of the EU by frequently juxtaposing his policies with what he calls federalism. invading and the dominant liberalism of Brussels.
“Everything suggests a vast advantage of Fidesz for the campaign,” said Zoltan Novak of the Center for Fair Political Analysis in Budapest. “Network, mobilization, money, a strong leader and brand. Yet the opposition has never been so close to mounting a credible challenge. “
Fidesz is taking the challenge seriously with a campaign targeting former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, Dobrev’s husband and party leader, as well as Karacsony. Tagged “Stop Gyurcsany!” Stop Karacsony! “, It aims to remind voters of the missteps of the socialist government which preceded that of Orban.
“People have not forgotten the Gyurcsany era and do not want the past to return,” Mate Kocsis, head of the Fidesz parliamentary group, told pro-government daily Magyar Nemzet. “The left showed how they rule, and it was not gratifying.”
The question also arises as to whether the opposition can maintain its unity after primaries which also accentuate the differences. In a race in Budapest, candidates clashed so much over corruption charges that they even filed police reports.
Campaigning styles vary widely, with some candidates preferring to ease tensions between voters while others stir up emotions and attack the personal lives of opponents.
Still, Karacsony and his rivals say the opposition group is stable, as voters clearly express their preference for unity. Parties that resisted joining forces in the last election in 2018 have subsequently suffered a drop in support, polls show.
About 49 percent of the voting-age population want change, according to pollster Zavecz Research, which is 9 percentage points higher than the current opposition electoral base. Winning them would give the opposition a landslide – but that outcome remains unlikely.
“These people may be the reserves the opposition needs, but two difficulties persist,” Zavecz said. “They are passive and pessimistic. Only about a fifth of them plan to vote with certainty, and only a quarter of them believe the opposition can win the election.
Opponents of Orban recognize that defeating the prime minister is only the first step in changing the power structure he has built. This would require unprecedented legal and political effort due to the qualified majority required to change important laws. Still, Karacsony said he expected Fidesz to weaken quickly if he lost.
“The basis of Orban’s system is not its legal power,” he said. “The system is based on money. . . If a new government cuts public funds, which should be its first business, then this system will implode – I’m sure. “
To maximize their potential, opposition parties want to agree on a “shadow” government well in advance of the elections and develop plans to seize power, including political deals and a legal strategy to unravel part of the regime. Orban, they said.
In an interview, Dobrev said a new government is expected to get underway in April to dismantle the qualified majority barrier despite resistance from Fidesz.
Dobrev said their strategy would be based on the constitution, which prohibits attempts to aim for an exclusive hold on power. Orban’s qualified majority laws effectively prevent any government from doing its job freely, she said.
Novak, the analyst, said plans for a shadow government show the candidates realize that none can mobilize a broad spectrum of opposition on their own. Karacsony is seen as lacking in tenacity, especially by voters in rural areas, Novak said, while Dobrev had struggled to shake off her husband’s legacy of division and Jobbik’s Jakab was weaker in towns.
“We have to think of a shadow government,” Jakab said during a campaign stop on the outskirts of Budapest. “We will have to prepare to lead the country from the start while Fidesz does its best to stop us.”