Hungarian opposition makes last-ditch push to alienate voters from Viktor Orban
Just days before Hungary’s closest election in a decade, opposition flag bearer Peter Marki-Zay is campaigning, trying to convince voters that time is up for Viktor Orban, the one of the oldest and most authoritarian rulers in Europe.
“We all came together, looking at what connects us and not what divides us,” said Marki-Zay in the Lake Balaton resort of Siofok, 100 km southwest of Budapest. “We will replace this regime, the most corrupt that Hungary has known for a millennium.”
Orban, a conservative populist, and his Fidesz party ruled the country for three four-year terms largely thanks to a divided opposition. But six parties united in Hungary‘s first-ever primary elections last October and tried to turn the election into a straight fight to oust the longtime prime minister.
The difficulty for Marki-Zay is that, even if the polls shrink, much depends on the battleground districts where Orban’s efficient party machine and media dominance prevent them from getting their message across.
Orban’s dominance is helping him weather the tough final weeks of campaigning since Russia invaded Ukraine. The Hungarian Prime Minister said he was proud of his relations with Vladimir Putin, President of Russia. The pair have had a dozen meetings in as many years and signed a 12.5 billion euro deal to expand Hungary’s only nuclear power plant, while Budapest is home to the International Investment Bank, a multilateral lender backed by Moscow considered a “spy center” by critics.
But the opposition took advantage of Orban’s proximity to Russia to renew its calls for support. Anna Orosz, a leader of the liberal Momentum party, one of those in the unified opposition camp, told voters in Siofok that Putin was “Orban’s master”.
But most voters rarely hear such messages on pro-government media coverage, which tells them the prime minister is seeking peace while the opposition will endanger Hungary’s security.
“We could link Orban to Putin a lot more, but our voice is limited,” Marki-Zay campaign manager Peter Zarand said, adding that the alliance has 2,000 billboards across the country, compared to more than 20,000 for Fidesz.
In Siofok, roads are lined with government billboards telling voters that Marki-Zay is “dangerous” and a “puppet” of hidden forces. There are no opposition billboards for miles around.
The city, the largest around Lake Balaton, is both a tourist resort and a commercial and maritime center on a canal connecting the lake to the Danube. Orban’s associates have taken control of an increasing proportion of the lake’s shores in recent years, anticipating a tourist boom. Some residents also worry that the growth will damage the lake’s fragile ecosystem and alter its way of life.
Facing a divided opposition, Fidesz easily won in Siofok in 2018, winning 51% of the vote, one of its 91 victories in 106 constituencies.
But this time should be closer. Anita Korosi, of the former far-right Jobbik party, won an opposition primary in October and is its only candidate in Siofok against Fidesz.
“I think Anita should succeed,” said Maria Fehervari, a young mother with a stroller enjoying the spring sunshine with an ice cream in the central square of Siofok. “I will certainly vote, and certainly not for Orban.”
Still many in Siofok support Orban and give pro-Russian explanations for the war in Ukraine.
“Victor [Orban] right about Ukraine,” said Ferenc, a waiter who declined to give his last name. “The Ukrainians brought this conflict on themselves, ripping the bear’s whiskers off, so that Putin at one point said ‘enough’. The Ukrainians mistreated the ethnic Hungarians there as well, and now they want our help? »
His friend, a retired army officer named Attila, added, “Look how many wars America has started over the years. They are also behind this: they want the gas reserves in eastern Ukraine.
Nationally, polls show the opposition striking distance from Fidesz – behind by around three percentage points – with around a quarter of the electorate undecided. Baseline projections generally predict a comfortable victory for Fidesz.
With an electorate of just 8 million people, a few hundred votes could be decisive in some constituencies and much will depend on voter mobilization, according to analysts and political advisers on both sides. This is an area where Fidesz – with a powerful media machine, more funding and a party apparatus built up over decades – has a huge advantage.
Marki-Zay, who leapfrogged better-known rivals when he won the opposition primary last year to choose a united candidate, was seen as someone capable of bridging the political divide in Hungary and attracting the voters of Orban. A relative political novice whose only experience as mayor of his hometown of Hodmezovasarhely, the Catholic father of seven was an avowed conservative, affiliated only with a small party, and seemed sympathetic to Orban’s core values. electoral basis.
But he struggled to get through Orban’s media grip, while even people on his side say he didn’t help himself with inexperienced messages, allowing Fidesz to claim he would train Hungary in the conflict with Ukraine – which Marki-Zay rejects.
Zarand also said that the coalition’s main opposition parties, Jobbik and the Democratic Coalition (DK), have not always weighed in on the campaign for Marki-Zay. “They only work in constituencies and on social media. They hardly participate in the national campaign,” he said. Jobbik and DK deny they are lukewarm, saying voters will punish them if they are not fully engaged in opposition.
In Siofok, the six parties in the opposition camp appeared on a common platform behind their candidate as Marki-Zay urged the crowd to unite and seize the best chance in a decade to oust Orban.
“Now that we’ve taken each other by the hand, don’t let go,” he said. “Let’s keep this alliance. It is the key to the victory of Hungary, that we find ourselves in the majority on April 3rd.