Thursday

29th Feb 2024

Small-town mayor elected to face Orbán

  • Conservative Péter Márki-Zay's win in the opposition primaries has shaken up politics in Hungary (Photo: Facebook - Peter Marki-Zay)
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A conservative-liberal mayor from a small provincial town will lead the united opposition in Hungary against nationalist prime minister Viktor Orbán at next April's general election.

Péter Márki-Zay, 49, won the run-off of the first ever primary elections in Hungary - organised by six opposition parties in order to have one united opposition figure run against Orbán and his Fidesz candidates.

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In a surprise victory, Márki-Zay defeated MEP Klára Dobrev, vice-president of the European Parliament, a leftwing candidate, who had won the first round of primaries as the candidate of the biggest opposition party, Democratic Coalition (DK).

After the first round, second-placed Budapest mayor Gergely Karácsony withdrew his candidacy in order to support Márky-Zay, who came in third, arguing that the conservative politician has the best chance to beat Orbán.

Dobrev conceded the race on Sunday evening, stressing that keeping the opposition united was vital.

The practicing Catholic and father-of-seven, Márki-Zay - nicknamed "MZP" by his supporters - is an economist and engineer who lived and worked in the US for years.

He rose to prominence three years ago, when he united opposition parties in the small town of Hódmezővásárhely, and defeated a close ally of Orbán there in a mayoral by-election.

He seems an unlikely choice as a candidate for the largely leftwing, urban, liberal opposition - but as a relative newcomer to party politics, he could mobilise young voters.

"We want to bring a new culture to Hungary, where love will prevail, because darkness cannot be overcome by darkness," Márki-Zay told a cheering crown in downtown Budapest.

. […] We will embrace all Gypsies, all Jews, all gays, all people with disabilities, all rural people and urbanites as Hungarians, and yes, we will embrace the Fidesz supporters as well. We must end this 30-year war with a peace. That's what the 2022 election is really about," he added.

"There is only one question: 'Fidesz or not Fidesz?' We all share that it is even in the Fidesz supporters' interest to replace Fidesz," he declared, setting the agenda for next year's election.

His conservative credentials, and his pledge to root-out corruption and restore democratic checks and balances, made him attractive in rural areas.

Márki-Zay promised to fire Orbán loyalists and said he would disregard parts of the constitution he argued serve to ensure Orban's influence even in case of an election defeat of the incumbent.

Over the last 11 years Orbán has cemented allies at the helm of various public institutions, overhauled Hungary's constitution, redrawn electoral districts, and extended his influence over the media and courts.

Integrator or opportunist?

"He could fill ... the role of an 'integrator', even if he was not the first choice for many voters, but there is little rejection towards him," Róbert László, an analyst with the Budapest-based think tank Political Capital, told EUobserver.

The defeated MEP Dobrev had an enthusiastic fan base, but her party chief and husband, socialist former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, cast a long shadow and is rejected by many voters, he added.

László also said that the anti-establishment persona of Márki-Zay was attractive to voters who are generally disillusioned, and see him as not tainted by the last decade of divisive politics.

Dániel Hegedüs, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin said Márki-Zay has the biggest chance to bring in undecided voters for the united opposition and - being conservative himself and an outsider - creates the most difficulties for the "Fidesz propaganda machine".

However, Hegedüs warned it will be difficult to keep the six opposition parties, from far-right to leftwing liberals, together for Márki-Zay - who does not have a party - while Fidesz will try to undermine their unity.

"It remains to be seen if he can lead such a complex coalition, and is not only a populist social-media hussar," he added.

The unprecedented primaries were hailed by organisers and observers for having mobilised over 800,000 voters in total (almost 10 percent of the electorate of 9.8 million), and after many years of Orbán dominance.

United anti-Orban opposition pins hopes on primaries

The primaries have been organised by a newly-united opposition alliance, with voting taking place in person and online. Over 633,000 people have cast ballots - around 25 percent of all opposition votes cast in 2018.

Hungarian opposition wins Budapest in blow to Orban

Budapest joins Istanbul and Warsaw by having an opposition mayor to a strongman illiberal leader, after a united opposition serves a shock blow across several towns in local elections in Hungary.

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