Hungary’s opposition spent years devising a plan to defeat Viktor Orbán. Then Russia invaded the country’s next-door neighbor.
Thousands of supporters of Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán gather in Budapest on March 15, 2022. The so-called “peace march” was a show of strength by Orbán’s supporters ahead of the election. | Anna Szilagyi/AP Photo
By Emily Schultheis
03/31/2022 04:30 AM EDT
Emily Schultheis is a freelance journalist based in Vienna and Berlin.
BUDAPEST, Hungary — A week before Hungarians were set to go to the polls to elect a new parliament, Péter Márki-Zay stepped up to a podium in a park in Budapest flanked by banners and signs reading “Let Hungary Belong to All of Us!” and “The Power Belongs to the People!”
That message of togetherness wasn’t just campaign rhetoric, it signaled a new strategy for Hungary’s long-suffering opposition parties. The mayor of a small city in southern Hungary, Márki-Zay’s goal is to succeed at something that more prominent politicians have failed at for 12 years: ousting incumbent Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Europe’s best known “illiberal” leader.
Márki-Zay is the lead candidate of a coalition called the United for Hungary movement, a group of six opposition parties that have banded together to better compete against Orbán and his ruling Fidesz party. The challenger’s candidacy is the culmination of a yearslong effort to chart an electoral strategy to take on Orbán — and to halt what the opposition sees as the Hungarian leader’s systematic efforts to centralize power and chip away at democratic norms and institutions. Their aspirations have been bolstered by new efforts among NGOs and civil society groups, including running voter training programs, recruiting more than 20,000 election observers and working to combat Fidesz’s dominance on the airwaves.
It hasn’t been easy. In a system of Orbán’s making, Márki-Zay and the opposition — vastly outspent on advertising, pummeled by the state-aligned media and disadvantaged in Hungary’s electoral system — face what seems like an impossibly small margin for error. And what’s more, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Hungary’s next-door neighbor, has transformed the pre-election political debate in unpredictable ways.
“We do have a chance, and that’s great,” Márki-Zay said in an interview after the event. “I’m 100 percent positive that there are more people who want change in Hungary. The question is: Will there be enough votes?”
On Sunday, Márki-Zay and those hoping to see an end to Orbán’s tenure — both within Hungary and across the West — will see whether their efforts have paid off. They may have done more than ever before to give themselves a fighting chance in the election, but the question remains: Will it be enough?
Both Péter Márki-Zay, top, and Viktor Orbán, bottom, attended large pre-election demonstrations in Budapest on March 15, just over two weeks before election day. The rallies also coincided with the memorial day for the 1848-49 revolution and war of independence from Austrian-Hapsburg rule. | Top: Janos Kummer/Getty Images; Bottom: Anna Szilagyi/AP Photo
In the 12 years he’s led the country, Orbán has worked to transform Hungary into what the leader himself famously referred to as an “illiberal democracy.” Whether it was moving to eradicate independent media, demonizing groups ranging from refugees to the LGBTQ community or undermining academic freedom at Hungarian universities, Orbán has served as a model for similarly minded parties and autocratic politicians across the West. And as right-wing populist and nationalist parties gained support across Europe in recent years, many saw Orbán as a warning sign of what could come if those populist leaders took power elsewhere.
Orbán’s election “reforms” have skewed elections in his party’s favor, which is why it’s been so difficult to mount a significant electoral challenge in the past. After entering office with a parliamentary supermajority in 2010, which allowed him to change the Hungarian constitution, Orbán overhauled the country’s electoral system. He redrew the parliamentary districts to heavily favor Fidesz, and scrapped a two-round election system in favor of just one round in which the top vote-getter — in the past, with a fractured political opposition, usually Fidesz — automatically wins the seat. What’s more, he opened up citizenship and voting rights to 2 million ethnic Hungarians living in neighboring countries, who in turn have voted overwhelmingly for Orbán.
(Those close to Orbán dispute the idea that Hungary has a democracy problem: Government spokesperson Zoltán Kovács said in a phone interview that Hungary doesn’t need Western leaders “giving us lectures” on how democracy works. “The election is open, as it has always been for the past three consecutive cases,” he said. “It’s the electorate, and that is, the Hungarian voter, who is going to decide and tell who is going to govern the country.”)
As a result of those electoral changes, which handed Fidesz supermajorities in 2014 and 2018, Márki-Zay and leaders of the major opposition parties came to the conclusion that the only way to pose a real challenge to Orbán was to team up. Despite the structural challenges, six opposition parties from across the ideological spectrum — the Democratic Coalition, right-wing Jobbik, the green LMP (“Politics Can Be Different”), Momentum, the Hungarian Socialist Party and Dialogue for Hungary — first agreed to join forces and recruit joint candidates in Hungary’s 2019 local elections. Their gamble paid off, and opposition candidates won mayorships and city council seats across the country, including the capital city, Budapest.
In preparation for Sunday’s vote, they held their first-ever national primary this fall, electing the unaffiliated conservative politician Márki-Zay as their top candidate and choosing unified candidates in each of Hungary’s 106 parliamentary districts. Hundreds of thousands turned out to cast their votes in what supporters say was a remarkable show of grassroots excitement. For the first time, there was a palpable sense that Orbán’s days in office might be numbered. That Márki-Zay became the candidate was symbolic in a way: His mayoral election in the city of Hódmezővásárhely in 2018, in which opposition parties backed his bid to help him defeat the Fidesz candidate, was an early inspiration for the strategy of teaming up.
“The primaries were a huge boost for us, and they created a lot of enthusiasm,” Dávid Dorosz, a parliamentary candidate from the Dialogue for Hungary party, said in an interview. Those efforts, he added, along with developing the opposition’s joint campaign platform, were important not just for the campaign but “for the long-term political culture of this country.”
In the intervening months, however, many I spoke with told me the excitement and momentum for the opposition had begun to wane, in part due to internal tensions and growing pains within the opposition movement and in part due to the inherent disadvantages of facing Orbán. Public election polling puts Fidesz several percentage points ahead of the opposition: POLITICO’s Poll of Polls currently has Fidesz at 50 percent, compared with 45 percent for the joint opposition.
As Ukrainian refugees continue to arrive in Hungary, left, Orbán’s opponents are growing increasingly critical of his close relationship with Vladimir Putin. | Left: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images; Right: Janos Kummer/Getty Images
Then came the war in Ukraine, which shares a border with Hungary. Since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion last month, a half million Ukrainian refugees have streamed into Hungary. For that reason and others, the war has proven an unpredictable factor in the campaign, overshadowing domestic politics and putting Orbán on the defensive over his ties to Putin.
“This is the first election where Orbán doesn’t have full control of the agenda,” said Zselyke Csaky, the research director for Europe, media and democracy at the pro-democracy organization Freedom House. “He’s in reaction mode instead of actively shaping things however he wants.”
Still, Orbán has used the war to bolster his image as a strong, secure leader. Government billboards plastered on the streets, in subways and along highways show a pensive Orbán with the message, “Let Us Preserve the Peace and Security of Hungary!” He has sought to find an uneasy balance between Putin and Western leaders, accepting European Union sanctions on Russia but forbidding the transport of weapons to Ukraine via Hungary and publicly clashing with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He has also repeatedly accused the opposition of wanting to send Hungarian soldiers into war: “The left has lost its sense of reality and would sleepwalk its way into a cruel, protracted and bloody war,” Orbán said in a speech on Hungary’s national holiday earlier this month. “We shall not permit this — we will not allow the left to drag Hungary into this war.”
Opposition leaders, meanwhile, have sought to highlight Orbán’s long-standing ties to Moscow and his increasingly isolated position within the EU and among fellow NATO members. They say the election offers a stark choice between Orbán, who stands with Putin, and them, with a focus on strengthening ties with the EU and the West. They also say it demonstrates the high stakes of defending democracy in Europe.
“This is maybe the ideal moment to reflect on the general direction for the country… Which way are we going in the future?” Katalin Cseh, a member of the European Parliament for the Momentum party, said in a recent interview in her party’s campaign offices. “This is a very clear choice, and I really hope that the Hungarian voters will realize that the strategy of appeasing autocrats and war criminals does not fit anywhere.”
But with war on Hungary’s doorstep and thousands more refugees arriving every day, it also means the campaign feels far more muted than the all-encompassing battle over the future of Hungarian democracy most had anticipated. Márta Pardavi, who heads the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, said she and her team had prepared for what they expected to be an intense focus on the election on top of their other work as one of Hungary’s key civil society organizations. But when the war broke out, they immediately got to work helping the many refugees coming to Hungary. “People’s attention really shifted away from the election campaign,” she said. “I feel this in myself: When I wake up, I check the news — not about what’s going on with the Hungarian elections and who said what, but rather what happened in Ukraine.”
Volunteer ballot counters listen to a presentation in Budapest, Hungary, on March 24, 2022. A grassroots civic initiative in Hungary has recruited more than 20,000 volunteer ballot counters to ensure a fair tally in upcoming elections. | Anna Szilagyi/AP Photo
In the final days of the campaign, no one seemed to have a clear handle on what the outcome would be on April 3. Many in the opposition were skeptical they would be able to pull off a victory, though they didn’t discount the possibility that the Hungarian electorate would come through and surprise them.
On a Saturday shortly before the election, Rita Bolla walked through the streets of Fehérvárcsurgó, a small village about 40 miles west of Budapest, slipping thin black-and-white folded papers into each mailbox she passed. The papers are a free weekly newsletter called Nyomtass Te Is (“You Should Print, Too!”), founded nearly five years ago to combat the near-total domination of Orbán-friendly media in Hungary in rural areas.
Bolla got involved with Nyomtass Te Is after spending Election Day 2018 as a poll worker in the countryside. After interacting with so many friendly voters, she was optimistic the opposition parties could make real gains — but when she counted the votes at the end of the day, nearly all the villagers had voted for Fidesz. “I thought, what’s happening with these people? We all live in the same country,” she told me as we drove toward Fehérvárcsurgó, stacks of newsletters nestled next to me in the back seat. The difference between her and them, she deduced, was in their lack of independent information.
Nyomtass Te Is isn’t formally affiliated with the opposition, but in recent years they’ve had similar aims: Their efforts are one small but potent way Hungarians are trying to push back against Orbán’s regime and his near-total domination of the media landscape here. Still, even with thousands of volunteers distributing newsletters in villages and towns across Hungary every week, their efforts can sometimes feel like a drop in the bucket compared with the sheer dominance of pro-government media.
Kornel Klopfstein-Laszlo, one of Nyomtass Te Is’s co-founders, likened it to “screaming in front of a thousand loudspeakers”: “You’re trying to deliver your message, you’re hoping someone will hear you — but you’re surrounded by speakers which are telling a whole different story,” he told me.
That description sounded like the opposition’s challenge overall: Márki-Zay getting a mere five minutes to present his platform on public television, and his campaign posters drowned in a sea of billboards featuring Orbán’s pensive face and election appeals. Even outside of party politics, organizations like Nyomtass Te Is — or Pardavi’s Hungarian Helsinki Committee, or 20k22, which has recruited nearly 28,000 volunteers to serve as election observers for the opposition, or the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, which offers voter trainings and a hotline to answer questions and report electoral abuses — are all part of the effort to ensure a fair election in which the opposition has a real shot. But against a leader like Orbán, there’s virtually no room for error — and even then, it still might not be enough.
Márki-Zay acknowledged the tough odds his movement faces, even as he said he was hopeful the voters would come through for him and his movement. “Obviously, there’s no level playing field for the two sides,” he told me after his campaign speech. “It’s very difficult to win under such circumstances, when people’s hearts are poisoned.”
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