Péter Márki-Zay: Hungarian opposition’s ‘non-political’ candidate may not be enough to beat Orbán

Hungary’s parliamentary elections in spring 2022 will give illiberal Prime Minister Viktor Orbán a chance to continue his Fidesz government for a fourth term. An unlikely opposition candidate could disrupt these plans.

Orbán will face Péter Márki-Zay, mayor of the Hungarian county town of Hódmezővásárhely. Márki-Zay’s win in the opposition primaries came as a surprise. The former manager of an electricity company is married with seven children, and does not align himself with any political party. He has lived in Canada and the US, and has spoken about his admiration for how former US president Barack Obama financed his campaign with small donations.

He entered the race without any party affiliation, beating Budapest mayor Gergely Karácsony and European Parliament vice-president Klára Dobrev. Dobrev won the first round of primaries and has the support of a major opposition party, Democratic Coalition.

However, she is also the wife of former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány – a socialist – which tarred her campaign. Her rivals argued that the electorate demanded a new candidate without any association with existing parties and politicians in Hungary.

Márki-Zay’s victory at the 2018 mayoral byelection in Hódmezővásárhely was a surprise as well. A self-described right-wing Christian candidate and an opponent of Orbán’s Fidesz, he consolidated the opposition vote to win in Hódmezővásárhely – where Fidesz strongman János Lázár served as mayor from 2002-12 and an MP after 2014.

Márki-Zay’s win set the stage for the 2019 local elections in Budapest, where putting forward a joint candidate was a successful tactic for the opposition in defeating Orbán.

Political landscape

A major fault line in Hungarian politics has been Budapest – representing left-liberal politics – versus the rest of the country. Liberal politics resonate in county towns as well, but with less momentum and regularity.

Hódmezővásárhely is an interesting town to this extent. It is located in the county of Csongrád, where former Fidesz parliamentary group leader Lázár is MP – a testament to the popularity of the governing party.

It is situated in between two major left-liberal centres of power, Budapest and Szeged. Both of these have seen civil action in support of refugees crossing into Hungary, and protests against Orbán’s anti-LGBTQ+ law. Szeged is the only town where the left has continuously held control since 2006, but its mayor failed to transform his success in local politics to become a national rival to Orbán.

Márki-Zay’s biggest success as mayor appears to have been decreasing the debt of the city. Opposition mayors tend to portray debt accumulated under their predecessors as a result of endemic corruption, but ultimately voters expect investment in infrastructure, rather than austerity.

In a way, having a non-Fidesz but a conservative and Christian mayor has benefited Hódmezővásárhely, even though the mayor himself has not delivered much. To consolidate support for Fidesz, Lázár has promised Hódmezővásárhely the biggest tramline extension for a century in Hungary.

Non-political politics

Rather than focusing on big projects and substantial political goals and slogans, Márki-Zay takes pride in being non-partisan. He is the founder of the Everybody’s Hungary movement, which “welcomes every decent Hungarian who is interested in change”.

Its primary goal is to present joint candidates against Fidesz mayors in mayoral elections, but it does not propose any policy platforms to show the electorate why their candidates should be elected over Fidesz ones.

Its vague platform purports to fight corruption and nepotism with new political faces in county towns, but among its founders are some old, rightwing intellectuals, economists and politicians. The movement echoes earlier dissident reformist circles from the 1980s, promoting a clean new beginning that moves away from old politics.

Yet claiming to not have any politics is still a political position – and not a very promising one. To have any chance of defeating Orbán, Márki-Zay needs to present alternative policies and projects to those of Fidesz, and will have to rely on a party machine for campaigning support.

He has already suggested establishing a new parliamentary faction for his own movement after the election, with “civil [society] candidates without any party affiliation”.

It looks as if Márki-Zay has already realised that not having any party association will hinder his chances in the election. Yet no candidate is “civil” once elected an MP, and some opposition parties already expressed scepticism about whether they could jointly support candidates from another faction beyond the six parties already in the opposition bloc.

Can having no politics bring political success to Márki-Zay? There is a legacy of successful dissidence movements in the region that displaced ex-communists, but fell apart at subsequent elections. The region’s current politics are much more complex, and vague anti-corruption platforms cannot meet the challenges of Europeanisation, climate change, nationalism and identity politics.

Márki-Zay attempted to take a stance on the contentious issue of LGBTQ+ rights, with an April 2021 press conference alongside his family. His suggestion that he was ready to stand with gay Hungarians, (including those in Fidesz) raised the ire of Orbán’s party, but signalled Márki-Zay’s appeal for both conservative and liberal voters.

Márki-Zay will certainly affect the course of Hungarian politics. This ex-manager of an electricity company and avid follower of American politics cannot be underestimated as a political tactician, but whether his strategy will be enough to beat Orbán is less certain.

The Conversation

Umut Korkut receives funding from EC Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme funded DEMOS: Democratic Efficacy and Varieties of Populism project under grant agreement No 822590. He also is the lead for the EC Horizon 2020 project D.Rad: De-radicalisation in Europe and beyond: Detect, Resolve, Re-integrate.