This week it was confirmed that a Hungarian general election – framed as a referendum on Viktor Orbán’s leadership – will take place on April 3. As the campaigning descends into acrimony and with cracks appearing in the previously smooth facade of the country’s United Opposition, Orbán – the Fidesz leader and scourge of Brussels bureaucrats – is gaining ground.
When a group of six opposition parties banded together to elect the conservative small-town mayor Péter Márki-Zay as their joint prime ministerial candidate in October to take on Orbán, the race was neck-and-neck. But Orbán has since managed to prosper by using ‘divide and conquer’ campaign tactics highlighting the ideological divisions and personal grievances of the opposition. Polls now suggest that Fidesz is pulling ahead; the latest forecasts have Orbán’s party on 49 per cent, ahead of the United Opposition on 45 per cent.
Márki-Zay has come in for criticism from his own partners after the wave of optimism following his appointment as opposition leader subsided. Some say his approach has been too easy-going and that he still needs to hit the ‘start button’ on the opposition campaign. Others piled in for criticism when he made a clumsy comment about there being an opportunity now that Covid has ‘decimated’ Fidesz’s older support base.
The Fidesz-supporting press have meanwhile found a weak spot in Márki-Zay’s social conservatism (supposedly a key strength helping him take on Orbán in rural Hungary) and has bombarded the opposition leader with the kind of racism allegations usually levelled at Orbán. Accusations of anti-Semitism are particularly loaded in a country which saw some of the worst atrocities of the holocaust; an article recently published in the Times of Israel by a Hungarian journalist highlighted allegedly anti-Semitic politicians whom Márki-Zay had associated with and supported. In denying the allegations Márki-Zay only made things worse when he noted that he respected the ethnic origins and sexual orientation of all but said ‘there are a few Jews in Fidesz.’
Inexperienced on the national political stage, Márki-Zay has become a punching bag for deeper problems in the United Opposition. Desperate to defeat Orbán, the group has brought together parties as varied as the Democratic Coalition – socialist darlings of Budapest’s left-wing intelligentsia – and the formerly far-right Jobbik, described by Human Rights First as recently as 2015 as a ‘virulently anti-Semitic, anti-Roma extremist party.’
Jobbik has since adopted a more moderate type of conservatism, but the opposition is full of grating ideological dissonances. Orbán’s recent actions to limit the spread of ‘LGBT ideology’ left Hungary’s liberal left horrified – but Márki-Zay himself is staunchly against gay marriage in the church. While advocating societal tolerance of LGBT culture, Márki-Zay’s strong Catholic beliefs – which also include private opposition to divorce – are anathema to many of his own allies.
It’s no surprise, then, that the United Opposition hasn’t been able to present a coherent plan for the future of Hungary. The willingness of parties to put aside their differences has led to Fidesz’s toughest electoral challenge yet – but it has also highlighted why Orbán appeals to many voters. Orbán knows what he stands for. The members of the United Opposition – who increasingly look more like competitors than collaborators – don’t.
Fidesz’s ideological clarity contrasts favourably with an opposition too busy papering over the cracks in its own alliance to present an alternative vision. Partly as a result of its infighting, the opposition also seems to lack patriotism. The Chair of a Jewish Heritage Endowment this weekend said the opposition has ‘raised Hungarian national self-hatred to the highest level, almost to a norm on the left side of the political spectrum.’
The only thing which really unites the opposition is antipathy to Orbán. This makes it a force inordinately focused on destruction. It doesn’t aim to do anything in particular with Hungary if it wins the election, other than tearing down the loathed political edifice built by Fidesz after more than a decade in power.
Its first act would be the re-writing of the Hungarian constitution to restore the ‘rule of law.’ ‘We have to start everything from scratch,’ Márki-Zay has claimed, with the proposed constitutional changes to be put to the people in a referendum. But with Hungarian human rights groups on Tuesday calling for ballots to be spoiled in Fidesz’s own referendum on LGBT rights coming this spring, any referendum proposed by the opposition could expect the same treatment.
There is a deep irony in the fact that the opposition’s plan for undoing Fidesz’s work involves the same kind of constitutional fiddling and partisan weaponisation of direct democracy which Orbán has been condemned for at home and abroad for over a decade.
The United Opposition wants to erase recent Hungarian political history to pave the way for a new beginning – a startling proposition, given that it cannot even coordinate its own electoral campaign. Márki-Zay and his allies are asking the Hungarian people to entrust them with the destruction of the Fidesz system; but with no alternative vision to replace it, the status quo represented by Orbán is becoming more likely to prevail.