Hungary’s opposition bets on unity as drive to oust Viktor Orban begins

Gergely Karacsony’s victory in Budapest’s mayoral election two years ago at the head of a unified opposition campaign was hailed by the liberal politician as a “blueprint” for how to beat Hungary’s veteran leader Viktor Orban at the ballot box.

Karacsony is now trying to prove that on a national scale. He and political rivals are thrashing out their differences to select a sole candidate to fight Orban and his ruling Fidesz party in April’s general election.

Six opposition parties are taking part via a series of primary election contests this month and next, which will also decide unified candidates for every parliamentary seat.

“The opposition has unified because our cause supersedes any differences,” Karacsony told the Financial Times at a campaigning stop in Budapest.

Gergely Karacsony is a frontrunner in the race to unite the opposition behind a single candidate for Hungary’s premiership © Bernadett Szabo/Reuters

Most of Hungary’s fragmented opposition see this as the only way to defeat Fidesz, which before the 2019 Budapest contest had swept every election — local, national and European — for a decade.

Polls show that if the opposition rallies voters behind a single candidate the 2022 election could be a neck-and-neck race. One-third of voters are yet to make up their minds and polls have the opposition within striking distance.

Karacsony is frontrunner, ahead of Klara Dobrev, a European Parliament vice-president who would be Hungary’s first female premier, and Peter Jakab, chair of the former far-right Jobbik party.

Still, the primaries, due to conclude by October 10, are only a precursor to what will be a formidable challenge to Orban.

Klara Dobrev © Tamas Kovacs/MTI via AP
Peter Jakab © Bernadett Szabo/REUTERS

Orban, 58, has a chokehold on power that starts in parliament, where he has commanded a two-thirds “supermajority” for most of the past 12 years, allowing Fidesz to change any laws on its own.

During his premiership he has created a self-styled illiberal regime in which he controls most aspects of public life. State institutions and resources promote his party’s agenda and loyalists fill key public roles.

He has clashed with western allies while building friendly ties with eastern powers, especially Russia and China, and become an EU outsider as he frequently juxtaposed his brand of politics with what he calls encroaching federalism and overpowering liberalism from Brussels.

“Everything suggests a vast Fidesz advantage for the campaign,” said Zoltan Novak of the Centre for Fair Political Analysis in Budapest. “Network, mobilisation, money, a strong leader and brand. Still, the opposition has never been closer to mounting a credible challenge.”

Fidesz is taking the challenge seriously with a campaign targeted at former premier Ferenc Gyurcsany, Dobrev’s husband and her party’s leader, as well as Karacsony. Labelled “Stop Gyurcsany! Stop Karacsony!”, it aims to remind voters of missteps by the Socialist-led government that preceded Orban’s.

“People have not forgotten the Gyurcsany era and don’t want the past to return,” Mate Kocsis, Fidesz parliament group leader, told the pro-government daily Magyar Nemzet. “The left has shown how it governs, and it was not gratifying.”

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen
Viktor Orban, here with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, has clashed with EU allies © Francois Walschaerts/AFP via Getty Images

There is also the question of whether the opposition can maintain its unity after primaries that are also accentuating differences. In one race in Budapest, candidates have clashed so hard over corruption charges they even filed police reports.

Campaign styles vary widely, with some candidates preferring to soothe tensions among voters while others whip up emotions and attack opponents’ personal lives.

Still, Karacsony and his rivals say the opposition group is stable, as voters make clear their preference for unity. Parties that resisted joining forces in the last elections in 2018 subsequently suffered a dwindling of support, polls show.

Some 49 per cent of the voting age population want change, according to pollster Zavecz Research, which is 9 percentage points more than the current voting base of the opposition. Winning them over would give the opposition a landslide — but that outcome remains unlikely.

“These people may be the reserves that the opposition needs, but two difficulties persist,” said Zavecz. “They are passive and pessimistic. Only about a fifth of them plan to vote for sure, and only a quarter of them believe the opposition can win the elections.”

Orban’s opponents recognise that defeating the premier is only a first step to changing the power structure he built. That would need an unprecedented legal and political effort because of the supermajority needed to change important laws. Still, Karacsony said he expected Fidesz to weaken rapidly if it lost.

“The basis of Orban’s system is not its legal power,” he said. “The system is built on money . . . If a new government cuts the public funds, which should be its first matter of business, then this system will implode — I am certain of that.”

To maximise their potential, the opposition parties want to agree on a “shadow” government well before the election and draw up plans to assume power, including political deals and a legal strategy to unwind some of Orban’s regime, they said.

In an interview Dobrev, 49, said a new government would have to hit the ground running in April to dismantle the supermajority barrier despite resistance from Fidesz.

Dobrev said their strategy would be based on the constitution, which prohibits attempts to target an exclusive hold on power. Orban’s supermajority laws in effect stop any government from doing its job freely, she said.

Novak, the analyst, said plans for a shadow government showed that the candidates realise that none can mobilise a broad opposition spectrum alone. Karacsony is seen to lack toughness, especially by voters in rural areas, Novak said, while Dobrev had struggled to shake off her husband’s divisive legacy and Jobbik’s Jakab was weaker in cities.

“We must think about a shadow government,” Jakab said at a suburban Budapest campaign stop. “We will have to prepare to run the country from the get-go while Fidesz does its best to stop us.”

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