What if Hungary is ungovernable after the fall of the king?
Thursday December 23rd, 2021
With only a few months to go before the next elections, the country is strongly divided and uncertain. A brief analysis of the possible scenarios.
The 2022 elections in Hungary could end an era. Fidesz, the party of the current prime minister Viktor Orbán, in office since 2010, could lose. Against him, for the first time, there is a coalition of the the six major opposition parties, from Párbeszéd, the new ecological and liberal left, to Jobbik, the same party that until 2016 shouted at the Masonic-Jewish conspiracy looming over Hungary, burned European flags in the streets and praised the defence of race. Completing the line-up are the almost defunct Socialist Party, the Momentum (centrist party, but with more distinctly neo-liberal tendencies) and the LMP Greens and Demokratikus Koalíció, the party of Ferenc Gyurcsány, the former Socialist prime minister forced to resign after the 2006 scandal.
Until the first turn of the opposition primaries held last September, it seemed that the game was a direct face-off between the current mayor of Budapest, Gergely Karácsony (Párbeszéd), and Jobbik leader Gábor Vona. Some believed that Jobbik, the party that gathered the most votes (19%) in the last elections, was the favourite and best placed to defeat Orbán on his own ground, from the right. In many videos on the internet, one can see his militants among the Nazi-skin in demonstrations in which they burn the European flag and urge the patriots to the defence of race, while at a local level Jobbik mayors have implemented massive eviction and demolition campaigns against Roma communities, already ghettoised since the end of the Soviet Union. But then Orbán began to erode their electoral basin by adopting increasingly extremist positions, and the party's current leadership opted for a shift towards the centre, dismissing the most compromised members (and faces) and presenting itself in the next round as a moderate force. Others were convinced that the wind of change was about to swell the sails of protest and that the country would have lined up en masse on the left as a reaction. Instead, as is often the case in these contexts, neither managed to win over the electorate and, as in the most classic of scripts, we saw a return to the past. Klára Dobrev, the wife of the former socialist prime minister, won the first round of the primaries with 34.8% of the vote, followed by Gergely Karácsony with 27.3%. But Dobrev, despite her role as Vice-President of the European Parliament and her reputation as a skilled politician, had one major problem: her husband.
Ferenc Gyurcsány, for years the undisputed leader of the MSZP (Hungarian Socialist Party), led the country from 2004 to 2009 but ended up becoming one of the most hated politicians by his citizens after the 2006 wiretapping scandal in which the former prime minister claimed to have lied to Hungarians "morning, afternoon and evening" and, not satisfied with that, insulted the intellectual capacities of his compatriots. Nevertheless, he refused to resign, causing a vertical fall of the MSZP and contributing significantly to Orbán's landslide victory in 2010.
It is no coincidence that the government media, the expression of Fidesz's ideas and will, hoped to the last that Klára Dobrev would win. "Magyar Nemzet" (The Magyar Nation, ed.), a daily newspaper close to extreme right-wing positions, went so far as to praise her merits and portray her as the most high-profile and reliable figure. Perhaps Orbán already saw himself projected into an election campaign in which he could use the people's hatred of Gyurcsány at every event or conference to discredit "his wife". He would certainly talk of nothing else, neither he nor the pro-government press (i.e. more than two thirds of the Hungarian media), and it would not be difficult for him to make the name of the politician disappear behind the name of her husband. Besides, the field was already set: the streets of Hungary are already full of blue posters with yellow writing in which the people are asked, bluntly, "Do you want the era of Gyurcsány to return?", with an angry emojii with smoke coming out of her nose.
Instead, this was not the case. A new twist was offered by the withdrawal of Karácsony, whose campaign had not shone in any case, in favour of the newcomer: Péter Márki-Zay. On 16 October, Márki-Zay actually won and became Orbán's official challenger in the next election. But who is this semi-unknown newcomer of Magyar politics? A conservative economist, with a degree in Hungary and a specialisation between the USA and Canada, a convinced pro-European and liberalist, a Catholic and father of eight children, Márki-Zay won the limelight in 2018 by succeeding in winning the post of mayor of the city of Hódmezovásárhely, a historic Fidesz stronghold, thanks to a strategy based on the federation of all opposition forces. He is very popular among the rural conservative electorate, due to his provincial background and his estrangement from the city's bourgeois elites, and he seems to be succeeding in what not even Orbán had succeeded in, namely in involving young people. With lengthy videos on Youtube or on his social channels Márki-Zay is conquering considerable slices of the younger electorate and, so far, his strategy has proved successful. It is clear to everyone that he is the right personality to challenge Orbán because, in a way, he represents the proverbial other side of the same coin.
One always wonders, however, how long such a coalition can hold together. Those directly involved assure that there is unity of intent on the government programme and that theirs was a gesture of responsibility towards the country. The impression is that this time the choice was between forming an alliance or disappearing for good.
In fact, unlike his opponents, the Fidesz leader could win on his own or, as some analysts claim, he could take advantage of his defeat to come back as the saviour of the country when the opposition coalition implodes due to internal divisions or the legal impasse. Don't forget that Orbán has so far won the elections in two rounds, with more than 2/3 of the seats, which allowed him to change the constitution and build a Fidesz-friendly system. Whoever comes after him (if anyone else comes) will have to deal with a country shaped in the image of the current prime minister's party and its ruling class. And this is certainly one of the most difficult challenges for Hungary today.
One election will certainly not be enough to change all this, but it could always be a start, provided that those who come after will no longer find it convenient to use the same instruments they have so far criticised.