If you want a symbol of the sad decline of independent institutions in Hungary, look no further than Hír TV. Launched in 2003 as the country’s first rolling news channel, it started life as a thorn in the side of Hungary’s leaders: after the then prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány was recorded admitting to having lied to win re-election, the ensuing protests were beamed into homes across the country by Hír TV. The channel was initially supportive of Viktor Orbán, but its fortunes deteriorated after its owner fell out with the prime minister: after Orbán’s third election win in 2018, he was forced to sell the channel to the pro-government Echo TV.
The result is evident in Hír TV’s output since 17 October, when Péter Márki-Zay was selected as the united opposition’s candidate to challenge Orbán in the general election next spring. The channel’s coverage resembles a rolling election attack-ad by Orbán’s Fidesz party. In his Hír TV show on the day of the opposition primary, Zsolt Bayer (a confidant of the prime minister) called Márki-Zay a “rotten-souled unscrupulous bastard” and a “vile ferret”.
“I take the risk of announcing to you here and now that Péter Márki-Zay is gay,” came his next unsubstantiated proclamation: “I also know who his son is, the champion swinger in [the town of] Hódmezővásárhely.” Elsewhere, the channel was branding Márki-Zay a “left-wing” candidate, dropping dark hints about his supposedly “shady” past and warning that “hundreds of thousands” of opposition supporters would not vote for him.
Such is the challenge before Márki-Zay. On the face of things, he has a good chance at next year’s general election. Where the opposition in 2018 was fragmented, now the six main parties opposed to Orbán’s Fidesz are joining forces in an electoral pact. Their primary election to choose a prime ministerial candidate was a triumph, producing a higher than expected turnout and a committed activist base. “Everyone realises that the stakes are so high,” says Katalin Cseh, an MEP for Momentum, a liberal party in the coalition: “The opposition already works together in governing several cities so we know how to cooperate.”
It also produced a win for Márki-Zay, a candidate who could hardly be better placed to tempt moderate Fidesz voters away from Orbán. The prime minister had been preparing for an election campaign in which he would brand his opponents radical leftists, globalists and cronies of Ferenc Gyurcsány, who is a super-rich businessman as well as having been prime minister from 2004 to 2009. But Márki-Zay is a conservative, Catholic, father-of-seven mayor of a mid-sized town in rural southern Hungary and a political outsider (a disillusioned Fidesz voter who ran as an independent). As a result, the unhinged coverage of Márki-Zay in Orbán-friendly media such as Hír TV smacks of panic. “The messaging of government and pro-government media is borderline absurd,” says Cseh: “The smear campaign has been going on for more than a year now. Really absurd and bizarre.”
The NGO Freedom House, which in 2019 downgraded Hungary from “free” to “partly free”, decries what it calls “unequal access to media, smear campaigns, politicised audits, and a campaign environment skewed by the ruling coalition’s mobilisation of state resources”. Thanks partly to Fidesz’s practice of channelling government advertising and other procurement spending towards favourable outlets, at least 85 per cent of Hungary’s media is now loyal to Orbán.
Across the board, 11 consecutive years of Orbán have stacked the electoral cards in Fidesz’s favour. New registration and financing rules encourage a fragmented opposition. The new opposition coalition – which spans Gyurcsány’s party, liberals such as Momentum and the hard-right Jobbik – will neutralise those difficulties. Yet other risks remain. Freedom House reports that “opposition parties faced bogus competitors in the 2014 and 2018 elections that may have been created by the government for the purpose of splitting the opposition vote. Authorities have also interfered with opposition figures’ peaceful political activities.” The State Audit Office, which oversees elections, is under political control and in recent times has imposed sanctions on opposition parties.
The opposition is planning a campaign that will focus on ground-level action: both to circumvent the government’s near monopoly on the airwaves and to capitalise on the energised base of campaigners built in the primary.
It will be a dramatic campaign. With his every election win, Orbán has weakened Hungarian democracy; chipping away at democratic competition in the country, with every independent media outlet cowed, and with every obstacle placed in the way of legitimate opposition parties. Eventually, it will no longer be a competitive system at all.
For the EU, where the mainstream centre right has shamefully coddled Fidesz for years, much is at stake. How should it respond to, say, a narrow win by Orbán that was obtained through bogus means in an election that may well constitute a last chance for democracy in his country? A significant part of all that, all those expectations, hopes and fears, now rests on Márki-Zay, a politician who until this year had no profile even within his own country. He had better be ready.
This article appears in the 20 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the West