How long does it take an authoritarian populist to dismantle the institutions of a liberal democracy so completely that they become no longer salvageable? That question may well be answered at the Hungarian general election next spring.
As prime minister since 2010, Viktor Orbán has undermined the independent press, courts and civil society to the point where Freedom House, an NGO, has downgraded the country from “free” to “partly free” – the same level as Pakistan, Serbia and Kenya, and the only country in the EU to be thus demoted. In 2018, his Fidesz party won its third successive supermajority, a two-thirds share of seats that opens the door to constitutional change. Many feared that next year would deliver yet another. But events in recent months and especially the past few days have challenged that gloomy assumption.
On Sunday 17 October, the Hungarian opposition selected Péter Márki-Zay (known as “MZP”, as family names come first in Hungarian), the mayor of the small southern town of Hódmezővásárhely, as its joint candidate for prime minister. This is significant for two reasons.
First, the opposition has joined forces for the attempt to unseat Orbán. In the 2018 election, Fidesz won 49.3% of the vote; the rest was fragmented between other parties of a wide array of political persuasions. In the first-past-the-post electoral system introduced by Orbán in 2011, that was fatal. This time, the opposition has formed a six-party front (including the centre-left MSZP, the liberal Momentum and the hard-right Jobbik), shared out constituencies in an electoral pact, and has committed to putting up a single candidate to maximise the chances of toppling the sitting prime minister. More than that, turnout in the joint primary has been impressively high, with 850,000 people participating in a country of 9.8 million – an encouraging sign of cohesion and determination.
The second is that in Márki-Zay, the united opposition has chosen a candidate with a decent chance of winning. For much of this year, the frontrunner looked to be Gergely Karácsony, the liberal-Greenish mayor of Budapest. But on 8 October, after the first round of the opposition primary, he pulled out and gave his support to Márki-Zay, who had come third. This was seen as an attempt to block the social democrat Klára Dobrev, a dynamic MEP who had come first but is anathema to some centre-right voters – not least because she is married to Ferenc Gyurcsány, Orbán’s predecessor who, as prime minister from 2004-09, admitted to having lied about the state of the Hungarian economy, triggering widespread protests.
Márki-Zay, by contrast, seems ideally placed to take on Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister. The Budapest-centred left and liberal opposition will support him as the pro-democracy, anti-Orbán candidate backed by Karácsony. But as a conservative, Catholic and father of seven from a small town that he won from Fidesz as an independent outsider, he also stands a good chance of peeling centre-right voters away from the ruling party in its rural heartlands. He does not belong to any of the major camps in the opposition, which sets him up well to be a broker of unity between them. The initial, enthusiastic response from opposition activists is encouraging.
The question is: can even a candidate as well-placed as Márki-Zay win in a democratic system as distorted as that of Hungary after 11 years of Orbán? The vast majority of the country’s press is now in the hands of interests loyal to the prime minister and his kleptocratic cronies. Centres of independent thought like the Central European University have been forced out of the country. The courts are cowed. Fidesz has overhauled the electoral system in its own favour – with major influence over voter registers (particularly volatile since Orbán gave ethnic Hungarians outside the country’s borders the vote in its elections) and vote counts. “Fidesz controls the election back office,” writes Mujtaba Rahman of the Eurasia Group risk consultancy.
If Márki-Zay loses this election, with essentially the whole opposition united behind him and a biography and personal political credo perfect for winning over the decisive soft-Fidesz vote, it will beg questions about whether Hungary is simply too far gone, too corrupted by the Orbán system to turn back. It could also present a challenge for the EU. How to respond to a win by Orbán, a leader shamefully coddled by a mainstream European centre right that turned a blind eye to his trashing of Hungary’s democratic institutions, in an obviously distorted election? If Márki-Zay wins, by contrast, it will go down as a dogged triumph of liberalism; a proof of its resilience in extremely adverse circumstances.
Either way, a very great deal will be at stake in Hungary next spring. The election there might be the last chance to save a country at the heart of Europe from the slide into autocracy. But more than that, it will be seen as a stress test for liberal democracy internationally. How resilient is it really? A significant part of all that, all those expectations, hopes and fears, now rest on the shoulders of Márki-Zay, a local politician with no profile even within his own country until this year. He had better be ready.