Election 2022

The new leader of the opposition is not Karácsony – and it threw Orbán’s campaign into chaos

Instead of Budapest mayor Gergely Karácsony, the leader of the united Hungarian opposition is Péter Márki-Zay.

What now for Orbán’s election campaign called “Stop Gyurcsány! Stop Karácsony!”?

Ever since the October 2019 municipal elections the tipped new leader of the united opposition was Gergely Karácsony, the new mayor of Budapest. The soft-spoken, childlike and naively reasonable politician even got a profile in The Economist, calling him “the man who could oust Orbán” in the title of its May 2021 article.

“Mr Karacsony presides over the cosmopolitan capital; Mr Orban counts on the rural hinterland as his base. Mr Orban has near-total control over Fidesz, the party that has had near-total control of Hungary since 2010; Mr Karacsony owes his job to an ungainly alliance of six parties. The football-mad Mr Orban built a 3,800-seat stadium in his home village (population: 1,700); Mr Karacsony, a former academic, campaigned against an expensive athletics stadium in his city (population: 1,000 times larger).”

A lot has changed since May. For one thing, the six parties of Orbán’s opposition managed to put aside their egos long enough to hold primaries – helping them to agree on shared candidates for each district – plus the prime minister candidate. And it was not Gergely Karácsony.

Karácsony, who came second in the first round of the primaries, has withdrawn from the candidacy moments before the deadline to support the third place candidate, Péter Márki-Zay.

Márki-Zay then went on to comfortably win the primaries ahead of Klára Dobrev, whose image has been tainted by the fact that she is the wife of the demonized former prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsány, despite her personal qualities.

Orbán thought the same as The Economist. He has kicked in his “enemy management” machine (that is what he calls his campaign, seriously) a long time ago and its targets for the 2022 elections were former PM Gyurcsány and Budapest mayor Karácsony. His campaign team has been on the streets (and in living rooms), collecting signatures (and personal data) to “Stop Gyurcsány! Stop Karácsony!”.

That is the name and the entire message of the campaign. To demonize a former prime minister of 13 years ago (who is not even running) and to associate him with Karácsony. Indeed, there is a new word in Hungarian, “összegyurcsányozni”, meaning to smear a little Gyurcsány on someone, typically an opposition politician. To say that it is a very primitive campaign message is an understatement. It is also very dangerous, as the campaign feeds into the underlying message that if any other party works to gain power, that is a danger to the nation. Treason, really.

Among the opposition frontrunners, Klára Dobrev didn’t need any extra smearing, she is just called Mrs. Gyurcsány by the Orbánist media. Karácsony didn’t have much to do with Gyurcsány, having stepped into the political limelight much later, so he made it onto the campaign slogan “Stop Gyurcsány! Stop Karácsony!” to make sure people know he is Gyurcsány’s man. But Márki-Zay threw a wrench into the works of Orbán’s campaign by becoming the candidate of the united opposition instead of either Dobrev or Karácsony.

Orbán’s enemy management team showed signs of chaos, then they resorted to replacing Karácsony’s name on the billboards. Now we are called to “Stop Gyurcsány! Stop Márki-Zay!” And that is Orbán’s 2022 election campaign message.

When The Economist reviewed Karácsony’s chances against Orbán, they brought up valid points:

  • Karácsony looked meek and was reluctant to fight Orbán on Orbán’s terms, which is confrontation and eternal war. Márki-Zay has no qualms using rhetorical tools that match Orbán’s – for better or for worse.
  • Karácsony felt obliged to act like Fidesz’ promises are owed a chance – and then a second chance once they proved to be lies. In the 11th year of Orbán’s rule anyone who acts like his promises to stick to an agreement are worth anything is criminally naïve. Márki-Zay does not do that.
  • Karácsony may have won Budapest but the countryside is Orbán’s stronghold. Márki-Zay is from the countryside and has already proved to speak the language of those people, when he became mayor of a perennial Fidesz stronghold, Hódmezővásárhely, in a  miracle by-election in 2018.

Márki-Zay is a glitch in Orbán’s machinery because he is not Karácsony, and because he meets him on his own turf: He is an actual conservative, unlike Orbán, who just claims to be. Márki-Zay is religious while Orbán is just a vile political christianist. Márki-Zay speaks rural Hungary, just like Orbán does – but Márki-Zay also enjoys the support of urban opposition parties. At least for now.

How Orbán’s “enemy management” campaign team will react is a question. The first troubleshooting was to simply replace Karácsony’s name with Márki-Zay’s on the posters and the signature sheets and to start agitating against him. Then Márki-Zay sent to the media a document which is said to be written by Fidesz, collecting dirt on him. He claims that the document was sent by Fidesz to DK, the opposing party at the run-up of the opposition primaries – but DK refused to use it and forwarded it to him instead.

Collecting dirt and sending it to their enemy’s enemy does sound like Fidesz. And even if they did no send their file to Márki-Zay’s opponent at the primaries, they definitely have one on him. He will also be attacked as a foreign agent, having lived in the US and Canada with his family. Not much can be seen beyond that.

For now, Márki-Zay appears to rule the moment, giving interviews to international media and showing incredible nerves in the face of both Fidesz and the united opposition. And Orbán doesn’t appear to be entirely calm either – although that may be because he is expecting a Pandora paper on himself being leaked soon.

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