The Hungarian opposition struggles to unite against the Orban party machine

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In a converted loft in Budapest, a disparate group of six party leaders met last week to rally around joint opposition candidate Peter Marki-Zay as he outlined the coalition’s strategy for overthrow Hungary’s strongman, Viktor Orban.

Calling Orban’s government “the most corrupt Hungarian regime of the last thousand years”, Marki-Zay denounced Orban for undermining democracy and failing to reform health care and education, and attacked him for the Budapest’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic.

The event was intended to show a united front after months of bickering over campaign details, politics and candidates since Marki-Zay, a small-town mayor widely considered a longshot, got the opposition’s candidacy in an unprecedented primary election in October.

By uniting around a single candidate for prime minister, the opposition hoped to give itself the best chance of ousting Orban at the polls. But six weeks before the election, confidence is fading. Even optimistic insiders put the coalition’s chances of victory at only 40% on April 3.

Political leaders and analysts say the rambling United for Hungary campaign will struggle to beat the political machine of the ruling Fidesz party, with polls putting Orban on track to continue his term as prime minister until 2026.

In his speech, Marki-Zay acknowledged the difficulties of leading a broad coalition where the once far-right Jobbik rubs shoulders with the Socialists and the Greens.

“We went through difficult times, sometimes full of arguments, where values ​​and interests clashed,” he said. “[But] we have more power and more chances to win this election than ever before.

However, as he spoke, there was still no agreement on a common electoral platform, nor on a definitive list of candidates.

“It was extremely difficult,” said Budapest Mayor Gergely Karacsony, who leads one of the coalition’s Green parties, after Marki-Zay’s speech. “It’s picking up now, but at first it felt like we were the only ones supporting this effort.”

The two largest opposition parties – the centre-left Democratic Coalition (DK) and Jobbik – were the most reluctant participants after the shock of seeing their candidates lose to Marki-Zay in the primaries, according to four campaign sources.

“We have to win arguments with DK and Jobbik or compromise with them on everything. But that’s OK. This is how we will have to govern too, ”said Peter Zarand, who manages the national campaign of Marki-Zay and the coalition.

Jobbik torpedoed the coalition’s joint presidential candidate this month, sparking a damaging public row, even though the presidency is a largely ceremonial role and Fidesz will easily engineer a vote in the Orban-dominated parliament on March 10.

Marki-Zay also made life difficult for the coalition, surprising his partners when he insisted his small party appear on the ballots despite skipping the primaries as a group. Again, his coalition partners resisted as it would have given Marki-Zay additional influence.

And the parties have wrangled for weeks over the distribution of each party’s candidates on the national electoral lists, with the allocation of parties to a seat still unresolved, several aides said.

Building bridges: Peter Marki-Zay, center, with Peter Jakab and Klara Dobrev of Jobbik and DK respectively, the two largest opposition parties © Marton Dunai/FT

The quarrels contrast with years of organizational efficiency and consistent messages from Orban’s Fidesz party. “It’s remarkable because Orban stifled public debate on public affairs for so long,” Zarand added.

A victory for Fidesz, even by a small margin, would give Orban a comfortable cushion in the 199-member parliament due to distortions in Hungary’s electoral system. About a quarter of voters are still undecided.

Gerrymandated electoral districts and an electoral system capable of amplifying winning margins mean that Fidesz needs fewer votes to win than the opposition, said Robert Laszlo, electoral expert at the Budapest think tank Political Capital.

Fidesz also benefits from loosely enforced boundaries between party and government campaigning, and lax rules on private groups campaigning on behalf of a party.

He only started his own official campaign last week, but the government, municipalities, political action committees and communications companies have already spent heavily promoting Orban’s campaign.

According to the website 444.hu, online pro-government spending is about double opposition spending, or about 7.5 million euros. Fidesz ads also far outnumber those of the opposition on billboards across the country.

Orban has created a vast media machine, comprising a loyal group of hundreds of media outlets, a generously funded public broadcaster and news agency, which flood the market with free content that toes the government line.

In such a hostile environment, campaign leaders said the opposition coalition would fight spending with traditional door-to-door campaigns across the country. Both DK and Jobbik leaders said voter pressure persuaded them to pledge to shed their differences in pursuit of a singular goal: to topple Orban.

“We managed [last autumn’s] primaries running on steam, deploying and coordinating thousands of volunteers,” Klara Dobrev, who was DK’s candidate in last year’s primaries, told the FT. “We will build on this base to ensure that all six parties support each candidate. . . The voters forced us to join and will force us to govern together.

Jobbik chairman Peter Jakab said previous disagreements, such as wrangling over candidate lists, would not jeopardize the campaign.

“Voters don’t care about lists,” he said as he left the loft to resume campaigning. “They care about the future of the country, which comes down to getting the opposition vote out for April 3.”

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