Budapest, Hungary – Peter Marki-Zay stares out from Budapest’s billboards, bus stops and lamp posts. But the leader of United for Hungary, an opposition alliance taking part in Hungary’s April 3 parliamentary election, has not plastered his own image across the capital city.
Rather, the posters are the work of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s governing Fidesz party, and they suggest Marki-Zay is a pawn of political villains intent on destroying Hungary’s sovereignty and Christian culture.
According to Fidesz, these puppet masters are from the six disparate parties that have teamed up to form United for Hungary. This awkward marriage of political convenience – featuring the far right, the traditional left, greens and liberals – was designed, say the parties, to save the country from Orban’s increasingly corrupt and authoritarian rule by defeating him at elections on April 3.
Having spent much of the last 12 years ruling with a super-majority, the nationalist conservative Fidesz regime has captured the Hungarian state and its democratic institutions to such an extent that the sextet had little choice but to band together.
Four years ago, when they baulked at suggestions of cooperation, Orban romped to yet another landslide election victory in 2018.
But at the turn of this year, following the independent Marki-Zay’s victory in a high-profile primary election to select a unity candidate for prime minister, United for Hungary was running neck and neck with Fidesz in the polls.
There are hints that the illiberal governing party is spooked by what some call Orban’s first serious political challenge in more than 10 years.
“This unnatural leftist alliance makes the stakes in this election much higher,” Zoltan Kovacs, the prime minister’s spokesman, told Al Jazeera.
Unity vs populism
However, as the vote approaches, and the war across the border in Ukraine shifts the political landscape, the opposition’s unity appears increasingly strained.
In February 2018, Marki-Zay won the mayoral election in the Fidesz stronghold of Hodmezovasarhely. His victory sparked some half-hearted discussion of cooperation among the opposition for the national election in April of the same year. But those talks soon broke down, and Fidesz romped to another landslide victory.
In October 2021, Marki-Zay surprised again as he won the primary election. The Christian conservative father of seven would be a better challenger to Orban, so the theory went, than his liberal or socialist rivals.
That same month, Marki-Zay cheered as a five-party “Democratic Bloc” defeated Prime Minister Andrej Babis in the Czech Republic, giving weight to the idea that a unified opposition could remove a nationalist-populist.
“The Czechs have already expelled their Babis,” said Marketa Pekarova Adamova, the speaker of the Czech parliament. “I firmly hope that the Hungarians will also.”
However, unseating Orban is a very different prospect to removing Babis after one term of leading a minority government.
Over the past 12 years, the Hungarian prime minister has entrenched his power by rejigging the electoral system and taking control of much of the country’s media.
“The biggest challenge for the opposition is reaching voters,” said Gabor Gyori from Budapest think-tank Policy Solutions. “Fidesz has built a media fortress that makes sure that many voters, especially in rural areas, only see and hear pro-government information.”
(Dis)United for Hungary
The parties in the Hungarian alliance are also far more disparate than their Czech peers, and many are starting to fear that it is the alliance’s own weaknesses that will prove to be its Achilles heel.
Squabbling has been rife, delaying approval of the opposition’s list of candidates and election programme. More than one senior party official accuses their partners of being more interested in protecting their own position within the opposition ranks than defeating Orban.
There is also tension growing between the old left-wing parties and the new generation of right-wing and liberal factions, the latter formed to fight both Orban and the sometimes toxic legacy of Hungary’s established socialist parties.
This limits the options for some. Twenty-five-year-old student Blanka certainly will not be voting for Orban. Her partner is from Syria and she has no time for the prime minister’s demonisation of refugees and migrants.
Yet she is also unlikely to plump for the opposition bloc.
“Hungary needs something new,” she said, “including a break from the older opposition parties. But there’s no chance of that happening in this election.”
But while you will not hear it openly declared in public, the harshest words in the opposition camp are reserved for Marki-Zay.
The United for Hungary leader is accused of wasting the momentum built during the primary by disappearing for “crucial weeks”, to build his own campaign team.
Speaking to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, senior sources from the opposition parties complained that he is “inexperienced” and “uncooperative”.
In interviews with Al Jazeera, a political lobbyist called his selection “illogical” and a pro-opposition journalist branded him “undisciplined”.
The candidate, whose press team failed to respond to Al Jazeera’s numerous requests for an interview, has spoken regularly of “traitors” within the alliance and his plans to start his own party.
Winning the war
These weaknesses, it is asserted, have prevented the opposition from taking advantage of the potentially tight spot into which Russia’s invasion of Ukraine dropped Orban.
Marki-Zay has tried to turn the election into a referendum on the prime minister’s geopolitical ambiguity and 12-year courtship of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.
“The stakes are clear,” the opposition leader wrote on social media. “[Orban] and Putin or the West and Europe.”
But mobilising its media forces, Fidesz has turned the tables. The prime minister has been branded a guarantor of peace and stability for his refusal to allow weapons bound for Ukraine to transit Hungary. The opposition has been cast as warmongers.
A rally-round-the-flag bonus looks to have helped the governing party, which is also shrugging off opposition efforts to target wildly spiralling inflation and a sharply sliding forint. These difficulties are a clear risk to the populist economic policies that are the cornerstone of Fidesz’s popular support.
At the start of the year, with the momentum from the primary election of Marki-Zay at its back, United for Hungary was running neck and neck with Fidesz in the polls. Now, it is lagging by about five points.
It is a crucial failure, say analysts, given that the war has overwhelmed all other campaign issues.
Back in January, the opposition’s main topics – corruption, education, and health – were the top issues for the electorate, according to surveys.
The dominance of the security topic due to the Ukraine war worries many in the opposition camp, and leaves United for Hungary needing to raise its game as the election approaches.