Hungarian opposition parties have been quiet for the past couple of months, busy working out a deal on a joint national list ahead of the April general elections. But there are already signs that all is not well, with just three months to go before the election.
Now the alliance’s joint PM candidate, independent Peter Marki-Zay, has abandoned his plans to set up his own fraction in the face of stiff resistance from his allies, a move that could hurt the opposition's support and weaken the potential premier's standing.
Opposition parties must find a way to overcome their competing interests to have a shot at toppling Viktor Orban, analysts say, in what is likely to be a very tight contest.
At the same time, Marki-Zay, has made a number of controversial statements that have dented his popularity and with it that of the opposition. Disparaging comments about Fidesz voters were dissected by pro-government media for days, and his call to change the fixed utility price scheme in place since 2014 and boost energy efficiency also did not help his popularity.
Pro-government pollster Szazadveg Foundation said that in October, at the time of the second round of the opposition’s primary elections that elected him to face off Viktor Orban in the spring elections, 42% of voters had a positive view of Marki-Zay and 47% had a negative opinion. This has changed to 36-52% at the end of the year.
The opposition parties seem to have lost their momentum after the historic primaries, according to analysts.
Hungary’s opposition alliance made its first joint public appearance on January 5 since the joint rally on the October 23 national holiday, where all candidates selected during the primaries were presented. Wednesday's joint press conference marked the kick-off of the election campaign for the opposition, which has been virtually dormant over the last two and half months.
The six-party opposition held a joint press conference, led by Marki-Zay to speed up the signature drive against the planned construction of the Chinese Fudan University in Budapest. The opposition needs to collect 200,000 signatures by mid-January, in order for the referendum to be held at the same time as the parliamentary elections. Organisers are also asking for support to extend the eligibility period for jobless benefits from three to nine months, the second question on the referendum.
The issue of the national list is one of the most contentious issues facing the opposition. Opposition parties were to strike a deal on the national list by the end of 2021, but due to inner debates the process has not been smooth and there is still no sign of an agreement.
Parties that have fewer candidates running in individual districts need to be compensated and they also need to find a solution to find replacements for those who are on the national list but win an individual district.
One of the biggest obstacles was the ambition of Marki-Zay, an outsider with no political party behind him, to establish his own fraction. The internal conflicts of recent months all boiled down to this issue, according to analysts.
The debate over the seventh faction has been a strain in the opposition since mid-October, at the end of the primaries. Of the 199 mandates, only 93 spots are distributed through the national list, with the remaining 106 to be allocated for the winners in the single-member constituencies.
Marki-Zay wanted to be able to nominate some of his own candidates for the national list, to give him his own group of supporters in the parliament. Without his own list he could turn into just a weak figurehead leader, while it might also put off potential voters.
The mayor of Hodmezovasarhely is the founder of the Everybody’s Hungary movement, which groups conservative, rightwing intellectuals, economists and politicians. Marki-Zay has also pledged to run Roma politicians on his list.
The movement “welcomes every decent Hungarian who is interested in change”, a message mainly targeted at disenfranchised Fidesz voters. Marki-Zay won support mostly from young and urban voters for his non-partisan position, beating Klara Dobrev, the wife of former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsany. His anti-corruption platform and his drive to wedge out traitors from within the opposition ranks also made him popular among opposition voters wanting a change.
According to independent media, Marki-Zay’s plans are now off the agenda and parties could work out a deal on finalising the national list as early as this week, though some politicians said talks could drag on until the end of the month.
In an interview with ATV, one of the few commercial broadcasters not controlled by Orban allies, the opposition alliance’s PM candidate said he is letting go of his aim to establish a seventh parliamentary group after the upcoming general elections.
"'I feel that it is important to represent the Roma, to represent civilians, to represent the conservatives in this campaign, we will find solutions to everything, but obviously the question of the seventh parliamentary group is in the hands of the six parties, I would be very happy if they accept it", Marki-Zay said.
The rightwing Jobbik party and the largest opposition party, the Democratic Coalition (DK), were harsh opponents of the idea from the onset. Jobbik president Peter Jakab even threatened a veto. All questions must be made with a consensus vote during the talks. The conservative political group aspired by Marki-Zay could have been a real threat to the former radical rightist party Jobbik, which is moving to the center-right.