BUDAPEST — Out on the campaign trail, Hungary’s opposition is grappling with a tough reality ahead of parliamentary elections on Sunday.
As a country often ranked among the least democratic states in the EU prepares to go to the polls, opposition politicians are shuttling across the country in a last-ditch effort to mobilize voters against Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s powerful Fidesz party.
In town squares and on sidewalks, the prime minister’s opponents are resorting to old-school retail politics to try to overcome what they describe as a rigged system.
“It’s pretty hard to counter the brainwashing,” Péter Márki-Zay, the opposition’s joint candidate for prime minister, told POLITICO. “It’s a miracle sign of the resilience of the Hungarian people that after 12 years of such brainwashing, we still have a chance to win.”
Uneven playing field
Ahead of the vote, the opposition has raised concerns about Hungary’s electoral system, government control of much of the media, and the ruling party’s use of state resources for political campaigning.
Polls show Fidesz is currently ahead — though some predict a close race, while others expect a big win for the prime minister. And while Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has transformed the campaign, Orbán’s friendly relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin has not undermined the prime minister’s position at home.
HUNGARY NATIONAL PARLIAMENT ELECTION POLL OF POLLS
Speaking during a campaign stop in the central town of Szolnok, Márki-Zay, a 49-year-old conservative provincial mayor, said that it’s necessary to speak directly to people as the ruling party dominates the media and advertising landscape.
“The challenge,” he said, is that “we have to talk to the people in person, they have to talk to their friends and relatives in person.”
Some voters said they welcomed this approach.
Sitting on a bench in the town of Mezőtúr following a Márki-Zay rally, a local resident who gave just his first name of Mihály, said he was impressed with the candidate’s visit. “He’s honest,” he said. “He says what he thinks.”
But voters can’t get away from the ruling party’s own messaging: Streets and highways are plastered with billboards promoting Orbán and attacking opposition figures.
“They are dangerous! Let’s stop them! Only Fidesz!” reads one billboard seen across the country and featuring photos of Márki-Zay and former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány.
Fidesz and its allies spent nearly eight times more on political billboards in March than the united opposition, and significantly more than the legal limit, according to a new study by a group of independent NGOs.
Experts say that long-running concerns about Fidesz’s use of state resources to further its political interests have simply been ignored.
In an interim report published March 21, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights’ electoral observation mission noted that most of its previous recommendations for Hungary “remain largely unaddressed, including those related to the misuse of administrative resources and the blurring of state and political party roles, and campaign finance transparency.”
Opposition politicians say they are doing their best to overcome an uneven playing field.
Klára Dobrev, a lawmaker in the European Parliament and lead candidate for the left-liberal Democratic Coalition, said that she believes the current electoral system is geared toward helping Orbán.
“There are voters who can vote outside of the country without any control” via mail-in ballots while “gerrymandering” has made “the opposition situation much more difficult,” she said following a town hall rally in Budapest’s suburbs, where she addressed enthusiastic pensioners. “We do not have the same funds,” she added.
“But still, the majority of Hungarian people want change in the government,” said Dobrev, who is married to Gyurcsány, who was prime minister from 2004 to 2009. “The question is the mobilization at the end of the day — whether we can give enough hope and enthusiasm to our voters,” she said.
The Hungarian government has long rejected criticism that it is disrespecting democratic norms. A spokesperson for the government did not respond to a request for comment.
A forced marriage
Orbán’s opponents have decided the only way to defeat him is to set aside their ideological differences and run in the election together. Six opposition parties from across the political spectrum held their first-ever primary in the fall to select joint candidates.
The alliance has grappled with internal problems — distrust, competition and mixed messaging from candidates — which have weakened its position, but it has formally stuck together and on Sunday will appear as one alliance on the ballot paper.
“Fidesz is cheating, as always — but we united as never before,” Péter Jakab, president of the right-wing Jobbik party, told a crowd in the southeastern town of Békéscsaba.
Jobbik began as a far-right, anti-Roma and anti-Semitic movement, but pivoted toward the center right in recent years as Fidesz moved toward the far right.
Jakab, whose great-grandfather was a Jewish Hungarian killed at Auschwitz, has tried to position the party in the mainstream, working closely with left-wing and liberal parties as part of the opposition alliance. But the party’s critics say its transformation is far from complete as it still has members who have a track record of racism.
In Békéscsaba, the Jobbik leader underscored the need for unity across ideological lines — while acknowledging differences of opinion within the opposition alliance.
“Unity is much stronger than cheating, stronger than threats … if you like, stronger than potatoes!” Jakab said, eliciting laughter with his reference to the (illegal) practice of handing out food in exchange for votes.
On Sunday, voters get to tick two boxes to fill the 199-seat parliament: an electoral district representative and a national party list — while also voting in a controversial anti-LGBTQ+ referendum. Jakab asked the crowd to vote for the united opposition — led by Márki-Zay and including representatives of the six-party alliance — for their party list.
“It is possible to like Péter Márki-Zay or not like him,” Jakab told the crowd. “But one thing now is really, really not possible: to vote for anyone else,” he said, adding: “Whoever is not giving their vote to Péter Márki-Zay will keep Viktor Orbán in power.”
In Budapest, Anna Donáth, an MEP and head of the centrist Momentum party, said she always asks her voters “when they are coming to complain” about her campaigning with Jobbik or Socialist candidates: “‘Do you like the government? Do you want them to still keep reigning with two-thirds [majority]?’ Of course, they hate it more.”
Donáth, a 34-year-old, third-generation Hungarian politician, was speaking following a rally in the capital where she campaigned alongside Márki-Zay and other opposition candidates.
“It is a forced marriage, to be honest, we all know it,” she told POLITICO. “It doesn’t mean we can’t be civilized and it doesn’t mean that we can’t find the common basis.”