The victory of the laughing third


Successful organization of the primaries, high voter turnout, and (partial) successes for most of the participating parties are all reasons for the Hungarian opposition to celebrate, but there is still a lot for them to do to win enough votes for a majority in the National Assembly, especially from small settlements. Forging their coalition party list will be the main source of future conflict, but the dynamics of the six-party machine are also threatened by an internal fight for domination over the alliance, and the ruling party could be an active actor in disrupting the unity of the opposition.

Budapest / stock photo


In Hungary, six opposition parties (in cooperation with several civil society organizations) organized nationwide primaries for the first time ever. Not only was their common candidate for Prime Minister elected (in a two-round system), but the coalition’s common candidates also won in all 106 single-member-constituencies (in a one-round system). After 11 years of the Orbán era, the opposition may have found a recipe (primaries) for challenging the governing party in the April 2022 elections. During the 2014 and 2018 elections, the opposition parties were reluctant to cooperate with each other and posed no threat to Fidesz’s victory, proving unable to prevent the governing party from gaining a two-thirds majority. The 2022 election – for the first time in 16 years – could be anybody’s game.

The results in single-member constituencies

The Democratic Coalition (or DK, ex-PM Ferenc Gyurcsány’s party, whose PM candidate is his wife MEP Klára Dobrev, a vice-president of the European Parliament [S&D]) won 32 single-member constituencies. Jobbik (the ex-far-right party gravitating to the center whose PM-candidate is chair Péter Jakab) won 29 of these constituencies. The Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP, left-wing) won 18; Momentum (centrist-liberal, whose PM-candidate is András Fekete-Győr, the party’s chair at the time) won 15; Párbeszéd (“Dialogue”, the green-left party whose PM candidate is vice-chair Gergely Karácsony, Lord Mayor of Budapest, also supported by the MSZP and LMP) won 7; and Politics Can Be Different (LMP, green-left) won 5. There was also a fifth PM candidate, the independent Péter Márki-Zay, a conservative Catholic mayor of the town of Hódmezővásárhely.

The proportion of single-member districts won by each party is more or less equal to their popularity nationally, so the results are acceptable to all candidates. The House rules currently in force say that a parliamentary group can be formed by at least five MPs, so most likely all six opposition parties (together with their colleagues elected from other constituencies) will have enough seats for their own parliamentary caucus – as long as Fidesz does not change the rules.

High turnout, high legitimacy

The high turnout in both rounds alone justifies the primaries being considered a success – and even more people cast a ballot in the second round than in the first. Around 852,000 people participated in the two rounds altogether (633 000 in the first, 662 000 in the second, 219 000 of whom were new voters), which is a substantial source of legitimacy for the opposition candidate for PM, as well as for the 106 candidates in the single-member constituencies and for all participating opposition parties.

Turnout in the countryside and Budapest

(Compared to eligible voters in 2018; the second round’s results are somewhat distorted by the fact that they are preliminary and people could cast ballots outside of the constituency where they live)

Primaries results

The results of the PM candidate elections (first & second round)

Primaries results 2


The results of the second round

Three candidates advanced to the second round, but the second and third-place candidates both agreed that frontrunner Klára Dobrev would not be likely to beat Viktor Orbán. The agreement between them was followed by a series of sometimes surreal negotiations between Péter Márki-Zay and Gergely Karácsony as to which of them would withdraw their candidacy in support of the other. Multiple polls published in the meantime showed that Márki-Zay would be more likely to beat Dobrev, which led to Karácsony’s decision to step back. Jobbik never supported either candidate officially, while Momentum endorsed Márki-Zay, as did MSZP (after a few days of hesitating). The final results show that Márki-Zay got much more reinforcement in the second round compared to DK’s PM candidate.

Although it was Lord Mayor Gergely Karácsony who had positioned himself as the “candidate for all,” this image was taken over by an “outsider”, the independent Péter Márki Zay:  His voters were more diverse and his results were relatively balanced across different territories, while Gergely Karácsony was strong mainly in the capital during the first round. The theory that Márki-Zay had a greater reserve of voters and that Klára Dobrev could only count on committed Democratic Coalition supporters and on areas where the leftist voter base was already strong was proven right.

Péter Márki-Zay was lifted up by the fact that he could convince establishment-critical voters to partake in the second round. The proportion of young voters among them is presumably very high, but some urban intelligentsia also lined up behind him, as well as government-critical voters who could not support any of the opposition parties. Although the advance of the mayor of Hódmezővásárhely throughout the primaries was surprising, it is not unprecedented internationally. Anti-establishment sentiments have had consequences in several other countries, leading to the rise of Trump, Macron, Zelensky, Matovic, etc., and this can be seen in Hungary now.

The results and the campaign itself showed that the often-mentioned ideological differences barely mattered. Péter Márki-Zay’s conservativism mattered considerably less than his autonomous, unusual character and his place outside the current political elite. These characteristics are also a risk for him: his long speeches and spontaneous thoughts could create much more severe problems for his reputation or for that of the opposition parties backing him now that he is a candidate for the premiership. Moreover, the political hype around Péter Márki-Zay could prove to be short-lived.

However, the second round did not alleviate concerns that in the countryside, especially in small settlements that serve as the base of the ruling party, there are few opposition voters. The six-party alliance can only win the general election if they can increase support in these settlements. This requires a meaningful effort from the prime ministerial candidate, Jobbik, and DK, who field the most candidates in these single-member constituencies.

The potential dynamics of the situation after the primaries

Although it regularly comes up as a question, there is no alternative to the six-party alliance; there is no rational scenario that would make the participation of any participants individually a possibility. If any of the six were to do so, they would not be able to gain even close to as many seats as they are able to win with the alliance (alone, they might not even make it into the Assembly), even if they could somehow field 106 single-member candidates of their own, a separate party list, and raise hundreds of millions in campaign funds. Running alone would means they could then also forget about any realistic chance of attaining positions in the next Government.

The key question is who will direct the opposition in the upcoming period. Péter Márki-Zay has no strong party or organizational background, but he got more votes in the primaries than Gergely Karácsony did in the 2019 municipal election. Although it is unfair to compare the two elections due to their sizes and areas covered, it is a fact that Péter Márki-Zay is currently the Hungarian politician with the largest direct mandate. However, DK won the political parties’ race (among the current opposition forces) and will likely have the largest caucus. Ferenc Gyurcsány has already made it clear in a video message (in which he never once uttered the name of Márki-Zay) that first the opposition must secure a majority in parliament and only then can they elect a Prime Minister. By doing so, he is already trying to undercut the newly-elected candidate for PM and suggest that there could be a possibility for somebody else to be chosen for that post after the election. It is already clear that a severe fight for dominance can be expected within the alliance between DK (possibly in concert with Jobbik) and Péter Márki-Zay.

Putting together the coalition party list can create the most tensions. There is no agreement on when the party list should be finalized, let alone on how the ranking on the list should be distributed among the coalition parties. The situation is complicated further by Péter Márki-Zay’s ambition to secure three of the first 30 places for candidates of Roma origin. Tensions during the compilation of the coalition list can be said to be natural, but the parties would make a mistake if they bring these debates to the public. Since the single-member and PM candidates have been elected, the compilation of the list is now a task for the political parties themselves, which is – by nature – effective only if it is done behind closed doors.

After a conflictual campaign during the two rounds of the primaries, it will be a significant challenge for the opposition parties to gather all opposition voters behind their coalition candidate for the premiership. In the last phase of the campaign, the cleavage between the opposition forces became almost as deep as the one between the ruling party and the opposition bloc. As we wrote in our 2018 study entitled ‘Beyond Populism: Tribalism in Poland and Hungary’: “The essence of tribalism is that followers gather around the leader and reject the other camp. This is a combination of a Manichean worldview depicting a black-and-white, good-and-evil world and authoritarianism putting trust in a single, strong leader.” If the opposition manages to dilute this conflict scenario after the primaries and to line up in unison behind their PM candidate, they could offer a real alternative to the ruling party. If they fail to do so, the primaries would just prove to have reproduced the same fault lines within the opposition that divide the ruling party and the opposition bloc already.

Fidesz would have preferred Gergely Karácsony or Klára Dobrev as Viktor Orbán’s challenger. Since the “Gyurcsány’s puppet” claim can work considerably less effectively against a Christian, conservative mayor from the countryside, the ruling party will have to come up with a new strategy. They will likely attack the candidate’s hectic persona and unpredictability, claim that he is a threat, or label him an “American agent” due to his years spent abroad. Nevertheless, the repeated mention of “Gyurcsány” will not stop, and such large propaganda machinery cannot be routed to an entirely new track too quickly. Efforts to break the unity of the opposition are going to be even more important than attacking the PM candidate’s personality. Aggravating the real tensions among the parties and individuals and creating new fault lines will become a daily occurrence during the next six months.

The ruling party, which has a constitutional majority, can amend the playing field at any time, including any part of the electoral system (e.g., electoral precincts), House rules (e.g., forcing candidates from a coalition list to sit in a coalition caucus), or the recently-floated idea about strengthening the powers of the President – potentially tailoring it for Viktor Orbán to hold that office next. If the Government were to take any of these steps, the message would be that Fidesz is afraid of losing the election, which could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nevertheless, there is a better chance that redistricting or rule changes could be implemented, as the practical realization of the strengthening the powers of the President  is considerably less likely.

One of the less frequently mentioned benefits of the primaries is that they brought the back-and-forth exchanges around the candidate nomination process forward by about half a year. The ad hoc withdrawal of candidates in support of each other lasted literally until the last moment before the 2018 general election, but now the opposition can contest the campaign with a (common, directly elected) PM candidate and 106 single-member candidates. See further thoughts on the “significance beyond the primaries” in Political Capital’s previous flash report.

/Proofread by Gwendolyn Albert/