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Hungarian Primaries: A Glimpse of Hope for the Opposition

From 18 to 26 September and then again between 4 and 10 October, Hungarians are called to the polls to elect candidates for the soon-to-be United Opposition. Voting is conducted both offline and online and anyone, regardless of their political affiliation, can cast their ballot in this open primary. The autumn primaries are the starting point for a political battle that, come the spring of 2022, will culminate in what is shaping up to be the most hotly contested parliamentary election in Hungary of the last 16 years.

The first round of voting has been prolonged until 28 September—from the initial 26—due to what seems to be a cyber attack against the online infrastructure of the primaries.

The Only Way Forward

Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s most prominent present-day politician, casts a long shadow over the small Central European country. As the leader of the ruling Fidesz-KDNP (NI-EPP) coalition, he has won supermajorities in the country’s last three elections, in 2010, 2014 and 2018. He has established himself as a European heavyweight and become the poster boy for ‘illiberal democrats’ around the world. He dominates local politics to an extent that is perhaps unparalleled in contemporary Europe. Whether he has achieved all of this thanks to his personal charisma or simply riding the wave of the populist Zeitgeist is still an open question, but his domestic enemies have largely failed to find a way to seriously challenge him.

For the majority of the last decade, none of the opposition parties could command the support necessary to have a chance of beating Viktor Orbán and the ruling Fidesz-KDNP coalition in an election. After the humiliating defeat of 2018, where they faced widespread criticism from the electorate for not cooperating, leaders of the major opposition parties decided to put their differences aside and work together for the sake of unseating Orbán. Such a united front is now neck-and-neck in the polls with Fidesz and it looks like opposition politicians finally have a shot at wresting power from Orbán and Fidesz. The primaries are their offer to the Hungarian people to have their say in who will lead the charge in this effort.

Fighting First-Past-The-Post

The primaries came about after months of negotiations between opposition parties—namely DK (S&D), Jobbik (NI), Momentum (RE), MSZP-P (S&D|G/EFA) and LMP (G/EFA)—who have opted to run as an electoral coalition dubbed United Opposition (S&D|RE|G/EFA|NI) in 2022. Before delving into the nitty-gritty of the process, however, it is important to remind ourselves of the main reason for the existence of this unlikely alliance: the pressures exerted by Hungary’s electoral system.

Alongside the adoption of the new constitution in 2012, Hungary’s electoral laws were also changed. The general framework of the Mixed Member Proportional System (MMP) that had been in use since 1990 was kept, but the ruling Fidesz-KDNP coalition increased the ratio of seats awarded to winners of electoral districts and eliminated the run-off round. This essentially created a classic First-past-the-post system in electoral districts, not unlike systems in Anglophone countries like the UK, US or Canada, that is known to massively favour bigger parties over smaller ones. The party list vote, from which less than half of the seats in parliament are derived proportionally, was retained with a few minor changes.

Being the largest party in the country, Fidesz easily swept single-member electoral districts decided by plurality in both 2014 and 2018, which resulted in the electoral alliance of Fidesz-KDNP becoming heavily overrepresented in the parliament both times. It was evident that a fragmented opposition had no chance to win against a big party, especially if that party positions itself in the centre of the political palette with aspirants coming from both left and right. This is the essence of Viktor Orbán’s infamous ‘Central Force Field’: winning supermajorities—more than two thirds of the seats—in the national legislature twice with less than 50% of votes received proved him right.

This is the electoral landscape that forced opposition parties to run together. To be able to compete, let alone win, seats in the national parliament in a skewed system tailored for two poles, but with only one big pole—Fidesz. They were left with no choice but to cooperate; fielding only one candidate against Fidesz in electoral districts, running on a single party list and uniting behind a single prime ministerial candidate all serve that purpose.

Primer Primaries

The primaries of the opposition parties are going to take place in two instalments and are open to every eligible voter in the country. Opposition candidates in all of the country’s 106 electoral districts are competing against each other in a one-round election between 18 and 26 of September, the winners of which get a chance to go toe-to-toe against Fidesz come the spring of 2022. Interestingly, there are a few districts where there is only one opposition candidate left standing; backroom deals, it seems, do not go away even in the face of extreme public scrutiny.

In parallel to the primaries in electoral districts, politicians vying for the prime ministerial candidacy face off in two rounds. The three candidates that receive the most votes in the first round are going to proceed to a runoff between 4 and 9 of October. Currently, Gergely Karácsony (P, Budapest’s Lord Mayor), Klára Dobrev (DK) and Péter Jakab (Jobbik) are the frontrunners. Two other candidates, András Fekete-Győr (Momentum) and Péter Márki-Zay (MMM, minor political movement) who have collected the 20 000 signatures required to participate are not expected to reach the second round.

Voting is to be conducted online and in-person, the former proving to be particularly useful to those living abroad or in small townships, where there would be no opportunity to cast a ballot in dedicated ‘primary tents’.

Serious Side-Effects

It is not just the practical benefits mentioned above that come with the primaries. Televised debates between candidates will give them much coveted attention and a chance to tell voters their side of the story: indeed, a phenomenon that has become increasingly rare as national and local media outlets have undergone a massive government takeover. A truly united opposition will also have a better shot at convincing an electorate sceptical of a coalition ranging from social democrats to far-right-turned-national-conservatives that they are more than capable of governing. By collecting signatures and spending resources all over the country, they can build voter lists and databases that will no doubt come useful in the mobilisation effort of the parliamentary elections.

It is also an opportunity to settle internal debates. Backroom deals and sleazy handshakes tend to reflect hypothesised power balances rather than the real thing. Currently, the centre-left DK seem to be the biggest party in the opposition with Jobbik not far behind. Momentum, an up-and-coming En Marche-style liberal party that did extremely well in the 2019 European Elections, have since fallen behind a bit and are now neck-and-neck with old school social democrat MSZP. By counting actual ballots, opposition parties are going to come out of the primaries with a more realistic picture of how strong they are, making future deals easier to pull off.

Whatever happens in the next few weeks and months ahead, one thing is clear: Viktor Orbán’s grip on Hungary is in as grave a danger as it has ever been in the past 12 years. By organising primaries and standing as a united front, the Hungarian opposition has seemingly found the recipe for victory: all that remains is for them to learn how to cook.