This conservative Christian mayor of a small Hungarian town must beat Orbán

Opposition candidate Peter Márki-Zay won the Hungarian opposition primaries on Sunday evening.Image REUTERS

Márki-Zay took the most votes in the second round of the Hungarian opposition primaries. With about 60 percent of the votes counted, he left the other candidate Klára Dobrev behind with 58 percent. On Sunday evening, she admitted her loss and congratulated Márki-Zay on the victory.

The opposition primaries, modeled after the so-called primarys in the United States, are a new phenomenon in Hungarian politics. The united opposition, which is neck and neck with ruling party Fidesz in the polls, puts one candidate forward to take on Viktor Orbán.

Márki-Zay is seen as a better contender against Orbán than Dobrev. Because of his conservative profile, but also because he is a new face in politics and is not affiliated with any party. The left-liberal Dobrev is more experienced, but the major political scandals associated with her husband and former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány cast a shadow over her candidacy.


Nevertheless, she won the first round and Márki-Zay finished third. In second place came Gergely Karácsony, the popular mayor of Budapest. The big turning point for Márki-Zay came when Karácsony withdrew and backed him. The mayor of Budapest is a popular candidate, especially in his own city, but not outside of it. And the Hungarian countryside, home to a third of the population, will play a key role in the elections next spring.

There, Péter Márki-Zay (49), a headstrong politician who entered the political scene only three years ago, is in his element. He is an outspoken conservative, a devout Catholic family man with seven children. He is also a neoliberal economist with a firm belief in the free market and lower taxes for large corporations. “He doesn’t have a typical profile for a Hungarian politician,” said Andrea Virág, political analyst at Republikon think tank. ‘He is a real outsider.’

Márki-Zay was born in 1972 in Hódmezővásárhely, a small town in southern Hungary (population 40 thousand). He grew up in a family of practicing Catholics who have lived in the area around the southern town for many generations. He studied economics and electrical engineering, and later obtained a doctorate in economic history.

Smear campaign

After that he worked for some time in Canada and the United States, but after a few years he returned. Like his family, he is attached to his native soil. He settled again in Hódmezővásárhely with his family. After his return, he took on political ambitions and offered his services to the local Fidesz mayor. However, he abandoned his political plans, according to his own account because of the widespread corruption in the city. The fight against corruption, which has only increased under Orbán, is one of his spearheads as an opposition politician.

He turned his back on local politics and started working in business. But in 2018, he ran for mayor in by-elections in Hódmezővásárhely, traditionally a Fidesz bastion. Opponents made it difficult for him to campaign as an independent candidate and ran a smear campaign with rumors that he would close the hospital and build a mosque.

Márki-Zay, supported by some of the opposition parties in the municipality, relied on flyers and Facebook for his campaign. And he won. He then founded a political movement, the Everyone’s Hungary Movement (MMM). He emerged as a fierce critic of Orbán and Fidesz, who in his eyes had ‘betrayed’ Hungary’s ‘European and Christian roots’. Incidentally, the opposition also did not escape his criticism.

Orban’s mirror image

Márki-Zay presents himself as the sincere mirror image of Viktor Orbán. While Orbán and his followers want to capitalize on Christianity politically and mainly profess the faith with their mouths, Márki-Zay goes to church on Sundays. “I was already a conservative Christian when Orbán was still with the young communists,” he once boasted.

With his conservative agenda, he hopes to attract right-wing voters in rural areas and lure disappointed voters away from Fidesz. In progressive cities like Budapest, his conservatism is viewed with suspicion. Opponent Dobrev compared him to Donald Trump. In the second round, Márki-Zay had to get the supporters of the progressive mayor Karácsony along.

Márki-Zay speaks out for equal rights for LGBT people and is in favor of a secular government. He tried to put left-wing voters at ease with humor. “Don’t worry, Jesus was leftist too.” He was more than successful in this: in Budapest he managed to get twice as many votes as Dobrev.

For Fidesz, Márki-Zay is an unpleasant surprise, analyst Virág thinks. They were geared up for Dobrev, who is an easy target because of her husband. Moreover, the conservative Márki-Zay can challenge Orbán with his own target group. And that will be exciting. “The opposition and Fidesz are now close together. A small amount of voters can make all the difference.’

3 x Hungarian opposition primaries

– When Orbán came to power, he reformed the electoral law. For example, his party obtained a two-thirds majority in parliament with half the votes. By working together, the opposition hopes to counterbalance this. They have already had success at a local level with this strategy.

– The opposition bloc consists of six parties and covers the entire political spectrum. Social democrats, liberals and right-wing extremists are in the same boat.

– In the first round, about 634 thousand Hungarians voted. The turnout was even higher in the second round. In total there were 800 thousand different voters.