The victory of the laughing third
The successful organization of the primaries, high turnout, and (partial) successes for most participants is all a reason to celebrate for the opposition, but they still need to do a lot to gain a sufficient number of votes for a majority in the National Assembly, especially in small settlements. Forging a joint party list will be the main source of conflict, but the dynamics of the six- or seven-party machine are threatened also 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.
The results of the second round
- The high turnout in the second round alone justifies that the primaries were a success – even more people cast a ballot in the second round than in the first. Around 850,000 people participated in the two rounds altogether, which is a substantial source of legitimacy for the opposition’s candidate for PM, as well as for the 106 candidates in single-member constituencies and all participating opposition parties.
- 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 and Jobbik and DK, who field the most candidates in these single-member constituencies.
Turnout in the countryside and Budapest
(in proportion of eligible voters in 2018; the second round’s results are somewhat distorted by the fact they are preliminary and people could cast ballots outside of the constituency where they live)
- Although it was Gergely Karácsony who positioned himself as the “candidate for all,” this image was taken over by Péter Márki Zay: his voters were more diverse, his results are relatively balanced across different territories, while Gergely Karácsony was strong mainly in the capital. The theory that Márki-Zay has more reserves among voters and Klára Dobrev can only count on committed DK supporters and areas where the leftist voter base had already been strong was proven right.
- Péter Márki-Zay was lifted 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 a part of the urban intelligentsia has also lined up behind Márki-Zay, as well as government-critical voters who could not support any 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, spontaneous thoughts could create much more severe problems to his reputation or that of 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.
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 did so, they would not be able to gain even close to as many mandates as they can as a part of the alliance (if they even make it into the Assembly) even if they would then have 106 single-member candidates, a separate party list, and hundreds of millions in campaign funds. They could then also forget about any realistic chance of attaining positions in government.
- It is a key question who would 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 in the 2019 municipal election. Although it is unfair to compare the two elections due to their size and area covered, it is a fact that Péter Márki-Zay is currently the Hungarian politician with the largest direct mandate. However, DK won the race of political parties (among current opposition forces), they 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, and only then can they elect a prime minister. By mentioning this irrelevant piece of public law, he is already trying to lower the weight of the newly-elected PM candidate and suggesting that there is a possibility to elect someone else 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.
- The joint party list can create the most tensions. There is not even an agreement on when they should finalize the party list, let alone how the places should be distributed among parties. The situation is complicated further by Péter Márki-Zay’s ambition to create a seventh caucus and he emphasized during his campaign that three out of the first 30 places should be awarded to candidates of Roma origin. Tensions during the compilation of the joint party list can be said to be natural: parties will make a mistake if they take the debates to the public. Since single-member and PM candidates were elected by voters, the compilation of the list is a task for the political parties, which is – by nature – effective only if it is done behind closed doors.
- Fidesz would have preferred Gergely Karácsony or Klára Dobrev as Viktor Orbán’s challenger. Since the “Gyurcsány’s puppet” claim can work considerably less effective against the 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 as an “American agent” due to his years spent abroad. Regardless, repeatedly mentioning “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 will be even more important than attacking the PM candidate’s personality. Aggravating real tensions between parties, individuals and creating new fault lines will become a daily occurrence in the upcoming 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., constituency map), House rules (e.g., forcing candidates on a joint list to sit in a joint caucus), or the idea that surfaced in the public domain recently about strengthening the competencies of the president – potentially tailoring it for Viktor Orbán. The message of every single step from this list would be that the government is afraid of losing the election, which could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nevertheless, there is a better chance that the first two of the three examples are implemented, putting the third one into practice is considerably less likely.
- One of the infrequently mentioned benefits of the primaries is that it brought the back-and-forth around the candidate nomination process 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 (joint, directly elected) PM candidate and 106 single-member candidates. See further thoughts on the “significance beyond the primaries in our previous flash report.