There can be only two


The second round of the Hungarian opposition primaries is anybody’s game after Gergely Karácsony announced his withdrawal. Klára Dobrev is the candidate of the most popular opposition party with the backing of a very dedicated voter base, while Péter Márki-Zay seems to be the most integrative figure, who is expected to attract undecided voters, not only in the upcoming weeks, but up until the 2022 April general election.

Then, there was three, now we are down to two

Three candidates advanced to the second round, but the 2nd and 3rd place candidates agreed that Klára Dobrev could not beat Viktor Orbán. The agreement was followed by a series of – sometimes surreal – negotiations held in the past week between Péter Márki-Zay and Gergely Karácsony about one of them withdrawing 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 further weakened the lord mayor’s already unstable position.

Although there was a good chance for either Márki-Zay’s withdrawal or both competing in the second round, Gergely Karácsony announced his withdrawal on Friday.

Jobbik is not supporting either of the candidates officially, their electorate presumably prefers Márki-Zay even despite the Jobbik-DK nation-wide cooperation that worked well. Momentum officially came out in support of Márki-Zay, but the majority of their voters did not stand behind the party’s own nominee in the first round already. The main question is where Karácsony’s voters are headed.

The second round takes place between October 10-16.

First round results – prime minister candidates

Klára Dobrev, vice-president of the European Parliament (S&D), and the wife of ex-PM Ferenc Gyurcsány won the first round of the primaries, which is unsurprising, although she did not even come close to deciding the competition in the first round, as she gained only 34.8% of the vote. Dobrev is stronger in the countryside, where she gained 37% of the vote compared to only 29% in Budapest.

The main surprise was provided by Hódmezővásárhely Mayor Péter Márki-Zay, who gained third place as the leader of a movement, without the support of any political parties. He beat Jobbik chair Péter Jakab. The reason for his success is likely that he could provide an alternative to Gergely Karácsony as the “common denominator”: Márki-Zay (who was the first to win a [by-]election in February 2018 with the support of opposition parties who did not even talk to each other at the time) is the least rejected candidate, the alien that came from far away (more specifically, Fidesz), who is credible both to people in the countryside and the intelligentsia in the capital.

Budapest Mayor Gergely Karácsony, the joint candidate of Párbeszéd, MSZP and LMP, came second. Although he achieved a good result at first sight, which could allow him to win the second round, his popularity is not trending upwards, unlike that of Márki-Zay, and his results also confirmed that he is incapable of reaching out to the electorate in the countryside. He got 41% of the votes cast for him in Budapest and only 59% of them in the 19 counties, while Márki-Zay got a third of them in the capital and two-thirds outside of it.

First round results – single-member constituencies

The Democratic Coalition won 32 single-member constituencies, Jobbik won 29, MSZP 18, Momentum 15, Párbeszéd 6 and LMP 4 (and another two candidates can be tied to MMM, the movement of Péter Márki-Zay, who would sit in Párbeszéd’s caucus, while Tibor Bana would pick LMP’s group if he won). More importantly, DK and Jobbik will field 10 candidates apiece in single-member electoral districts that are most likely to be won by the opposition, Momentum will have 7 candidates in these, MSZP 6, Párbeszéd 5 and LMP 2. (The House rules currently in force say that a parliamentary group can be formed by at least 5 Members of Parliament, so the LMP would need at least three places on the joint list ranked high enough to succeed in getting into the National Assembly.) The proportion of the single-member districts the parties won is more or less equal to their popularity nationally, so it is acceptable to all participants.

Turnout above expectations

Although parties did not discuss concrete expectations on the participation rate before the primaries, there were indications that they would be satisfied with the 5% turnout of the 2019 Budapest primaries. The fact that around 633,000 people cast a ballot, or about 8% of the electorate, can thus be considered a massively successful mobilization effort.

The high turnout cannot simply be explained by the opposition parties’ efforts to get voters to show up. The electorate seems to be hungry for open political competition with multiple potential winners and substantial debates with meaningful consequences. It is exactly this aspect that the ruling party has been trying to discredit by depicting the primaries as an affair already decided before it started.

The significance beyond the primaries

Breaking out of the bubble. Campaign teams that were mobilized throughout the country managed to reach a massive number of voters for the first time since 2010, including those outside of the core opposition electorate. The number of interactions between opposition politicians, activists and voters was substantially higher than the 633 thousand votes cast, which made political forces outside of Fidesz visible in smaller settlements for the first time in a long time. This is likely the most concerning development for the ruling party: The masses they managed to separate from the non-governmental public space could not even imagine that there were potent political forces outside of Fidesz.

Returns on investment. Many voiced their concerns about the opposition only focusing on themselves during the primaries, which would mean that all the money and effort they put into the process would go to waste. The primaries are, in fact, already a part of the 2022 general election campaign, and as it progresses, the fact that opposition parties made their voices heard already in the autumn and they did not only contact voters once in four years would become more and more useful. There is no guarantee, however, that campaign teams working against each other in the primaries will be able to cooperate constructively and successfully. A substantial proportion of the activists of the candidates who lost will certainly become passive, which is why the joint prime ministerial candidate’s ability to create consensus and reach out to different camps in the opposition is extremely significant.

Avoiding fumbling around. In autumn 2017, opposition parties were sending messages to each other at best, and without any political will to cooperate, they at most withdrew in support of each other voluntary before the 2018 general election. Opposition parties focusing on themselves throughout the campaign barely had any energy left for a meaningful campaign, attacking the government or showing an alternative. Regardless, without votes from outside of Hungarian borders, they got more votes (2.7 million) than the ruling party’s list (2.6 million). In contrast, they will compete in the 2022 general election with 106 joint candidates in single-member constituencies and a prime ministerial nominee half a year before the ballots are cast. Thus, the well-known missteps of the opposition before elections will be avoided, which releases substantial capacities for campaigning efforts. (The establishment of the joint six-party list does carry some potential for quarrels.)

Fidesz’s narrative

Fidesz’s narrative is clear and consistent: The ruling party says the results do not matter, as Gyurcsány wins anyway. This message can only work if Dobrev does win the opportunity to challenge Viktor Orbán, the claim is already weak in the case of Karácsony, while the Catholic father of seven, Márki-Zay’s victory would likely mean that Fidesz would have to opt for a new strategy. In the short-term, the ruling party’s effort to discredit the primaries or avoid talking about them is understandable, the opposition’s ability to start the 2022 campaign with a joint prime ministerial candidate and 106 joint single-member candidates will certainly have a positive effect, while the ruling party and the opposition are already neck-to-neck in polls.