Media censorship and tilting the electoral playing-field; using legal tools to neuter courts and Parliament as a rubber stamp; the avoidance of absolute oppression through violence: Hungary’s descent into semi-authoritarianism follows a somewhat stereotypical storyline.
Over the course of the last ten years, many Western nations have been appalled by the slow loss of independence under Viktor Orbán. His mendacious rhetoric over issues such as refugees, regular endorsement of “Christian values” (that have been criticised by the Pope himself) and dabbling in anti-Semitic themes definitely bring a crooked smile to the right wing of the world’s political sphere.
What makes the Hungarian situation even more interesting is that it employs existing governmental frameworks to strengthen their power. In particular, the “collusion and compliance” of the EU as noted by the rector of Budapest’s Central European University, Michael Ignatieff. No doubt, the erosion of democracy in Hungary took time, and the political takeover came from within. In part, this was because the pushback by the political opposition was ineffective and apathetic.
However, as the 2022 elections quickly approach, many Hungarians, according to the polls, can be visibly seen to be exhausted by Orbán’s regime. As such, a six-party opposition comprised of socialists, social democrats, liberals, former far right parties and greens will field a single joint candidate to bring an end to what they deem to be a corrupt and hypocritical reign.
On the 18th of October, a fascinating choice was made: Orbán will not be challenged by a city-based politicians but by a Catholic mayor of a provincial southern town. Péter Márki-Zay came to prominence when he defeated the Fidesz candidate in his hometown of Hódmezővásárhely as an independent in 2018. This was most surprising considering Fidesz held that area since 1990 and Márki-Zay had no formal political background. In the primaries, Márki-Zay campaigned as an “anti-corruption” candidate, committed to cleaning up politics.
“Hungary has become a country without consequences…We believe we must now have an election after which no one will steal. Corruption must be abolished. We want a country where corruption is not organised, but fought”, Márki-Zay told Euronews.
Within the usually squabbing opposition alliance, a provincial conservative Christian figurehead will not be to everyone’s taste. But is this the candidate that can reunite Hungary with parliamentary democracy? Márki-Zay’s proven his ability to win in a rural district which is a significant threat to Orbán who gathers most of his support from the more conservative voters of the rural countryside. More importantly, Márki-Zay represents a new dawn, a new beginning, a new fresh set of hands washed of the blood of a bordering autocratic regime – not only in reference to Orbán but also to the unpopular austerity that preceded Fidesz’s victory in 2010.
To further back the threat that Márki-Zay potentially poses next year, a poll that was published at the end of October shows clearly that he has pulled four points ahead of the current prime minister’s party. The poll outlined support for the united opposition at 39%, compared with 35% for Fidesz and 23% who remained categorically impartial for the moment.
While Orbán continues to dominate media propaganda and just this week sought to curb the effects of inflation by capping fuel prices, the fact remains that this election will indeed be neck and neck. The question however remains: will Márki-Zay be strong enough to face him or will this alliance come crumbling down in flames? Will democracy be restored should the alliance be able to defeat the current prime minister or shall the cracks break once their primary objective is achieved? Only time will tell but the only way to prevent a spiral into autocracy is to fight for democracy every step of the way.
For without a fight, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, democracy will not end with a bang, but with a whimper.