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Man who seeks to unseat Orbán

28 January 2022

Péter Márki-Zay’s conservative Catholicism could win votes, says Alexander Faludy


The leader of the Hungarian opposition, Péter Márki-Zay, greets supporters during a rally in Budapest, last October

The leader of the Hungarian opposition, Péter Márki-Zay, greets supporters during a rally in Budapest, last October

HUNGARIANS will go to the polls on Sunday 3 April, in the country’s most closely fought election for a generation. Opposition parties are seeking to end Viktor Orbán’s 12 years in power, and, with it, an era that has made the country a byword for authoritarian governance in Europe. It is a contest not only between parties, but also between contrasting “political-Christianities”.

Facing the governing Fidesz-KDNP [Christian Democrat] alliance is an unlikely coalition: Egységben Magyarországért [United for Hungary/UfH], which includes everyone from the formerly far-Right Jobbik to MSZP [Socialists], with Greens and Liberals sandwiched in between. It is led by an outsider, Péter Márki-Zay (“MZP” to Hungarians): an independent small-town mayor, who came from nowhere last year to win the opposition’s primary contest to be its candidate for Prime Minister.

Earlier, in 2018, MZP, who is 49 and a conservative Roman Catholic father of seven, ousted Fidesz in his home town of Hódmezovásárhely, long a Fidesz stronghold, by uniting local opposition parties behind him on a strong anti-corruption ticket. In opposition primaries last October, he beat leaders of established national parties in the first round, before scoring a 13-point victory in the run-off over his nearest rival, Klara Dobrev.

MZP’s conservatism and Christian faith could attract disillusioned Fidesz voters who feel unable to support left-wing parties. They certainly challenge the authenticity of Mr Orbán’s claims to be “defending Christian-Hungary” against Muslim migrants and “LGBT+ activists” (Comment, 30 July 2021). The latter have been in the government’s sights lately: since last August, it has been an offence to display literature “promoting homosexuality” within 200 metres of churches. A government-sponsored referendum on LGBT+ topics is scheduled together with the forthcoming election.

MZP’s views, however, also distance him from Hungary’s, secular, left-liberal opposition. At a campaign event last October, he sought to reassure partners by quipping that he did not think that their working together would be difficult for him, given that “Jesus was quite a left-wing man, too.” His policy platform combines free-market economics and light-touch regulation with a commitment to a strong social-welfare net, especially in matters of health care. He has voiced support for same-sex marriage as a matter of civil, but not canon, law. “I can support it as a statesman, which is a separate matter from the Catholic context,” he has said.

MZP’s stance on the firm regulation of immigration might jar with Western liberals, however. He supports strongly the retention of Hungary’s southern border fence, which was erected in 2015 to stem the flow of — mainly Muslim — migrants from Syria and elsewhere, seeking asylum in Europe. “Europe’s Christian identity must be preserved in terms of our population,” he told me last week. “However, at the same time, we must also show compassion towards individuals — Fidesz’s demonisation of migrants isn’t acceptable.”

MZP believes that his views reflect the influence of both Pope Francis, who has urged Europeans to welcome migrants (News, 10 December), and the prominent Egyptian Jesuit Fr Henri Boulard, who has endorsed Mr Orbán’s stance on migration, and even taken Hungarian citizenship as a gesture of solidarity. “I think it is essential to save Europe’s spiritual identity. . . You have to save your family, your culture, your identity, and, after that, you can open your doors,” Fr Boulard has said. For MZP, the views of Boulard and Pope Francis “are not contradictory but two sides of the truth”, he said last week. “As Christians, we have somehow to live the tension between them.”

While MZP seems keen to bracket out his faith from his public life, he said, however: “For me, religion is essentially a private matter, but I hope people can see my Christianity in terms of personal integrity as a politician — especially financial transparency. There is nothing Christian about corruption”. 

His comments are pointed: under Fidesz, Hungary has slid precipitously on Transparency International’s global Corruption Perceptions Index, to be ranked as the most corrupt country in the EU. Hungary also tops the case-load for OLAF, the Brussels office that has the task of investigating misappropriation of EU development funds. Much of the money has been used to enable Fidesz’s political-clientele network.

RESTORING institutional distance between the State and religious organisations is a priority for the opposition. Constitutional changes since 2010 have de facto undone the previous church-state separation. There is a strong perception that allocation of public funds is used to reward — and punish — Churches, depending on how closely they are prepared to align with Fidesz-KDNP and mobilise voters for them. That is especially true in rural areas and among ethnic Hungarian communities in neighbouring states, where the “church vote” can make a difference.

“I strongly favour keeping the Church and the State separate. . . Hungarian churches need to be liberated from dependence on the government, for their own health,” MZP has said previously.

Whether these policies stand a chance of implementation is debatable. Polls place Fidesz and UfH close together, but a gerrymandered electoral system heavily disadvantages the opposition, and its access to the media, which are controlled overwhelmingly by Fidesz, is limited. As MZP observed last week: “If we win it will be a miracle, but we also know that miracles can happen.”

The Revd Alexander Faludy is a freelance journalist. He lives in Budapest and Cambridge.

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