HODMEZOVASARHELY, Hungary – A staunch Catholic, he loathes abortion as ‘murder’ and has previously voted for Viktor Orban, Hungary’s pugnacious populist leader, impressed by his promises to root out corruption and end the disarray left by years of leftist rule.
On Sunday, however, Peter Marki-Zay, the mayor of this town in the conservative rural heart of Hungary, became the most powerful threat yet to Mr Orban’s grip on the country and his combative brand of nationalism from far right.
Mr Marki-Zay, 49, winner of a primary election that brought together six previously quarrelsome opposition parties, is now the standard-bearer of a shaky political alliance that will challenge and, according to polls, possibly defeat Mr. Orban and his political machine, Fidesz, in the legislative elections next year.
Previous challengers hoping to topple Mr Orban, who has served as prime minister since 2010, have mainly channeled the frustrations and anger of a liberal elite in Budapest. This time, the mayor is fighting Fidesz on his own terms and territory – small towns and villages where many voters, including Mr Marki-Zay, once found solace in Mr Orban’s conservative message. , but have been disappointed with what they see as its corruption, hypocrisy and authoritarian tendencies.
“The only real ideology of Orban now is corruption,” said Mr Marki-Zay, mayor of Hodmezovasarhely (pronounced HOD-may-zur-vash-ar-hay), in southern Hungary, in an interview. in Budapest.
Many voters, especially in Budapest, he added, do not share his own conservative views, “but they know that I don’t steal and that I can beat Orban. I am not corrupt.
Janos Csanyi, a 78-year-old former porcelain factory worker who used to vote for Mr. Orban’s Fidesz party, mocked Mr. Orban’s repeated claims that, by demonizing migrants, many of whom are Muslims, and by confronting the European Union on media freedom, LGBTQ rights and other issues, Hungary is upholding the traditional Christian values of Europe.
“I don’t understand what he’s talking about,” Csanyi said, resting in the sun on a park bench in Hodmezovasarhely’s main square, adding that he had other priorities. “There are ten commandments and one of them is very important: ‘Do not steal’. “
An anti-corruption stance resonates strongly in Hodmezovasarhely. A former mayor of Fidesz and close collaborator of Mr. Orban, Janos Lazar, is co-owner of a large hunting lodge on a land estate outside the city, and a contract for a public lighting project financed by the The EU while controlled by Fidesz went to a company controlled by Mr. Orban’s son-in-law, upsetting many.
The European Union’s anti-corruption agency investigated the lighting project and in 2018 reported “serious irregularities” and “conflicts of interest” in the awarding of contracts. Prosecutors appointed by Fidesz refused to take up the case.
“The lights don’t even work. When the sun goes down you can’t see anything, “said Norbert Forrai, a local resident who, desperate of ruling Hungary under Mr Orban, moved to England but recently returned home” to be part of the change which I hope will finally be coming. “
Fidesz still has many ways to block this change. He has a firm grip on most media and controls a vast patronage network rooted in public sector jobs and in companies controlled by Mr. Orban’s associates.
This gives the ruling party far more leverage to influence voters than other populist strongmen in the region, one of whom, Andrej Babis, the billionaire Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, suffered an electoral defeat this month. in the hands of a center-right coalition.
Trained to brutalize Mr Orban’s opponents as treacherous liberals in the service of Hungarian-born financier George Soros, the pro-Fidesz media struggled to find a new line of attack against an unexpected conservative opponent. An information portal close to Fidesz gave up trying this weekend and claimed that Mr. Marki-Zay was also an agent of Mr. Soros.
Fidesz was so caught up in the primaries that, last week, at its local headquarters in Hodmezovasarhely, it was still collecting signatures for a petition denouncing an already lost candidate, the liberal mayor of Budapest.
Budapest mayor Gergely Karacsony withdrew from the primaries after the first round last month and urged his liberal base to rally behind Mr Marki-Zay, a former marketing manager with seven children, who lived for five years in Canada and the United States. .
“We have to accept the political reality. It is not the Liberals or the Greens who can beat right-wing populists, ”Karacsony said in an interview. A future government headed by a practicing provincial mayor, he added, “will obviously have different strategies than I would pursue”, but “the important thing is to choose a candidate who can win against Orban”.
And, he said, “Nationalist populism does best in small towns and rural areas where people are afraid. He added: “Marki-Zay is the mayor of one of these places and understands the fears and problems of these people. “
The populist wave that has swept through eastern and central Europe and other parts of the world over the past decade was, he said, on the way “to pass” following the defeat of President Donald J. Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, and Mr. Babis. in the Czech Republic.
“Now it’s up to Hungary and Poland to decide,” Karacsony said, referring to his own country’s elections next year and the 2023 elections which will decide whether the ruling Nationalist Party in Poland , Law and justice, clings to power.
While describing himself as “first and foremost Catholic,” Mr. Marki-Zay insists that he respects the separation of church and state in Hungary and that his personal views on things like abortion do not. will not shape his policy if he becomes Prime Minister. Mr Orban, he added, was never really a conservative, “just an opportunist”.
“He openly betrays Europe, the United States, NATO and Christian values,” he said, referring to Mr. Orban’s warm relations with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. “He’s a crook.”
He expressed dismay that right-wing pundits and politicians in the United States like Tucker Carlson, who visited Hungary in August and praised Mr Orban, view the country as a bastion of conservative values and a vein for those who value freedom. “Tucker Carlson forgot to mention Orban’s position on China and Putin,” Mr. Marki-Zay said.
Mr. Marki-Zay shocked Fidesz in 2018 by easily winning a by-election in his hometown after the death of the outgoing president, a supporter of Mr. Orban. A year later, he won a regular municipal election by an even larger margin.
The end of Fidesz’s previous virtual monopoly on local affairs shook party supporters.
“It was a big surprise for all of us,” said Tomas Cseri, member of the Fidesz city council.
“If it could happen in a place like this, it could happen anywhere,” Cseri added. “The longer you’ve been in power, the more people think it’s time for a change.”
He admitted that Mr. Marki-Zay is a more threatening opponent for the party than the left-wing candidate losing in the last round of the opposition primary, but, echoing a line promoted by the Fidesz propaganda apparatus , dismissed him as a Trojan horse for leftists in the six-party coalition and denounced the corruption allegations against Fidesz as a lie.
“If we had stolen so much, I wouldn’t be riding like this yet,” he said, pointing to an old bicycle parked against a lamppost.
Yet anger at what many local residents, including former Mr Orban fans, see as theft and bullying by Fidesz is widespread.
Imre Kendi, an architect who runs a construction company, used to vote for the ruling party and was once an adviser to Mr Lazar when Fidesz still controlled the city. But he fell out with the former mayor and quickly found himself not being paid for money owed to him for a government contract, which he said forced him to file for bankruptcy.
“Fear is what holds the whole system together,” he said.
But, he predicted, “the change started here in this small town and now it will continue across the country.”