Hungary’s newly united opposition politicians started going to the polls Saturday in the country’s first-ever primary elections that they hope are the key to ousting right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
After years of bickering and a string of landslide losses, the once-factious opposition has come together with one common goal — to push the long-serving leader from power in elections next year.
Their six-party alliance, set up last year, is made up of a diverse cast of political parties: leftist, liberal and formerly far-right.
They accuse 58-year-old Orban — who regularly clashes with Brussels over migration and rule-of-law issues — of endemic corruption and creeping authoritarianism since he came to power in 2010.
Now they hope the new primary system will be their path to defeating his Fidesz party, Hungary’s largest.
“The opposition can only compete with Fidesz if they are in a single bloc too, we’ve learned that the hard way,” Antal Csardi, a candidate for the green LMP party, told AFP.
The winner-takes-all system brought in under Orban in 2012 handed Fidesz powerful parliamentary “supermajorities” in 2014 and 2018, despite winning less than half of the vote.
By contrast, the primaries will let opposition voters select single candidates to take on both Orban himself as well as Fidesz rivals in each of Hungary’s 106 electoral districts.
Over 250 candidates are standing in the primaries nationwide that run from September 18 to 26, with voting taking place online and in-person.
If required, a run-off for the prime ministerial candidacy will be held between Oct. 4-10.
Csardi says the primary elections are “an innovation that was forced on us” by the election system, and the only hope of seeing an anti-Fidesz candidate win.
“There are ideological differences between all the opposition parties, so primaries are the best way of deciding who becomes the common candidate,” he said in a televised debate with Ferenc Gelencser of the centrist Momentum Movement this week.
The system is popular among opposition voters too.
Gyorgy Abelovszky, a studio audience member at the debate, said they “a great idea” that “should have been introduced for previous elections.”
“I don’t support either of these opposition parties debating tonight but I will vote for whichever of them wins the candidacy here,” the 67-year-old told AFP.
That sentiment could spell the end for more than a decade of Orban rule at the general election set to be held next April.
Polls so far indicate an unpredictable parliamentary election for the first time since he came to power.
“Despite the ideological cleavages between the opposition parties, for most of their voters, next year’s election is simply about whether Viktor Orban goes or not, nothing else,” Daniel Mikecz, an analyst with the Republikon think tank, told AFP.
Cracks in the alliance?
Despite their differences, the five prime ministerial candidates at Sunday’s primetime debate — the first of three — were mostly on the same anti-Orban page.
But some have cracks in the alliance have appeared. In June, former far-right party Jobbik broke ranks by voting for a controversial anti-LGBTQ law proposed by Fidesz.
Still, the parties hope to build on their success at municipal elections in 2019 when they first applied the strategy of uniting against Fidesz.
That delivered the alliance surprise wins in Budapest and several regional cities in what was seen as the first blow to in Orban’s self-styled “illiberal” system.
Gergely Karacsony, a liberal who won the Budapest mayoralty then thanks to cross-party support, said this week that he “expects to win” the race to take on Orban.
“I can best integrate and hold together this diverse opposition.”