A veteran pro-European and a conservative economist face off in a week-long opposition primary in Hungary that starts on Sunday, with the winner set to challenge Prime Minister Viktor Orban in next year’s election.
The opposition agreed for the first time to choose just one contender to oppose Orban — as well as single candidates in each constituency to go up against his nationalist Fidesz party — in the vote expected in April next year.
After a first round of primaries that saw more than 600,000 people take part, Klara Dobrev of the leftist Democratic Coalition (DK) party and economist Peter Marki-Zay are the final candidates battling it out.
THE POLYGLOT VETERAN
Dobrev, 49, of Hungary’s largest opposition party won the first round of the primary with 35 percent of the votes but fell short of an outright majority that would have secured the candidacy.
An MEP vying to become Hungary’s first woman prime minister, Dobrev’s supporters highlight her experience as a vice president of the European Parliament since 2019 and in government back home during the 2000s.
She speaks English, German, Russian and Bulgarian — she was born in Sofia and has a Bulgarian father — and describes herself as a social democrat.
The pro-EU lawyer and economist told reporters this week that “tears come to my eyes when I compare the difference in political cultures between Hungary and Brussels”, where she said she could discuss issues with opponents in a “civilised fashion”.
Despite being the most senior Hungarian official in the Brussels assembly, Dobrev says she has never been invited to appear on Hungarian state media outlets, which heavily favour Orban.
Polls indicate the mother-of-three’s weakness is her husband, former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsany who admitted lying in 2006 during a leaked private speech and has been relentlessly attacked by Orban ever since.
Dobrev wants to bin the constitution that was rewritten by Orban soon after he won the 2010 election, saying it mainly serves to cement Orban’s power.
Parliamentary speaker and Orban ally Laszlo Kover said the idea was “criminal” and would amount to a constitutional “coup”.
THE CONSERVATIVE OUTSIDER
Marki-Zay came third in the first round but persuaded Budapest mayor Gergely Karacsony, the runner-up, to withdraw and endorse him in the run-off.
“I believe that Peter Marki-Zay is capable of uniting the opposition,” said Karacsony, who had been considered the frontrunner to win the primary.
A win for Marki-Zay would be “Orban’s nightmare”, according to analyst Robert Laszlo.
“Unlike Dobrev, he cannot be easily framed by Orban and Fidesz as a puppet of Ferenc Gyurcsany,” Laszlo said.
Marki-Zay, 49, grabbed national attention in 2018 by winning a mayoral by-election in his home city of Hodmezovasarhely, a Fidesz stronghold for decades.
Marki-Zay, a father of seven and a practising Catholic who lived in the US and Canada for five years, successfully garnered support from across the political spectrum.
Since then he has campaigned for opposition unity and now says that unlike Dobrev he appeals to both leftist and conservative voters tired of Orban.
A former Fidesz voter, he says he was “devastated” when Orban failed to win re-election in 2002 after his first term as prime minister but was alienated by Orban’s policies after he returned to power in 2010.
Marki-Zay outperformed expectations in the first round of the primary despite having no party machinery or significant funding to rely on.