The Hungarian Opposition Primaries of Fall 2021: Testing the Feasible in an Authoritarian Regime

This is an updated version of a paper forthcoming in December 2021 in Studia Politica – Romanian Political Science Review Vol. 21, No. 2, URL: https://www.studiapolitica.eu. We intend to expand it into a more complete chronicle and analysis of the primary elections in the coming months. Comments are welcome at vox.populi.hu at gmail.com

Authors: Gábor Tóka (Central European University, Budapest) and Marina Popescu (Median Research Centre, Bucharest)

Abstract

This note reports and analyzes a use of primary elections in an authoritarian regime. The Hungarian opposition parties chose joint single-member district candidates and a ticket-leader to unseat Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his party in the 2022 parliamentary elections. Our analysis explores the context and the reasons for the choices they made regarding the rules and logistics. It shows that a remarkably open process was created, which nonetheless assured that the seat allocation between the parties remained conducive to concordance and unity in the alliance. Nonetheless, some outcomes underlined the openness of the process. Most spectacularly, the race for candidate for prime minister ended with the surprise victory of a potent but somewhat unpredictable independent, Péter Márki-Zay, rather than the much better funded and organizationally embedded favorites, who were much more deeply socialized into the pre-existing norms and behavioral patterns of the anti-Orbán electoral alliance. We also discuss the impact of the primaries on the publicity granted to the opposition, the recruitment of new activists, and the preparations for the upcoming general election.

Introduction

Since its democratization in 1988-1990, Hungary experimented with an overcomplicated, mixed, multi-segment, multi-tier, and – until 2011 – two-round electoral system. The majoritarian leaning of the initial electoral system arguably contributed to the emergence of a competitive two-party system around 2000 (Tóka and Popa 2013), but then assisted the emergence of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s authoritarian regime following the collapse of the Socialist Party in the 2010 election (Kozák 2021). The redesigned political system allowed peaceful if significantly constrained competition and somewhat meaningful elections, but eliminated checks and balances, and created a vastly uneven playing field for government and opposition through the informal fusion of the state with the governing party and its clients in the private sector.

While accounts of the key traits and origin of the Orbán-regime slightly vary (Kornai 2015; Magyar 2016; Körösényi et al. 2020; Scheiring and Szombati 2020), the electoral reform of 2011 undoubtedly remains one of its key pillars. It also made comprehensive electoral coordination a must for regime opponents. Under this system, 106 single-member district seats are filled using a simple plurality rule. The remaining 93 legislative seats are proportionally distributed between party lists based on sums of votes cast directly for party lists, and remainder votes cast in the single-member districts.[1] Mainly because of the partisan bias of electoral district boundaries, the biggest challenger needs to attract a few percentage points more of the popular vote than Fidesz to win a simple majority of seats. The law also assures that a 13-14 percent lead in the domestic vote share – e.g., 53% for one and 40% for the other of the two biggest parties – is already likely (and an even smaller lead may suffice) to yield a two-thirds supermajority in parliament for the winning ticket (Tóka 2019a).

To complete the challenge for the opposition, the incumbents have a vast public and private media empire at their disposal that reliably delivers whatever partisan propaganda the Minister of Information prescribes to editors. Libel cases take months or years to settle, and the fines are readily paid from the unlimited campaign coffers because the government transfers well over a percent or two of the GDP for direct partisan purposes like propaganda and patronage, not counting here the EU funds that turn into pork and barrel with a thick layer of side payments on top (Magyar 2016).

Whether and how the regime would come to terms with an election in which it cannot credibly claim victory is unknown and, in fact, unknowable. Most likely even the people in the regime apparatus are not quite sure about this. However, the opposition cannot hope much success from boycotting an election simply on the basis that the government may not tolerate the appearance of an opposition victory. Thus, while opposition participation in elections may do more to legitimize the regime than to pose a real challenge, it is hard to see how regime opponents can spare the effort.

Thus, the previously toothless opposition parties formed a united front to challenge the incumbents in the Spring 2022 parliamentary election. In Fall 2021, they selected the bulk of their candidates in a two-round primary, which was open to all citizens. This article elaborates on the background, the rules, and the results of these 2021 primaries that had a significant and complex political impact via creating a surprisingly open and unpredictable contest in the candidate selection process of the opposition to a prominent and oft-discussed “illiberal” regime.

The Need for an Anti-Orbán Electoral Alliance

By the time of the 2009 European elections, Hungary’s highly competitive “almost-two” party system gave way to dominance by a single party that continued to win around half the popular vote in any election, while its rivals were multiple, disjointed, and often felt colder towards each other than to Fidesz. The Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), the left-wing pillar of the duopoly that came into being by the absorption of various center-right formations into the liberal-turned-conservative Fidesz around 2000, was still in government, and the second largest political force in the country. But its electoral strength halved during the financial and political crisis of 2006-2009, and it was long before the next election that civil servants, public prosecutors, intelligence officers, and diplomats started to seek the favors of opposition leader Viktor Orbán, whose Fidesz party was expected to win in a landslide in the Spring 2010 parliamentary elections.[2]

Fidesz – or the “Fidesz-Hungarian Civic Alliance” according to its official name – is a single party that runs in elections as part of an alliance with the entirely negligible KDNP, which is then allowed to have a separate parliamentary faction. Facing a fragmented field of relatively lightweight opponents, the Fidesz-KDNP alliance won two-thirds of the seats in all three general elections between 2010 and 2018 (see election results in Tóka 2019b). They quickly imposed an electoral reform in 2011 that assured that the drop of their domestic vote share from 52.7% in 2010 to 43.5% in 2014 and 47.4% in 2018 did not, except for three years between some by-elections in 2015 and the 2018 general election, deprive them from enjoying the two-thirds majority in parliament that is required for changing the constitution and all fundamental laws at will.[3]

Between 2010 and 2021, Viktor Orbán’s government overhauled the legal system, the machinery of the state, practically the entire mass media, the distribution of agricultural land, plus the entire public and much of the private sector in the economy (Magyar 2016). Even if rival parties were to form a government after the Spring 2022 elections, that will not yet count as a real alteration in power. In Hungary’s illiberal political architecture, they will not be able to change much either in tax law, the national budget, the fundamental laws, higher education, or the crystal-clear loyalties to Orbán among big business, constitutional court judges, intelligence officers, and at a key veto point in prosecution services where any investigation can be halted or derailed before charges are raised. Or, at least, not without winning that two-thirds majority in parliament that could remove the legal straitjacket put by twelve years of Fidesz legislation on all future governments.

Thus, the political opposition in this system have no choice but unite and plan quite a few steps ahead if they aspire to be more than just bystanders and demoralized stooges.

The Obstacles to Cooperation and Their Disappearance

Fidesz could conquer it all because its rivals were disunited in the first place. As MSZP support collapsed under Ferenc Gyurcsány’s second government in 2006-2009, two brand new parties emerged. Of the two new forces, the Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom (Movement for Better Hungary, henceforth Jobbik) was a decisively far-right formation which gained notoriety with radical nationalist postures (such as the rejection of European Union membership) and the intimidating marches of the unarmed, but uniform-wearing and eventually banned Hungarian Guard into Roma neighborhoods. The Lehet Más a Politika (Politics Can Be Different, LMP) party, in turn, was organizationally weak but rich in elaborate policy proposals linking it to the many progressive anti-globalization forces popping up around the developed countries in the previous decades.

For years to come, Jobbik and LMP were as much or even more opposed to MSZP, the sole successor of the former regime party of communist times, than to the increasingly conservative Fidesz. The latter definitely appeared to be a largely sympathetic fellow-nationalist and anti-communist party for Jobbik supporters, and a fellow critic of the neoliberal tendencies in the MSZP-SZDSZ coalition governments of 1994-1998 and 2002-2009 for both LMP and Jobbik. The ailing left-liberal camp behind the MSZP was, in its turn, divided on whether it may be possible to find policy compromises with the anti-globalization and EU-critical voices in the LMP, and could not imagine that a collaboration with Jobbik may be a bearable prospect compared to living under a Fidesz government.

Questions of political strategy also divided this increasingly frustrated opposition. First MSZP, then LMP, and at last Jobbik all split into two parties each because of disagreements over tactical choices rather than ideology or policy, hence the birth of the social-liberal DK (Democratic Coalition) of Ferenc Gyurcsány in 2011, the green-left Párbeszéd of Gergely Karácsony in 2013, and, after the 2018 election, the extreme right Mi Hazánk, which strongly prefers the Fidesz government over the united opposition. Inevitably, numerous new parties also emerged to advocate a complete reset of opposition politics in the light of regime realities, and at least three of these – the social-liberal Együtt (Together), the Dadaistic party of jokes and decorative art MKKP (the Two-tailed Dog Party), and the Macron-inspired Momentum – became electorally relevant on their own right by 2018.

It took over nine years of authoritarian Fidesz rule for most of these forces to enter the kind of electoral alliance with each other that a few isolated voices – like Karácsony – had already called for in 2011, citing the need to defend democracy from Fidesz as the reason for putting aside the conflicting world views, policies, and political identities. Three reasons for avoiding such an alliance seemed compelling to most politicians until after the 2018 elections.

First, for some in the 2010-2014 legislative cycle it seemed that the left-liberal alliance of MSZP, Együtt, DK, Párbeszéd, and a few others might just be able to unseat Fidesz. Likewise, at least some in Jobbik fancied a similar chance for themselves during the 2014-2018 cycle, as the party experienced an encouraging growth in electoral appeal as well as broad acceptability by pointedly abandoning far-right credentials and getting focused on anti-corruption, pro-democratic, and bread and butter matters. In contrast, since the 2018 election, no opposition party thought so highly of its own chances, and voter support became much more evenly spread across the individual parties too. At last, it came to be accepted that the Orbán-regime got way too entrenched with its media monopoly, deeply institutionalized party-state, and unlimited party finances for any narrower alliance of opposition parties ever to become a viable contender by virtue of its personnel, organization, or platform.

Second, the argument for a broad alliance remained, for long, purely mathematics unsupported by visible evidence that sufficiently many opposition voters are ready to support candidates from other parties than their own favorite. It was only in the run-up to the April 2018 parliamentary election that calls emerged from non-partisan activists like the KOM (Country for All Movement) for party-reciprocated mutual withdrawal of opposition candidates that would let only the best suited one to take on the Fidesz standard bearer in each competitive district. The KOM fielded crowd-funded constituency polls to highlight who may be the most promising challengers in potentially competitive districts, while journalists and the V24 multiparty club of former cabinet ministers opposing the Fidesz government echoed their calls for such coordination across the opposition parties.

Eventually, evidence of a positive voter response to this strategy emerged from the parties’ own polls, and the shockingly convincing by-election defeat of Fidesz in a mayoral race in one of their seemingly rock-solid strongholds just weeks before the 2018 parliamentary election. The by-election winner was political novice Péter Márki-Zay, a right-wing independent candidate supported by the entire local opposition scene, as well as the national HQ of Jobbik, who used his moment of fame to start a national campaign for leaving just one opposition candidate standing against Fidesz in all single-member districts. Although such coordination of candidates between the opposition parties did occur in the subsequent weeks, they remained sporadic in 2018. Yet, these last-minute candidate withdrawals and the joint campaign of KOM, V24, and Márki-Zay to solicit tactical votes for the strongest opposition candidate in each single-member districts had a noticeable success. This was spectacularly confirmed by an apparent and massive defection among the supporters of the Jobbik list to cast their single-member district vote for left-liberal and green candidates in the more cosmopolitan urban districts, mirrored by a similar mass defection among supporters of the left-liberal and green lists to support Jobbik constituency candidates in the more rural environments.

After Fidesz narrowly won a two-thirds majority of seats in the 2018 election, the press and the politically attentive public concluded that the opposition leaders resisting the calls for a comprehensive electoral pact were the key to this result. The supporters of the opposition parties were so disappointed and angered that, for the first time, they joined together with all party banners simultaneously on show in a series of mass demonstrations called by unheard-of-organizers to protest the election results. In the months that followed, Jobbik and LMP, which took most of the blame for the insufficient electoral coordination, suffered major setbacks in the polls, which, in turn, took the combined support for all opposition parties to a paltry level that was not seen since 2010 (see Figures 1 and 2). Clearly, it started to become more important who is the political figure uniting the opposition towards Orbán than what specific party label the joint candidate wears on the badge. Therefore, since the opposition came back to life from its post-election lethargy in December 2018, it became standard practice that the different parties all share the stage at all significant anti-government rallies, no matter what the cause or place or timing is.[4]

Third, since 2010, Fidesz have virtually always been able to monopolize all spoils of office, and it shared no meaningful policy influence with opposition actors. Efforts at cooptation were restricted to individual defectors who could be paid off without policy concession, and this also helped to bring the opposition parties together. Likewise, the regime’s own drive to reproduce the support basis of an ever more authoritarian system moved the government far away from the median voter, which also contributed to an increasing unity of policy and ideological outlook in the opposition. Fidesz strategists probably hoped that a more homogeneously left and liberal-leaning opposition would be electorally less dangerous in the end, but the immediate impact was easier cooperation across the opposition parties.

The Opportunity

Some aspects of the 2018-2022 electoral calendar were kind to opposition unity. A year after the disappointing parliamentary elections, the parties could recharge batteries and re-assess their standing in the relatively inconsequential May 2019 European elections, where proportional representation allowed running without a joint list, and even a relatively poor showing seemed reassuring, given the unrealistically exaggerated expectation that Orbán himself projected for his illiberal allies all over Europe (Tóka 2019b).

With their revised pecking order established by the EP election, the six parties, which had by then become known in common parlance as “the opposition,” negotiated a very comprehensive electoral pact for the October 2019 local elections. DK, Jobbik, LMP, MSZP, Momentum, Párbeszéd, and an assortment of various local activist groups fielded joint candidates for mayor and the local council in nearly all towns where they had even a remote chance of success.

Their overall vote share was still as poor as ever since Summer of 2018 and lagged about eleven percent behind that of Fidesz nationwide (Figure 1). However, this first comprehensive electoral alliance delivered them a massively rewarding breakthrough in the local government arena, as most of the capital and half the other major towns across the country came to be governed by the opposition for the next five years (Collini 2021). Nothing of the sort was in the cards for them in the previous local elections in 2014, when they had a bigger combined share of the vote and yet could not even take control of municipal governments in some of the ten single member districts that they carried months earlier in the 2014 parliamentary elections. It seemed obvious that a similarly comprehensive electoral coordination would follow suit for the 2022 national elections, and newly elected Budapest mayor, Gergely Karácsony, immediately became the most talked about frontrunner for nomination as the opposition’s candidate for prime minister in that election.

Figure 1: Lowess trendline of expected voter support for Fidesz and the united opposition across all published polls from 2018 to November 2021

Source: Vox Populi (2019-), based on estimates from 218 national polls presenting data for all respondents who named a party of choice at a question about who they would vote in a national election next Sunday.

Agreeing on the details for the national elections did not come quick and easy though, and the extensive use of primaries was not at all a foregone conclusion. This latter device had already been proposed by former national election administration head, Zoltán Tóth, back in 2011 and gradually gained support on both ideological and tactical grounds from Párbeszéd, Momentum and a think-tank doing occasional political consultancy work for the left-liberal parties. The organizationally and financially stronger parties appeared less convinced that the expected benefits matched the enormous logistical effort, time-commitment, political risk taking and financial outlays that the exercise would require. It seems that many months of confidential inter-party discussions took place about the issue in 2020, but their content and development remain undocumented to the public.

In August 2020, at last, the six parties announced that they would run a single joint candidate for both prime minister and each of the 106 single-member districts in 2022, and that primaries were one possible way of selecting these candidates.

The vehemently debated possibility of having two separate opposition lists for the election was not yet excluded then, and this prevented progress regarding candidate selection too.[5] The most prominent argument for multiple lists was that Jobbik, LMP or Momentum supporters may not happily vote for a list that included former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, who remained widely unpopular, but being the leader of DK – the most popular of the six opposition parties since 2019 – could hardly be dropped from a joint list of all parties. However, having multiple lists would have created tedious implications because of candidate nomination requirements, remainder vote calculus, and party and campaign funding rules in national legislation. Above all, it was never clear how multiple lists can be combined with a joint candidate for premier, because Hungarians do not vote directly for a prime minister, it is just customary to name a party list’s ticket leader as a prime ministerial candidate for campaign purposes, which then of course creates a binding commitment. Given the many conflicting considerations, the discussions dragged on and on throughout 2020.

Ironically, it was Fidesz who settled the matter, and thus speeded up decision-making about the primaries too. An amendment of the electoral procedure law suddenly passed in late 2020 raised the number of single-member district candidates required from each party or alliance in the national election to qualify for a party list from 27 to 71 (Hungarian National Assembly 2020). The implication was that a united opposition can only have a single national list in the election. This opened the way to a primary open to all opposition parties and supporters in each district.

Setting the Rules for the Primaries

Rules about nomination, balloting, timetable, finances, vote-counting, and a host of other matters were decided in closed meetings between party representatives between Fall 2020 and late Summer 2021. Little is known about the positions taken by the parties, the arguments, the turning points and the chronology of events. A Hang (The Voice), a crowd-funded non-partisan NGO that provided the technical infrastructure for the primary election in the Budapest mayoral race in 2019, was entrusted with much of the operation, and the six parties agreed to decide all rules with a full consensus and send one delegate each to the OEVB (National Primary Election Committee) that was to organize and adjudicate the elections. Only one matter threatened with a full breakdown of the negotiations, and only for a week or two: whether online voting should be allowed, as demanded by the parties that felt confident of overwhelming support among the more computer-literate and geographically mobile sections of the electorate, or just in-person voting, as suggested by those backed by an aging electorate and/or wary of hostile cyberattacks against the technical infrastructure.

With some simplification, it can be said that some of the decisions enhanced the openness of the process and increased voters’ choice, while others rather had the opposite effect. The most important in the second group was to leave the composition of the joint list to the parties alone. With regards to voters’ choice, the most important decision was to organize a primary in every one of the 106 single-member districts. This may have seemed like an obvious choice once it had been decided that the prime ministerial candidate was to be elected with a nationwide vote. But it was not an easy one given the worry of the parties about the demands of running serious candidates all around the country.

In contrast, it was easy to agree that all citizens with a registered address in Hungary can vote if they signed a half-page political statement about the shared goals of the six parties running in the election and agreed with relevant rules about the handling of their personal data. There were significant worries about the backdoor this approach opened to hostile interference by a well-organized Fidesz machine. Yet, there was no conceivable alternative: restricting the vote to the small and very unequal membership basis of the six parties would have offered no benefit but just foregone conclusions. Online voting was allowed, subject to prior registration via a video call during which a photo ID and proof of address had to be presented to a volunteer assistant of the OEVB. Proposals for the use of ranked choice vote or approval voting were rejected, however, as they felt like an alien world for some negotiators. A simple plurality rule was adopted instead, except for adding a runoff to the race for prime ministerial candidate.

The field of prime ministerial candidates was to become inevitably fragmented in a six-party primary where prime ministerial candidates were expected to provide coattail to the less prominent single-member district candidates of their party, Given the fragmented field, a simple plurality rule did not seem to guarantee that the winner can authoritatively claim to represent the whole opposition electorate. Hence, the use of a runoff – should none of the candidates win a share of 50% in the first round of voting – was uncontroversial for the race for prime ministerial candidate, while hardly necessary in the single-member districts, where less than 40 percent of the races involved more than two candidates.

It is less obvious why up to three candidates were allowed to enter the second round (on condition that the third placed candidate obtains at least 15 percent of the vote in the first round). The DK probably expected their candidate to be in the top two anyway, but also to have a better chance of winning the second round if she did not have to face a single opponent who could collect all the anti-Gyurcsány vote. The other parties, in their turn, were probably content with the idea of letting three candidates to the runoff because this rule maximized the chance that their candidate makes it to the second round, before which they could still strike a deal about someone’s withdrawal if need be.

In the months before the actual voting started, the most contentious choices seemed to concern the entry into the race by candidates from outside of the six parties. On the face of it, this was a primary to select the would-be candidates of the six parties. But the parties aimed to speak for everyone opposing the Orbán regime, and the primary was partly there to preclude the entry of candidates into the real election who could appeal to some of the opposition electorate despite not winning – or not even running – in the primaries. Nonetheless, they did not mean to carry maverick candidates to parliament who may not always follow party leadership. Some allowances were made for ÚVNP joining as a seventh party, and informal understandings were reached with some other groups, including the Everyone’s Hungary Movement (MMM) of Péter Márki-Zay.

Ultimately, the requirements for district candidates were set in 400 supporting signatures – 500 is required from single-member district candidates in the general election – and some relatively uncontroversial proofs of a clean personal record and a public declaration of assets. In addition, each candidate had to reach an agreement with one of the six parties that the joint candidate would join that party’s parliamentary faction upon getting elected, and all six parties got a veto right over all candidates. This last point turned contentious in the only known case of such a veto preventing someone from running, but the media coverage of the story quickly died out without further ado.[6] In practice, the six parties somehow accommodated any independent actor who wanted to run and showed some potential, even where this required a party tentatively accepting a candidate to its future parliamentary group in spite of already having an official candidate in the same district.

Candidates and Campaign

József Pálinkás and Péter Márki-Zay announced their intention to run for prime ministerial nomination already in 2020. The first was a high-ranking Fidesz-affiliated official until 2018, and previously a president of the Academy of Sciences with a brief spell as minister of education in Viktor Orbán’s first government in 2001-2002. Márki-Zay, in turn, entered politics in early 2018 as the surprise winner in a mayoral by-election, where he effectively pioneered the strategy of one opposition candidate supported by all the parties against Fidesz (Laczó and Tóka with Kubekas 2021). As a center-right independent, he remained a high-profile but somewhat maverick participant in national politics ever after, as a determined advocate of opposition unity taking a radically uncompromising stance against sleaze and authoritarianism in government but making policy and ideological gestures towards Fidesz-supporters. Both Márki-Zay and Pálinkás hoped that in a crowded field and lacking ties to the six parties, they might just have an outside chance by stressing their right-wing credentials as key to winning over undecided and Fidesz-leaning voters to the opposition cause. Failing that, so the thinking went, the campaign would at least help them building their own political organizations.

The leaders of Jobbik and Momentum – Péter Jakab and András Fekete-Győr, respectively – followed up relatively early on with their announcements. Partly because of their party affiliation and partly because of their character, neither was really expected to win the nomination. Yet they considered it vital that they run to provide support and visibility for their parties’ candidates in the single-member districts. In the first half of 2020, Jakab did in fact pull out a PR coup by becoming, for quite a while, a frontrunner in the popularity race of likely candidates by his extremely memorable attacks on Orbán in parliament.[7] The Fekete-Győr campaign also focused on corruption in government and yet proved far less successful.

It was not merely because of the less fragmented state of the left side of the opposition that the true favorites were expected to arise from there. Klára Dobrev won national name recognition as the wife of former prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsány, who defected from MSZP in 2011 to create DK, which he headed ever since. Gyurcsány remained uniquely unpopular with the electorate yet the uncontested leader within his party. Probably showing an understanding of the problem, he made himself less publicly visible after the 2018 election, and Klára Dobrev – an experienced business leader, civil servant, and policymaker on her own, plus a popular voice and founding member within the DK – became the party’s ticket leader for the 2019 European elections. The personality, intelligence, and energy of Dobrev alongside her visible fit to certain cultural and political expectations made DK the biggest opposition party in 2019, mostly by winning over many former MSZP supporters. As a novice, she was immediately elected to be deputy president of the European Parliament, and from then on, the position of DK candidate for prime minister was there for her taking. Her candidacy was announced on May 2, 2021, and polls confirmed her position as possible frontrunner in the race given whatever set of likely candidates.

While Karácsony, the mayor of Budapest, hesitated for a very long time about whether to enter the race, his candidacy was also widely expected and guaranteed to have the backing of MSZP, Párbeszéd, and even LMP all along. It was a bit of a surprise when, in Spring 2020, he stopped consistently polling as the top choice in mock polls of opposition supporters. Yet even then it was not really doubted that in a pairwise comparison he would safely defeat anyone else in the primary. He eventually gave in to the calls to run in May 2021, but, after a strong start, his campaign merely outspent everyone else in ads on social media and could not really stir up a strong streetwise presence and visible grassroot enthusiasm like the Dobrev, Jakab and Márki-Zay campaigns did.

Karácsony’s dull run originated from at least three factors. First, he did not use his personal campaign to build a broader organizational framework for the left that could somehow blend MSZP, Párbeszéd and LMP together with new recruits. Second, his standing among activists was hurt by his public endorsement of a controversial socialist candidate whom he had a widely known adversarial relationship with from his time as the mayor of Zugló (a district of Budapest). Csaba Tóth, the incumbent MP for Zugló, had long been suspected to be a willing partner of local Fidesz councilors in both politics and financial wrongdoings, and Karácsony went very far in voicing such concerns about him in the past. That he nonetheless endorsed Tóth in the primary race, where Ákos Hadházy, a nationally popular anti-corruption campaigner of the opposition was taking on Tóth, gave support to pre-existing concerns that Karácsony is prone to unprincipled backroom compromises in the interest of winning over the old socialist party elite and their voters. Third, the probably biggest problem for Karácsony’s campaign was that the national government persistently tried to discredit him with allegations of incompetence while depriving in a targeted manner the Budapest city government essential revenue for basic functioning and long overdue infrastructure development projects. Since the Fidesz propaganda operators clearly believed – presumably because of solid evidence from private polls – that Karácsony was both the most likely and, from their partisan perspective, the most dangerous winner of the primary, they built and focused a very expensive campaign on undermining his candidacy with an unceasing series of at most half-true stories that kept chipping away from his popularity.

The single-member district candidates of the six established parties and their minor allies did not have to fear difficulties in meeting nomination requirements. However, they attracted some unfavorable media coverage when a few dozen of them withdrew from the race because of some inter-party agreements, usually covering just a few constituencies at a time (Szabó and Szopkó 2021). These deals were struck mostly before the collection of supporting signatures started and involved reciprocal favors between two or more parties about some candidates being withdrawn from the race to endorse someone else instead. Social media commentary and some of the press, especially the pro-government media, readily interpreted these deals as cartel agreements that just cushioned selected candidates’ ways to victory.

However, virtually none of the withdrawn candidates had an apparent chance of winning, and parties ostensibly withdrew them to concentrate their limited resources only on truly competitive candidates. The withdrawals did limit choice and caused disappointment in some circles, but, on closer inspection, increased the competitiveness of local races and provided for a more proportional distribution of expected single-member district victories between the six opposition parties (21 Kutatóközpont 2021). Had all of them run a separate candidate everywhere, the smaller parties like Párbeszéd, LMP or even MSZP and Momentum would have had less of a chance to rally large groups of voters behind them in competing with the candidates of DK and Jobbik, the only opposition parties that had well over ten percent support on their own in the polls at the time.

The nomination phase took place between August 23 and September 6, 2021. Of the seven people who wished to run in the race for prime ministerial candidate, one previously unheard-of libertarian declared as his main goal the discrediting of the opposition primary and quickly gave up the race for nomination. József Pálinkás also failed to collect the required twenty thousand signatures but became a candidate on the ballot in a single-member district. His attempted run and the seventeen constituency candidates running for his newly formed New World People’s Party’s parliamentary group – only two of whom failed to collect four-hundred signatures, but none won in the election – was nonetheless significant in demonstrating that some center-right conservatives, including former Fidesz supporters and politicians, also joined the opposition that, in turn, welcomed them as partners and take them to parliament as part of the alliance.

A few very small parties (ISZOMM, MSZDP) threatened to run as spoilers in the general election when denied equal membership in the alliance, and some candidates from outside of the six parties tried to appeal to anti-party sentiments by emphasizing that the nomination rules unfairly prevented them from running in the primaries.[8] However, there is little sign that anyone took notice of their exclusion from the competition outside of small activist groups.

Table 1: Number of constituencies by number of candidates

Number of candidates competing with each otherNumber of constituencies
00
111
254
332
47
52
Total106

Source: OEVB (2021) and Gyimesi (2021), with a single correction by the author reinserting Csaba Tóth – who withdrew on the 8th day of voting – in the competition.

The end of the nomination phase found 253 single-member and five prime ministerial candidates qualifying for the ballot. Eleven candidates faced no opponents, and most of the others just one or at most two (Table 1). The parties fielded candidates roughly in proportion of their electoral support: only LMP, Momentum and ÚVNP punched above their weight (compare Table 2 to Figure 2).

Table 2: Number of candidates by the parliamentary group that they would have joined

Parliamentary groupNumber of candidatesNumber of districts[9]
DK5959
Jobbik5250
LMP1716
Momentum5957
MSZP3939
Párbeszéd1010
ÚVNP[10]1717
Total253106

Source: OEVB (2021) and Gyimesi (2021), with a single correction by the author reinserting Csaba Tóth – who withdrew on the 8th day of voting – in the competition.

Figure 2: Lowess trendline of expected voter support for the parties that were to run in the 2021 primaries across all published polls from 2018 to November 2021

Source: Vox Populi (2019-), based on estimates from 218 national polls presenting data for all respondents who named a party of choice at a question about who they would vote in a national election next Sunday.

Just like in all elections in 2018-2019, MSZP and Párbeszéd united behind joint candidates in every district. In the runup to the first round of the election, two televised debates took place between the prime ministerial candidates, and another one before the second round, all attracting hundreds of thousands of viewers, and one becoming the third most watched political program on television during the given week.[11] Polls suggested that the performances of Dobrev, Karácsony and Márki-Zay (probably in this order) were best received, which confirmed or even contributed to a late momentum by Márki-Zay.[12] In addition, a popular crowd-funded vlog broadcasting on both Facebook and YouTube (Partizán 2021) and a civic organization organized sixty very substantial debates between constituency candidates, and a local television channel aired a dramatic showdown between the above mentioned Csaba Tóth and his challenger (Zuglói TV 2021). Long and unusually substantial interviews with hard substantive questions and elaborate responses were made with prime ministerial candidates by various vloggers, and these videos collectively were watched hundreds of thousands of times online. This made for a refreshing change with regards to the format and style citizens learnt about candidates, and some observers thought that this helped Márki-Zay, who was the most approachable for vloggers. What is certain is that many citizens were greatly impressed by how much more open, penetrating, and intelligent political interviews can be than what they have been served up their country’s television channels during the previous eleven years.

Figure 2: Lowess trendline of expected voter support for the parties that were to run in the 2021 primaries across all published polls from 2018 to November 2021

Source: Vox Populi (2019-), based on estimates from 218 national polls presenting data for all respondents who named a party of choice at a question about who they would vote in a national election next Sunday.

It is safe to say, however, that dozens of constituencies were barely touched by the campaign. Significant streetside volunteer campaigning efforts were led only by a few candidates in the big cities, and little is known about the extent of door-to-door canvassing (the COVID-19 pandemic and local traditions both created an inhospitable environment for it). There were most likely less than ten thousand activists who participated in the campaign at all. Coverage on the media outlets directly or indirectly controlled by Fidesz (all but one or two very minor radio stations and print newspapers, most television channels that have public affairs coverage, and the two most widely read as well as many smaller online news portals) was scant and strictly negative. Social media advertising was almost entirely limited to prime ministerial candidates, and their combined total spending could not match what Fidesz, through its various middlemen, spent on political advertisements at the same time. Since law largely prohibits the use of posters by political parties and candidates for elections outside of a short period before national election campaigns and billboard spaces are nearly monopolized by Fidesz, posters were only very sparingly used.

Voting and Results in the First Round

The first round of voting was to take place on September 18-26, 2021. On the first day of voting a cyberattack that, according to IT specialists, should have been easy to cope with, almost immediately paralyzed the electronic infrastructure for voter identification and ballot registration. Voting was suspended until the cause of vulnerability was identified and fixed, and only resumed on September 20, 2021, with two extra days of voting added to the original plans.

Offline voting took place in a few hundred tents set up around the country. Some tents had a fixed location at major traffic junctions in big cities, others changed venue twice or thrice during the polling period, and yet others moved to a new place in the countryside almost every day. Roughly a fifth of all votes were cast online.

By and large, it was easier to vote in urban areas than in the countryside, and this gave a bit of a disadvantage to Jobbik and their leader Péter Jakab compared to Klára Dobrev and other DK candidates, who seemed to poll rather evenly across cities, small towns, and rural areas, and both Jakab and Dobrev were handicapped relative to the remaining three prime ministerial candidates and their parties, who did far better in the big cities than elsewhere. Yet most regional and urban-rural differences in participation seems to have been accounted for by the fact that already at the May 2019 European elections there were many more opposition supporters voting in the big cities than in small towns and especially the villages.

As expected, DK and Jobbik won most single-member district seats, nearly 58 percent between the two of them, with DK taking thirty-two and Jobbik twenty-nine seats in total. But on closer inspection their seat share was a poor match to the fact that they had about 63.5 percent of all opposition votes in the polling average of the time. Surely in a first-past-the-post-system, the two biggest parties are supposed to take more of the seats than of the votes, do not they? In fact, that happened in the primaries too. It is just that the way candidate nominations, the alignment of candidates with prospective parliamentary groups, urban-rural differences in turnout, candidate quality, incumbency advantage (this factor mostly favored MSZP), and grassroot campaign effort (occasionally helping Párbeszéd and Momentum candidates in a big way) worked out, DK and Jobbik only won a combined 48.7 percent of the constituency votes cast in the primaries, and Dobrev and Jakab a combined 48.8 percent of the prime ministerial votes. This vote share was ways behind what one may have expected from the polls only. Table 3 presents some summary statistics that highlight these striking features of vote distributions in the primary.

Table 3: Polling data and vote distributions in the first round of the primary election

 Likely share of the six parties combined vote share in polls by the parties supporting the candidateCandidates vote share in the first round of the primaryVote share of the constituency candidates expected to join the parliamentary group of the parties supporting the candidate
Dobrev Klára (DK)32.034.726.9
Fekete-Győr András (Momentum)13.73.422.3
Jakab Péter (Jobbik)31.514.121.8
Karácsony Gergely (MSZP, P, LMP)22.827.322.9
Márki-Zay Péter (MMM)0.020.40.0

Sources: the author’s calculus from primary election results posted by Vox Populi (2021) and polling data (Lowess trendline estimate for late September 2021 of average party vote shares across all published polls until then) published by Vox Populi (2019-).

Table 3 also reveals that Márki-Zay did massively better, Dobrev and especially Karácsony somewhat better, while Jakab and especially Fekete-Győr a lot worse than we may have expected simply on the basis of the popularity of the parties endorsing them. Of the parties, Momentum did extremely well in terms of votes in the single-member districts compared to the party’s standing in the polls, while DK did slightly, and Jobbik significantly worse relative to the same benchmark. Finally, the parties supporting Karácsony did just as we might have expected from the polls in terms of vote shares in the constituencies.

Turning to the winners of the primaries, we see a reverse pattern in that DK and Jobbik won a bigger share of seats than votes in the constituencies, largely because Momentum and Párbeszéd – doing best in the most affluent urban and suburban areas – won quite a lot of the districts where turnout was very high, while Jobbik and to some extent DK won a big chunk of the low turnout districts. Even this way, though, the smaller parties ended up with a healthy percentage of seats, nearly proportional to their popularity in the polls. The small LMP and Párbeszéd – both hovering around two percent of all vote intentions in the polls – picked up five single-member district victories each, partly due to impressive grassroot campaign efforts helping some Párbeszéd candidates to surprise wins, and partly due to inter-party deals – some going back to 2018 candidate-coordination efforts – leaving a few of their candidates with weak or no opposition in the primaries. Meanwhile DK and Jobbik – with around 14-16 percent in the polls – ended up with thirty-two and twenty-nine constituency victories, while MSZP and Momentum, with their seven percent each in the polls at the time, got twenty and fifteen districts under the belt, respectively. A nearly proportional distribution across the parties, then, even if it was achieved in a rather complicated interplay of many factors levelling out the advantages of the biggest parties in a first-past-the-post competition.

A slight surprise of the first round was that Péter Jakab did not make it to the runoff, which greatly simplified the expectations. Given prior commitments, there seemed to be a high probability that third-placed Márki-Zay would withdraw from the second round and endorse Karácsony as the frontrunner to defeat the more divisive Dobrev, who, in Márki-Zay’s and many observers’ oft-stated opinion, would not be able to win against Orbán given her close association with her husband, the much-maligned DK leader and former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány.

Thus, shortly after the results of the first round were announced, the attentive public and the independent media got intensely preoccupied with the ensuing negotiations between second-placed Karácsony and Márki-Zay about who should withdraw and endorse the other in the second round. The discussions focused on who is given better chances by the polls, and only marginally on what policy platform the two can agree on. While a large sample IVR poll released early in the debate suggested that Karácsony would win in a pairwise comparison with either Dobrev or Márki-Zay among primary voters (Publicus 2021b), Márki-Zay enjoyed a big momentum due to his surprisingly strong showing in the first round and Karácsony’s underwhelming campaign and lackluster conduct after the first round of voting. Polls taken a few days later already suggested that Márki-Zay may end up ahead of Karácsony in a three-way runoff but may fall short of beating Dobrev.[13] In an exciting chicken game, Karácsony turned out to have the weaker nerves or the lesser will to prevail, and, following Momentum’s similar decision, on October 8 he endorsed Márki-Zay as his candidate in the runoff in exchange for some reassuring if vague policy statements. The announcement run into palpable opposition in the three parties supporting Karácsony.

With the support of Karácsony and Momentum, Márki-Zay instantly became a favorite for ultimate victory and achieved that in a convincing fashion in the second round of voting (October 10-16, 2021) in spite of Jobbik remaining officially neutral between him and Dobrev, and Jakab appearing more critical of the Karácsony-Márki Zay alliance than of Dobrev. The runoff had a less jubilant atmosphere than the first round, featured a smaller number of tents welcoming the voters, had a smaller number of voting days, and a far less pleasant weather. It was also marred by unsubstantiated allegations by both candidates about strategically-acting Fidesz supporters casting votes in favor of the other candidate. Yet the runoff attracted an even higher number of voters notwithstanding significant abstention among Jakab- and Karácsony-supporters. While no credible survey of the primary voters took place, it seems likely that only a minority – probably about thirty percent – of the more than two-hundred thousand new voters in the second round differed markedly in their profile from those who voted in the first round. However, anecdotal evidence and the overwhelmingly dominant narrative in post-election commentaries suggest that these new voters strongly preferred Márki-Zay over Dobrev as a candidate who can act as a counterweight to the old socialist and liberal party establishment within the opposition.

Consequences

The opposition expected multiple things from the primary and got most of what it wanted plus some extras too. Candidates were selected for the single member districts and for ticket leader in a process that lent authority and sticking power to the decision. The primaries gave an elevated stand and significant publicity, many months before the real campaign, to the candidates around whom the Spring 2022 campaign needs to be built. They tested candidates and filtered out some damaged goods, helped recruiting thousands of new activists and producing a vastly enlarged voter database for the upcoming campaign. The primary gave the opposition overwhelmingly positive publicity in the independent media and such a control of the media agenda for several weeks that they barely experienced for a few days in the many years before.

The impact on the electorate was less clear. 633,814 votes participated in the first, and 661,990 in the second round. The total number who voted in either round was 880,450, i.e., slightly more than eleven percent of the 7,796 thousand eligible voters registered around the days of the second round. This compares favorably with participation in the 2005 and 2012 Italian, and the 2011 French center-left primaries (Da Luca and Venturino 2017), which are probably the only European counterparts where all supporters of roughly half the political spectrum could vote. Given the much shorter Hungarian campaign, the novelty of the experience, the largely hostile or indifferent media environment in which it took place, and the complete lack of support from public authorities for voter registration and balloting, the eleven percent turnout looks respectable in comparison with US primaries too. There was certainly no other time in the last twelve years when so many citizens developed such close and emotionally pleasing contacts with the opposition parties. An elevated sense of unity was probably achieved, even if it could not be sustained for more than a few days. However, at the time of writing it is not yet clear if the primaries really gave the momentum in the competition with Fidesz that the opposition hoped for, and for which it could not really work by other means during the many months when the preparation, conduct, and afterlife of the primaries completely absorbed all attention and energies in the parties.

The impact on the parties is even less clear for now. The policy median of the alliance probably did not change much as a result of the primary. That such an unpredictable device of allocating constituencies between the six parties ultimately delivered an agreeable and mostly quite pleasing outcome to all was certainly a major success, especially considering the almost incomprehensibly complex mechanisms through which a roughly popularity-proportional allocation came about. While some high-profile candidates of MSZP, DK, and even LMP and Párbeszéd lost, and Jobbik inevitably ended up with mostly unwinnable districts in the countryside, the allocation of party list places is still ahead and will undoubtedly be used partly to compensate for these negative utilities. What will nevertheless be disconcerting for the parties is that they got a somewhat unpredictable maverick as their prime ministerial candidate instead of one of the previously expected winners who were all well and deeply socialized into the norms and behavioral patterns in the six-party alliance, and respectful of the needs and ambitions of all component parts. Péter Márki-Zay is certainly not this type, and this fact may bring as many benefits as internal conflicts for the coalition.

It is also worth considering if the primary opened doors to external influence in the matters of the alliance. To the extent that the momentum of the Márki-Zay ticket may have brought in some new voters and activists who were too critical of the established opposition parties for engaging otherwise, this was probably an outcome that most politicians welcomed. A direct interference in the outcome by Fidesz activists casting strategic votes for candidates that they considered easier to beat in the real election was feared by some ahead of the primary but did not seem to have materialized after all. An indirect interference certainly occurred and to some extent succeeded in that Karácsony’s chances of winning may have been undermined by the vast amount of negative propaganda by the authoritarian state-party that singled him out more than any other candidate. In this sense, Fidesz had a say in the outcome of the primary. However, one might argue that this merely revealed the same weak spots of the candidate that would have been brought to the fore by the 2022 Fidesz campaign anyway. In this sense, even this may have been a plus rather than a loss for the opposition. However, this reading is only correct if Márki-Zay ultimately proves to be a stronger candidate in 2022 than Karácsony or Dobrev could have been.

It is worth noting that fringe candidates without previous embeddedness in the opposition alliance had unimpressive results. In contrast, at least two independent-minded non-partisan candidates – András Jámbor heading to the Párbeszéd faction and Ákos Hadházy bound to Momentum – who had a substantial political profile and grassroot organization managed to win in the primaries convincingly against candidates who had far more support from the major opposition parties. Their success certainly confirmed the openness of the process to candidates making genuinely outstanding campaign efforts. And while the primaries did not change the recruitment paths to parliament dramatically, the percentage of women was a bit higher in the primary both among candidates and among the winners than among all opposition candidates (including those on the lists) in the previous parliamentary election. Overall, therefore, the parties largely kept control of their candidate selection process, but the primaries arguably contributed to a refreshment of the ranks and made them look both more competitive and more in tune with the electorate.

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OEVB (National Primary Election Committee). 2021. “Előválasztás 2021 [Official website of the OEVB cross-party committee overseeing the primary election].” URL: https://elovalasztas2021.hu/oevk-jeloltek/, accessed November 19, 2021. 

Partizán. 2021. “Előválasztás ’22: a teljes viták [Primaries ’22: all the debates uncut].” Partizán Youtube channel, playlist. URL: https://tinyurl.com/4p7vwcd3, accessed November 20, 2021.

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Publicus 2021b. “Előválasztás: második fordulóban Karácsony az esélyesebb Márki-Zaynál – Dobrev ellenében [Primaries: Karácsony has a better chance than Márki-Zay against Dobrev in the second round].” Publicus Research blog, October 3, 2021. URL: https://publicus.hu/blog/elovalasztas-masodik-forduloban-karacsony-az-eselyesebb-marki-zaynal-dobrev-elleneben/, accessed on November 10, 2021.

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NOTES


[1] All domiciled citizens have two votes, one for a party list, and for a single-member district candidate. Of the latter, the remainder votes are those that did not directly contribute to winning a single-member district seat. Non-domiciled citizens virtually all have a dual citizenship and can only cast list votes. See Tóka (2014).

[2] See Tóka (2019b) on monthly polling averages of voter support for the relevant parties from 1990 to 2018.

[3] Note that for comparability with public opinion polls, pre-2011 national election, and 2021 primary election results, I display the “domestic vote shares” for the post-2011 national and European election results too, although in the latter elections it was also possible for non-domiciled citizens – who mostly live as citizens of Romania, Serbia and Ukraine and overwhelmingly support Fidesz in Hungarian elections – to cast a vote.

[4] It goes without saying that Mi Hazánk – which is pro-Fidesz – and MKKP (which opposes Fidesz rule but does not accept any cooperation with either Jobbik or Ferenc Gyurcsány’s DK and MSZP) do not join these opposition rallies.

[5] Single-member district votes in Hungarian elections also contribute to winning list seats, but only if the exact organization (alliance) that nominated the candidate getting a certain vote also has a party list, and party lists in turn can only be set if the given organization or alliance has candidates in a pre-defined number of single-member districts. Hence, if Parties A-B-C were to have a list, the primary election in some constituencies should be a choice between candidates who belonged to these parties.

[6] A former DK candidate for parliament left his party when that nominated someone else for the primary in his district. Momentum decided to back his run in the primary election, but DK stepped in with a veto and that was the end of the story.

[7] For a comprehensive listing of these polls, which also contains some low-quality online polls, see Wikimedia Foundation (2021).

[8] For a review of candidates who did not make it to the ballot at the end see Szabó and Szopkó (2021).

[9] In some districts, more than one candidate was targeting the parliamentary group of Jobbik, LMP, and Momentum because the party gave letter of acceptance to an independent or minor party candidate in spite of already having its own candidate on the ballot.

[10] The New World People’s Party (ÚVNP) joined the opposition alliance shortly before the primary election, with a declaration of understanding that the party can have its own parliamentary group only if at least five of its candidates won single-member district seats in the 2022 elections. The candidates who preferred to join ÚVNP also had to name a second parliamentary group that they would join if ÚVNP were unable to form a group of its own. E.g., Péter Márki-Zay of MMM is counted in the ÚVNP row of Table 2, and his second preference was to join Párbeszéd.

[11] See audience data in Heszler (2021).

[12] About the first debate, see Publicus (2021a) and HVG (2021). Re the second debate, see RTL Híradó (2021). Polls of viewers of the third debate were reported by Iránytű Institute (2021) and Farkas (2021).

[13] See Hann (2021) and MagyarHang (2021). See also Szalma Baksi (2021) and note the contrary result of Republikon (2021).

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