Conservative mayor Marki-Zay wins run-off to challenge Hungary's Orban

Budapest (AFP) –


Peter Marki-Zay, a conservative provincial mayor, was chosen as the unified opposition challenger to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban at next year's election, after winning a primary vote Sunday, according to partial results.

Marki-Zay, a practising Catholic and father-of-seven, led Klara Dobrev, an MEP with the leftist Democratic Coalition party (DK) by a margin of around 58-42 percent in Sunday's second-round run-off, with 60 percent of the votes counted.

"From now on I support Peter Marki-Zay," said Dobrev during a concession speech, urging opposition unity after a bruising election campaign.

The primary was organised by a six-party opposition alliance formed last year in an effort to combat the mainly first-past-the-post election system that favours Orban and his ruling right-wing Fidesz party.

The vote, Hungary’s first ever primary contest, was designed to select just one contender to oppose Orban -- as well as single candidates for each constituency to go up against Fidesz in the election due in April.

Opinion polls have put the opposition alliance neck-and-neck with Fidesz, and Marki-Zay best-placed to defeat the nationalist premier.

- Cross-party support -

After the first round of the opposition primaries last month, that saw more than 600,000 people take part, Marki-Zay came third but persuaded the runner-up -- liberal Budapest mayor Gergely Karacsony, who had been the favourite -- to withdraw and endorse him in the run-off against Dobrev.

During the campaign he argued that only he could appeal to both leftist voters and conservatives tired of Orban's often divisive policies, such as anti-immigration and anti-LGBTQ drives.

Ballot counting was quickly underway on Sunday in the primary race to challenge Viktor Orban
Ballot counting was quickly underway on Sunday in the primary race to challenge Viktor Orban Attila KISBENEDEK AFP

An economist and engineer who lived in the US and Canada for five years, Marki-Zay grabbed national attention in 2018 when he won the mayoralty in the small city of Hodmezovasarhely.

Although the southern city with a population of 44,000 had been a Fidesz stronghold for decades, Marki-Zay rallied cross-party support in what he called the blueprint for opposition success nationwide.

Despite having no party machinery or significant funding, Marki-Zay was also boosted during the primary race by support from younger voters open to his anti-elite and anti-corruption messages.

Dobrev, a vice president of the European Parliament since 2019 who had been hoping to become Hungary's first woman prime minister, had emphasised her greater experience and accused her rival of "unsuitability" for the top job.

But polls indicated the mother-of-three's weakness was 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.

With the backing of DK, Hungary's largest opposition party headed by Gyurcsany, Dobrev, 49, won the primary's first round but fell short of an outright majority that would have secured her the candidacy without a run-off vote.

The primaries were hailed as an "amazing success" by organisers, mobilising over 800,000 voters in total, almost 10 percent of the electorate in the 9.8 million population EU member.

"That's a lot of people even compared to countries with a long tradition of primaries, unlike Hungary where this has never happened before," Marta V. Naszaly, a Budapest district mayor who volunteered to count votes, told AFP Sunday.

"It gives legitimacy. The opposition will have candidates in next year's election who have a chance to change the government," she added.