Hungary opposition leader aims to oust 'Death Star' Orban

Budapest (AFP) – Hungary's newly-elected opposition leader aims to oust nationalist premier Viktor Orban by being himself -- a charismatic outsider appealing to voters across the political spectrum eager for a breath of "fresh air."

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Peter Marki-Zay doesn't fit neatly into usual political definitions, which makes him a dangerous opponent for Orban who has ruled the EU member since 2010, analysts say.

"It's fresh air, that's why voters, particularly young people supported me, I'm not a typical politician," the 49-year-old provincial mayor and father-of-seven told AFP in an interview in Budapest Monday.

A self-described "traditional conservative" and practising Catholic, Marki-Zay supports LGBTQ rights and says he wants a country where "love will rule", instead of "hate campaigns" that he says Orban wages against minorities like gays and migrants.

In his short political career, Marki-Zay has managed to pull off two stunning feats -- he upset Orban's ruling right-wing party Fidesz in a stronghold city in a mayor's race in 2018, and swept to victory in an opposition primary national run-off Sunday.

Now he has his sights set on Orban at a parliamentary election due in April and is expected to give the self-styled "illiberal" strongman his toughest electoral test since his last defeat in 2006.

Hungary's government-critical media have described Marki-Zay's triumphant emergence from outside the mainstream opposition as a "political earthquake".

Wearing a blue ribbon on his overcoat "to symbolise anti-corruption" Marki-Zay told AFP he "enthusiastically campaigned" for Orban before his first term as premier between 1998 and 2002.

"But at that time he had checks and balances," he said.

Orban's 'Death Star'

Marki-Zay became disillusioned with Orban soon after he and Fidesz returned to power in 2010.

"Orban screwed up. He used his indisputable talent in an evil, not a good way, by building an authoritarian regime -- like the Death Star in Star Wars," he said.

Now Marki-Zay wants to reverse what he calls Orban's "anti-democratic" turn, which has led to constant conflict with Brussels.

"Democracy, rule of law, market economy, European integration -- this is the path where Hungary has to go," he said.

Marki-Zay is counting on the broad-based opposition alliance to bring him victory against Orban
Marki-Zay is counting on the broad-based opposition alliance to bring him victory against Orban ATTILA KISBENEDEK AFP

In an effort to beat a mainly first-past-the post election system devised by Fidesz, a six-party opposition alliance of parties ranging from left to right organised the primary to select a single challenger.

The shock win of the non-aligned Marki-Zay, whose campaign slogan was "Neither right nor left but upward!" also revealed frustration with the established opposition parties as well as Orban, according to analysts.

"I'm a conservative, but all the other parties understood that the goal is common -- to secure change," said the mayor who argued that only he could attract moderate conservatives and uncertain voters also needed to beat Orban.

Marki-Zay discovered that gaining support from across the political spectrum was a winning formula in 2018 when he won the mayor's post in his small home city of Hodmezovasarhely (pronounced Hode-mez-ur-va-shar-hay), a stronghold of Fidesz for decades.

'Inspired' by Obama

A multilingual economist and electrical engineer, Marki-Zay returned to Hungary in 2009 after working in sales and marketing jobs in the US and Canada for five years.

It was an experience that "opened his eyes to different people and cultures" he said, adding that he was "inspired" by former US president Barack Obama.

'If I only say nice things, people won't hear my voice,' he told AFP
'If I only say nice things, people won't hear my voice,' he told AFP ATTILA KISBENEDEK AFP

His fans have reproduced Obama's iconic campaign poster on stickers, adding the Magyar word for hope ("Romeny"), spelled to imitate the Hodmezovasarhely accent.

With only a shoestring budget Marki-Zay, who also said he admires French President Emmanuel Macron, wooed younger voters with appearances on internet television shows and canny use of social media.

Now he says his marketing skills can both shield him from attacks by pro-Orban media - who are already accusing him of being a "puppet" of the left-wing - and counter-attack.

"My message must be more efficient than theirs," he said. "There is always one effective answer to any propaganda lie, one strong sentence that can reach every person in Hungary."

A recent controversial claim that half of Orban's government is gay was designed to ignite debate, he said.

"You have to point this out to defend homosexuals against Orban's hate campaigns as being gay is nothing to be ashamed of, you have to be blunt -- even radical -- to get a message across," he told AFP.

Still, Marki-Zay had to apologise several times during the primary election, including after calling his run-off rival's voters "traitors" for not backing him as "the only candidate who can defeat Orban".

"If I only say nice things, people won't hear my voice," he told AFP.