Inside the opposition’s crushing defeat against Viktor Orbán
Péter Márki-Zay, the mayor of Hódmezővásárhely, spent the evening of 16 October 2021 in a private meeting. He was on the verge of the high point of his political career, as the results of the second round of the opposition primaries were due to be announced the following day. At the time of the meeting on Saturday evening, it was already clear that he would be the winner, and the discussion focused on what he would have to do as opposition’s nominee for prime minister.
The meeting was organised by the former MP Zoltán Kész, an old ally of the mayor, who had previously asked two experienced campaign advisers to draw up a plan for Márki-Zay. One of them was Péter Tóth, who had previously managed Kész’s campaigns and had run several successful campaigns in the 13th district of Budapest (where his father, József Tóth, is mayor) and elsewhere in the country. The other invited advisor was Bálint Ruff, another long-time national political player, who currently works alongside, among others, László Botka, Mayor of Szeged.
The meeting was held in an apartment in Újbuda, an affluent district of Budapest, where Márki-Zay arrived visibly tired. The four men sat down around a table set with a bottle of wine and a bowl of peanuts, and the advisers began to explain what strategy they thought the politician should follow. Tóth and Ruff told him that to succeed, he would have to continue on the path he had set out on during the primary election campaign. Márki-Zay, who did not belong to any of the major opposition parties, started the campaign as an underdog but then his anti-establishment messages turned out to be very attractive to a big part of the opposition supporters, including young people, who were dissatisfied not only with the Viktor Orbán’s government but with the political system in general.
The advisers warned Márki-Zay not to engage in backroom deals with opposition party leaders, because they thought that he would be crushed. They also told him that they believed he had about a week to take control of the opposition coalition as its political leader, and that he would fail if he did not.
They suggested that he use the mandate given to him by his primary election victory to convene the leaders of the six opposition parties as early as Monday and publicly present them with a list of conditions, such as who are the politicians who are considered to be political liabilities and who should not be given a leading role in the campaign. The advisers argued that the primary election result gives Márki-Zay so much legitimacy that he can make virtually any political demand to party leaders, and they will be forced to accept it.
The two experts also advised Márki-Zay to try to maintain the momentum gained in the primary campaign. They suggested, for example, that he should hold a big party in Budapest in the next few days, inviting the thousands of activists who were involved in the primaries. This could also be a preparation for 23 October, a national holiday, which is typically a major show of force for political actors in election years (the governing party, for example, was already known to be preparing to organise its own demonstration called Peace March).
Kész organised the meeting partly with the aim of persuading Márki-Zay to entrust the management of his campaign to the two advisers. Tóth said that he would do the work for free, but on condition that the opposition’s united party list does not include people who have entered parliament since 2010 not by winning individual constituencies but by being sent there by their parties (in Hungary, members of parliament can get their seat either through winning individual mandates or as delegated by their own parties). These included prominent figures from opposition parties, such as former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány or Zsolt Molnár, a leading politician of the Socialist Party. According to Tóth, these politicians clearly lacked substantial voter support and were not capable of breaking down the supermajority held by Fidesz in the parliament.
Márki-Zay, however, did not accept the advice of campaign experts. True to his reputation of being extremely confident in his own abilities and knowledge, he said that he would run his campaign with the help of his wife, because as a corporate manager he is used to being the person who making the decisions. Márki-Zay conveyed this message in an arrogant tone. “Who are you? You know nothing,” the politician said, according to one of the participants. “I’ve been in politics for a long time, but I’ve never heard a person speak the way Márki-Zay spoke,” the source said.
Márki-Zay confirmed to Direkt36 that he had such a conversation with the advisers. He said that he had indeed made it clear to them at the time that he did not want to cooperate with them in any way because he felt they were trying to impose themselves too much on his campaign. He added that he indeed spoke to them in a blunt way, because it’s typical of him anyway to say immediately if he disagrees with something. “I’m not being polite,” he noted.
Márki-Zay won the primary election by a large margin, but he did not accept essentially any of the proposals of the advisors. While during the primaries he had been campaigning with the message of the renewal of the opposition, after his victory he sat down to negotiate with the parties to have a faction for himself in the new parliament. Almost overnight, the primary momentum came to a halt: on 23 October, for example, the joint opposition rally was much smaller than the Fidesz Peace March.
Of course, it is impossible to know to what extent the election would have been different if Márki-Zay had listened to the advisers. The end result – another two-third majority for Fidesz and a significant reduction in the voter base of the opposition parties in the coalition compared to 2018 – showed, however, that the campaign after the primaries was a clear failure for the opposition.
Direkt36 has spent the weeks after the election on April 3 investigating what went on behind the scenes in the opposition campaign. We spoke to more than thirty people who were active participants or close observers. Most of them requested anonymity, claiming that this would allow them to speak more freely about the inner workings of the campaign.
The picture that emerges is one that makes it unsurprising that the opposition suffered a resounding electoral defeat. Although they stood little chance against Fidesz’s vast resources and propaganda machine, their success was hampered by their own internal divisions, rivalries and mistrust between key players, and the shortcomings of Márki-Zay and other leaders.
The following chapters tell the behind-the-scenes story of this failed campaign.
I. UNEASY ALLIANCE
By the time Péter Márki-Zay arrived to headquarters of the Socialist Part (MSZP) at around 10am on October 20, leaders of the six opposition parties had just finished discussing the technicalities of wrapping up the opposition primaries. This was a so-called party chairmen’s meeting, where Hungary’s opposition, which has struggled to pull together during twelve years of Orbán’s rule, usually discuss internal matters at the highest level. At the party chairmen’s meetings, the six parties are usually represented by two or three people each, the party chairman or co-chairmen, plus one senior politician. This was the first time Márki-Zay attended such a meeting as joint candidate for prime minister.
Márki-Zay was seated next to the host, MSZP co-chair Bertalan Tóth. The mayor of Hódmezővásárhely was surrounded by politicians who got to know each other well through countless sharp debates, forging and breaking alliances. But none of them really knew what to expect from Márki-Zay, whom most of them considered an underdog throughout the primaries. Many of the participants in the meeting, held three days after the primaries, expected the new candidate for prime minister to outline the messages, structure and key people he envisaged for the opposition’s joint campaign.
Party leaders were surprised that Márki-Zay did not lay out any concrete plans or present names. Instead, according to party sources familiar with the meeting, he gave a long, disjointed speech that intended to be inspirational but was lacking substance. “He had no idea what to do with the situation. He had no political or structural proposals,” said one source, adding that Márki-Zay seemed to have not worked out a scenario what to do next. For example, he could not tell who his campaign manager would be.
It’s true that Márki-Zay was greeted with an atmosphere of mistrust at the meeting. A politician from Democratic Coalition (DK), run by former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, said they expected Márki-Zay to try to make peace with the parties after winning a bitter second round of the primaries. For example, that he would make gestures such as telling them what important role he’s offering to which of their politicians. But that has not happened. Participants recall that Jobbik chairman Péter Jakab then rebuked Márki-Zay in a hostile tone for his harsher statements during the primaries. And Ferenc Gyurcsány warned that if Márki-Zay continued to openly criticize the parties, their activists would not put their hearts into their work, which could ruin the campaign eventually.
The atmosphere of this closed-door meeting was in stark contrast to the public perception that the Hungarian opposition was enjoying its most successful period in a long time. More than 600,000 people turned out to vote in both rounds of the primaries, and news of the contest could even overshadow government propaganda for weeks.
The success of the primaries was also attested to by an internal Fidesz polling, which one leading opposition politician learned about through his contacts close to the government. “There was confusion and anxiety in Fidesz,” the opposition politician said, referring to his own Fidesz acquaintances, about the poll conducted in October 2021 for internal use by one of the leading pro-government pollsters, Kód Ltd. This research showed the opposition with a clear lead for the first time since 2014.
More than half a year earlier, in the spring of 2021, it looked as if the primaries would have no real stakes, and the opposition parties’ background deals would decide the outcome. At the initiative of Budapest mayor Gergely Karácsony, some of the parties then started discussions on how to counterbalance the strength of DK in the upcoming primaries. Gábor Szabó, Jobbik’s electoral committee chairman and former party director, provided the venue for part of these secret talks, where, besides Jobbik, representatives of the MSZP, Dialogue (Párbeszéd or P, the party behind Karácsony), and Momentum, a young liberal party, participated.
“We are here to ensure that (DK politician and wife of Ferenc Gyurcsány) Klára Dobrev is not the candidate (for prime minister),” Szabó openly said at one of the meetings, and another of his remarks later became a catchphrase among party leaders: “DK’s seats should be subject to population control.” (Szabó has now told Direkt36 that these sentences were uttered in such a way that, as the host, he was only summarizing the unanimous opinions expressed at the meeting.)
The other parties were led by the fear that DK, as the largest and most organized opposition party, would overwhelm them in the primaries if they did not join forces. Therefore, a bargaining process started in these secret negotiations on the allocation of individual constituencies, which many compared to market place haggling. They were mainly about who would drop out in favor of the other in the various constituencies. The issue of the race for candidate for prime minister was also on the table. Karácsony and his team expected, on the basis of the negotiations, that Jakab and András Fekete-Győr, who was then leading Momentum, would support the mayor against Dobrev in the second round of the primaries. At the time, almost everyone was sure that Karácsony would be the eventual winner, but in the end nothing went according to plan.
Negotiations stalled, one of the reasons being that Jobbik considered the MSZP, which played a leading role in the negotiations, to be patronizing and unreliable. But an even more important factor was that DK had got wind of what was going on and took steps to prevent an alliance forming against them. “Five against one. (…) It was clear that we would be defeated in the primaries. So we had to torpedo the Jobbik-MSZP agreement,” a senior DK politician recalled. A few days before the planned signing of the Jobbik-MSZP-P deal, the party led by Ferenc Gyurcsány reached an agreement with Jobbik on how to divide the constituencies between them in just a few hours.
According to an opposition party leader, Karácsony gave the name “Ferenc Gyurcsány and his folk ensemble” to the DK-Jobbik alliance, which was considered completely unthinkable even a few years ago, given the different ideology (DK is a leftwing party while Jobbik started as a far-right organization). They were joined in this alliance by LMP, the green party, as a third partner, which the other parties wanted to leave out of the secret negotiations. LMP had also made deals with DK on certain individual constituencies (and months later Ferenc Gyurcsány also promised LMP leader Peter Ungár that if LMP did not have enough MPs to form a parliamentary group, DK would somehow supplement them).
At that time of these negotiations, nobody took Péter Márki-Zay’s ambitions very seriously. He had the closest relationship with Jobbik in the past, dating back to 2018, when he campaigned for mayor of Hódmezővásárhely, and Gábor Szabó, the then Jobbik party director, played a major role in his victory. However, when Jobbik chairman Péter Jakab and Márki-Zay discussed the possibility of the mayor of Hódmezővásárhely being Jobbik’s candidate for prime minister, the two politicians did not find any common ground. According to sources familiar with their meeting in December 2020, the conversation went so badly that further cooperation became impossible. Jakab considered Márki-Zay too uncompromising, while the latter frowned on the eventual rapprochement between Jobbik and DK.
Klára Dobrev was the first to officially announce her candidacy for prime minister on 2 May 2021, and at the time even her party did not really believe she had a chance of winning. According to a senior DK politician, last May they thought Karácsony and even Jakab were stronger than Dobrev. But as the largest opposition party they could not afford not to have their own candidate. By the end of August, however, Gyurcsány and his party’ leadership, having seen Karácsony’s campaign flounder, saw Dobrev as having a real chance of winning. “But then we suddenly noticed that MZP was starting to take off,” a senior DK politician said, using the common nickname of Márki-Zay. The source added that this conclusion was mainly based on Márki-Zay’s active campaigning on the streets and popularity at the campaign booths.
The result of the first round of the primary election, which took place between 18-28 September 2021, was not so much a surprise because of Dobrev’s victory, but because of Márki-Zay’s third place. According to the rules of the two-round primary race, this meant that he, along with Dobrev and Karácsony, advanced to the second round. However, Jakab and Fekete-Győr did not rally behind the mayor, which was met with disappointment by Karácsony. “When I finally decided to run in the primaries, it contributed significantly to my decision that the chairmen of Jobbik and Momentum parties both said that if they didn’t make it to the second round, they would support me,” Karácsony told Direkt36. (Jakab and Fekete-Győr contest that they had made such a promise.)
While his poor result in the first round made it clear that Karácsony had miscalculated, enthusiasm around Márki-Zay was growing. Yet Karácsony still tried to persuade Márki-Zay to drop out, and one of his main arguments was that as mayor of Budapest he had a much larger and better organized campaign staff at his disposal.
“When we tried to persuade each other back and forth to drop out, I argued that it would be a big problem for him that he didn’t have his own staff, he didn’t have a campaign team that the other parties could link to, and that this would cause months of paralysis,” Karácsony recalled. He also added: “I told Peter that I think the most important thing is not the candidate’s identity, but that we can rev up the campaign machinery.”
However, Márki-Zay was not moved by the mayor’s arguments. After Karácsony finally withdrew and stood behind the mayor of Hódmezővásárhely, Márki-Zay won the second round with a 57-43% victory over Klára Dobrev.
The victory was overshadowed by the increasingly harsh things said between the two remaining candidates and the people behind them. After the election victory, it soon became clear to Márki-Zay that he would not have an easy time with the party leaders.
He tried to arrange face-to-face meetings with the leaders of all six parties, but Jakab, for example, refused to sit down with him. When Márki-Zay went to the MPs office building on the Tuesday after the primaries, he was welcomed in Jakab’s office, but only Enikő Molnár, chief of staff, and Gábor Szabó, electoral committee chairman and former party director, were present. Márki-Zay recalls that he tried to reassure Jobbik that him organizing a conservative political movement was not directed against them. Szabó, on the other hand, said he was left with the impression that Márki-Zay was arrogant and aggressive with them “in a triumphant mood” and that it was a meeting that had “left a bad taste”.
Márki-Zay was able to meet Gyurcsány in person, and according to several participants, the meeting was held in a peaceful atmosphere. They met at DK’s headquarters, and it was a pleasant surprise for the party that the mayor of Hódmezővásárhely, contrary to earlier rumors, did not ask that Gyurcsány not be included in the opposition party list at all, but only that he not be placed at the top of the list. This was acceptable to DK, and Gyurcsány had no problem with Márki-Zay asking him not to campaign. “Feri said that it was OK, he didn’t plan to campaign much anyway, and that he only had one interview scheduled until the end of the year on the Straight Talk TV show,” a participant of the meeting said.
Márki-Zay, however, had a proposal that has already sparked serious opposition from several parties. After the primaries, he said he would like to have a parliamentary group after the elections. This would have meant the creation of a seventh group on the already fragmented opposition side. Several parties opposed this, saying that the primaries were a contest between existing parties and that there were no talks about creating a new formation. Jobbik was particularly nervous about the idea, seeing Márki-Zay’s political build-up as a threat to the party, which also claims to be conservative and has a rural base.
This explains why the meeting between Márki-Zay and the party leaders on October 20 was so tense. And it was no surprise that the first major opposition rally after the primaries, the joint celebration on October 23, was a failure. According to one of the politicians involved in the organization of the event, the exact venue and date were only decided in the last days, and the activists involved in the primaries only received the invitations by email at that time. While their original idea was to fill Andrassy Avenue, one of the main streets in Budapest, with hundreds of thousands of people, press reports suggest that only around five thousand people turned up.
As a senior politician of one of the parties put it, “This was the first big flop.”
II. THE BOSS
On the last weekend of October 2021, Momentum had a team-building event in Villány, one of the most famous Hungarian wine regions, for their candidates and the party’s leadership. Péter Márki-Zay was also invited to the meeting, primarily so that the joint prime minister candidate could get to know the party’s community better. “We were the first to back him [in the second round of the primaries], so we felt he had a very close relationship with us at the time” the politician said.
But the meeting had another purpose: Momentum was trying to talk Márki-Zay out of hiring the campaign manager he chose. Márki-Zay approached Péter Zaránd, who previously led Róbert Puzsér’s unsuccessful 2019 municipal election campaign, to lead his campaign but this raised alarm in Momentum. Zaránd was a founding member and campaign manager of the party, but due to conflicts with some members of the leadership he left the party in 2018.
At the meeting in Villány, Momentum leaders reminded Márki-Zay that they had a bad experience with Zaránd, and they pointed out that he had not led a single winning election campaign before. But the prime minister candidate remained adamant. According to one of the Momentum politicians present, Miklós Hajnal, Márki-Zay tried to take the edge of his decision off by saying that on a lot of issues he would make decisions anyway, not Zaránd. “He referred to himself as if he was the CEO of a company and he was looking for a whacker, a project manager for this company,” Hajnal recalled.
After Márki-Zay stuck with Zaránd, it fell to him to build the central campaign staff of the opposition coalition. He had to put together a team to coordinate the opposition’s election campaign, from online content production to leafleting and event organization. The team was also tasked with developing common communication messages that were then given to the parties to share on their platforms. Separate teams were formed for each area, such as communication, social media, and opinion polls.
As this had to be set up virtually from scratch, it took several weeks just to put the team together. The opposition parties most critical of Márki-Zay – DK and Jobbik – did not send people to the central office in Hold Street in downtown Budapest, so most of the staff came from Momentum, Karácsony’s entourage, MSZP, and Zaránd also brought in professionals from the private sector. For example, Gergő Marosi, who left an advertising agency to work on the campaign and had already been involved in Momentum’s campaigns, was appointed creative director. And the communications director was András Simon, a news presenter from the television channel ATV who initially offered Márki-Zay only external help, but then the candidate convinced him to join the staff officially.
Two campaign professionals who are already veterans in the opposition field also became members of the team. One of them was Zoltán Gál J., who held senior positions in the pre-2010 Socialist governments and has been working as Gergely Karácsony’s strategic adviser since 2018. The other was Viktor Szigetvári, who also started his career as a political consultant while the Socialists were in power and now joined the campaign through his social media company named Datadat. One of the owners of the company is former Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai, with whom Márki-Zay also spoke several times during the campaign (the candidate said that one of their meetings was during the primary elections at a resort near Baja, a town by the river Danube, where Bajnai arrived in a boat and wore swimming trunks).
Zaránd worked closely with these professionals – Simon, Gál and Szigetvári – and they essentially formed the core of the campaign’s leadership team. At the same time, however, Márki-Zay retained a circle of people who had been with him for years, helping him to build his political base, first in Hódmezővásárhely and then at national level. They were typically from his Everyone’s Hungary Movement (MMM).
These people had worked hard in Márki-Zay’s primary election campaign, and now had reservations about the staff that Zaránd had built up. One member of the campaign staff said that the MMM members felt that “they were the victors, they had done a winning campaign, and now suddenly the losers want to tell them what to do.” The conflict between MMM and the rest of the campaign staff seemed to be reflected in the layout of the campaign office: the right side of the fourth floor of the large, two-storey building was occupied by MMM and the left side by the campaign staff.
Among the marginalized MMM figures was marketing communications expert Ákos Gurzó, who was one of Márki-Zay’s closest colleagues during the primary election campaign. He was the mastermind behind the blue ribbon, which had never been missing from the politician’s jacket, and the slogan “Only upwards”, which was used in one of Márki-Zay’s earlier speeches. However, he received no formal leading position in the prime minister candidate campaign staff, and even disappeared for a while, returning to Florida, where he lives, for several weeks at the end of the year.
Zaránd’s team did not have an easy time with the parties either. For example, the central campaign team could not maintain direct contact with the parties’ individual constituency candidates. Although Zaránd asked the parties to delegate people to the campaign team to help communicate with the candidates, the parties refused to do so. Instead, a system was set up whereby decisions taken centrally were passed on to the candidates at a further level, through the parties’ own coordinators.
Meanwhile, the campaign staff had to take all their own decisions through the so-called campaign council, made up of party delegates, which held meetings almost daily. It was through this body that the parties kept Zaránd’s staff under control. Its members were the operational leaders of the parties, such as Gábor Szabó of Jobbik, called Szaszi, or László Sebián-Petrovszki of DK, known as Sebi. The campaign staff needed their approval on all the essentials, which made their work difficult.
However, it was not only the parties that gave Zaránd’s team a headache, but also Márki-Zay. It was typical of him to want to decide on almost everything, even the smallest campaign issues. According to one of his old acquaintances, Márki-Zay, who used to work for big companies, was proud to say that he wanted to be both president and CEO in the campaign, that is, he wanted to decide not only on strategic issues but also on day-to-day operations.
This attitude was reflected, for example, in the campaign design. Zaránd tried to develop the designs for the visual appearance of posters and other materials by first putting them out on a tender among the parties, and then subjecting the best of them to focus group analyses. From there, the best designs were presented to the highest decision-making forum, the party leaders.
The issue was discussed at the party leaders’ meeting on the 3rd of December and Márki-Zay, according to several participants, thrashed the plans prepared by Zaránd’s team, saying that “you cannot win elections with a dark background and inverted letters.” According to several participants, he even talked about how many degrees the arrow on the final design should be tilted upwards. The politicians present exchanged stunned glances. DK’s Ágnes Vadai finally blurted out, “I can’t believe we’re dealing with this.”
The extent of the internal conflict and mistrust between campaign managers is illustrated by the story of the campaign newspapers. The plan was to publish a newspaper in three rounds during the campaign, tailored to the 106 individual candidates and distributed around the country. However, when Márki-Zay saw the first issue he was unsatisfied with it. He said the paper looked like a multi-page leaflet and he was afraid that people would immediately throw it in the garbage bin. He said that a traditional-looking newspaper should be produced in a tabloid style and mentioned the pro-government Ripost as an example to follow.
The first issue went out as Zaránd’s team produced it, but in the production of the next two Márki-Zay got involved personally. He himself told Direkt36 that he had checked the articles “letter by letter” and was also involved in the visual design of the newspaper.
Some members of the campaign staff and party representatives, however, disagreed with Márki-Zay’s ideas about the newspaper. They thought that in Budapest and larger cities it would not be effective to distribute the tabloid style paper. The newspapers had already been prepared and the second issue was about to be printed, so the staff resorted to a tricky solution. Both versions of the paper were produced, but Márki-Zay was told that only the tabloid format would be published. They made sure that whenever the candidate made a visit somewhere, only his version was on the counters, and they also ensured that those close to Márki-Zay at MMM did not find out about the two versions.
“Sometimes Ákos Gurzó was in the campaign meeting, and you weren’t allowed to talk about newspapers there, lest someone slip up and say that there was another newspaper.” – explained a campaign staff source, adding: “It was pathetic, really.”
While such internal conflicts made the opposition campaign more difficult and slowed it down, Fidesz campaigned with all their might, using all the resources at their disposal. But it was not only within the campaign organization that there were problems on the opposition side. Relations at party leadership level were also strained.
III. PARTY LINES
On January 3rd, the six opposition party chairmen gathered in the Budapest office of the Socialist Party with the intention of discussing the mounting challenges. They were yet to decide about Márki-Zay’s requested seventh parliamentary faction, which also prevented progress on the composition of the joint opposition party list. On top of that, their relationship with Márki-Zay had also worsened. The prime ministerial candidate was not invited to the meeting but was preliminarily informed about the fact that it was taking place.
At the meeting, the issues were raised by Budapest mayor Gergely Karácsony who started by saying that things were going in the wrong direction and “the parties were in a spiral of political distrust.” Ferenc Gyurcsány reacted angrily according to sources: “Fuck it Gergő, you brought this man upon us, this is your responsibility.” Gyurcsány was referring to the mayor’s withdrawal from the primaries which enabled Márki-Zay’s victory. Even though others also joined the debate, the discussion took place primarily between Gyurcsány and Karácsony. “Feri spilled it all out,” one participant said about Gyurcsány formulating harshly his opinion about the recent developments.
Other party presidents also felt that cooperation with Márki-Zay was becoming more and more impossible. The prime ministerial candidate criticized the opposition parties in several of his public statements and regularly expressed his opinion that some opposition members were traitors helping Fidesz interests.
Márki-Zay’s anger was prompted by a leak of an internal opinion poll intended for the campaign team, the results of which were first reported by independent Hungarian online news outlet 444.hu. The research was uncomfortable for the opposition and in particular Márki-Zay as it showed a significant lead for Fidesz, contrary to most of the other public polls at that time. The results showed that support for the governing party stood at 46 percent compared to the opposition’s 32 percent.
Nevertheless, the leaked survey was not a traditional party preference poll. At that time, the campaign team was working on the campaign strategy which required surveys. This one contained only raw, unweighted data not suitable for making any conclusions regarding party preferences for the whole population. “It’s like Audi taking a photo of a car which does not yet have wheels, and this photo is published by the press with the interpretation that Audi was trying to beat Mercedes with cars without wheels,” Dániel Róna, the person in charge of the survey told Direkt36.
Márki-Zay reacted fiercely to the data leak. The following day he stated that “opposition people working in the interest of Fidesz” might have been behind the leak with the intention to hurt the opposition. He repeated this accusation a few days later when he checked in online from his hospital bed where he was checked in with a broken arm. He even told Radio Free Europe that “There are tools for those who want the opposition to fail in the interest of Fidesz.” Responding to a question, he said it was not impossible that party leaders would later try to replace him with another candidate.
The details of how the leak happened never came to light. According to Márki-Zay the material reached the press through Momentum but the party’s politicians said that putting Márki-Zay in an uncomfortable position with the leak did not make sense since they had been among the first ones to openly support him. According to a source with knowledge about the campaign there was no single person responsible for leaking the material, it just circulated from person to person while “at one point it was shared with someone outside the campaign team.”
Nevertheless, Márki-Zay’s trust in Róna broke, and the analyst was dismissed from the team at the end of last year. Following the incident, the public opinion working group was the first one to get a locked room in the campaign center.
At the same time, parties had a hard time with overcoming Márki-Zay’s accusations against the united opposition. At the end of December, Jobbik party president Péter Jakab told him firmly at a party chairmen meeting to stop calling people traitors. According to a participant Jakab argued that Márki-Zay’s statements were “demoralizing” and could repel some of the voters.
The Jobbik president did not hide his feelings from the public either and pushed back publicly in various other matters too. “Death does not choose based on party sympathy and neither does stupidity,” he said for instance in reaction to Márki-Zay’s words that Fidesz did not gain new voters since 2018 since COVID-19 ravaged mostly among the older voter base of the governing party.
Gyurcsány refrained from publicly criticizing the joint candidate. He was sticking to his promise that he would stay in the background during the campaign, as repeatedly requested by Márki-Zay at their December 11 meeting in the campaign center. However, according to several DK politicians, by December some inside the opposition inquired from Gyurcsány about how to deal with “Márki-Zay’s amok running.” Gyurcsány raised the issue in a Signal group named “Presidents” which included party chairmen as well as Márki-Zay. According to one DK politician, Gyurcsány wrote in the group that “the captain should be so kind as to lead and not to revile those whom he is leading.”
Gyurcsány finally lost his temper when he attacked Karácsony at the January 3 party chairmen meeting. It was not only Márki-Zay he criticized Karácsony for, but he also blamed Karácsony for requesting too many winning seats on the joint party list for his party. “You have some very talented politicians but as a party you don’t exist,” Gyurcsány said according to one participant, and argued that Dialogue should not get any winning seat on the list because the party would likely be able to form a parliamentary faction thanks to the seats won in individual constituencies. The debate at the office of the Socialist Party, called by one participant as “tension release,” continued the following day.
The group met again on January 5, this time in the office of DK. This was where the parties decided that they would reject Márki-Zay’s demand of a seventh parliamentary faction. Since the party presidents were concerned that Márki-Zay would not take the decision lightly and could even withdraw from the nomination, they also discussed how the decision should be communicated to him. “It was so risky,” one participant said. In the end, they agreed that as “senior party leader” it should be Gyurcsány who informs Márki-Zay.
On the same afternoon, the party leaders met with the prime ministerial candidate in the Radisson Blu Hotel opposite to the DK’s office in Budapest. Here, Gyurcsány presented their decision and said that in return for dropping the seventh faction they would give Márki-Zay and his team more control over the campaign. The discussion proceeded in a cordial way for a while, but a conflict emerged when Márki-Zay asked not to communicate clearly about the seventh faction. He said parties would humiliate him if they openly rejected his publicly made requests. Since the parties were firm on this, Márki-Zay stood up and left the room along with his staff. According to one participant, Jakab angrily shouted after him: “Is this how government meetings will look like, you standing up and leaving?”
Inside the opposition, “there was serious fear that Márki-Zay would announce his withdrawal on that day,” one participant said. Despite all their negative feelings towards the candidate, the opposition still thought that his departure would cause a turmoil which would decrease their chances even more. In the end, Márki-Zay did not withdraw. He communicated that he dropped his demand for a seventh faction in order to preserve the unity of opposition.
In addition to the issue of the seventh faction, progress had been made in another important matter on the same day. Between the two party chairman meetings Márki-Zay publicly showed up jointly with leading opposition politicians, demonstrating opposition unity. At a central square in Budapest, they held a joint press conference to revive the opposition-initiated referendum and the related signature drive, which kicked in rather slowly at the beginning of the year.
Since last fall the opposition had been planning an initiative that would have brought them back to the streets. According to opposition sources one idea from November was to collect signatures “in the interest of a fair election.” However, this was dropped at one of the party chairmen meetings with the reasoning that it was easier to reach out to people with a social issue. Since the Supreme Court approved two out of five referendum questions submitted by mayor Karácsony in December, these topics came in handy. One referendum question concerned the extension of unemployment benefits and the other the controversial construction of the Chinese Fudan university in Budapest.
The parties disagreed over whether it made sense to collect signatures during the Christmas holiday season, and in the end they agreed that they would start the collection drive in earnest in January. This work was facilitated by the joint press conference of the party leaders. The required 200 thousand signatures (separately for each referendum initiative) were gathered soon after, on January 20.
“This was a success. This was a good period,” one member of the campaign said about the initiative. Several opposition politicians highlighted that the signature collection was a good team building effort that created “a normal campaign-like operation.” Following the difficulties of the first months, it felt like even the campaign team found its place in the complicated network of relations between the parties and the prime ministerial candidate.
Soon after the joint opposition party list was also finalized. This was the result of a lengthy process, partly because of the lack of an agreed methodology about how to compose the list of multiple parties. From results of the primaries to the results of various opinion surveys, parties threw in several arguments in favor of themselves. The aim of the months-long negotiations was to fill the first 45 winning places on the list. After a while, compromises started to emerge, first between the Democratic Coalition, Jobbik, and LMP, and later also with Momentum. “The Socialists and Dialogue found themselves in a corner,” one participant said about leaving the negotiations with the two parties for the end. Since the deadline for submitting the list was February 26, parties were still focusing on its finalization at the dawn of the outbreak of the war in Ukraine.
The campaign of the opposition became somewhat more professional in the first months of the year and the joint list was finally ready. However, Russia’s invasion of the neighboring country created challenges that the parties were unable to cope with.
IV. THE WAR
On the evening of 13th of February, Péter Márki-Zay was the guest of the live interview show ‘Partizán 60’. The broadcast started a little after 18:00, but Márki-Zay was still in Hódmezővásárhely that afternoon, so the plan was for him to arrive at least an hour before the start of the broadcast, and members of the campaign staff would prepare him for the interview there. This was considered important by the staff because, although the Russian-Ukrainian war had not yet broken out, the situation was already very tense, and it was expected that the subject would come up in the interview.
However, this preparation did not take place in the end. Márki-Zay was driven to Budapest by a vlogger from Hódmezővásárhely, the host of the Youtube channel “A Józan Paraszt Beszól!”, who interviewed him in a car on the way. As the vlogger later explained in a video, Márki-Zay was “very, very tired” because he hardly sleeps at night and had to stop to rest during the interview, so the candidate arrived at the studio only after a long delay, shortly before the start of the interview with Partizán. Two senior members of the campaign staff, András Simon and Péter Zaránd, waited for him on the spot to discuss any questions that might arise during the interview, but there was no time to do so.
In the first half of the interview, the topic was the manifesto of the united opposition, which had not been presented yet at that time, but some of its details were already known. After half an hour, however, the subject of war came up, and the presenter Márton Gulyás asked Márki-Zay whether, as prime minister, he would be prepared to provide military assistance to Ukraine if the conflict broke out. The politician first emphasized Hungary’s membership of NATO and the EU and its cooperation with these organisations, but when the reporter asked him again, he said yes, he would provide military assistance if NATO does that as well.
Although there were opposition politicians who called for military assistance even more explicitly, it was this interview with Márki-Zay on which the government later built the message that the opposition would take Hungary to war.
Although Russia’s aggression against Ukraine briefly paralyzed even Fidesz’s communications, they found their voice after a brief period of hesitation. On the opposition side, however, the war highlighted internal confusion even more. As the circumstances of the Partizán interview showed, while the campaign staff tried to control events, Márki-Zay and his inner circle often made decisions on their own and did not listen to others.
By this time, there was no unity among the party leaders either that would have allowed them to develop a common communication policy. The six parties were more concerned with other details of their own campaigns. The campaign staff led by Peter Zaránd tried to develop a communication strategy based on their own convictions and their own data. Although they were aware that a war situation always favors the party in power, they saw that the majority of people saw Vladimir Putin as the aggressor in the current situation and saw an opportunity to point to the close partnership between Viktor Orbán and the Russian president. In addition, the country’s role as an EU and NATO ally and its support for Ukraine became an important part of their messaging.
Some politicians in the parties did not agree with this approach. They believed that most people were not interested in Putin in the context of the war, and that what was needed were social messages about how to protect them from the negative economic effects of the war on their daily lives. This was the view of MSZP co-chair Ágnes Kunhalmi, who repeated in several communication meetings that the issue should not be about Putin, but about people’s livelihoods, because “people already know that Orbán’s best friend is Putin, but not yet what our programme is”. Kunhalmi added in these meetings that if the message is not changed, “it will be a failure”.
While the opposition was debating the proper communication handling of the war, Fidesz’s propaganda machine was pushing the message with elemental force that the opposition was on the side of war, while the government was the guarantee for peace. The opposition had far fewer resources to convey their own message, so it was not easy for them to respond. However, there were also signs that they did not always take the situation seriously enough.
Such was the case when, on 25th of February, just days after the outbreak of war in Ukraine, the campaign staff invited one of the country’s most respected foreign policy experts to their campaign office on Hold Street. As agreed, he was going to have a video call with Márki-Zay, where the expert would brief the candidate on the situation, the events of the war so far and the developments ahead.
However, the meeting, which was attended by some of the parties’ security experts as well, was delayed because Márki-Zay did not join the meeting at the agreed time. He finally turned up after a long delay through video from a car. Instead of listening to the expert’s opinion, the candidate took over and shared his own assessment of the situation with the participants. The participants could not respond, because Márki-Zay said that he had no more time to talk. He said that his car had arrived at a petrol station and that he had to go to the toilet. Then, to the astonishment of the security experts, he left the call.
As the election approached, another episode showed even more the chaotic handling of the war situation. On Sunday evening, 27th of March, a car was speeding along on the M7 motorway from Budapest towards Lake Balaton. In the car were three key members of the central campaign staff, Zoltán Gál J., Gergő Marosi and András Simon, who had learned just an hour or two earlier that they had a big task ahead of them that evening, as Márki-Zay was about to contact Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Earlier, the campaign staff had also considered organizing and conducting meeting with Zelensky after, but they wanted to do it after careful preparations, as professionally as possible, so when they received the news that the candidate’s inner circle, mainly consisting of MMM members, had organized the video call behind their backs, their first reaction was one of fear. The second was to join in and try to make the best of the situation.
On the way to Siófok, a town by Balaton, the three people in the car were almost constantly on the phone, talking to foreign policy and security experts, preparing a communication plan so that by the time they got there, they would have a document in their hands, containing what the candidate should and should not say. When they arrived in Siófok, they found Márki-Zay in a cramped room in the office of Anita Potocskáné Kőrösi, the right-wing MP who won the opposition primary in the local constituency. This was where the video call was set up, with an EU flag, a Ukrainian flag and a Hungarian flag in the background.
The candidate was nervous and seemed to think it was less of a good idea to contact him now. He feared that the ruling party might use this against him In the campaign. In contrast to the Partizan interview, here was time to talk through the freshly put together communications material. The staff decided on the strategy that Márki-Zay would tell Zelensky in the call that he would not send Hungarian soldiers to Ukraine either. They concluded that this video-evidence could be a powerful weapon to counter Fidesz’s narrative, while the fact of the meeting reinforced the partnership approach to the Ukrainians, which was also seen as a good campaign message.
At the appointed time of the call, Márki-Zay’s colleagues tried to call the number, but the Ukrainian side did not answer after repeated attempts. A little later, when they could be reached, Zelensky’s aides told them that there was a heavy rocket attack in Kiev and that the call could not be made because the staff had to go to the shelter. An hour and a half later the attack was still going on, so the call could not be made at all.
This was perhaps not so much regretted by the campaign staff, but by now the campaign was already showing signs of falling apart. It was telling that the electoral manifesto, which may not be of much interest to most voters but is an essential part of any campaign, was also very difficult to put together. The official presentation of the manifesto was held on 9 March, after repeated delays, but even the start date for this event could not be met. The event started more than an hour late instead of the planned 2 p.m., according to two sources, because Márki-Zay was still working on his speech at the last minute.
The six opposition parties had already agreed a ready-made manifesto as early as October last year. However, after winning the primary Márki-Zay reopened the debate and, for example, brought a list of around 60 points to a party chairmen meeting in December – including issues such as the introduction of a plastic bottle deposit – and put it to a vote. These new points were then the subject of further internal debates in the opposition’s various technical working groups, followed by further discussions between the parties.
After a while, an opposition politician working on the manifesto noticed that some of the corrections in the text were made by Márki-Zay’s wife Felícia. Márki-Zay told Direkt36 that part of the reason for this was that when he came home late at night, his wife used to read to him in bed about the tasks that were waiting for him. The manifesto also came up in these late-night conversations, and Márki-Zay’s suggestions were then typed into the text by his wife on her computer. However, Márki-Zay added that his wife had also included her own suggestions in the women’s section of the manifesto. He added that his wife had been approached by “a feminist circle” and the Momentum women’s team on the issue, and that was how she got involved in the writing of the manifesto.
By the time the manifesto was published at the beginning of March, many in the opposition alliance were already sensing trouble. Márki-Zay’s popularity was falling, people were not listening to the robo-calls with his voice, and opposition activists and politicians were regularly asked at public events whether Hungarian soldiers would really be taken to the Ukrainian front and whether it was true that they would impose forced conscription.
The parties, too, had tried to distance themselves as much as possible from Márki-Zay. There were some districts where opposition candidates said they did not want to be on the same poster as the joint prime ministerial candidate because it would jeopardize their victory. According to one source, this left tens of thousands of leaflets and newspapers in the warehouse in several places, which were not distributed in the districts concerned.
The activists’ experiences in street forums were confirmed by internal polls taken at the time. At the end of February, the polling firm of Tibor Závecz and the Republikon Institute carried out surveys in the swing districts on behalf of the central campaign staff, the results of which were received by the parties around 15 March. These showed that Fidesz had a significant lead in most of the swing districts. These results fuelled disappointment and some disbelief in the parties. “We didn’t want to believe that Zoltán Varga was being beaten by [Fidesz MP Lajos] Kósa in Debrecen by 15 percent,” said one opposition source.
In the meantime, information leaking from Fidesz’s campaign also pointed to the huge government advantage. Fidesz’s own internal polls showed such a high margin of victory that they not only gave rise to confidence, but also to some confusion within the ruling party’s inner circles. Indeed, some polls showed that the opposition, led by Péter Márki-Zay, could not count on the votes not only of undecided voters but also of a part of the opposition camp.
“Do you know how much trouble you are in?” – a pro-government pollster asked one of the opposition politicians when they bumped into each other in a TV studio in the final weeks of the campaign.
Despite all this, there were many on the campaign staff who hoped for a victory, or at least a narrow defeat, until the last day. In several precincts, activists were still knocking on doors and making phone calls at 4 p.m. on April 3, the election day, if turnout figures showed they needed to. However, the enthusiasm was no longer there on election night when the results were expected at the Ice Rink of Városliget, one of Budapest’s biggest parks. So much so that there were several parties whose leadership did not attend the event, and more and more of those present left when the first results came in.
As the processing grew, the building became increasingly sparse and the area open to the press was completely emptied. Finally, the governing party won a two-thirds majority, and while Viktor Orbán, with Fidesz leaders behind him, announced what he thought was a victory visible from the Moon, on the opposition side, the leaders of the six parties and the joint candidate did not stand together in front of their supporters. Márki-Zay marched with his family to the stage set up in the dry basin of the Városliget’s lake and gave his speech in their company, and then the two party leaders present, Anna Donáth of Momentum and Gergely Karácsony of Dialogue, spoke to the audience.
The lack of a united stand became a symbol of the complete disintegration of opposition unity in the press. The next day, on 4 April, the last platform where the joint candidate for prime minister and the leaders of the opposition parties were present together disintegrated too. On 4 April, Márki-Zay received a notification in the Signal group called “Presidents” that “Ferenc Gyurcsány has removed you from this group.”
Cover photo by Péter Somogyi (szarvas) / Telex