BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — A frontrunner in the race for a joint opposition candidate to fight Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in next year’s national election opened his campaigning Friday promising to “liberate” the country from the right-wing populist leader.
Budapest’s liberal mayor, Gergely Karacsony, who is one of five contenders to lead a coalition of main opposition parties, spoke to several hundred supporters who gathered despite early autumn drizzle in the capital.
Karacsony said next spring’s elections would be “a celebration, rather than a mockery, of democracy.”
“Beginning tomorrow, we will liberate Hungary from Viktor Orban’s rule,” he said.
The country’s six opposition parties have resolved to put aside ideological differences and coordinate their candidates after more than a decade of bitter losses to Orban’s Fidesz party, which holds a two-thirds majority in parliament.
Although popular in his country, Orban is frequently accused by critics of autocratic tendencies, and seizing control of Hungary’s media to control political narratives.
After his party swept national elections in 2018, independent election observers found the contest had been free but not fair, and that “intimidating and xenophobic rhetoric, media bias, and opaque campaign financing (had) constricted the space for genuine political debate.”
The opposition’s primary contest, which begins on Saturday and will take place in two rounds, is part of the its electoral strategy of fielding single joint candidates against the Fidesz contender in each electoral district.
That method led to significant gains during municipal elections in 2019, when the coalition flipped the leadership of Budapest and most of Hungary’s larger cities.
Judit Skirba, who attended the campaign event Friday, said she supports Karacsony but would vote for another opposition candidate even if he loses the primary.
“I came because after a long time, I finally see a face which I am glad to look at, someone who is honest and who, it seems, is credible,” she said.
Opposition politicians say their unity strategy is the only way to defeat Orban after his party authored and unilaterally passed a new election law in 2011.
That law transformed the electoral system from a two-round process to a single round majoritarian system, and reduced the number of parliamentary seats by nearly half, something critics say unfairly favors the ruling party: In 2016 elections, Fidesz won a two-thirds parliamentary majority while receiving less than 45% of votes.
Orban has criticized the liberal parties for making common cause with the formerly far-right Jobbik, which has tried to rebrand itself as a conservative people’s party but in the past was known for harboring openly racist and anti-Semitic attitudes.
Yet recent polls show the joint opposition and Orban’s party in a neck-and-neck race, which observers predict will be the closest in recent memory.
“There are very many of us opposition voters who have long been waiting for the opposition parties to not want to defeat each other, but Viktor Orban,” Karacsony said.