Well, look who made it onto public TV: Péter Márki-Zay – the sixth week of the campaign in five points
March 21. 2022. – 09:06 AM
As expected, the March 15th celebrations turned into major campaigning events last week. Fidesz-KDNP wanted to show their strength with the Peace March, while the opposition also took to the streets with the leader of the European People's Party and former Polish Prime Minister. The war is still the main topic of the campaign, but this week saw a new subject come to the fore: teacher discontent. In this week's analysis, we'll be taking a look at Péter Márki-Zay's first public TV appearance as well as addressing why we will go yet another campaign cycle without seeing a debate. The campaign in 5 points. Translated by Dominic Spadacene
1. The war remains the main campaign topic
We have already pointed out in our previous analyses that the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian war has ushered in a new campaign – after all, even Hungary's domestic politics are affected by the fighting in a neighboring country and the geopolitical and economic developments that come with it.
Last week was no exception as we continued to observe that the war was the overriding issue: it even managed to set the content and tone of this year's March 15th celebrations. And it was abundantly clear that the two major blocs wanted to embed the war in two different narratives this time as well.
Viktor Orbán defines his politics around the slogan of peace and security: these two words were written on the podium behind which the Prime Minister delivered his National Day speech. Orbán and Fidesz are deliberately playing an angle to make the opposition seem like it's pro-war. The Prime Minister went so far as to explicitly define the stakes of the elections on April 3rd in the following manner: 'the pro-peace right or the pro-war left.' For obvious campaigning reasons, Fidesz politicians continue to bring up Péter Márki-Zay's statements from a few weeks ago in which he expressed the idea that if NATO so decided, he too would send troops and weapons to Ukraine.
The opposition, on the other hand, is trying to push a different narrative, portraying itself as a representative of the West, of Europe, and Fidesz as a fan of the East, of Russia and Putin. On March 15th, opposition speakers also touched on this, and it was further emphasized by their invitation of the right-wing EPP President and former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk. However, Péter Márki-Zay surprisingly did not mention Vladimir Putin in his speech. I analyzed the events of March 15th in greater detail in this article this past week.
It is also worth noting that Fidesz seems to be scrupulously careful about what its politicians say regarding relations between Hungary and Russia. In fact, polls show that the Fidesz camp is divided on this issue: a good part of Fidesz members take a pro-Russian stance, while the other half – such as the "Russkies, go home!"-slogan posting Fidesz MP Zsolt Németh – make statements that are entirely pro-West.
2. A numbers war broke out between the March 15th rallies
Fidesz announced its Peace March well in advance of the event – something that has become a mobilization ritual for the ruling party. As such, the opposition had to decide whether to completely give the streets over to Fidesz that day or to mobilize its own supporters with some other event.
Péter Márki-Zay ultimately called for a mass rally in front of the Budapest University of Technology and Economics. This move was not entirely expected considering the October 23rd event – one that was judged even by opposition leaders to have fallen short of expectations at the time due to its modest turnout.
The opposition could have chosen to hold a rally in the countryside, but in the end instead of a battleground area, it opted for its safer home turf: Budapest. While the Prime Minister was the only speaker at Fidesz's rally, the opposition came prepared with many more political speeches. It is also noteworthy that instead of their joint candidate for head of state, one of their other candidates for head of state, Gábor Iványi, spoke.
Unsurprisingly, a numbers war over turnout broke out during the events and carried on thereafter. Fidesz would like to make its own camp seem like a million people and the opposition's but a few hundred, however, bird's-eye view photos of the events were proof that the opposition managed to fill the university's embankment with supporters just as Fidesz did so with Kossuth Square.
That is, in terms of scale, we can say at a glance that the Peace March's attendence was in the hundreds of thousands, while the opposition's rally was in the tens of thousands.
And what is the significance of this for the elections? The parties make a point of these figures because they can better mobilize their own supporters by demonstrating their greatness in number – likewise, so too can they potentially sway the undecided as well. The election itself, of course, depends on actual votes and much less on whose event is better attended.
We should also make a brief note about just how ineffective the smaller parties were – and are – at striking a chord with voters. Although Our Homeland Movement (Mi Hazánk Mozgalom) held an event on March 15th, during which it railed against NATO, it was clearly unfortunate for the party that the coronavirus no longer has a place on the political agenda and that their campaign against the Covid dictatorship has become ineffective (meaningless) after the complete relaxation of restrictions.
The Two-Tailed Dog Party collected donations for refugees in Ukraine on March 15th, but it hardly has a voice in the campaign. Even the stunt involving the withdrawal of one of their candidates following suspicious nomination-slip collection practices, which cost the party over 300,000 euros in public funding, barely made a blip on the public's radar.
3. Péter Márki-Zay made it onto public television
The pro-government bias of public media is not difficult to detect when you consider the number of times opposition politicians get the chance to appear live on public television. Prime ministerial candidate Péter Márki-Zay recently had his first opportunity to talk about his platform during a live broadcast, and even then, his "five-minute interview" was blessed by the channel's editors with the peculiarity of being both preceded and followed by a rebroadcast of Viktor Orbán's near one-hour March 15th speech.
The public media gives five minutes of campaign time to each of the organizations that put up a list in the election, which is how Márki-Zay got the opportunity to make an appearance last Wednesday. It would be difficult to call it an interview as no questions were even asked. During his allotted time, the opposition candidate for prime minister listed – practically in a single breath – why Fidesz's smear campaign is untrue and what lies he believes the ruling party is attacking him with. György Gődény also made it onto public television this past week, during which he recited Ferenc Kölcsey's poem, "Huszt."
4. The teachers' strike could not be ignored
In defiance of Fidesz's initial attempts to portray the matter as political agitation on part of the opposition, thousands of teachers were set on making their discontent known. They organized an indefinite strike to begin this past Wednesday, at which time educators all over the country stopped working. In solidarity with their teachers, students also held a demonstration in Kossuth Square.
The government initially responded to the discontent of teachers in a dismissive manner: the Ministry of Human Resources reported that, according to their estimates, only 13% of teachers were on strike (which is nevertheless thousands of teachers). State Secretary for Public Education Zoltán Maruzsa described it as a political campaign stunt. The opposition parties of course indicated their support, but (somewhat surprisingly) did not organize a campaign action plan for the teachers' strike.
The teachers' strike continued on Thursday, and Fidesz did an about-face: Speaker László Kövér said at a public forum that he agreed with the teachers' demand for a pay rise and cautiously promised to resolve the situation in the next term. In other words, Fidesz nevertheless feels that this strike could be dangerous for them during the campaign, which is why it is expected that they will try to appease the disgruntled educators.
5. Let's face it, there won't be any Fidesz-opposition debate
We may have gotten used to not seeing any genuine debates between the government and the opposition during the previous election campaigns. With that said, when the opposition was preparing its joint list, it was not entirely out of the question that things could've been different this time around. After all, if there are two large blocs in the running, it also becomes in Fidesz's interest to appeal to as many people as possible – and debates always make a great instrument for this.
The biggest question was whether there would be a debate between the prime ministerial candidates Viktor Orbán and the winner of the opposition's primary election, Péter Márki-Zay. The latter repeatedly called for such a debate, but Fidesz deflected it by saying that it wasn't Márki-Zay but "Ferenc Gyurcsány who's calling the shots," so there is no point to debate him. Recently, Dialogue for Hungary MP Bence Tordai asked the Prime Minister about this, and the answer again alluded to Gyurcsány.
With two weeks to go until the elections, we can safely say that no debate will be taking place at the highest level and that Fidesz politicians won't take part in one at the constituency level either. According to reports, it is Fidesz's ultimate intention not to hold a debate anywhere because it wants to avoid the possibility of any blunders in the remarks of its candidates.
At any rate, it is still a question whether there will end up being a debate in Budapest's 12th district, where Fidesz MP Balázs Fürjes had earlier promised to engage in one with the opposition's Miklós Hajnal. A debate here would be interesting if only because, according to the polls, this looks to be one of the tightest races in the country.