BUDAPEST, Oct 17 (Reuters) – Small-town mayor Peter Marki-Zay, an outsider with no party affiliation, looked poised on Sunday to defeat leftist Klara Dobrev in an opposition primary run-off to pick a challenger to Hungary’s nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
With half of votes counted, Marki-Zay had 204,873 votes — about 59% — while Democratic Coalition politician Dobrev had 141,938.
A Marki-Zay candidacy could present a tough battle for Orban in next year’s parliamentary election. His family-man image and Christian faith would make it hard to vilify him, and he could also be appealing to large swathes of uncertain voters, both in the countryside and Budapest.
For the first time since he came to power in 2010, Orban will face a united front of opposition parties that also includes the Socialists, liberals and the formerly far-right, now centre-right Jobbik.
Opinion polls show Orban’s ruling Fidesz party and the opposition alliance running neck-and-neck.
“If Marki-Zay comes out as winner and will be the PM candidate of the opposition, then Fidesz will have to seriously rethink their strategy,” said Robert Laszlo, an analyst at think tank Political Capital.
Results were in from 11 of 18 Budapest constituencies and 11 of 19 counties. Marki-Zay, who has portrayed himself as a palatable choice for both left-wing and conservative voters, held a wide lead in Budapest, while Dobrev, a lawyer and economist, had the edge in the countryside.
“The results give reason for extraordinary optimism,” Marki-Zay, a 49-year-old conservative father of seven, told reporters in Budapest.
He said he and Dobrev had agreed ahead of the race that keeping the opposition united was vital for both of them and pledged to work together after the run-off.
COALITION OF ‘THE CLEAN’
Marki-Zay, who has degrees in economics, marketing and engineering, rose to prominence when he won a 2018 mayoral contest in his southern hometown, Hodmezovasarhely, a Fidesz party stronghold.
He has campaigned on leading a coalition of “the clean”, promising to root out corruption and ending 30 years of deep divisions in politics and society.
Both candidates are looking to dismantle what they describe as Orban’s “illiberal state”, including its ideological foundations, Hungary’s constitution and a raft of major laws, which critics say have helped Orban cement his grip on power.
While Orban thrives on conflict and has had a series of disputes with the European Union, both Marki-Zay and Dobrev are looking to improve relations with Brussels. They are also in favour of Hungary adopting the euro in the foreseeable future.
“In general, Dobrev might be better positioned to keep the six diverse opposition parties united, but could also struggle to attract independent and right-leaning voters in the general election,” Andrius Tursa at think-tank Teneo said in a note.
“Meanwhile, Marki-Zay could be better positioned to challenge incumbent Viktor Orban, but his relatively low profile and limited political experience might make it difficult to keep opposition parties united behind his candidacy.” (Reporting by Gergely Szakacs Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise and Frances Kerry)
File Photo Peter Marki-Zay, the mayor of Hodmezovasarhely, speaks at the Hungarian oppositional Momentum movement’s anti-government protest in downtown Budapest, Hungary, 01 May 2018. EPA-EFE/ZOLTAN BALOGH