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Peter Márki-Zay is Not a Conservative
In political terms, he's not a Christian, either.
In America, you can sort the general population into five “levels” based on—what else?—their understanding of Hungarian presidential politics:
LEVEL 1: What? Huh? Why?!?
“James, you just were offline for a week because you had covid and now you want to tell me about a presidential election in Yugoslavia?!”
First, no, Hungary is just north of the collection of nations formerly known as Yugoslavia. It was never part of Yugoslavia itself, though it shares a border with modern-day Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia.
Other than that… yes.
LEVEL 2: Wait… That’s the One With the Bad Guy, Right?
“Yes, okay, I kinda remember this one. I read in the New York Times and The Atlantic and Vox that there’s this evil right-wing autocrat over there who’s seized power by rigging elections in his favor. He’s named Orbun… Orbin… or something?”
I mean, yes, that is what’s been reported in the New York Times and The Atlantic and Vox, but it’s bullpucky. The allegations are so paper-thin, so obviously based on hypocrisy about measures which the Times, Atlantic, and Vox openly champion in other contexts, that all I really need to do to blow over that particular paper tiger is link this short satire by Cockburn and move on.
LEVEL 3: Hungary! Our Conservative Template for a Conservative Future!
“Oh, yeah, I saw Viktor Orbán’s interview on Tucker Carlson and then Gladden Pappin had that article over at Public Discourse—”
LEVEL 4: So, uh, What’d Parliament Look Like if We had 2018’s Results on 2010’s Map?
“…I’m just really trying to get my head around exactly how lopsided the Hungarian political environment is right now, which is tricky because I don’t know a single word of Hungarian and always have to copy-paste ‘Orbán’ because I can’t figure out how to type the fancy ‘a’.”
This is me.
LEVEL 5: An American Who Understands Hungarian Politics
“Hello, I am American Chargé d'Affaires Marc Dillard of the American embassy in Budapest and I would love nothing more than to explain Jobbik’s transition from a popular, anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi party to the largest party in the anti-Orbán center-left coalition over the shockingly short period between 2015 and today.”
There may be other Americans who understand Hungarian politics—Hungarian immigrants, for example!—but they do not seem to write a lot of insiderish blogs about it. (If anyone knows an English-language Substack about Hungarian politics from someone who knows her stuff, that’d be an easy follow for me.)
I intend for everyone to understand this article. However, the headline probably only meant anything to you if you’re Level 4.
That Was The Intro. This Is The Article.
Hungary is having an election this year, and I’ve been very confused about it.
Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party are running for re-election. So far, so normal. Hungary has regularly scheduled, free and fair parliamentary elections. Orbán usually wins around half the vote, while his multiparty opposition splits the remaining vote several ways.2 The victory margins are so lopsided, and the opposition coming from so many contradictory directions (some left of Orbán, some right of him) that Fidesz ends up with firm control of Parliament… even before you factor in the benefits of Fidesz’s 2010 gerrymandering and its blatant extension of the franchise to Hungarian expatriates.3
This year, the multiparty opposition finally remembered, “oh, yeah, Duverger’s Law exists, we should probs get onboard with that,” so they buried the hatchet and held a single nationwide primary election to select a single candidate to oppose Orbán and maybe—just maybe—win an election for the first time since George W. Bush’s presidency.
Surprisingly, the opposition ended up picking Péter Márki-Zay, an ex-Carquest salesman who entered politics very recently (he first ran for public office in 2018) and whose sole experience has been serving as mayor of Hódmezővásárhely4 since winning that first race in 2018.
Hódmezővásárhely is a town of 44,000 people. So this is kind of like if the mayor of Edina, Minnesota (pop. 50,000) won the Democratic nomination for President of the United States.5
(The mayor of Edina is James B. Hovland and has been since forever. I used to live in Edina, and I didn’t even remember that. Sorry, Mr. Mayor.)
According to mainstream Western sources, Márki-Zay is a “longtime,” “small-town conservative,” and a “devout Catholic,” a “conservative rightwinger” with a “family-man image”. After the primary, the mainstream Western press reported only two differences between Márki-Zay and Orbán: Márki-Zay’s opposition to corruption, and Márki-Zay’s support for the European Union. Even some of the right-wing English press took these reports at face value.
This led to the strangest thing I’ve ever seen: progressive Western outlets openly cheerleading a self-proclaimed “conservative rightwinger” against an incumbent conservative rightwinger.
What If I Have It All Wrong?
I had always believed that the reason Viktor Orbán drew the ire of the Western press had nothing to do with “democracy in Hungary” or supposed “democratic backsliding.” Again, every trick in his playbook has been proposed, in earnest, by the editorial boards of the Times, the Atlantic, or Vox at some point in the past five years. I believed they just wanted to use these tricks to benefit the Left, and that they were only mad because Orbán had the gall to use them on behalf of the Right. (The same was true of Andrzej Duda in Poland to the north, who has a similarly undeserved reputation as a “democratic backslider” in Acela editorial rooms.)
I had always believed that the reason the “mainstream” Western press hated Orbán and Duda was simply that they have not bent the knee to current progressive dogmas about sexuality and abortion. According to my theory, attempts to delegitimize Duda arose in the West only and exactly when it became apparent that Duda would restrict abortion in Poland. Likewise, my theory was that Orbán was widely accepted as a legitimate leader (because he is one!) right up until he introduced a constitutional provision stating that marriage in Hungary is exclusively between one man and one woman.
But now the Western press was championing another conservative right-winger, Márki-Zay, against Orbán! This led me to something of a crisis of belief. Maybe The Atlantic and The Times really did care this much about corruption and process after all? Maybe I was being unfair to them, and overly generous to Orbán? After all, Orbán is clearly corrupt6—maybe the gerrymandering and media monopolization really was worse than what you see the Left trying every day in the U.S.? Maybe Márki-Zay could nudge Hungary back in the right direction, without overturning all of Fidesz’s good aspects? Maybe he’d turn out to be someone I could quietly cheer for from afar?
You Read The Title. You Know How This Turns Out.
Nah. Márki-Zay—and, more to the point, his Western cheerleaders—are fulla crap. For Western media progressives, it’s all about abolishing the nature of sex and revving up the abortion skull-grinders. Always has been, always will be. They would never (for any reason) support a candidate who wouldn’t advance these goals. They would not do it to oppose an actual autocrat, they would not do it in order to actually save democracy, and they have not done so here.
Gábor Tóka: Márki-Zay indeed has a very consistent self-presentation: he doesn’t stop mentioning that he is a Christian conservative, that he has seven children and is a devout Catholic, and so forth. However, this does not appear to be particularly relevant for his political line. He is certainly not a left-wing politician. I would say that he would be a Never Trump Republican in America.
On economics, he is very pro-market and very pro-business. He is for low taxes and likes the flat tax system introduced by Fidesz. He doesn’t like the downside of that system, which is an extremely high VAT and de facto an extremely digressive taxation of everything else but income. In other words, he is for lower taxes than they are now in Hungary, where the overall tax burden, especially on the less affluent part of the population, is just incredibly high. In almost any comparison, it appears virtually unprecedented how much tax burden is put on less affluent people in Hungary right now. He is certainly against that.
But in terms of social policies, he is not a terribly conservative person, I think, from what we have heard so far. First of all, he doesn’t want to impose a version of Sharia law: he probably is a devout Christian, but that’s a private matter for him. And he really believes in the American ideal of complete separation of church and state and that the Church law shouldn’t dictate secular law. He certainly understands that on issues of marriage, abortion rights and what not his views are probably in a very small minority in the country, and he wouldn’t want to impose those views on the public. He is happy to follow his convictions in his own life and let people live according to the laws that are produced by the democratic process, in which on these issues he is in the minority. He is even in favor of gay marriage legislation, if there is sufficient support for that in the legislature. I wouldn’t say he is genuinely conservative in terms of policies on social matters.
SOURCE for the above, confirmed by this source as well as this one. (Spoiler from the other links: he’s not just going to sit around and wait to see if the legislature wants to redefine marriage. He wants it.)
Let’s translate that lengthy passage from Middle Bugman to English:
Márki-Zay belongs to that peculiar sect of “conservative” Christianity which maintains that abortion is murder but that it would just be too sectarian and mean-spirited to protect the lives of their unborn brothers and sisters.7 This sect also thinks it is very important that young children be exposed to homosexual pornography in schools and propagandized on kid-oriented television programming. Hence Márki-Zay’s opposition to Orbán’s pretty sensible 2021 law banning both those things.8
I don’t know what that sect is called. It sure as Hell9 isn’t Catholicism. It’s unrecognizable as “conservative,” unless we think conservatism means nothing beyond tax cuts and balanced budgets. It certainly isn’t how “Never Trump Republicans” and their sympathizers (hello!) think about the world. Indeed, now that his campaign propaganda laundered to us through “mainstream” English sources has been fleshed out by a few actual facts, Márki-Zay looks a whole lot like an under-50 Joe Biden.
Márki-Zay’s just a progressive running against a conservative. The press wants him to win because they like progressives and dislike conservatives. The Guardian tells me that he has openly vowed to lawlessly overthrow the democratically-passed Hungarian constitution if he takes power—a threat to democracy if ever I’ve heard one. I couldn’t vote for him, and neither should Hungary.
Oh, and it should go without saying at this point, but, just to be clear: believe absolutely nothing you read in the English-language press about anything going on in Hungary unless it is (1) specific, (2) attributed, and (3) independently corroborated. I’ve been looking at this off and on for months, and I’m still not certain the few facts I have assembled are true.
Fidesz got 52% in 2010, 45% in 2014, 49% in 2018. In 2010, the second-place party got 19% (MSZP; the ex-communist party). In 2014, the second-place party got 26% (the new and then defunct Left Unity party). In 2018, the second-place party got 19% (Jobbik, the neo-Nazi-turned-center-left-what-the-heck party). All figures from Wikipedia.
The obvious parallel here is efforts by American Democrats to extend the franchise to non-citizens and/or sixteen-year-olds and/or convicted felons. That is, it’s morally justifiable given certain premises, but, at the same time, obviously politically motivated.
Yes I absolutely copy-pasted that. Whenever I try to pronounce it, it comes out sounding Klingon. How do you get two accent marks above the middle “o”?
That’s not quite fair, because Hungary’s a small country, with only 10 million people total, but the winner of the Hungarian election gets a seat at the U.N. and the power to declare war, so it’s still a pretty remarkable ascent for a small-town mayor.
…although it’s not immediately obvious to me that he’s more corrupt than other world leaders, including Presidents Biden, Trump, and Clinton.
Incidentally, Orbán’s failure to enforce the pro-unborn provisions of his new 2011 Constitution is one of the most obvious ways Orbán has led culture war at the expense of real progress.
with a capital “H”