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This is an audio transcript of the Rachman Review podcast episode: Is the Orban era coming to an end?

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Gideon Rachman
Hello and welcome to the Rachman Review. I’m Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator of the Financial Times. In this week’s edition, we’re looking at one of the most important elections in Europe, possibly the world, this year. That’s the vote that will take place in Hungary on April the 3rd. It’s a poll that will determine the political future of the country’s controversial prime minister, Viktor Orban, who’s become a global champion of what he calls illiberal democracy. After the retirement of Angela Merkel, Orban’s now the longest-serving prime minister in the EU. He’s been in office since 2010. But in April’s election, he faces a real challenge from an opposition coalition led by a small town mayor called Peter Marki-Zay. And Mr Marki-Zay is my guest this week. So, is Viktor Orban’s grip on power really under threat? For a leader of a small country, Viktor Orban’s developed a large international profile. He’s been publicly praised several times by Donald Trump. In fact, he’s become a hero for the pro-Trump right in the US. Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host, recently broadcast his show from the Hungarian capital Budapest. And he opened the programme with a paean of praise to Viktor Orban.

Tucker Carlson
Good evening and welcome to Tucker Carlson Tonight. Of the nearly 200 different countries on the face of the earth, precisely one of them has an elected leader who publicly identifies as a western-style conservative. His name is Viktor Orban. He’s the prime minister of Hungary. Hungary is a small country in the middle of central Europe. It has no navy. It has no nuclear weapons. Its GDP is smaller than New York state. So you wouldn’t think leaders in Washington would pay a lot of attention to Hungary, but they do, obsessively.

Gideon Rachman
This week, Orban’s been in Moscow. His five-hour meeting with Vladimir Putin coming at the height of the Ukraine crisis has raised a certain amount of suspicion. But in the part of the meeting that was released to the media, Orban was at pains to present himself as an emissary of peace.

Viktor Orban
(Speaking in foreign language with overlapping English translation) Because my visit is partly a peacekeeping mission, I want to assure you that not a single leader of European Union countries wants a war.

Gideon Rachman
In Moscow Orban presented himself as somebody speaking for the EU. But the truth is that the Hungarian leader’s clashed bitterly with the European Commission in Brussels, which accused the Orban government of eroding democracy and the rule of law and started a process under which EU funds could be withheld from the Hungarian government. The European anti-fraud agency Olaf has also complained about serious irregularities in the awarding of contracts to a company run by Orban’s son-in-law. Just this week, Hungary was ranked as the second most corrupt country inside the 27-member EU by Transparency International, an NGO. Given all these, many European liberals will be deeply relieved if Orban loses power. So when I met Peter Marki-Zay during a recent trip he made to London, I asked the Hungarian opposition leader what he thinks his chances of victory are.

Peter Marki-Zay
Normally, I would say 40 per cent. The main reason is that some London analysts stated this figure and, the day after the primary election. So I just use this figure as a short answer.

Gideon Rachman
So you’re not saying to the world, the era of Viktor Orban is about to come to a close. On the contrary, you still think he’s the favourite?

Peter Marki-Zay
Yeah, you know, his elaborate power scheme and this system of not only government but elections and the gerrymandering, media advertising, judiciary, you know, it’s such a perfect building. So to say that he built this to be undefeatable. And it is a sign of Hungarians’ wonderful resilience that even after 12 years of Orban’s brainwashing attempts and the propaganda machines’ extremely powerful operation, there’s still a standing chance that we can defeat Orban.

Gideon Rachman
Do you think, though, in the conventional terms, that this will be a free and fair election?

Peter Marki-Zay
None at all, no, I don’t believe that.

Gideon Rachman
Why not?

Peter Marki-Zay
Well, because of everything that mentioned. You know, Orban built up this whole system. He built a new electoral law, only approved by Fidesz. Even with 30 per cent of the votes, he can win a district if the opposition is divided, and his opposition was the extreme right national radical. Your big and leftist parties divided themselves. So he rightly expected that he could rule the country forever because they would never unite. You know, my victory was the first four years ago. It was a by-election. There, it was shortly before the national elections and hence parties didn’t want to have their own candidates because then they would have proven in a Fidesz stronghold how weak they are. So they rather supported me as an independent candidate. I have only to convince the socialists and Jobbik locally, and even that one was very difficult. And then we proved to the world that Jobbik and socialists and all the other parties, they can support an independent former Fidesz voter, a conservative, a Catholic, and that can be successful against Fidesz. And it took me another few years before this happened on the national level. I believe now strategically, we are well positioned. Orban, for the first time in 12 years, doesn’t have a single narrative that can assure his victory.

Gideon Rachman
Do you have equal access to the media?

Peter Marki-Zay
No, not at all. Just imagine this huge process of the opposition primaries, where 850,000 Hungarians participated. In the two rounds altogether, more than 1.3mn votes were cast. About this whole process, the state media did not report at all. Zero. Nothing. So last election cycle 2014 to 18, the entire opposition party got only five minutes live airtime on state television, five minutes in four years for an entire opposition party. And I have not been allowed to go into the public television, not once since I became the opposition’s joint candidate. And you would think that it’s a very important position, and the people would be curious about my position on important issues. But state media doesn’t allow me.

Gideon Rachman
So how, given that system, how are you getting your message across?

Peter Marki-Zay
Social media is an opportunity, but even social media is mostly influenced by Fidesz, of course, because they outspent us 10 to one on social media advertising. You cannot watch a YouTube video in Hungary without being interrupted every three minutes in their propaganda segments. So it’s an extremely powerful propaganda machine that you’re against right now in Hungary and social media. For example, under my posts on Facebook, which is the primary tool in Hungary — most Hungarians are present on Facebook — under my posts, you would see 90 per cent of the comments now posted by Fidesz. They use real and false IDs to attack, criticise or just, you know, spread rumours and smear campaigns, et cetera. It’s just, you know, all the resources that they have and they are not reluctant to use. You know, they try to influence even social media. Everywhere else, you know, they are by far the winner, if you want. So all regional newspapers are owned by Fidesz. All FM radios in the country are controlled by Fidesz. Maybe there are one or two exceptions, but even those are not built to the opposition; they are independent. But the last opposition FM radio was taken off its frequency last February 2021: Klubradio. And even that one could only be received in Budapest at the time. And even the one opposition television ATV is owned by somebody very loyal to Fidesz. So, you know, they control everything.

Gideon Rachman
So given all that, it’s kind of a miracle that you think you’ve got a 40 per cent chance.

Peter Marki-Zay
I agree. We have to be very smart. We have to use all of our resources. We have to have a great job and add to this the diversity in the opposition. We still believe, according to our measures actually, that we have a 53 per cent support in the society. The biggest question, do these 53 per cent stand together, participate, will turn out or not? Fidesz is trying to dissuade them from going to the polls and dissuade them from voting for the only sensible option, the joint opposition. Fidesz launches pseudo parties, of course, and pseudo candidates in each district and on a national level. You know, they have a Nazi department, as I jokingly say, Mi Hazánk, which is clearly an extremist, far-right party, clearly supported by Fidesz. They now repositioned the party to be anti-vaccination. So Fidesz understood that given the circumstances, you know, now during the Covid crisis, many people don’t support Fidesz because they are anti-vaccination. Fidesz, as a government party, you know, they cannot be solely responsible to be against vaccinations. So they outsourced this task.

Gideon Rachman
With the hope that it’ll draw votes away from you?

Peter Marki-Zay
From us and, oh it will definitely take some votes from Fidesz, but at least they don’t want these votes to go to the opposition so they outsource this issue to a party, it’s subsidised with a lot of money, apparently, and you know, they are really strong on this anti-vaccination issue. But they do that all the time so they always, you know, try to use these pseudo parties to divide opposition votes. So really, it’s about turnout and being in unity. And if turnout will be high and we will be in unity, then we can defeat Orban. If his efforts of dissuading people from doing so will be successful, then he gets another four years, but hopefully not with a two-thirds majority.

Gideon Rachman
Now you’ve mentioned that your biggest chance of victory is that you brought most of the opposition parties together in this single coalition, but that must be quite uncomfortable. I mean, your coalition includes Jobbik, doesn’t it? Which last time I was in Hungary was a far-right party widely regarded as to the right of Orban accused of everything from anti-Semitism to fascism, et cetera. How do you justify being in a coalition with them?

Peter Marki-Zay
Well, you see Jobbik is not the far-right party it used to be. It used to maintain closer ties with Russia, with Putin. It used to burn European flag. It used to make very active, anti-Semitic and racist remarks also on the Roma community. So, of course, this is their past, no doubt. And many people had to leave Jobbik because of these former remarks. Even recently during the primaries, whenever it turned out, and it was not necessarily to our surprise, that some Jobbik candidates did have such remarks in the past, they had to quit the race. So yes, this has been an issue in Hungary and Jobbik has changed, and Jobbik is working in coordinance with the others. And Jobbik, you know, makes a very decisive change compared to their past, is a good thing in itself.

Gideon Rachman
And I mean, we dealt with Jobbik, who are just part of your coalition, but obviously you’re the figurehead. So if you were to describe yourself to, you know, an audience in London or outside Hungary, who are not familiar with your politics, where would you position yourself on the political spectrum?

Peter Marki-Zay
I’m a socially conservative, economically liberal, centre-right politician. I am a Catholic father of seven. I’m an economist by trade. I worked in the private sector for multinational companies, French companies and of course, American company while living in North America. I lived in North America, and I very much prefer and support a free-market economy. I believe in municipalities, in subsidiarity, in decentralisation, civil society. You know, I’m that kind of a believer, which is rare in Hungary, because even Jobbik is not like that. Jobbik declares itself rightwing but only culturally, socially conservative . . . 

Gideon Rachman
So some of what you say . . . 

Peter Marki-Zay
Not economically.

Gideon Rachman
Some of what you say might make one think that, at least in previous years, you would have been sympathetic to bits of what Orban stands for.

Peter Marki-Zay
Oh I was a big follower of Orban myself. I voted for Orban in 2010 for the last time, hesitantly or reluctantly at the time, but I was an enthusiastic supporter of his government after his first tenure in 2002. So no doubt that, you know, I have always been the conservative, way before Orban became a conservative, and I’ve been a devout Christian, even before Orban declared himself to be one.

Gideon Rachman
When did you become disillusioned with Orban?

Peter Marki-Zay
They said that they would stop corruption. Instead, corruption is bigger than ever. Orban’s son-in-law, he became the 30th richest Hungarian with 30bn HUF in wealth, and that was years ago. Now he’s definitely richer. Orban’s son-in-law now also owns a bank, of course, servicing many state clients, by the way, and you could go on and on. In our city there is a public lighting project made by Orban’s son-in-law, and it was a case reported by Olaf, the anti-fraud agency of the European Union, as a case of corruption. Unfortunately, Hungarian authorities did not start a prosecution. Normally, you have different categories why a court case stops: in lack of proof or crime, lack of crime, lack of proof. Well, this was stopped in lack of investigation. I’m pretty sure it is the most corrupt nation in Europe, and Orban is the most corrupt of all of our rulers in the last 1,000 years.

Gideon Rachman
Do you find that message resonating with ordinary Hungarians?

Peter Marki-Zay
It does. Although I talk to many people, as a mayor as well, but as a politician, I go visit many places in the country. Most Hungarians believe that all politicians are corrupt, and hence, although they are outraged by the corruption of Fidesz, but they don’t see a clear alternative . . . 

Gideon Rachman
Because indeed, the socialists who came before him will be recorded saying we’ve stolen . . . 

Peter Marki-Zay
Yeah, they believe that the socialists were no different, and this is the problem.

Gideon Rachman
How do you understand the celebrity of Orban internationally? I mean, he’s now the longest-serving leader in the EU, but Trump seems to love him.

Peter Marki-Zay
Yes, it doesn’t make him (laughter) a credible figure. Clearly, I guess you need a better judge, potentially. Yes, he’s a celebrity, because he realised the political potential from the migration crisis for the first time. He really is a very talented politician, a ruthless and shameless and opportunistic, populist leader. But he found the ideal subject for himself, and this made him very popular across Europe. But he also found a weak point of the European Union. The European Union was not addressing migration, not just the crisis in 2015, but the issue itself. Europe had a weak point, and then came Putin bombarding Red Cross convoys in Syria. But you know, the war in Syria and the huge influx of migrants at the borders of Europe, and Europe had no solution. Orban found a solution, a very populist solution.

Gideon Rachman
You don’t take if I can say that the ultra liberal position and say, what he did was totally outrageous.

Peter Marki-Zay
No, Orban had a very sensible solution by building a fence. Actually, Europe should have done that. So it’s not, for me building a fence is not outrageous in itself, at all. You know, every state must protect its territory against terrorists, for example.

Gideon Rachman
So your quarrel with Orban is not on migration, but it is on corruption as you see it and also on what he’s doing to Hungarian democracy. What would you do if you win? What would be the first few things you would do?

Peter Marki-Zay
The first thing would be to join the European Public Prosecutor’s Office, setting up an anti-corruption agency in Hungary, prosecute crime, prosecute corruption to end that state of no consequences, which characterised Hungary for the last 30 years. So that would be the most important for me. There’s a few other symbolic gestures, like opening up the communist agents’ files, not because there are so many agents alive who were in the communist period, but so that nobody can be blackmailed with his communist past. Raising wages for police, nurses and teachers because there’s such a shortage in these fields. You know, the system is at the brink of collapse so there’s huge issues that we need to address right away.

Gideon Rachman
We’re talking obviously at the moment of a big crisis in Europe over Ukraine. How do you see Orban’s relationship with Putin?

Peter Marki-Zay
Concerning, and the communist China as well. You know, I stand by Ukraine and I would, I prefer that the western community is defending Ukraine’s independence and integrity. And Putin’s aggression should not be tolerated because it will not stop. You know how people like Putin behave, if they are allowed to go one step, he will want to make another one.

Gideon Rachman
But as this crisis develops, do you think Orban will act as a kind of informal almost spokesman for Putin within the EU?

Peter Marki-Zay
Well, yes and no. Yes, Orban seems to be a very devout fan of Putin or at least an agent of Putin inside the European Union. But there’s one thing that Putin really wanted and Orban didn’t do is vetoing sanctions against Russia. So you cannot say that he’s such a servant for Putin that he would do anything, no. But he did shut down gas supply to Ukraine when it was Putin’s request. Of course, we have to assume. And in many cases, he’s vetoing sanctions against or even just declarations against China in the protection of the vigorous or ethnic and religious minorities or Hong Kong. Of course, Orban is also a big friend of Israel. Myself, I also support Israel, no doubt. Israel does have the right to exist, et cetera. But Israel is relying also on Orban to defend him inside the European Union. Putin is also relying on Orban to defend its interests inside the EU.

Gideon Rachman
You’re in a very tight election. As we pointed out, Orban and Trump admire each other. We saw what Trump did when he lost. He didn’t accept the result of the election. Are you concerned that even if you win, the result of the election might not be on it?

Peter Marki-Zay
You assume that this might happen because this did happen in 2002. Well, not officially, but in every other way, Orban instigated the conviction in his own followers that it was not a fair election and it was not right that they lost the election and it was possibly due to some kind of a fraud. So he already did that in 2002. Why would he be different in 2022?

Gideon Rachman
How would that play out?

Peter Marki-Zay
I do not want to speculate on such things. I only have a question in response to that. Does it mean that we shouldn’t change regimes just because we fear that something might happen afterwards? So no, we are right now fighting Orban, fighting this regime. We have a standing chance, not larger than 50 per cent. But we do have a chance, a larger than ever chance of defeating Orban in the last five years. So my concern is how can we win the election? How can we defeat the propaganda machine?

Gideon Rachman
That was Peter Marki-Zay ending this edition of the Rachman Review. Thanks for joining me, and I hope you’ll be able to listen again next week.

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