Hungary’s opposition leader plans to overhaul the constitution in a referendum after next year’s general election, saying the move was vital to loosen Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s grip on the remaining levers of power.
Peter Marki-Zay said that within 60 days of taking office he would hold a vote on reforms to restore democratic checks and balances, despite fears that this would itself breach the constitution and spark a legal and political crisis.
“We are talking about regime change,” Marki-Zay, who was chosen in a popular primary contest to lead the opposition in April’s poll, told the Financial Times in an interview. “It is not a regular election.”
Marki-Zay, a 49-year-old conservative mayor from a small town in southern Hungary, could lead his six-party alliance to victory against the governing Fidesz, according to recent opinion polls.
But the polls also suggest he could fall short of the two-thirds majority in parliament needed to change rules that have allowed Orban to exert tight control over practically all state institutions.
That would almost certainly trigger an institutional crisis. The office of Janos Ader, Hungary’s president, and the constitutional court are both controlled by Fidesz loyalists and they would be likely to defend the status quo against any challenge.
The government and some independent experts say so-called supermajority rules can only be changed by a two-thirds vote in parliament, not by a referendum as Marki-Zay and other members of the opposition platform propose.
Andras Jakab, a constitutional lawyer at the University of Salzburg and a former director of the legal institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, said Orban was building a deep state but added “breaking legal continuity (was) a dangerous game”.
“There is a risk that this would lead to a full stalemate in the state organisation, and possibly even to violent acts and serious social unrest on the streets . . . the solution proposed by the opposition is misguided.”
Critics in the opposition, EU institutions and some European capitals say Orban has used two-thirds majority laws to limit checks on his power, safeguard his appointments to the public prosecutor’s office, the media regulator and the central bank and entrench ordinary legislation.
They could obstruct a new government and prevent it from prosecuting corruption unless it also has a two-thirds majority in parliament, Marki-Zay and his allies have argued.
“Orban perpetrated a coup,” Marki-Zay said in an interview in his home town of Hodmezovasarhely. “He went against his own constitution. He has already built up a system which grants him exclusive power and which makes him pretty much irreplaceable and invincible.”
Marki-Zay said the opposition’s proposed constitutional changes were legitimate because Orban’s politicisation of public bodies itself breached principles enshrined in the constitution while corruption had also become widespread.
Marki-Zay said he expected the proposed reforms to “come up in discussions” when he meets EU officials and lawmakers in Brussels this week.
Tensions between the EU and Hungary have intensified in recent months over the Fidesz government’s respect for rights and the rule of law. Brussels is withholding approval for €7bn in EU recovery funds for Hungary and is under pressure from MEPs to trigger a new mechanism suspending EU financial transfers to Budapest.
Defeat for Orban, a self-styled champion of illiberal democracy and a friend of Moscow and Beijing, would be celebrated in many European capitals. But if a new government were to trigger a constitutional crisis in Hungary it could leave the EU in an awkward position given its insistence on due process.
However, Marki-Zay said the EU should no longer regard the Hungarian leader as an ally. “It is ridiculous to play by his rules,” he said.
Marki-Zay is a political novice next to Orban, who has served for 16 years as premier. The opposition candidate began his political career in 2017 after decades in the private sector, including stints in the US and Canada. He is fluent in English, French and German.
Marki-Zay pitches himself as a churchgoing family man (he has seven children) and a small-town conservative, with more appeal to most Hungarians outside Budapest than more liberal opposition figures.
He secured the opposition nomination with a shoestring campaign financed by small individual donations. After edging out better-known contenders he also persuaded Budapest mayor Gergely Karacsony, to step down on his behalf, leading to a clear victory over the centre-left’s Klara Dobrev.
A disillusioned former Fidesz voter, Marki-Zay was the first politician to unify the opposition against the governing party, winning a 2018 by-election in his hometown, a Fidesz stronghold. Local corruption turned him against Orban, he said.
Running for national office, he faces a tougher job holding together an opposition coalition that spans greens, socialists and rightwingers. However, he said all six parties were united behind restoring Hungarian democracy, which trumped other policy differences.
“When you are in a quasi dictatorship, liberty is the most important fundamental issue of all,” he said.
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