Broad front for democracy

A fortnight ago we looked at the open primary held in Hungary to select candidates for next year’s parliamentary election. The first round of voting saw Klára Dobrev in the lead with 34.8%, followed by Gergely Karácsony on 27.3% and Péter Márki-Zay 20.4%.

All three were eligible to contest the second round, but there was speculation that either Karácsony or Márki-Zay would withdraw to maximise the chance of beating Dobrev. In the end it was Karácsony who made the sacrifice: he endorsed Márki-Zay, who prevailed comfortably in the runoff on Sunday, winning with 56.7% to Dobrev’s 43.3%. About 662,000 voted, up 28,000 on the already impressive first round total.

Márki-Zay is the least well-known of the three: Dobrev is a member of the European parliament and Karácsony is mayor of Budapest, but Márki-Zay is only mayor of Hódmezővásárhely, a small city in south-east Hungary. The key thing, however, is that while the other two are both broadly on the left, Márki-Zay is a conservative. Now an independent, he started out as a supporter of FIDESz, the party of the man he will try to beat next year: authoritarian prime minister Viktor Orbán.

Orbán has stacked all the cards in his favor. The opposition know that in order to topple him they need to build the broadest possible front, and that means appealing to centre-right voters as well as those on the left. Dobrev, who is married to Hungary’s last centre-left prime minister, was always going to have difficulty on that score; Márki-Zay has the ability to fight on FIDESz’s own territory.

It still won’t be easy; Ian Bassin, writing last month in the conservative anti-Trump publication Bulwark, suggested that “changes to election laws and the constitution likely make it too late.” But Bassin’s reference to Hungary is incidental. His real target is the United States, where he argues that Democrats and pro-democracy Republicans need to come together:

A united opposition is the best way to defeat an autocrat. And a fractured opposition opens the pathway for one to attain power. …

But it’s important to note that this lesson ought to be heeded by the full anti-authoritarian coalition. …

Because while Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger and the seven Republican senators who voted to convict in Donald Trump’s second impeachment have been admirable, they have not yet collectively done the thing that saves democracies from authoritarian takeovers: forming a governing coalition with their traditional opponents, even if only on issues about democracy itself, to block the autocrat’s path to power.

Democracy isn’t just a political issue like any other – its importance is foundational. If democracy falls, other debates become moot. Whatever their differences on other questions, the friends of democracy need to be able to work together on this vital thing.

FIDESz and the Republican Party have travelled the same road, moving from the centre-right to the far right and becoming open enemies of democracy. The Republicans have not yet been able to enjoy Orbán’s success, but not for want of trying. If those within the party who don’t accept the anti-democratic turn are going to have any effect, they will have to form some sort of coalition with the Democrats.

And the Democrats need a corresponding shift in their thinking: whatever their other political differences, they need to accept that some Republicans – and the more the better – can be allies, and make them feel welcome. That’s the shift that the centre and left in Hungary showed themselves able to make. No doubt they will be uncomfortable with some of Márki-Zay’s policy positions, but they know that in present circumstances that is all secondary.

Should the Democrats be thinking of nominating an anti-Trump Republican for president in 2024? That may not be the best answer, but it’s the sort of thing that at least needs to be on the table. The game has changed: Hungarians across the spectrum know that, but most Americans are yet to fully appreciate the threat. Let’s hope they wake up before it’s too late.

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