BUDAPEST, Hungary — In Budapest 1, a parliamentary district at the heart of the Hungarian capital, most voters will not support the party of Viktor Orban, the country’s far-right prime minister, in a general election on April 8.
Yet as things stand, Mr. Orban’s party, Fidesz, will hold on to the seat — and its huge majority in Parliament.
That’s due as much to the relative strength of Mr. Orban’s base as it is to his gerrymandering and his allies’ takeover of most private news outlets.
But it’s also because Hungary’s gaggle of small left-liberal opposition parties, who collectively form a majority in seats like this one, refuse to join forces behind a unity candidate.
This has enraged voters whose frustrations with Mr. Orban outweigh their support for any particular opposition politician.
“It’s just mind-boggling,” said Anna Lengyel, a theater director living in Budapest 1, who does not want her vote to go to waste. The opposition candidates “are standing in front of the mirror and forgetting what the real issue is,” Ms. Lengyel added.
It is a familiar complaint in parliamentary districts, or constituencies, across the country, where a narrow majority of voters want Mr. Orban out of office, but have no single party to rally behind.
According to an analysis by Common Country, a prominent grass-roots group that has led calls for the opposition to team up, a highly coordinated opposition might even scrape together a majority. But a disjointed opposition will most likely again allow Fidesz to win two-thirds of parliamentary seats on less than half the votes.
“People really want to get rid of Fidesz,” said Marton Gulyas, the head of Common Country. “The problem is that there is no one strong opposition party.”
Polling by Common Country suggests that if the half-dozen left-liberal parties ran under one banner in Budapest 1, they would receive around 54 percent of the vote against Fidesz’s 36 percent, even without involving Jobbik, a far-right opposition party. But most of the parties are squabbling about who gets to carry that banner — resulting in a confusing mess.
Another issue is that few on the left want to join forces with Jobbik, whose leader, Gabor Vona, has recently attempted to rebrand it as a more moderate force.
“I don’t know what Jobbik’s real face is,” said Ferenc Gyurcsany, a former prime minister and the leader of the Democratic Coalition, a small center-left party. “The moderate face of Mr. Vona — or his deputy, who said a few months ago that he wanted to shoot Ferenc Gyurcsany in the head?”
A recent mayoral by-election in Hodmezovasarhely, in southern Hungary, showed what could be achieved if all opposition parties, including Jobbik, rallied behind one candidate.
Hodmezovasarhely (pronounced HOD-may-zur-vash-ar-hay) was a Fidesz stronghold, and polls strongly suggested that the party would retain the seat. But after all the opposition parties agreed to stand aside in favor of Peter Marki-Zay, an independent conservative, an unexpectedly high turnout gave Mr. Marki-Zay an unexpectedly strong victory over his Fidesz opponent.
“The moral of the Hodmezovasarhely victory is that if there is one candidate against Fidesz, it’s possible to win,” Mr. Marki-Zay said in a telephone interview. “But if the opposition is split and there’s no hope, people won’t even bother voting.”
Yet in some key battleground seats in urban areas, polling suggests that a united liberal-left opposition may still defeat Fidesz without Jobbik’s support. And one of those is Budapest 1 — an oddly drawn parliamentary district that straddles the Danube and contains many of the city’s most famous landmarks, including the national Parliament.
Mr. Gyurcsany’s party has pulled out of the race, as has Peter Juhasz, the leader of Together, a small liberal party. That leaves Andras Fekete-Gyor, the leader of Momentum, a new centrist party; and Antal Csardi, a senior figure within Politics Can Be Different, another young centrist party. Both men are polling between 7 percent and 10 percent — far behind Marta Szakaly, who represents a pair of socialist parties, and is on 19 percent.
Ms. Szakaly says that she should be the unity candidate, since she clearly has the most support. But Mr. Fekete-Gyor and Mr. Csardi have refused to budge.
That’s partly out of pride. Mr. Fekete-Gyor and Mr. Csardi are leaders within their respective parties, and believe they are too senior to leave the race. It’s also because of money. The more seats in which a party runs, the more state funding it receives.
But it’s mainly a symptom of the same political dynamic that brought Fidesz to power eight years ago. Fidesz won a landslide victory in 2010 because of the perceived incompetence and arrogance of the old left-wing politicians — people like Mr. Gyurcsany and parties like the Socialists. In an attempt to re-energize the left, new parties emerged — like those of Mr. Fekete-Gyor and Mr. Csardi.
And both say they should not concede to the groups that let Fidesz into power in the first place. “The way I see it,” said Mr. Csardi, “these old left-wing parties neither morally or ethically have a place in Parliament.”
But though the opposition’s disunity is a major reason for their recent failures, their main obstacles remain the ones created by Mr. Orban himself. Most contentiously, Fidesz rewrote the map of political districts in 2011. An analysis by Political Capital, a think tank, suggested that left-leaning constituencies now contain an average of 5,000 more voters than right-leaning ones — making it harder for left-wing parties to win.
Andras Patyi, the head of the Hungarian Electoral Commission, insists, “There are no gerrymandered constituencies in Hungary.”
But for the opposition, there are plenty of strangely shaped new districts, and Budapest 1 is one of the best examples. It is one of the few constituencies in a major European city that straddles a major waterway — adding a conservative-leaning district on the western bank of the Danube to a more balanced area on the other side of the wide river.
“It’s very weird,” said Ms. Szakaly. “It could be considered one of the most strangely crafted constituencies in the country.”
In tandem, opposition parties quickly found it far harder to get their message into the news media. State broadcasters almost stopped giving airtime to opposition parties, while Mr. Orban’s allies began buying private media outlets to reduce the opposition’s exposure within the independent sector. All regional newspapers are now under the control of businessmen favorable to Mr. Orban.
“In rural Hungary, if you don’t use the internet, you’re basically living in a governing-party media bubble,” said Andras Biro-Nagy, a politics lecturer at Corvinus University of Budapest.
Nominally independent state auditors also appeared to act in a way that favored Fidesz. In late 2017, they fined five opposition parties for allegedly accepting illegal donations. Fidesz was left untouched — despite being linked to numerous corruption scandals.
Small tweaks to the electoral system also produced large disadvantages for the opposition.
Under the old two-round system, the top two parties in a constituency would face each other in a runoff — allowing smaller opposition parties to run independently in the first round, before rallying around a single candidate in the second. In 2011, Fidesz condensed the process to a single vote, creating the opposition infighting currently on show in constituencies like Budapest 1.
But with 10 days to go, a compromise is still possible, as the candidates themselves admit.
“We will see what will happen,” Mr. Fekete-Gyor said. “I can imagine that some of the candidates might withdraw.”
He added, “Including me.”