On Saturday, Péter Márki-Zay was inaugurated as the new mayor of Hódmezővásárhely. In his inaugural speech, Márki-Zay, who ran as an independent, said his vision for the southern Hungarian city is of one of calm, decency, the respect for human dignity, zero tolerance for corruption, and – most of all – a local government accountable to the residents, irrespective of religion, class, or ethnicity.
“I am honored to stand before you here today as the mayor elected by a record-high voter turnout which proved to be the triumph of democracy. It is an honor to represent not only those who voted for me but also those who did not,” he announced.
Márki-Zay was elected mayor after a hotly contested by-election in February. The Fidesz stronghold is represented in parliament by Minister Overseeing the Office of the Prime Minister János Lázár who was mayor of Hódmezővásárhely for ten years (2002-2012), the last two simultaneously as the head of Fidesz’s parliamentary delegation.
Opposition parties threw their support behind Márki-Zay, one of two independent candidates to run against sitting deputy mayor Zoltán Hegedüs (Fidesz-KDNP), putting to the test whether a single candidate backed by all opposition parties is capable of defeating a Fidesz candidate. That said, the stakes were high for both Fidesz and the opposition.
At 62.45 percent, voter turnout at the election far exceeded the turnout in the city’s 2014 mayoral race (36.38 percent). Márki-Zay managed to beat Hegedüs by a significant margin — 57.5 percent to 41.63 percent.
The campaign heavily favored the incumbent deputy. Shortly after announcing his candidacy, the municipality installed cameras on Márki-Zay’s street. His supporters were publicly named and shamed, and even the local Catholic church campaigned against him after Sunday mass.
Realizing what was at stake, Fidesz enlisted the support of the party big guns. Lázár actively campaigned beside Hegedüs, promising all kinds of investments in the city should his candidate win. Minister of Human Resources Zoltán Balog also popped in to help the campaign. Hegedüs was invited to Budapest for a very publicized photo op with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Róbert László, an election expert with Political Capital, a Budapest-based think-tank and consultancy, attributes Márki-Zay’s victory to a significant spike in voter turnout.
“Suddenly, people believe that Fidesz could be defeated,” László said. “There was an independent candidate that the opposition did not find to be repulsive — because there are those in MSZP who would never vote for a Jobbik candidate, and there are Jobbik supporters who would never vote for an MSZP or DK politician. There was no label that could be applied to Márki-Zay. To put it simply, he was able to speak to a critical mass of voters by channeling anti-Fidesz sentiments.”
László said Márki-Zay is man who is known by the community he wants to represent. Also, revelations of the Elios affair (a nationwide corruption scandal involving Orbán’s son-in-law, István Tiborcz, with strong ties to Hódmezővásárhely) had struck a chord with voters.
“It is possible that corruption – and how it affects them – really resonated with many people in Hódmezővásárhely,” László said.
The inauguration speech
On Saturday, when Márki-Zay addressed the packed-house at his inauguration, he delivered a message of inclusiveness, transparency, and solidarity. He was forced to stop his speech several times due to thunderous applause.
He reassured the residents that – despite the negative campaign waged by Fidesz – there are no plans to build mosques in the city, there is no chaos, no White Terror, and no hangings.
“I would like to calm everyone down. The city is working. I’ve been mayor for six days and the city hasn’t collapsed in six days. There was no armageddon,” he said to the enthusiastic crowd.
“To this office, all 44,000 Hódmezővásárhely citizens are equal! This includes the public employment scheme workers and the Roma citizens, too! We work for all of you!” Márki-Zay said to loud approval.
He extended the proverbial olive branch to his former opponent, former deputy mayor and chairman of the city council’s Fidesz-KDNP group Hegedüs, and promised to support the positive goals his opponent outlined during the campaign.
“The most important change in Hódmezővásárhely must be that this city be livable, peaceful, and filled with love. Here, the power of love must rule,” Márki-Zay said.
“From now on, there will be a change regarding transparency in this city.” Public procurement contracts would only be awarded to the best and cheapest bids, and he encouraged individuals and businesses who have encountered corruption or discrimination to turn to the mayor’s office in confidence for help.
“May Hódvásárhely be a corruption-free city!” Márki-Zay said, again to great applause.
“But we can only do this together. I heard many sad stories during this campaign. I was unable to help with the majority of them. It isn’t up to me alone to ensure that the intimidation ends! It is up to all of you, too! What we found in this city is that those who are most afraid are those who are not here with us right now. Those of you present now are not afraid!”
He then addressed the heads of the city’s institutions.
“To the ladies and gentlemen in charge of city institutions, whose appointments are the responsibility of the city council, I offer to you my cooperation. But do not look solely to the city council to continue your work, because the council is only the second power in this city, [the people are in charge],” he said, again to enthusiastic approval, referencing a poem by Sándor Petőfi.
Márki-Zay then addressed the issue of intimidation, and said he will not tolerate people being intimidated into liking the Facebook pages of Hegedüs, Minister Lázár, or Fidesz-KDNP.
“Come to me and I will use the power of the public to remind the person doing the intimidating who it is that they really serve. If we see that they are serving themselves and not the 44,000 residents of this city, if we see that they are trying to intimidate or threaten their employees, then all of us here today will protest. We will all stand up for each other. We will grab each other’s hands and we will not let go!” The crowd again cheered and clapped. “We don’t need a qualified majority in the city council to do this. We have a qualified majority in the city!”
As for what the future held for him, Márki-Zay said: “Naturally, I will continue to be the mayor of this city as long as I enjoy your support. But I must also beg your pardon because I have another side job now. This side job relates to the sad state of affairs around our country. When I see that those parties which I did not trust look at the example of this city and learn from it, and now they want to unite, when I see that there is still negotiating taking place, and that there are still traitors who continue to work for corruption and intimidation, then I have no choice but to do everything in my power to see that things change around this country, things like corruption, things like politics.
“I ask that you all be patient with me. I am an independent but I am a member of the country’s largest virtual party: the party of disillusioned Fidesz supporters, the party of Fidesz supporters who do not steal, the party of Fidesz supporters who do want to allow 20,000 migrants to be settled in our country for money [referring to Fidesz’s controversial residency bond program], the Fidesz supporters who do not have castles, the Fidesz supporters who would not sell our gas pipelines, castles, power plants, banks, lands, or forests. I really do believe that this party would be the biggest party in the country,” he said, again to wild applause.
“This is the party I will represent in the upcoming general election [on April 8]. I will represent you all: the respectable, clean Hungarians — from MSZP to Jobbik. This campaign taught us that everyone – from the Roma citizens to those who consider [Jobbik leader] Vona to be too left-wing – that clean and respectable Hungarian people can unite for democracy, the rule of law, the market economy, and European Christian values. So, I will continue toward this until Hungary is again free, democratic, and governed by the rule of law. Together, you and I will continue to work for this and we will not let go of one another’s hands.”