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Anna Porter is a journalist, publisher and author whose books include The Ghosts of Europe: Journeys through Central Europe’s Troubled Past and Uncertain Future.

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Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban waves as he is applauded after giving a speech marking Hungary's Revolution and Independence Day on March 15, in front of the parliament building of Budapest.ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images

I have been following Hungarian politics for about three decades – partly because I was born there, but also because the country’s struggles to adopt democracy have been so spectacularly challenging.

During the past 12 years, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, an icon of the illiberal right, including Fox News’ Tucker Carlson and Russian President Vladimir Putin, has run a tightly controlled regime for which elections are a mere formality. But there is a chance for real change on April 3, when the next general elections will be held.

But why should anyone other than Hungarians care? The answer is simple: Because the country is a member of the European Union and this is the first time there has been a serious challenge to an autocratic regime that has consistently defied EU rules.

Mr. Orban has proudly asserted that he runs an “illiberal democracy.” He has eliminated the free press, changed the constitution to give his party multiple majorities, ensured that the judiciary is a servant of the state and rewarded his friends with long-term positions on government pay or with substantial contracts that made millionaires of them. He has been combative toward the EU and dismissive of Brussels bureaucrats, while cheerfully accepting their largesse, much of which he spent in ways no one seems able to figure out. Mr. Orban has also pursued an agenda that is anti-Muslim, anti-LGBTQ and antithetical to the so-called liberal West.

Against all odds, the leader of the opposition to Mr. Orban, Peter Marki-Zay, has managed to get the support of six parties who formed an alliance – “United for Hungary” – against Mr. Orban’s Fidesz party in the coming general elections. It couldn’t have been easy, since the six includes both the far-right Jobbik and the not-much-missed socialists.

Mr. Marki-Zay is a 49-year old, deeply conservative, Catholic father of seven, who speaks fluent English, German and French, and has a doctorate in economic history. He is currently the mayor of Hodmezovasarhely, a midsize city of about 46,000 inhabitants, and has dual Hungarian-Canadian citizenship. He and his wife, Felicia Vincze, spent about three-and-a-half years in Canada. He worked in sales; she, a physicist, was studying to be a midwife.

Mr. Marki-Zay argues that Mr. Orban is not a conservative, contrary to his posturing. Rather, he frames Mr. Orban (who has been both a Communist and a liberal during the course of his political career) as a populist who will do anything to cling to power.

Should he win, Mr. Marki-Zay would bring Hungary closer to the EU, including joining the EU’s public prosecutor’s office; introduce a new constitution; adopt the euro; and attack the kind of corruption that has made millionaires of Mr. Orban’s cronies. He would re-establish good relations with the U.S., which have been lost since the election of President Joe Biden. (Mr. Orban had been a fan of Donald Trump.) Mr. Marki-Zay has also promised affordable housing, raises in teachers’ salaries and increases in health care spending. These initiatives would be financed by EU funds – currently held up because of Hungary’s non-compliance with the union’s democratic standards – that would start flow to again under his leadership.

“I want my seven children to live and prosper here, rather than emigrate in search of a better life elsewhere,” he said in a rare Hungarian television interview – rare, because the media is under Mr. Orban’s control and for the opposition candidate to have even five minutes of air-time is an unusual gift.

For example, both Mr. Orban and Mr. Marki-Zay gave speeches on March 15, Hungary’s National Day of commemoration of the 1848 War of Independence from the Habsburg empire – a war that ended in defeat partly because of Russia’s military support for the Habsburgs. Mr. Orban’s speech was broadcast multiple times in 24 hours on Hungarian television; Mr. Marki-Zay got five minutes to talk about his platform.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the appearance of more than 300,000 refugees at Hungary’s border has posed a tough public-relations problem for Mr. Orban, a Putin fan. Yet he has managed it by “talking about the Russian aggression as if it were some natural disaster and avoiding all mentions of Vladimir Putin,” wrote one Hungarian commentator. But with Ukraine in ruins, refugees flooding in and the elections approaching, Mr. Orban has even changed his position on Ukraine’s proposed expedited membership in the EU and finally decided to allow arms shipments for Ukraine across Hungary.

Last November, historian and journalist Timothy Garton Ash wrote that there was “a sporting chance of an opposition victory.” However, a sporting chance would mean a fair and free election, which is unlikely, since Mr. Orban will use the state’s resources to keep his party in power.

Government-funded billboards have already appeared in all the cities. As with previous successful campaigns, they are attack-ads, tying Mr. Marki-Zay to the socialists and accusing him of moving the country backward. There is little obvious resistance to this narrative. Successive purges and promotions have, in 12 years, shaped many people, including the bureaucracy, to become compliant with the ruling party’s interests.

For Mr. Marki-Zay, his biggest problem will be keeping the support of the six very different parties who elected him leader long enough to fulfill his promises to the people. If Mr. Orban’s party were to lose this election, it would prove that the people here can still make their voices heard.

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