The challenger to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s stranglehold on power has vowed to shake up Budapest’s close ties with Beijing if he wins next year’s election.
Peter Marki-Zay, a unity candidate picked from a coalition of opposition parties, said he would “revisit and review everything” – from infrastructure loans from Chinese policy banks and a planned Chinese university campus in Budapest, to the use and potential manufacture of Chinese vaccines in Hungary.
He also pledged to “definitely” stop using a Hungarian veto at the European Union to block Brussels’ efforts to censure China.
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Budapest was the only one of 27 EU member states to withhold support for punitive measures in response to Beijing imposing a national security law on Hong Kong, and its reform of the city’s electoral system.
“I believe that Hungary shouldn’t be blocking any human rights or other violation issues. And my stance is more aligned to the European standards than Mr Orban’s,” Marki-Zay told the South China Morning Post in Brussels on Thursday.
The conservative mayor of the small city of Hodmezovasarhely, Marki-Zay is currently leading Orban’s Fidesz Party by a single point in the national polls, after a surprise primary victory over a string of left-wing and establishment opposition figures.
Observers believe that he represents the best chance of ousting Orban – who has held office since 2010, having previously been prime minister between 1998 and 2002 – for a decade.
“Everything must be revisited and reviewed and all corruption must be identified. The Budapest to Belgrade railway and the vaccine procurement must be revisited and must be checked thoroughly by open and independent authorities,” Marki-Zay said.
He accused the Orban government of “corruption” in negotiating what he said were “overpriced” Chinese loans for the modernisation of the Budapest to Belgrade railway line, construction of which began last month.
The US$2.1 billion project, announced to much fanfare as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, will be mostly funded in Chinese loans, with the Hungarian government footing 15 per cent of the cost.
“Hungary has not been dealing with [China] on an equal basis. Investments are not serving Hungarian national interests. It is contrary to Hungary’s national interests to build a railway line from Belgrade to Budapest using Chinese loans above market interest rates,” he said.
The line will “bypass Hungarian population centres and is only in Chinese interests, eventually the taxpayers will have to repay it”, he said.
Hungary under Orban’s self-styled “illiberal” rule has become an important ally of Beijing’s within the European Union, becoming the first EU nation to vaccinate its citizens with Sinopharm, a Chinese-made Covid-19 shot, in May.
However, a plan to build a campus of Shanghai’s Fudan University in Budapest brought an estimated 10,000 people to the streets in June in protest. A local mayor made headlines after renaming streets in the capital “Dalai Lama Street” and “Uygur Martyrs’ Road”, also in protest.
“I appreciate not only the economic power of China, but also their achievements … But Hungary’s interest is not ousting the best university in Hungary [Central European University] which was absolutely free for Hungarian taxpayers, and then welcoming and subsidising the Fudan University from communist China,” Marki-Zay said.
“This is totally contrary to Hungarian national interests. So yes, we would like to cooperate with China and do business with China on a mutually beneficial basis,” he said.
The proposed campus, which would be Fudan’s first physical presence in Europe, will cost an estimated US$1.8 billion to build, will employ mainly Chinese contractors for its construction, and will be funded using Chinese commercial loans, according to leaked documents reported by Direkt36, an investigative news outlet in Hungary. Orban has since said he will hold a referendum on the issue next year.
Members of the European Parliament angling for Brussels to take action over the tightening of controls in Hong Kong welcomed Marki-Zay’s statement.
“This would be an important step to stop Hungary’s blockade of Hong Kong-related issues in the EU Council. Although the situation is deteriorating on the ground, for months now we have witnessed how Hong Kong has not even been put on the [Foreign Affairs Council] agenda,” said Engin Eroglu, a German MEP from the centrist Renew Europe group.
In April and May, Hungarian officials in Brussels blocked the EU’s efforts to unveil a series of measures on Hong Kong and they have not appeared on the monthly foreign ministers’ agenda since then.
In draft documents seen by the Post at the time, 12 measures were laid out including a “full review” of relations with Hong Kong, and discussing with member states the “implementation of their extradition treaties” with China.
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