BUDAPEST — Hungarian TV viewers would have gotten more than they bargained for, when, in March 2018, during a political program focused on the upcoming parliamentary elections, a giant yellow chicken dressed in a business suit sat opposite the presenter and clucked for five minutes.
The party responsible for the stunt, which was meant to highlight the fact that opposition parties can go on government-affiliated public television channels for only five minutes every four years, was the Hungarian Two-Tailed Dog Party (MKKP), which has become notorious for its absurdist humor and ironic social media posts.
Despite the MKKP doing little of what one might expect from an opposition party in one of the EU’s most democratically challenged countries — in previous elections, it promised voters free beer and eternal life — it is now the most popular opposition party among the under-40s, according to Hungarian pollsters Median, and only 3 percentage points behind the ruling Fidesz party of longtime Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
“When the opposition seems incapable, both the MKKP and the Our Homeland Movement get stronger,” said political scientist Balint Ruff, also referring to a far-right political party. “But while the latter is strengthened by people’s inert anger, support for MKKP is boosted by a feeling of hopelessness.”
MKKP Co-President Gergely Kovacs, a 42-year-old artist and graphic designer, founded the Hungarian Two-Tailed Dog Party in 2006 from a group of activists in Szeged, a city in southeastern Hungary famous for its university and youth culture. In the party’s first attempt at local politics, Kovacs and Co-President Suzi Dada, who is also known as Zsuzsanna Dome, promised voters they would build a mountain, a rarity in their locale on the flat, bare expanse of the Great Hungarian Plain.
The group became an official party in 2014, following elections where Orban, who has been accused of democratic backsliding, secured his third term as prime minister.
At first, the party stayed true to its origins of absurdist humor, pledging to mend the hole in the ozone layer. But in the more than a decade of rule by Orban and Fidesz, the Two-Tailed Dog Party has become more political, responding to the government’s EU-skeptic “Stop Brussels” campaign with its own “Stop Stopping Brussels” billboards and mocking the anti-migration posters distributed around the country.
“We apologize for our prime minister,” one MKKP poster addressed to migrants said in English. “The hate campaign loves you,” another stated. “Even if you tear it down, it’s the same underneath,” said a third one, a reference to the government’s anti-migration posters that were widely defaced and ripped down.
Joke parties have a rich history in Central Europe. In 1911, Czech writer Jaroslav Hasek’s The Party of Moderate Progress Within the Bounds of the Law campaigned to make alcoholism mandatory and for slavery to be reintroduced.
With its tongue-in-cheek humor, the Polish Beer-Lovers Party got 16 seats in parliament in 1991 in the country’s first free elections after the breakup of the Soviet Union, before its eventual (and perhaps inevitable) dissolution in 1993.
Likewise, the Austrian Beer Party, founded in 2014, won 1.8 percent of the vote in the Viennese state elections in 2020, with campaign promises to install a beer-dispensing fountain in the Austrian capital, along with more animal rights and a faster transition to renewable energy.
While the Two-Tailed Dog Party has made gains, it has still not garnered more than 5 percent of the vote in national elections, which is the threshold for entrance into parliament.
“I won’t cry because we are not in parliament,” Kovacs said in an interview with RFE/RL’s Hungarian Service. “You can do more locally.”
After the 2019 local elections, five members of the party (including both co-presidents) became local elected representatives, although two have since quit the party. Kovacs is now a local councilor in Budapest’s 12th district and keeps reception hours at a cafe in the capital. Dada is a deputy mayor in Budapest’s 9th District.
In 2020, the party’s network of activists helped elderly people during the pandemic and, after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, they raised 3 million forints ($8,700) for refugees, bringing aid to the crowded and overwhelmed train stations of the capital.
The focus on local activism has seemingly paid off at the polls. In the 2018 parliamentary elections, the MKKP received 1.73 percent of the vote; in 2022’s repeat encounter, they peaked with 3.27 percent.
“Now that we are in the [local] assemblies, it’s hard to say [what we are], as it looks like we are politicians,” Kovacs told RFE/RL prior to the 2022 parliamentary elections. “Now it feels like I’m an opposition politician.”
Becoming politicians has also meant dealing with scandals. One of the five members to be elected to local assemblies in 2019, who has since left the party, was Attila Palmai, a representative in Budapest’s 15th District. Now a member of the centrist Momentum opposition party, he has been critical of what he says was the Two-Tailed Dog Party’s lack of financial transparency.
“There was no financial control over who spends what, and it was unacceptably messy. When we raised the issue, all we got were attacks,” he told RFE/RL’s Hungarian Service.
Zsuzsa Szirmai, the party’s former financial officer, which is a voluntary position, confirmed this to RFE/RL.
“I encountered extreme negligence…without records or invoices, [and] a shortage of cash,” Szirmai said. “But the main problem was that the leaders were not inclined to follow the regulations as they were [just] aiming for success.”
According to sources with knowledge of the party’s workings who wished to remain anonymous, financial records are still kept in notebooks — sufficient when they were handling thousands of forints, not millions. Currently, the party’s yearly budget is 200 million forints (around $580,000), of which 150 million forints comes from the state to fund various projects.
And while the party has more than 7,000 activists (or, in the party lingo, “passivists”), the number of actual members remains under 100, as joining is based on a complicated system of recommendations. Critics say that has meant only a small number of people in the party make decisions, leading to a maintenance of the status quo.
The Two-Tailed Dog has also been accused of taking votes away from the opposition. It wasn’t among the opposition parties that united behind conservative candidate Peter Marki-Zay in the 2022 elections yet failed to prevent Fidesz from securing another two-thirds majority in parliament. Gordon Bajnai, the former socialist prime minister and Orban’s predecessor, said in 2018 that every vote for the MKKP was a vote for Fidesz.
“I knew that it would probably be a ‘wasted’ vote and that they wouldn’t reach 5 percent,” said Peter Takacs, 35, who has voted for the party before. “I don’t think that other political actors see them as serious, but I — perhaps naively — believed that their strengthening will suggest to the currently dominant parties that people have had enough, and that what they do is also a joke.
“I wouldn’t trust them with governing the country, but I agree with the issues they deal with. I can imagine that in three years, they will reach the 5 percent [parliamentary] threshold, as people who are disillusioned with the opposition will vote for them.”