HODMEZOVASARHELY, Hungary (Reuters) - Peter Marki-Zay, the new leader of Hungary's opposition alliance, has done the maths: he needs to win over the young, the undecided, and disenchanted supporters of veteran Prime Minister Viktor Orban to secure victory in next year's election.
The 49-year-old Catholic conservative and father of seven knows it will be a tough task ousting Orban and his nationalist, socially conservative Fidesz party, which has won three consecutive parliamentary landslides in the past 12 years.
But Marki-Zay, who ended 18 years of Fidesz rule in 2018 in the sleepy farming town of Hodmezovasarhely where he is now mayor, believes he has the skills to forge a broad spectrum of voters who are desperate for change - and for new faces in a political landscape still dominated by people like Orban who first entered public life after the fall of communism in 1989.
A political outsider with no party affiliation, Marki-Zay was the surprise victor in a primary contest last weekend to lead the six-party opposition alliance that is now running neck-and-neck in opinion polls with Fidesz.
"We have to win this (election) in the countryside. And it's the undecided voters... mostly undecided, former Fidesz voters, those who are not happy with the opposition but also are fed up with what Fidesz is doing," he told Reuters in the ornate town hall of Hodmezovasarhely in southeastern Hungary.
"They want change but so far they have seen no alternative," said Marki-Zay, who himself voted for Fidesz in 2010 but became disgusted by the corruption that has flourished on its watch and by what he calls its "betrayal of Western culture".
With his family-man image and provincial roots, he now poses the biggest threat to Orban's grip on power in more than a decade, not least because Fidesz's base is in Hungary's smaller towns and villages, where its nationalist, anti-immigrant rhetoric strikes a deep chord.
Marki-Zay, who also performed well in Budapest in the primary race, promises to tackle corruption, hold politicians to account, keep some Fidesz policies such as tax breaks for families, and wants to repair Hungary's strained ties with the European Union.
Marki-Zay, who holds five university degrees including in marketing and engineering, lived with his family in Canada and the United States for five years, returning to Hungary in 2009.
He built up a grassroots movement that relies on volunteers and donations after observing how U.S. election campaigns work.
"My mission is that my seven kids... won't have to leave the country... Young people want a country they won't have to flee," he said.
His stamina, plain speaking and his status as an outsider untainted by scandal and established ways of doing things hold particular appeal to younger voters.
"What I like about Marki-Zay is that he is not simply saying this current government has to go... He says corruption in general must be eradicated," said Daniel Strausz, 19, enjoying a beer by the Tisza river in the nearby university city of Szeged.
"We need a real change of regime," he said.
Strausz, who is training to become a teacher, said he might move to neighbouring Austria, depending on the outcome of the 2022 election, as he is so fed up with the political divisions in Hungarian society.
Marki-Zay told Reuters he would make higher education more accessible to poorer children and provide cheap municipal housing for young people.
He would also scrap legislation that bans the dissemination of content in schools deemed to promote homosexuality and gender change, which triggered strong criticism from human rights groups and the European Union.
Orban's re-election hopes have been boosted by Hungary's strong economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
Unemployment is near all-time lows and labour shortages are driving up wages, but inflation is now above 5% and many voters dislike what they see as Orban's autocratic leanings and the rise of a new politically connected business elite around him.
That provides opportunities for the opposition.
"Marki-Zay's honesty is convincing ... He dares to say out loud what others would not," said Krisztian Kovacs, 29, who runs a flower business in Szeged's bustling market hall.
"But... Marki-Zay has not said much about what he actually wants to change, he has only criticised what's not good under the present regime."
There will also be plenty of potential for infighting among Marki-Zay's broad coalition of socialists, liberals and disillusioned conservatives in the countdown to the election, which is expected to take place in April.
Fidesz accuses Marki-Zay of signing a pact with the political left to help them return to power and raise taxes, but it is finding it hard to vilify a man who seems to embody the traditional values Orban publicly champions.
"Seven kids, a practising Catholic, a conservative - really there is not much Fidesz can say against me personally," said Marki-Zay.
(Reporting by Krisztina Than; Editing by Gareth Jones)