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Hungary’s Orban under pressure before EU elections – DW – 06/04/2024

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Whenever Hungarians go to the polls, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has a habit of peddling bizarre conspiracy theories. The run-up to this week’s European Parliament elections has been no different.

Speaking at a rally in Budapest on Saturday that organizers called a “peace march,” Orban claimed that the European Commission in Brussels is under the influence of US-Hungarian billionaire George Soros, who Orban said plans to send European citizens to war against Russia. He also claimed the continent would subsequently be settled by millions of non-European migrants and that Hungary would cease to exist as a nation.

Orban told the crowd that the EU elections were an historic poll that would decide whether there would be war or peace in Europe. He also claimed that his government was the only one in the bloc to stand up for peace.

Tens of thousands of people have taken part in a number of anti-government demonstrations in Budapest in recent months, such as this one in AprilImage: Justin Spike/AP/dpa/picture alliance

According to the prime minister, there is still a chance that the “forces of peace” will win the election. His rallying call was “Occupy Brussels! No migration, no gender, no war!”

Real challenge to Orban’s dominance

Orban’s Fidesz party has won a two-thirds majority in the last four parliamentary elections, and over 50% of the vote in the three EU elections that have taken place since 2009. That could change this week, because a serious contender has appeared and is challenging Orban’s dominance.

That challenger is Peter Magyar, the ex-husband of Orban’s former Justice Minister Judit Varga and a largely unknown figure in Hungary just a few months ago.

Since February, however, the 43-year-old lawyer has shot to national prominence, holding several major anti-government rallies, each attended by tens of thousands of people.

Polls suggest losses for Fidesz

Recent opinion polls suggest Magyar’s conservative party, TISZA (Respect and Freedom Party), will get between 25% and 30% of the vote, while Orban’s Fidesz will come in at 45%. Some polls, however, have suggested the ruling party could slide below the 40% mark.

Political newcomer Peter Magyar has risen to prominence and popularity with lightning speedImage: Denes Erdos/AP/picture alliance

“It is an entirely new, unique situation,” political scientist Gabor Torok told the Hungarian news portal Telex. “This is the first time in Hungarian politics that someone has appeared out of nowhere and suddenly drummed up such massive support against the man in power,” he said.

Magyar’s rise sparked by Fidesz scandal

Magyar’s stellar rise began in February after a political scandal involving the then Hungarian president, Katalin Novak, who granted a pardon to a man convicted of covering up child sex abuse.

The pardon caused uproar in Hungary, especially as Orban and his party like to paint themselves as moral, upstanding child protectors and often accuse political opponents of wanting to legalize child abuse.

Former President Katalin Novak resigned after it became known that she had pardoned a man imprisoned for covering up child sexual abuseImage: Gian Ehrenzeller/KEYSTONE/picture alliance

Novak resigned as a result of the scandal. Former Justice Minister Varga, who had countersigned the pardon, withdrew from politics altogether. This was a blow to Fidesz, as she had been its top candidate for the EU elections.

Magyar, who until then had held low-profile but lucrative positions in Orban’s administration, used the scandal to “get out of the system” as he puts it.

Over the course of several sensational interviews, he shared insider information on the power mechanisms and corruption within the Orban system.

Although none of the information he shared was fundamentally new, the interviews attracted a huge amount of interest due to Magyar’s status as a well-connected insider.

Magyar: a clean slate?

While Magyar has portrayed himself as a clean slate and the man who walked away from the Orban system, many have their doubts about him.

For one thing, while still married to Varga, he recorded a private conversation without her knowledge during which she made compromising remarks about the Orban system. She was, at the time, justice minister. Magyar also published the recording without her consent in March 2024.

Former Justice Minister Judit Varga withdrew from politics in the wake of the scandal that toppled President NovakImage: John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

Because the deadline for registration as a candidate for the EU elections was approaching fast, he swiftly took over a tiny party called TISZA, which was founded in 2021 but had never actually been active.

Magyar often makes obscure, hard-to-verify personal claims against prominent members of the Orban system. He has dismissed any questions about these claims and almost never provides any proof to back them up.

Dissatisfaction with the Orban system

Despite all this, Magyar has obviously struck a nerve with his claims that much of the Hungarian economy is controlled by a few families and entrepreneurs with close ties to Orban and his stated desire to bring order to Hungary’s badly managed health and education systems.

There is a lot of dissatisfaction in Hungary about corruption and nepotism under Orban and the poor state of healthcare and education in the country.

Nevertheless, Hungary’s opposition parties, most of which are liberal, have not managed to capitalize on this discontent and bolster their support. They are divided and have not won over voters with their policies.

Hungary: New opposition figure a threat to Viktor Orban?

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Another reason is that many Hungarians associate these parties with the extremely corrupt, social-liberal government of Ferenc Gyurcsany that was in power from 2002 to 2009.

Fidesz: personnel problems

Newcomer Magyar’s explicitly conservative policies closely resemble those of the ruling Fidesz, but with some subtle differences. While Magyar does criticize bureaucracy in the EU, for instance, he does not agitate against the bloc. This makes him a palatable choice for undecided voters or disappointed Orban supporters.

According to Gabor Torok, all this means that Orban and Fidesz are on the political defensive: “For the first time in many years, Fidesz is having problems shaping public discourse; for months now, they haven’t been focusing on their own topics,” said Torok. What’s more, Fidesz has also lost two popular politicians in Novak and Varga.

But their resignations were not the end of Orban’s personnel problems. Although he has only been in office a few weeks, Tamas Sulyok, Novak’s successor in the presidential palace, has been causing headaches for Orban. There are claims that while Sulyok was a lawyer in the 1990s and 2000s, he helped illegally sell agricultural land in Hungary to foreign companies via intermediaries.

Here too, the suggestion of double standards is damaging Fidesz, which has for years been claiming to fight both the “land mafia” and the “sale of Hungarian land to foreigners.”

In most of these cases, Orban has so far opted to remain silent. He doesn’t even mention Peter Magyar by name, preferring instead to warn voters that anyone voting for the opposition is voting for war and the decline of the Hungarian nation.

This article was originally published in German.

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