HUNGARY’S POLITICAL UPSTART TAKES HIS CHARABANC INTO ORBAN’S BACKYARD

For many of his supporters, Peter Magyar promises a ‘reformed Fidesz’ and is seen as a younger, fitter version of the current prime minister without the stench of corruption.

Viktor Orban’s simple cottage is just around the corner. Pancho Arena, an “organic-style” soccer stadium that can accommodate twice the population of the village, faces the cottage. While the local light railway that has become a symbol of corruption under the prime minister is just a few metres down the road.

On Friday, Peter Magyar, Hungary’s rising star of the opposition, parked his truck in the prime minister’s iconic hometown of Felcsut to hold a rally for his supporters and throw down the gauntlet to Orban’s ruling party. Hungarians have a choice, even in the heartland of Fidesz, was the message.

“We came from the next village, but we don’t see any locals around. I guess they are just too afraid to show up,” a young couple, Zsuzsa and Viktor, told BIRN.

Indeed, most of the few hundred people, some waving Hungarian flags, that wandered about the truck whose platoon serves as a stage for Magyar, hailed from the capital Budapest, a 40-minute drive away. Family vans and SUVs were parked along the pebbled sidewalks. Besides the city dwellers, the streets were largely deserted, not a soul venturing into their gardens.

‘Brick by brick’
Magyar, a trim man in his early forties, sporting a slim-fit white shirt, dark jeans and sunglasses, jumped up onto the platoon. A former Fidesz insider from a conservative family and the ex-husband of former justice minister Judit Varga, Magyar burst onto the political stage in mid-February with a YouTube interview in which he lambasted the widespread corruption that has flourished under Fidesz’s 15-year rule.

“If we don’t want our children to grow up in a country which is run by a few families, it’s time for a change,” he said in the interview, which has now been viewed more than 2.5 million times.

Call it perfect timing. Fidesz had just been rocked by a scandal in which the president, Katalin Novak, a former Fidesz family minister, pardoned a man convicted of covering up abuse at a public children’s home. The crisis triggered her downfall as well as that of the justice minister at the time, Magyar’s former wife Varga. It also dealt a blow to the government’s mantra about protecting children and upholding family values.

Economic malaise, high inflation and a stagnating economy has also eroded the ruling party’s support over the last few years.

Magyar has since become a political phenomenon: in the last three months, he has tirelessly staged rallies, organised a party called TISZA (an acronym for Respect and Freedom, but also the name of Hungary’s second largest river), and hit the campaign trail hard to mobilise Hungarians outside of Budapest ahead of the June 9 European Parliament and local elections. His party claims he has visited 140 villages, towns and settlements to inform the Hungarian people that they still have a political choice after 15 years of Fidesz rule.

“I have just come from Orban’s dacha, but he did not invite me in for tea,” Magyar quipped at the rally, referring to the vast Orban family estate, Hatvanpuszta, on the outskirts of Felcsut.

What’s left of the independent media in Hungary has reported extensively on this former estate of Habsburg Archduke Joseph, where historic buildings have been secretly converted into a family estate by Orban’s father, the local businessman Gyozo Orban.

“There is a palm house, wild animals graze around the artificial lake surrounded by military vehicles. These people preach peace and they use these military vehicles for leisure,” Magyar told the crowd, before repeating his slogan: “We want to prevent this country from becoming a family estate. We want justice for Hungary!”

“We are not afraid, we are not afraid,” the supporters chanted back enthusiastically.

Zsuzsa and Viktor, the young couple, believe Magyar is their only hope. They moved back to Hungary from Germany in 2018, but if things continue as they are, they will move again. “I have planted so many trees in my garden, I love it here, this is my home,” Zsuzsa said, almost in tears. “I don’t want to go.”

Yet they see a bleak future here under Fidesz. “Look, I pay a lot of money for social security, and now that I need gallstone surgery, I am advised to go to a private hospital and pay 1.2 million forints [about 3,000 euros]. Who on earth can afford this? The Fidesz people build luxury estates, while there is no toilet paper in hospitals or soap in kindergartens,” said Zsuzsa.

Zsuzsa admitted she voted for Orban in 2010, because she thought he would do better than the Socialist government of Ferenc Gyurcsany, which at the time was mired in scandal, “but he has let us down.”

Viktor, her husband is fed up with the government’s lies and propaganda. “The elderly in our village are literally afraid that their grandchildren will be forced to undergo sex change surgery. You think it’s ridiculous, but this is how propaganda works,” he said.

On stage, Magyar outlines what is at stake at the EU elections. “You have a choice between the past and the future; between propaganda and truth; East and West; between the Turkic Council and the EU. Yes, we will take back the country,” he finished in a low voice.

The crowd chanted back: “We take it back, step by step, brick by brick.”

An elderly lady who refused to give her name is less enthusiastic. She admits that there are problems in Hungary, but as far the EU is concerned, she believes prime minister Orban is right. “The EU wants to send soldiers to Ukraine. I have already told my two sons to get their passports and bags ready, so that they can flee to Mexico if this happens,” she said, echoing the latest government propaganda.

But her friend, who describes herself an “average grandmother”, reckons anybody is better than Orban.

Behind the scenes
To the tune of The Final Countdown (the 1986 hit from Swedish rock band Europe), Magyar descends from the truck’s stage and makes his way to the small station to board the EU-financed light railway – a 6-kilometre-long line that links the local football stadium with the arboretum.

Its construction in 2015 cost 850 million forints, out of which 600 million forints, or 1.9 million euros, came from EU funds, and the service is losing millions a year, Felcsut not exactly being a tourist hotspot in Hungary. The investment was investigated by the EU and is today a symbol of the blatant embezzlement of public funds.

“This country has got twice the amount of the Marshall Plan that Germany received after World War II – yet we became the second poorest and most corrupt country in the EU. What an achievement!” Magyar told his supporters on the mini-train that his team hired for the day.

A combination of preacher and influencer, with a boy-next-door appeal, Magyar holds both Orban and his predecessor Gyurcsany responsible for the miserable results since the country joined the EU in 2004. With his calls for a complete change of the political guard, both the government and Hungary’s hapless opposition are alarmed.

The government turned its propaganda machine on the political upstart, but it has left him so far largely unscathed.

In March, Magyar was accused of verbal and psychological abuse of his ex-wife, who gave an emotional interview about the intimacies of their bad marriage. He was also said to be jealous of his ex-wife over her meteoritic political career that had outshone his role as the director of the state-run Student Loan Centre. Subsequently, he was portrayed as a man with a temper and an outright psychopath. When all that proved insufficient, the Fidesz camp reached for the ultimate insult: that Magyar was a “leftist” paid for by the US.

Yet Magyar’s popularity keeps on rising. Polls put his nascent TISZA party in second place behind Orban’s Fidesz and a challenge to all the other opposition forces, winning up to five of Hungary’s 21 seats in the European Parliament. Fidesz could fall from its current 13 seats to 10 (less than 40 per cent of the vote), which analysts say would be a bad – but not fatal – result for the government.

Magyar has also hinted at the possibility – probably more in hope than expectation – of an early general election, but most serious analysts dismiss this. With the next scheduled election two years away, Orban – a wily political operator – knows that is a long time to keep the hope of change alive.

Questions also swirl around the rapid rise of Magyar and his party. TISZA is largely a one-man show, and even his candidates for the European Parliament – professionals with solid backgrounds selected through an online process – are relatively unknown. Even so, it’s not just BIRN that has noted the highly professional – and expensive – organisation and logistics that lie behind his rallies, media appearances and social media output.

Old wine in new bottles
In policy terms, Magyar chooses his words carefully.

When it comes to the EU, in contrast to Fidesz’s tub-thumping railing against Brussels, he says his party would seek a constructive relationship. “We want to join the European Public Prosecutor’s Office and bring home the frozen funds. We want to complete the rule of law/Article 7 procedure…,” he told BIRN at the rally in Felcsut.

He also said he would seek to join the European People’s Party (EPP) grouping of centre-right parties in the European Parliament if his TISZA party wins any mandates in the upcoming EU elections. This is the same EPP that Fidesz was forced out of in 2020 after years of wrangling over values and policies.

Likewise, on Russia’s war against Ukraine, he’s wary after getting burnt in a recent radio interview. During that, he alluded to the partial responsibility of the West for war and claimed the US was building a sphere of influence in Ukraine by buying up farmland. Critics accused him of parroting Russian propaganda. Magyar promptly published a Facebook post making clear that Russia is the aggressor and the territorial integrity of Ukraine must be safeguarded, though he failed to criticise Orban’s stance of blocking international efforts to help Ukraine defend itself.

He also cleaves to the traditional conservative view on the importance of maintaining strong nation states and economic competitiveness, perhaps at the expense of green policies. “We believe in the four freedoms, but we don’t like an over-bureaucratised Europe,” he said, echoing Fidesz slogans.

For some, Magyar promises a “reformed Fidesz”. He is seen as a better version of today’s Viktor Orban: younger, fitter, conservative, but without the stench of corruption. He supports the fight against illegal migration – a major fear in an EU country with an external border – and agrees with the fortified border fence built by the government.

At an early stage he even toyed with the idea of forming a coalition with Fidesz, though he dismissed this in a recent interview with hvg.hu. “We will win the 2026 elections and will not need a coalition,” he boldly stated.

“The genie is out of the bottle – we are gaining strength and people are starting to believe that the system can be changed. Things could happen fast,” he told the media in Felcsut.

Yet what kind of platform any victories that his party racks up in the June 9 EU elections can provide in the domestic arena remains unclear; his expectation of seducing Fidesz members and breaking the party’s unity has still not materialised to any degree. And even Magyar himself says only after the EU elections will the real work begin.

But first, he tells the media, he needs a good night’s sleep.

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