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Hungary: Could Peter Magyar bring a future without Orban?

Gabriella Valaczkay
July 7, 2024

Many Hungarians had the feeling that Viktor Orban's hold on power would never end. But then along came Peter Magyar, a disillusioned member of Orban's circle. Can he bring about change?

Peter Magyar
Political newcomer Peter Magyar is seen by many Hungarians as a chance for changeImage: Bernadett Szabo/REUTERS

A truck decked out in the red-white-green of Hungary's national flag drives onto the main square in Szombathely in the northwest of the country. A man of around 40 is standing on its flatbed, wearing a shirt, jeans and sunglasses. A song is blaring from loudspeakers mounted on the truck with the lyrics "Tell me who you would choose."

The man with the stylish hairdo on the truck who is delivering a campaign speech to several hundred people is Hungary's new political star, Peter Magyar. His address is mainly focused on a vow to overthrow Prime Minister Viktor Orban and the system he represents.

"What did Peter Magyar say that convinced you?" a reporter from an independent Hungarian news outlet asks a woman who has been listening. "He didn't need to convince me. I've been fed up with Orban for ages," the woman, a pensioner, replies. "Magyar has convinced me that at last there is someone who can change something here."

And that is how many Hungarians feel at the moment. Since Magyar entered the political scene in February, the country has been caught up an atmosphere of new expectations. Even though Orban's right-wing nationalist Fidesz party again received the most votes (around 44%) in Hungary in European Parliament elections on June 9, it was still the party's worst result in a European vote in a long time. Magyar's Tisza (Respect and Freedom) party reached almost 30%.

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A 'clean' conservative alternative

Since Orban took power in Hungary in 2010, every attempt to vote him out has been a dismal failure. Even together, opposition parties have not come even near to achieving a majority against Fidesz.

So what does Magyar, this gym-shoed man with a hoarse voice and abundant self-confidence, have that others don't?

For years, the talk in Hungary has been that Orban could be toppled one day by someone from his own ranks. And Magyar fits the bill. He comes from Orban's closer circle: The 43-year-old lawyer and businessman was married to the former justice minister, Judit Varga, held various well-paid jobs in the Orban administration and had good relations with some of the highest-ranking Fidesz officials.

Since his first public appearances in February 2024, he has touted himself as a kind of clean conservative alternative to Orban — someone who shares Fidesz' values but is not corrupt at the same time.

Zoltan Somogyi, a Budapest-based sociologist and co-founder of the independent think tank Political Capital, has this explanation for the new political phenomenon in Hungary: "Magyar says, 'I am actually the real Fidesz. There are two differences between today's Fidesz and me: I don't steal, and I firmly support the European Union.'"

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Sexual abuse scandal as a trigger

Magyar, whose surname in fact means "Hungarian," emerged virtually from thin air in February. He went public after President Katalin Novak resigned in the wake of a scandal caused by her pardon of a deputy director of a children's home convicted of covering up child sexual abuse.

Magyar's ex-wife, Judit Varga, who up to that point had been expected to lead Fidesz' slate in the European Parliament election, also resigned from politics as a consequence of the affair. The whole matter caused great outrage among the Hungarian public, as Orban's government has made the protection of children one of the cornerstones of its platform, putting out a great deal of propaganda to press home the point.

Initially, Magyar contented himself with giving vent to his rage that the president and his ex-wife seemed to be being used as scapegoats by the Orban regime, but then announced his entry into politics. Within four months, he and his Tisza party managed to garner an election result in high double figures and to pave the way for membership in the European People's Party (EPP), a group in the European Parliament that Orban's Fidesz left in 2021 to avoid being thrown out.

"Orban would never have even dreamed that something like this could ever happen," said Somogyi. "What's more, Magyar has achieved all this without any campaign budget to speak of — as opposed to Fidesz, which spends billions on propaganda."

Somogyi added that Magyar's Tisca was the first opposition force since 2010 not to accept any funding from the state.

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Shattered trust in Fidesz

The 45-year-old economist Eszter M., who lives in a town near Budapest, has always been a staunch Fidesz supporter but now feels drawn to Magyar.

"For a person with conservative Christian views like me, Fidesz used for a long time to be the only possible political preference in Hungary. I even voted for Orban at the election in the spring of 2022 because I believed him when he said that no one but him could protect us if the war in Ukraine spread," she says.

"But my trust in Fidesz was shattered when they wanted to build a foreign battery factory in my home village, without the slightest consideration for residents' concerns," she says. "It suddenly dawned on me that there is only one way to survive in rural regions of Hungary, and that is to be embedded in Fidesz structures."

Viktor Orban
Viktor Orban has angered many EU leaders with his often-expressed hostility toward the blocImage: Attila Volgyi/Xinhua/IMAGO

Uncertainty remains

The Budapest-based author and psychiatrist György Banki has been one of the most prominent figures in Hungary's public discourse for several years. He believes that there are many people who feel the same as Estzer M. in Hungary at present, seeing this as a result of the deep social divisions that Orban has caused in the country.

"This split has had a big negative impact on everything from family life to the country's general performance. There is absolutely no capability for dialogue, tolerance for criticism or possibility to discuss vital social issues," he said.

According to Banki, much of Magyar's success results from the way he uses Fidesz' nationalist symbolism in the opposite direction, emphasizing values such as love of the homeland, faith, tradition, family and community to unite society and not to divide it as deeply as possible. At the same time, Banki says, Magyar stresses decency, honesty and respect for different opinions.

"This allows him to appeal to people of various political persuasions: from leftist intellectuals who are ready to make serious compromises to achieve change, to Fidesz supporters who are in two minds," Banki said.

However, it remains to be seen whether Magyar can consolidate his foothold in Hungarian politics beyond his recent success in the European elections. Quite a few observers in Hungary are skeptical of his chances. 

But Magyar himself has no doubts. His motto is: "The time of the one-man show is over! Now, the time has come to rebuild."

Eszter M. sighs. She is not necessarily a Magyar fan, but like many other Hungarians, she yearns for change.

"I simply have no choice but to trust in Peter Magyar," she says.

This article was originally written in German.