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The Former Insider Out To Rid Hungary Of Corruption And Orban

Peter Magyar greets supporters at a demonstration in Budapest on April 5.
Peter Magyar greets supporters at a demonstration in Budapest on April 5.

Can a former official with deep ties to the ruling Fidesz party really spearhead a movement to rid Hungary of the corruption allegedly rife under Prime Minister Viktor Orban?

Despite his doubters, Peter Magyar, who for years was seen as a perennial political insider, has announced plans to do just that, attracting tens of thousands of supporters to some of the biggest rallies Budapest has witnessed in years.

In recent months, Magyar has rocked the political establishment in Hungary with accusations of corruption and cronyism at the highest levels of power. His ex-wife, former Justice Minister Judit Varga, also found herself entangled in a headline-grabbing scandal that not only led to her resignation but also to the downfall of the country's president, jolting Orban's seeming invincibility.

Addressing a crowd numbering in the tens of thousands on April 6 outside the parliament building in Budapest, Magyar, 43, vowed to unite both conservative and liberal Hungarians disillusioned by Orban's rule and the divided and ineffective opposition.

"Step by step, brick by brick, we are taking back our homeland and building a new country, a sovereign, modern, European Hungary," Magyar said, adding that the protest was "the biggest political demonstration in years."

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Fidesz, the right-wing, populist party that has been in power since 2010, is paying close attention. According to RFE/RL's Hungarian Service, state-friendly media has tarred Magyar as being a part of the "dollar left" and a tool of George Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire philanthropist who is often the target of conspiracy theories and misinformation on social media.

Tamas Menczer, Fidesz's new communications director, likened Magyar to the opposition's prime ministerial candidate in the 2022 parliamentary elections, Peter Marki-Zay, claiming that the same people are supporting Magyar. Marki-Zay was seen as a candidate who could appeal to voters across the political spectrum and unify Hungary's deeply fragmented opposition.

But despite running an enthusiastic campaign, Marki-Zay was trounced at the polls, with Orban increasing his majority in parliament. The opposition, Menczer said, wanted war, migrants, and gender propaganda, adding that only Orban and Fidesz could protect Hungary.

Critics of Orban both at home and abroad have long accused him of whittling away Hungary's democratic institutions, grabbing control of much of the media, and rejiggering the country's election system to favor his Fidesz party. The EU has withheld billions of euros in funding to Budapest due to alleged democratic backsliding, misuse of EU funds, and failure to guarantee minority rights.

Orban has also been criticized for his stance on Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which is widely seen as hostile to Kyiv and friendly to Moscow.

Zoltan Lakner, a Hungarian political scientist, told RFE/RL's Hungarian Service last month that Magyar had tapped into frustrations many Hungarians have with the country's current politics and the inability of the opposition to put a dent in them.

"In the person of Magyar, the opposition has got competition," Lakner said.

"I've had enough of the past 14 years. That's why [I'm protesting]," one woman told RFE/RL at the first Budapest rally on March 15, when Magyar pledged to create a new centrist party and contest upcoming European Parliament elections.

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According to data from Central European pollster Median, 68 percent of voters have heard of Magyar's entry into the political field, and 13 percent of those said that they were likely to support his party, amid frustration with some of the highest rates of inflation in the EU over the past two years.

Despite the hype and the momentum, Magyar faces a number of challenges. The political party he promised still hasn't been unveiled. And while making clear he opposes the system Orban has created, Magyar hasn't given many specifics on how he plans to unseat the deeply entrenched party and leader. He's also been short on specific positions, for example, regarding the Russian war in Ukraine.

Born into a political family, Magyar has been a prominent figure in Hungarian politics, aligned by more than marriage with Fidesz. Since 2010, he has served in the Foreign Ministry and was also appointed to Hungary's permanent representation to the European Union. A lawyer by profession, he also managed the EU legal department within the Hungarian Development Bank and headed the country's student loan center from 2019 to 2022.

He was thrust into the spotlight in February amid one of the biggest scandals in years to rock the Hungarian government.

Hungarian President Katalin Novak resigned on February 10 over a pardon she granted to a man convicted as an accomplice in a child sexual abuse case.

Novak, a key Orban ally and a former vice president of Fidesz, served as the minister for families until her appointment to the presidency. She has been outspoken in advocating for traditional family values and the protection of children.

While not implicated in the scandal, Magyar had a marital link. His ex-wife (they divorced in 2023) is Judit Varga, another key Fidesz figure who was justice minister at the time and endorsed the pardon. Varga was expected to lead the list of European Parliament candidates from Fidesz in elections slated for June.

But Varga announced -- also on February 10 -- that she would take political responsibility and "retire from public life, resigning my seat as a member of parliament and also as leader of the [European Parliament] list.”

Following the resignations, Magyar, who has held several senior positions in state companies, took to social media to heap further criticism on ruling Fidesz politicians.

"I do not for one minute want to be part of a system in which the real culprits hide behind women's skirts," he wrote on Facebook on February 11. Later that evening, Magyar gave a lengthy interview to the Partizan YouTube channel, one of the few remaining independent media outlets that's not dominated by pro-government voices.

In the video, which has garnered more than 2.5 million views on the platform, Magyar criticized endemic corruption in Hungary. He also accused the government of using smear campaigns to discredit its opponents and said that Antal Rogan, the minister who leads Orban's office, was running a centralized propaganda machine.

Magyar took off the gloves on March 26 when he published a recording of a conversation with his ex-wife, where Varga spoke of an attempt by a senior aide to Orban's cabinet chief to interfere in a graft case. Prosecutors are now investigating the statements.

If Magyar does stay in politics, he faces a hard road ahead, especially as Hungary is not scheduled to hold parliamentary elections until 2026. The fledgling politician could dip into the electoral waters this summer with the European Parliament elections -- even without a new party.

There are 185 parties registered in Hungary, and among them are so-called “sleeping” parties, i.e., registered but inactive. Magyar has said he is in talks with at least three such parties. Should an agreement be reached under that scenario, the party will then need to collect 20,000 signatures between April 20 and May 3 to satisfy election requirements and get the go-ahead from electoral officials to participate in the upcoming poll.

And despite the difficulties he faces, the European polls could be a perfect barometer to measure just how much support Magyar has among his compatriots, explained Robert Laszlo, an election expert at Political Capital, a Budapest-based think tank, since voting is on the basis of party lists and not individuals.

“The mandates are also distributed roughly in proportion to the votes cast on the lists among the parties that reach the 5 percent threshold,” Laszlo told RFE/RL’s Hungarian Service. “So, it will show…how much support Peter Magyar has, and this may determine the future of his political career -- four months after he entered the scene," he added.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Hungarian Service, including Akos Keller-Alant
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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.

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    RFE/RL's Hungarian Service

    RFE/RL’s Hungarian Service -- closed after the Cold War ended -- was relaunched on September 8, 2020, in response to the country’s steep decline in media freedom. It's an entirely digital service dedicated to serving the public interest by representing a diversity of views and providing reliable, unbiased reporting about the issues audiences care about most.

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