Orban challenger makes final push ahead of Sunday's EU vote

By Anita Komuves and Gergely Szakacs

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungarian opposition leader Peter Magyar called on Saturday on tens of thousands of supporters to back his party at Sunday's European Parliament election, in which Prime Minister Viktor Orban faces one of the toughest challenges of his 14-year rule.

In power since 2010, the veteran nationalist has grappled with multiple crises over the past months as a sex abuse scandal brought down two of his key allies, just as Hungary was emerging from the worst inflationary surge in the European Union.

Rising expenditure and a weak recovery have also prevented Orban from unleashing the kind of lavish outlays that helped him coast to his fourth successive victory at a 2022 parliamentary election, while presenting Magyar with a rare opportunity.

The latest surveys put support for Orban's right-wing Fidesz at 44% to 48%, with Magyar's right-of-centre Tisza polling in a 23% to 29% range, an unprecedented surge for the newcomer, who burst onto Hungary's political scene just four months ago.

Orban's worst result at any EU election was a 47.4% showing when Hungary joined the bloc two decades ago, while no opposition party has managed to get more than 20% since 2009.

"If you want it, too, Hungary will be the country of justice, honour and laws," Magyar told jubilant supporters thronging Budapest's majestic Heroes' Square.

"Hungary will be not the wedged, but the link between East and West," the 43-year-old added.

A rally staged by Orban in Budapest last week also drew tens of thousands of supporters, with the 61-year-old premier casting Sunday's vote as a choice between war and peace in Europe amid Russia's war in Ukraine, now in its third year.

Aides say Magyar had visited nearly 200 towns on the campaign trail, with the media-savvy former government insider also posting hundreds of Facebook messages to boost his appeal.

Magyar worked for the foreign ministry and then the prime minister's office in Brussels before joining a state bank and then heading a student loan agency. He eventually became disenchanted with Fidesz over what he said was the corruption and state propaganda that he witnessed from the inside.

Magyar, whose rallies have attracted unusually large turnouts even in some rural Fidesz strongholds, has said his lawmakers would join the European People's Party (EPP), which broke ranks with Orban in 2021.

Orban, meanwhile, has courted Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's European Conservatives and Reformists Party, with his 12 European Parliament lawmakers not affiliated with any other grouping since its break-up with the mainstream EPP.

(Writing by Gergely Szakacs; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Alexander Smith)