Orban Opponent Fires Up Crowds in Ruling Party Stronghold

(Bloomberg) -- Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s new challenger fired up his growing crowd of supporters at a rally in a ruling party stronghold, taking aim at the enrichment of the premier’s friends and family amid a stuttering economy.

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Five weeks before European Union and municipal elections, protesters filled the main square in the eastern city of Debrecen on Mother’s Day to cheer on Peter Magyar, the former regime insider who’s jumped from relative obscurity to being the nation’s most popular opposition figure.

Following an even larger rally a month ago in the capital, Budapest, he took his campaign to Hungary’s second-largest city, a conservative bastion where Orban’s Fidesz party has ruled since 1998.

“We are holding the largest political demonstration in the countryside in recent decades,” Magyar told the rally. “We are all feeling the momentum, the hope and wish that this time we’ll be able to achieve real change.”

Corruption Rankings

A 43-year-old lawyer and former diplomat, Magyar reaffirmed his campaign pledges of rooting out corruption and pivoting back toward the European mainstream after 14 years of Orban rule marked by closer links to Russia and China and feuds with allies in the EU and NATO.

He listed widespread grievances, starting with Hungary being ranked as the most corrupt in the 27-nation bloc, the dwindling resources in public health care and education, all the way through to the concentration of power in the hands of Orban’s propaganda chief.

Billions of euros of EU funds have been channeled to “private equity funds, yachts, palaces, hotels and wineries,” Magyar said, accusing Orban and his allies of turning Hungary into a “family enterprise.”

Read more: Orban Challenger Soars in Hungary Poll Ahead of EU Elections

The opposition wants to turn EU and local elections on June 9 into a de facto referendum on Orban’s tenure. Magyar seized the momentum after a political scandal in February toppled key Orban allies, including Hungary’s then-president and a former justice minister, who was also Magyar’s ex-wife.

Poll Surge

His nimble use of social media has allowed the former state company executive to deflect government propaganda seeking to portray him as an opportunist and a former beneficiary of the system he now decries. He’s drawn sizable crowds on a nationwide tour, mobilizing support in a way no other politician besides Orban has done since 2010.

In the span of a few weeks, Magyar’s Tisza party has gone from having no support to polling at 25% among decided voters in a Median survey published in the past week. While that’s still 20 points behind Fidesz, it’s well ahead of other opposition parties.

It puts Magyar on track to become Orban’s main challenger in the next parliamentary election in 2026.

Orban “is on the defensive for the first time in 14 years,” Magyar said, inviting his backers to another mass rally in Budapest on June 8.

(Updates with quotes from Magyar’s speech throughout)

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