COMMENT: Orbán’s new challenger is a bigger threat to the opposition

COMMENT: Orbán’s new challenger is a bigger threat to the opposition
Peter Magyar organized some of the largest demonstrations of recent years in Budapest in March and April. / bne IntelliNews
By Zsuzsanna Végh in Berlin May 16, 2024

Péter Magyar has appeared from nowhere this spring to become Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s main challenger. But he may pose a greater threat to the fragmented democratic opposition than to Orban himself.

Former justice minister Judit Varga’s ex-husband was a regime insider and virtually unknown to the wider public until his public about-face in February. He entered the political scene following the scandal over President Katalin Novák’s pardon in a sexual abuse case that had taken place in a state-run children’s home. The scandal led to the resignation of not just Novak but also his former wife.

Since then Magyar has gathered support at an unprecedented pace with his attacks on the Orban regime’s rampant corruption. After organizing some of the largest demonstrations of recent years in Budapest in March and April, Magyar established his movement “Rise, Hungarians!” and took over the leadership of the Respect and Freedom Party (TISZA), an already existing but inactive party. Due to the shortness of time, Magyar could not register a new party in time to run in the June 9 elections, but the arrangement with TISZA allows him to do so.

Magyar’s TISZA will face its first test at the June 9 European parliamentary and local elections, where its results will serve as a first indicator of the newcomer’s prospects in what is a politically highly polarized society.

The list is led by Magyar and composed of unknown but highly educated candidates, often with work experience related to EU affairs. With no country-wide organization in place, however, fielding candidates in the highly complex local elections is a tall order. Thus TISZA only put forward candidates in four districts of the capital, which, in turn, allows the party to run for seats in the General Assembly of Budapest.

With only one month left until the elections, Magyar has made some of his priorities known, but his concrete political, and especially policy, platform is yet to take shape. Although he comes from the right, he claims to seek to establish a centrist political force above ideologies that would overcome the existing polarization.

On the European Union overall, however, his vision of a Europe of strong nation-states is rooted in a sovereigntist approach closest to Fidesz on the Hungarian political spectrum, though Magyar promises a constructive dialogue with Brussels.

He naturally promises to tackle corruption, and would join the European Public Prosecutor’s Office to ensure access to the EU funds allocated for Hungary, now largely suspended under the conditionality procedure.

He would also remove Fidesz’s political nominees from the most important institutions, and address the dire state of healthcare and education – a direct reaction also to recent teacher and student protests in Hungary.

Beyond the broad pledges, however, the concrete policy programme is still missing – which is no surprise given that Magyar’s rhetoric is more focused on regime change than governance.

Fidesz's base remains intact

Despite his meteoric rise, Magyar has not really shaken the foundations of the system. Magyar appears to have optimistically hoped that publishing and sharing a secretly recorded conversation with his ex-wife – in which she alleged that Antal Rogán, head of the prime minister’s cabinet office, had tampered with evidence in a high-profile corruption case – would lead to the resignation of the government.

While Fidesz’s support is now at its lowest since the last parliamentary elections in 2022, the party continues to have the clear plurality of the votes, and, according to polls, TISZA has not particularly weakened Fidesz’s base.

The primacy of the Fidesz-KDNP coalition at the European parliamentary election in a month will not be challenged: The governing parties will likely receive over 40 per cent of the vote, which can translate into as many as half or more of Hungary’s 21 EP seats.

Magyar, nonetheless, has mobilized significant support so that by late April he had positioned his party as the first or second strongest opposition force, depending on the opinion poll.

The polled composition of Magyar’s supporters shows that a large share of those who plan to vote for his party in June had no clear party preference before and may even have been apolitical. The question remains to what extent this group will show up at the ballot box.

Apart from this segment, TISZA seems to attract not the voters of Fidesz, but those of a few smaller opposition parties, especially the centrist-liberal Momentum and a joke party, the so-called Two-Tailed Dog Party (MKKP), which was a top choice of protest voters.

In light of this and the latest opinion polls, the short-term consequence of Magyar’s political ambitions seem to be more a cause for concern for the opposition than for the government.

TISZA is now in competition with former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Democratic Coalition (DK) left-wing electoral alliance for second place, while some of the smaller opposition parties – Momentum, MKKP, and potentially the extreme right Our Homeland Movement – which had a good chance to make it to the European Parliament, will now be fighting to pass the 5 per cent election threshold.

Additionally, running for seats in the General Assembly of Budapest will enable Magyar to assess his current support in the capital. Depending on his level of success, he may also become a force to reckon with in the city’s government, which is now in opposition hands.

Election test

The election results in June will show whether the apparent interest seen at Magyar’s demonstrations translates into votes, if polled voter intentions hold, and whose challenger he really is. The ultimate test for him, however, will be the 2026 national election.

By then, Magyar will need to build a stable countrywide party organization to challenge Fidesz under the current electoral system. This will require a different kind of organizational skill, communication, effort, and funding.

Yet, given Fidesz’s track record in shaping the electoral system to its advantage, it is unlikely that the governing parties will not seek to make further adjustments to disable such emerging electoral challenges.

In the current political context, with Fidesz’s base outweighing all others and still standing, there is a good chance that TISZA support will plateau. In this situation, the so far bipolar political space would become tripolar, with smaller current opposition parties losing out, and DK’s position strengthening relatively.

Very few voters of DK consider the TISZA party an alternative, given that Magyar criticizes Gyurcsány and his tenure as much as he does Orbán’s government.

Due to Magyar’s rejection of Gyurcsány’s DK, a coalition between the two is highly doubtful. Furthermore, if TISZA develops into a party with a right-wing, conservative, sovereigntist ideological profile – which based on Magyar’s views is the most likely scenario – the ideological distance could also be too big for DK to consider cooperation.

As long as Fidesz can secure a majority, this situation would only lead to a new form of political polarization, but by no means threaten Orbán’s government. If this scenario unfolds, then Magyar’s appearance on the political scene will have been more harmful for the opposition, both in the short and mid-term, than for Fidesz, while bringing no real qualitative difference to the state of democracy in Hungary.

Zsuzsanna Végh is a programme officer at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent those of her employer.