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Stepping out of Orban’s shadow, a former ally tries to steal his spotlight

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Hungary’s most popular and unlikely opposition leader stood on the back of a flatbed truck, surrounded by cheering followers, and railed against the right-wing government that until recently viewed him as a trusted insider.

“Step by step, brick by brick, we will take back our country,” declared opposition leader Peter Magyar, using the slogan as he toured towns and villages across Hungary, a popular mantra for the 43-year-old leader of a new political movement.

What made the rally more provocative was the location Mr. Mazar chose for it: not far from the house owned by Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Fersut, the village where the leader grew up.

Since taking power 14 years ago, Mr Orban has won four consecutive elections, reshaping Hungary into an “illiberal democracy” more closely aligned with China and Russia than with nominal allies in NATO and the European Union. Now, for the first time in years, Hungary feels that change is possible, though not imminent.

exist European Parliament elections this monthIn 2017, Mr. Magyar’s two-month-old Tisza party won 30 percent of the vote in Hungary, crushing the established opposition and giving Mr. Orban’s ruling party, Fidesz, its worst performance in years. Mr. Orban’s party still came in first, but its 44 percent of the vote was a sharp drop from the last election.

Mr. Magal was coy about specific policies, beyond harsh criticism of Mr. Orban and his cronies for corruption, especially the misuse of billions of euros. EU fundingand Hungary’s tilt toward Russia. “Anyone who knows Hungarian history knows that we were attacked by Russia many times,” he said in an interview.

But whether he can maintain his dazzling momentum until Hungary’s next national parliamentary election in 2026 remains to be seen.

Andras Banko, a 46-year-old entrepreneur, attended Magal’s rally in Fersut, about 25 miles west of Budapest, two weeks before the European Parliament elections. He said it was difficult to see the party in the first place, given Fidesz’s control over the media and its Deep-rooted sponsorship networksBut Mr. Banko noted that Mr. Magal, a conservative, had presented the first viable alternative in years.

He added: “It will take time, but I’m tired of having to apologize to my country because of Orban.”

At Mr. Mazar’s rally, he wore a T-shirt mocking the village’s former mayor, Lorinc Meszaros, a former plumber and now a wealthy man who is a friend of Mr. Orban.

Meszaros received government contracts including A football stadium with nearly 4,000 seats Felcsut has fewer than 2,000 residents. Mr. Orban is an avid football fan.

Mr. Magar parked his truck near the stadium and pointed to the massive stadium during his speech as an example of why, According to Transparency InternationalHungary ranking The most corrupt countries in the EU.

“This country does not belong to the oligarchs, it belongs to you,” Mr. Magar shouted to applause.

Mr. Mazar has clearly irritated his former ally. He has come under fierce attack from Fidesz and the media it controls, who accuse him of being an abusive husband, a liar and a traitorous agitator.

“I am constantly under attack from both the government and the opposition. This is my success,” Mr Mazar said.

Until February, Mr. Magar, a Fidesz member for more than two decades, was just one of Orban’s henchmen.

His resume includes diplomatic posts in Brussels, executive positions at Fidesz-controlled companies, a friendship with Orban’s chief of staff and a failed marriage to Judit Varga, a Fidesz star who was appointed justice minister in 2019. Outside a small elite circle in Budapest, almost no one knows his name.

Today he is a national celebrity, shunned by Fidesz, the party that hopes to woo conservative voters, and the left-wing opposition, which hopes to draw supporters from Fidesz. He won the support of both groups in the European elections.

Mr. Magar’s rally in Felcsut on May 24 drew only a few hundred people, most of them from outside the city. But drawing that many was an achievement in a region that is deeply grateful for Fidesz’s loyalty and generosity. Rallies in major cities have drawn tens of thousands.

His events combine the enthusiasm of a religious renewal conference with a blunt political message: Mr. Orban, 61, and his stale opponents in the entrenched opposition have been around for too long.

Mr. Magal, who wore a small wooden cross hanging from his wristband, played a 19th-century patriotic song at the end of the service and encouraged attendees to take their neighbors’ hands and hold them up in a sign of solidarity.

Csaba Lukacs, general manager of the conservative weekly Hungarian Voice, which disagrees with Fidesz, said the frenzy showed that “Hungary badly needs something new – to replace the corrupt or incompetent opposition on the one hand, and to overthrow Fidesz on the other.”

Fidesz has faced challenges from conservative colleagues before.

Opposition parties from across the political spectrum are preparing for the 2022 parliamentary elections. Electing a right-wing governor as their standard bearer. This effort failed, and ultimately Fidesz wins landslide victory Earlier, the Hungarian government used its media machine to discredit Mayor Petr Malkižay, calling him a warmonger who intended to send Hungarians to fight Russia in Ukraine.

Mr. Mazar avoids talking about Ukraine. Still, his former allies denounce him as a left-wing threat bent on war, ignoring the fact that he has been a member of Fidesz for nearly his entire adult life. (Mazar said he joined Fidesz in 2002 when it was a “pro-European, pro-NATO, liberal but right-wing party.”)

Peter Kreko, director of Political Capital, a Budapest research institute, said the attacks showed that Mr. Mazar had unnerved the government.

Mr Kreko said: “He was the guy that suddenly everyone was talking about – in the bar, on the bus, in the barbershop, everywhere.”

Agoston Mraz, director of the Nezopont Institute, which conducts polls for Fidesz, acknowledged that Fidesz did target Mr Mazar but said the accusations were “not just lies, but based on real stories about him”.

Mr. Muyez cited a tabloid interview given by Ms. Varga, the mother of Mr. Magal’s three children, in which she described him as an emotionally abusive narcissist. The two divorced last year.

Mr. Mraz added that the attacks “have worked,” undermining Mr. Mazar’s appeal to core Fidesz voters and ensuring he is “now the most dangerous for the opposition.”

Agnes Vadai, a member of parliament and deputy leader of the Democratic Alliance of the Left, agreed. She called Mr. Magal an “unhealthy phenomenon” who, in addition to attacking the prime minister, would attack Mr. Orban’s opponents, which would only hurt them. “If you want to overthrow the system, don’t attack the opposition,” she said.

Mr Magal said he took the action because of his concerns about Mr Orban’s treatment of Huge political scandal This year, it was announced that a man convicted of covering up sexual abuse in a state-run children’s home had been pardoned.

In the ensuing unrest, Mr Orban forced Hungarian president resignsKatalin Novak and Ms Varga, who leads Fidesz’s European Parliament campaign.

“They wanted to pin the whole scandal on my ex-wife and the president, not on the prime minister,” Mr Magal said, adding that he was “very shocked” by Ms Varga’s subsequent claims that she had been mentally abused.

While it may have strengthened the ruling party’s base, the pro-Fidesz media’s vitriolic criticism of Mr. Mazar did not go over well with independents.

Sandor Szarvas, a voter who falls into this category, came to Bicke, a small town near Felksut, to hear Mr. Magal’s speech. Bicke’s children’s home is the focus of a pedophilia scandal.

“We don’t eat food from the toilet, so we obviously can’t get news from the Fidesz media,” Mr Szarvas said.

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